The Last Straw

By Timothy Wild

It seems to me that there’s a lot of talk about straws these days.  When I go out for meals with family and friends, our soft drinks generally come with straws; usually made from a light plastic but occasionally some type of hard rolled paper. Once they arrive at our table, an animated discussion ensues.  People agree that it is philosophically ludicrous, morally reprehensible and environmentally irresponsible to use plastic in the production of single-use items – such as bottles, grocery bags, straws and consumer packaging.  However, beyond that, there is little agreement as to the social, cultural and political actions that could or should flow from that epiphany.

Some of my meal companions argue that it is important to take an immediate public stand against the use of plastic straws, and ask that they not be automatically served with our drinks. Others opine that the issue of plastic straws is of little consequence when faced with larger ecological issues, such as the carbon footprint occasioned by our increasing use of air travel.  I would suggest, however, that a response to the rapidly increasing environmental degradation of our planet can, indeed must, take in both perspectives – the personal and the global.  We certainly must address the problem of single-use plastics, and this accessible entry point of consumer / citizen advocacy is sorely needed.  It is a start. And we also need to investigate the impact of larger structural issues too, and act accordingly in terms of developing and implementing comprehensive public policy responses based in the collective promise and principles of eco-socialism.

In terms of plastics, perhaps the biggest problem is the fact that it takes such a long time to break down, and will remain in our already overused landfills for centuries to come.  Or that plastic refuge washes up on the shores of the global South. And even if these plastic products are recycled, very few items recycled remain in their original form.  Plastic bottles become park benches or pellets in community playgrounds, and the very process of recycling still has attendant environmental costs related to the production and consumption of these “new” products.  To be sure, the 4 Rs – reduce, recycle, reuse and reforest – have an important place in our long overdue struggle for environmental sustainability but, by themselves, they are not enough.  The 4 Rs need to be augmented, and surpassed by massive transformative political, economic and cultural change on the global level, and take into account the importance of intergenerational imperatives of stewardship.

Not surprisingly, this will be difficult to achieve if we simply stick to the tired notions of “business as usual”. It will require the evolution of a new sense of identity and worth that is not based in the prevailing capitalist norms of production and consumption.  It will also be hard to sell at the international level.  We, in the global North, have benefitted in terms of “quality of life” due to the economic fruits of agricultural modernization, the industrial revolution and the post war capitalist boom.  Yet ecological sustainability requires substantially decreased, not greater, economic growth.  Therefore, it will be difficult to vend notions of market constriction to developing nations – particularly India and China – in order to save the planet.  In fact, as these nations become more lovingly entwined in the tender embrace of industrial or postindustrial capitalist systems (depending on location), there will be increasing demand for a replication of the unsustainable lifestyle of the global North. This will be impossible to achieve. A dilemma for sure and one which can only be resolved by the adoption of the right and equitable relationships of a global and inter-temporal approach to environmentalism.

And while there is a growing interest in the business sector for greening the economy, and flogging market-based solutions to the complex environmental problem, this approach has obvious limits. Much of my pessimism with the market approach is that the so-called accumulative logic of the capitalist system has actually caused or exacerbated many of our environmental problems. In fact, in some ways, these business responses may actually serve as an impediment to transformative change, in that they might help assuage the guilt of larger society by believing something can be done within our prevailing economic model without requiring too much change to or discomfort in our existing lifestyle in the global North. Environmental responses have to some extent been commodified. I also believe that Corporate Social Responsibility, which serves to inform many of these green capitalist responses, has its limits, and when it is regarded as inconvenient it can sometimes be jettisoned. I have recently experienced this in my attempts to bring up an ethical issue regarding the behavior of an executive with Clean Harbors Inc., and was met by silence, despite follow-up and reference to company’s touted Code of Ethics.  I wonder where the action is. However, I digress.

At root, the ongoing global economic expansion is not only environmentally unsustainable, it also perpetuates the inherent injustice of the social and economic relations of production of capitalism. Ken Homan, an American Jesuit, trenchantly argues that “trash and waste disposal preys on the poor with environmental classism.”  He continues “my consumption creates some else’s scarcity.  Or worse yet, my consumption damages another person’s health, housing and livelihood.  Constantly buying and consuming destroys both the environment and the lives of our neighbours.” Consumption has costs and consequences to the individual, the collective, our future and the planet. We can readily see examples of this alienation in Calgary, with our unacceptable poverty rates.

We are, therefore, at a crossroads – if we want to have a chance at maintaining some semblance of human presence on Mother Earth we need to act now.  This demands a planned approach to the necessary reduction of production and consumption.  And, as argued by political thinkers such as Andre Gorz and Adrian Little, this will require a parallel socio-cultural approach based on an expansion of social rights of citizenship, the provision of a minimum income and a distribution of resources (broadly defined), both locally and globally.

In my opinion, such an approach provides the last, best hope for a socially just, community based and environmentally sound global project. It could also, more immediately, serve as the foundation of a transformative anti-poverty plan, in that the basic needs of all would be met through a planned, inclusive, compassionate and just approach to the development of public policy. I would argue that justice – in all its forms – would accompany the extension of social citizenship, the provision of a living income and a rational approach to economic planning based centrally on the dynamic of human need and ecologism.

Yes, straws are fun – we all loved them as children, and I know some adults who love them still.  But that convenient fun comes at a cost that we simply cannot afford, and should not even try to pay. Environmentally we are all in this together, and I believe an anti-capitalist, inclusionary form of Green politics could draw upon this commonality to promote justice and sustainability.  But we need to act soon.

(Guest blogger, Timothy Wild is a Calgarian and social worker who is fascinated by the intersection of community development and social policy. Please feel free to leave a comment below.)

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