If you’re alive and online you’ve undoubtedly seen the social media campaign to reduce the plastic waste that ends up in the ocean, and specifically to ban disposable drinking straws.
There’s a turtle with a straw up its nose; a seahorse riding a cotton bud; a whale covered in luxurious microbeads. We are the planet’s equivalent of those teenagers who didn’t clean up their barbecue at St Catherine’s, and apparently the disposable plastic drink straw is one of the worst offenders. Surely we could save the Earth, if only we’d ban the straws tomorrow?
Needless to say, the answer is no. A proper environmentalist would say I’ve chosen a deliberately silly example, and I won’t argue, because I’ve done so on purpose. The plastic drinking straw is in reality unlikely to be a major contributor to marine plastic waste. It probably isn’t even in the top 100. It doesn’t mean we can start chucking them about like confetti, but we do need to make more of an effort to locate these stripy devils in a hierarchy of the many, many wasteful products that even greener people indulge in or even rely on. We should probably ditch the petrol engine, and disposable nappies, and artificial fibres, but the problem is that all of these things are a lot more useful to our lifestyles than plastic straws. It’s harder to think about how you’d cope without cement or cheap beef than it is to share a snappy video about waste in the ocean. We can all agree that plastic straws aren’t great but none of us get an A grade in the sustainability exam just because we clicked ‘like’ and didn’t personally wrap a walrus in a bin bag on the weekend.
Get naked and live in a tree
People who can’t be bothered doing anything to preserve the planet often get upset that environmental campaigns try and make them feel guilty. This is a silly thing to get upset about, like sharing a bed with somebody and expecting them not to say something when you insist on peeing in it, but there’s a grain of logic there. The problem with giving much thought to environmental problems is that you’re likely to become depressed at how little you can personally do about them. As an enthusiastic citizen of a wasteful society, I suspect that cutting out straws alone won’t make the slightest dent in my carbon footprint. I’m not sure I even know where to start.
I have an old university friend, who for legal reasons I’ll call Crusty Bob, who earned his reputation as a veteran and fearless environmental campaigner. He has occupied oil platforms, chained himself to trees, been arrested by the Russians and stalked whaling boats. The last time I spoke to him he was living in a squat and cycling to protests, powered by a vegan diet and a slow-burning rage against mainstream society.
Crusty Bob is an anarcho-syndicalist, adhering to a niche variety of practical socialism that doesn’t leave much room for compromise. He believes that there is literally no other option that will permit the survival of our planetary environment other than the complete dismantling of global capitalism and a return to living in small tribes. He wouldn’t use a plastic drinking straw, but he’d also feel bad about using a private motor vehicle, wearing leather, owning a smartphone, or even having children. As I know he’s done at least two of that short list I can assume he spends a lot of time wracked with guilt, no matter how many videos he shares on the computer he’d probably prefer not to own.
Hank Scorpio: environmental saviour?
Bob is at one end of the scale, but the other isn’t populated by people who pretend environmental problems aren’t real, because those people are liars or idiots. It’s people who definitely agree that the human impact on our planet is a problem, but think that the route out of it is the responsibility of other people, or just smarter consumption. The best contemporary example is celebrity rocket man Elon Musk who (although he doesn’t like taxation) thinks we can use his taxpayer-subsidised rockets to escape the one planet known to be perfectly adapted for life. The same utopian view of technology runs deep in many of his Silicon Valley contemporaries. Like all good Californian citizens they respect the environment, and would definitely frown on you for jamming a straw in an otter’s bottom, but would nonetheless like you to not feel guilty about buying a new computer every twelve months. My computer came with a lovely desktop image of a pristine wilderness, and I’m happy its makers raise awareness of environmental issues, but to see the scale of the disconnect all you need to do is compare photos of the place the computer was designed with some photos of where it was built. I like new computers and space exploration as much as the next nerd but I’m not convinced we can have the low-impact technology campus without the grimy Chinese wasteland, and one is growing faster than the other.
I fought the straw and the straw won
Articles like this occur with great regularity in the quality newspapers and follow a predictable pattern. The writer establishes a real-life ethical conflict, cites some extreme responses and ties it up with some loosely hopeful solutions that imply the reader should feel okay if they situate themselves somewhere in the middle. If you got this far you’re probably doing a fair bit more than sharing videos on social media – you probably separate your waste, avoid excessive packaging and definitely, absolutely haven’t poured polystyrene on a family of dolphins. You can sleep soundly at night, right?
Well, the problem with this issue is that the truth isn’t somewhere in the middle. My friend Crusty Bob is much closer to being right – global civilisation is almost certainly doomed unless we make a series of changes that amount to something much more dramatic than enjoying Coca-Cola without a plastic straw. I did promise you that thinking about the environment was depressing, but humanity has overcome many depressing problems, so fatalism isn’t a valid excuse not to make the best of a bad situation. Like most people, I’d find the Crusty Bob lifestyle very hard to emulate, but I do think that the area in which we can learn from his approach is that thinking about the impact of consumption and waste is something we need to get used to doing all of the time. If you want to cut out plastic straws then go ahead, but the gesture is worth very little unless you’re prepared to follow it up by thinking about how you’d make a few more difficult changes to your lifestyle. Future generations will thank you, especially if they are trying to bargain with our sea-dwelling overlords for mercy. I can’t predict if the mutant walruses of the year 6000 will have social media videos about us, but keep the possibility in mind next time you’re tempted to leave your Bag For Life under the kitchen sink.