Paper or Plastic?

bag 2“An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.”

attributed to Thomas Jefferson

“Paper or plastic?” the cashier asked.

I glanced at my purchases already snugged into a plastic bag, but saw no paper bags on the counter.

Seeing my puzzled look, she said, “Cash or credit card?”

A few years ago, the question of paper or plastic bags was all the rage. A renewable resource (paper bag) or an environmentally-destructive, landfill-filling product of fracking (plastic bag)? That question has been supplanted by the reusable bags we bring from home. Few stores even have paper bags anymore.

Most of the time, we hold individuals (consumers) accountable for causing major environmental problems – generating too much trash, using too much electricity or gasoline, and polluting the environment. However, individuals have very little say in creating solutions or changing these major problems. Consumers and the public are not the decision makers, and shouldn’t have to bear a disproportionate share of the blame if things go badly.

Public opinion and activism can be effective in influencing politics; however, not using plastic grocery bags at the store has little to no impact on global warming or landfill space. The significant issue with plastic bags is littering, and that is a consumer problem more than an industry problem.

People know that in order to get individuals interested and committed to a cause, you need to make it personally relevant. Show them how it effects them, and give them something they can do to buy into the cause. That’s a major reason why we tend to see pictures of cute or uniquely ugly endangered species. We can relate to their cuteness or weirdness, and because we relate, we can care about them. The Endangered Species Act was designed to address habitat loss, and was never about saving individuals. But a short-grass prairie or Malaysian jungle is harder to relate to than a booming prairie chicken or an engaging orangutan. Just look at your wall calendar.

Automobile fuel efficiency was discussed for years, but did not have a major impact on the automobile industry until fuel efficiency standards were implemented by the Obama administration. Suddenly, all the car companies that decried the lack of technology and touted the impracticality of reduced fuel consumption miraculously produced fuel-efficient cars overnight. Every automaker had their electric and hybrid cars and even fuel-efficient trucks and luxury cars on the market within months. The change was not consumer-driven, but government-driven, and industry responded. The consumers came along afterwards.

It’s important to note, however, that electricity is overwhelmingly generated by coal in this country, so electric cars (or laptops and social media, for that matter) are essentially ‘coal-fired’ and contribute significantly to climate change anyway. I’ve seen activists speak out against mining, while wearing gold and silver jewelry. Flyers posted on telephone poles rally people to oppose logging. People rail against uranium mills or nuclear power, then go outside to have a smoke, where they are exposed to greater radiation in the cigarette they use to relax than from the mill they oppose. Edward Abbey promoted the destruction of Glen Canyon Dam, even though it was a renewable power source.

But we know people are hypocritical and inconsistent by nature. We are after all, only human.

So, is it fair to blame the consumer, the victim, for environmental woes? Should you feel guilty about driving your car, eating at McDonald’s, using disposable diapers or choosing plastic over paper?

Not really, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t continue to build awareness of problems and public support for solutions by involving people in the issues. People can influence politics (although less so with “Citizens United”), and public opinion can certainly influence the market. But ultimately change has to be implemented by business or the government, not by the consumer.

To influence businesses and government, it is important to make rational arguments that will stand up over time and can be defended with science and fact. In today’s climate where skepticism of any expertise thrives, we must differentiate between opinion and supportable argument. A form letter signed by hundreds of people certainly demonstrates public support for a position politically or emotionally, but usually offers little technical or factual evidence to support a rational decision. The purpose is often just to get individual buy-in and stir up the troops, rather than provide a convincing argument.

Unfortunately, the activists too often resort to unsupportable claims, often emotional, that are not defensible in the near or longer term, and undermine the clarity and credibility of the issue. The same tactic, usually focused on jobs and economics, is often used by business to create a similar bias. In both cases, the public and government lose respect for the participants. Exaggeration, speculation and misinformation abound. Both sides seem to become emotionally invested in their ‘position’, whether it is fact-based or not. An unwillingness to see things objectively leads to conflict and ultimately, legal action. The legal process delays decision making, and costs all parties money and effort that could be better spent trying to achieve a collaborative solution. Rather than ‘win-win’, it becomes ‘lose-lose’. All parties – the impacted environment, businesses and individuals – become the victims. (But some, usually lawyers, make out like bandits.)

Maybe it’s no one’s fault. After all, we’re all only human.

But, I know that I’ll continue to support the businesses, politicians and activists that I believe in. To the extent practical for me, I’ll recycle, compost, conserve energy and resources, and promote a better community. I may not save the world, but I’m only human, too.

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