As plastic cutlery has been banned in numerous major cities, very few have stepped forward to eulogize the humble plastic straw. This is a slam dunk for environmentalists: It’s the type of product that, outside of the plastics industry, has few defenders. The West Coast has blazed the way — cities like Madison with progressive reputations are sure to follow.
This is the sort of victory that environmentalists are starting to see a lot of: Municipal bans on malignant products that spread like wildfire through every forward-thinking city in America. See styrofoam and plastic bags, among others. Yet, as many have pointed out, plastic utensils account for a minuscule amount of litter, or municipal solid waste, in this country. Not to mention this supposedly progressive policy makes life more difficult for disabled individuals.
So let’s be careful when we use the word ‘victory’ in regards to the plastics ban. The enthusiastic liberal attitudes that envelope our campus cause students to rally behind these causes without realizing the full implications, or lack thereof. Banning plastic straws is about as effective as swatting a single mosquito in the forests of northern Wisconsin and calling it a positive step towards eradicating all mosquitoes. It is also a deeply cynical propaganda tool by companies like Starbucks, who are all too happy to bolster their eco-friendly, progressive facades while they benefit behind-the-scenes from the same grotesque industrial logistics practices as every other company.
These “victories” celebrate the fact that banning plastic cutlery bans have utterly and completely failed to put a dent in the actual causes of ecological devastation and ignore the real problem. It’s not styrofoam and it’s not plastic straws, either. It’s industrial and agricultural waste.
There are many reasons for this, but a huge part of the problem is the tendency of the mainstream environmental movement not to challenge existing power structures. Take the Madison People’s Climate March, an event that actually purports to be fairly radical. Their promotional material explicitly says “we can’t depend on our state or federal government to [confront climate change].” Scratch the surface, however, and it becomes obvious that this essentially means “please elect more Democrats.” Promoting a party that just tried and failed for two months not to accept fossil fuel money is what passes for a plan of action these days. Similarly, groups like the Sierra Club fight for ecological change through legal and legislative institutions when it is bitterly obvious that the corporations, the enemies of the environmental movement, have a monopoly on those very institutions. Measures like the straw ban don’t challenge that power in a meaningful way: It is all too obvious that they suit the corporations just fine. They make for good PR, after all.
If the straw ban was a band-aid, the actual measures necessary to prevent climate catastrophe would be nothing short of open-heart surgery, or a Frankenstein-style resurrection. These are not the sort of measures that are going to be achieved by municipal ordinances. Moving the world to entirely renewable energy in the next few decades will not happen because of a few hippie cities. Steps like that would, by necessity, involve a fundamental restructuring of the global economy on a scale that would be unprecedented in human history. Even if corporations wanted to go along with that program, they would not be able to. The imperatives of the capitalist system make it impossible. Imagine that tomorrow a major logistics company announced a plan to switch entirely to renewable energy within the next five years. They’d be bankrupt by the time the markets closed. No investor would go along with that.
Radical democratization of our economy and our society is necessary both to make the changes and to make them with respect to human dignity and well-being. Even in our ivory tower at the center of the American empire, people are starting to see the concrete effects of climate change — be it in the skies choked with wildfire smoke or the streets flooded by what used to be once-in-a-lifetime storms. We know climate change is a problem. We know something must be done. According to a recent Gallup poll, concern about climate change is steadily increasing despite political polarization. There is an appetite for political action. This fact, combined with the obvious lack of actual action by our current political ruling class, should be proof positive that our system is controlled by the public in-name-only. It is time for the environmental movement to recognize that its goals can only be achieved through structural political change. It’s time to get serious.
Sam Palmer ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in biology.