Peter Chow: Banning Plastic Straws Is Frivolous


There are some species of caddisfly whose survival depends on breaking the surface film of the water in a river.

The female pushes through it – no mean feat for such a small and delicate creature – then swims down the water column to lay her eggs on the riverbed.

If she cannot puncture the surface, she cannot close the circle of life, and her progeny die with her.

This is also the human story.

If we cannot pierce the glassy surface of distraction, and engage with what lies beneath, we will not secure the survival of our children or, perhaps, our species.

But we seem unable or unwilling to break the surface film.

Our “surface tension” is the tension between what we know about the crisis we face, and the frivolity with which we distance ourselves from it.

Our surface tension dominates even when we claim to be addressing the destruction of our life-support systems.

We focus on Micro-Consumerist Bullsh_t (MCB): tiny issues such as plastic straws and coffee cups, rather than the huge structural forces driving us towards catastrophe.

We are obsessed with plastic bags and plastic straws.

We believe we’re doing the world a favour by buying tote bags instead, though, on one estimate, the environmental impact of producing an organic cotton tote bag is equivalent to that of 20,000 plastic ones.

We are rightly horrified by the image of a seahorse with its tail wrapped around a Q-tip cotton swab, but unconcerned about the elimination of entire marine ecosystems by the fishing industry.

We tut and shake our heads, and keep eating our way through the life of the sea.

A company called Soletair Power receives wide media coverage for its claim to be “fighting climate change” by catching the carbon dioxide exhaled by office workers.

But its carbon-sucking unit – an environmentally costly tower of steel and electronics – extracts only 1kg of carbon dioxide every eight hours.

Humanity produces, mostly by burning fossil fuels, roughly 32 billion kg of CO2 in those 8 hours.

Our focus on microscopic solutions is accidental, even if it is unconscious.

All of us are expert at using the good things we do to blot out the bad things.

Rich people can persuade themselves they’ve gone Green because they recycle, while forgetting that they have a second home (arguably the most extravagant of all their assaults on the living world, as another house has to be built to accommodate the family they’ve displaced).

And, in some deep, unlit recess of the mind, we assure ourselves that if our solutions are so small, the problem can’t be so big.

It’s not that small things don’t matter.

It’s just that they should not matter to the exclusion of things that matter much more.

Every little bit counts.

But not for very much.

Our focus on Micro-Consumerist Bullsh_t (MCB), tiny issues such as plastic straws and coffee cups, rather than the huge structural forces driving us towards catastrophe, aligns with the corporate agenda, the deliberate effort to stop us from seeing the bigger picture.

The corporate focus on litter, amplified by the media, distorts our view of all environmental issues.

For example, a recent survey of public beliefs about river pollution found that “litter and plastic” was by far the biggest cause people named.

In reality, the biggest source of water pollution is farming, followed by sewage.

Litter is way down the list.

It’s not that plastic is unimportant.

The problem is that it’s almost the only story we know.

In 2004, the advertising company working for Big Oil, took this blame-shifting a step further by inventing the Personal Carbon Footprint.

Preventing more than 1.5C of global heating means that our average emissions should be no greater than 2 tonnes of carbon dioxide per person per year.

Canadians have one of the highest carbon footprints on the planet 14.2 tonnes per capita.

Americans 14.2.

China 7.41.

But the richest 1% of the world’s people produce an average of more than 70 tonnes.

Bill Gates, according to one estimate, emits almost 7,500 tonnes of CO2, mostly from flying in his private jets.

Roman Abramovich, the same figures suggest, produces almost 34,000 tonnes, largely by running his gigantic yacht.

There is a poverty line below which no one should fall, and a wealth line above which no one should rise.

We need wealth taxes, not carbon taxes.

It was a useful innovation, having the effect of diverting political pressure from the producers of fossil fuels to consumers.

The great political transition of the past 50 years, driven by corporate marketing, has been a shift from addressing our problems collectively to addressing them individually.

In other words, it has turned us from citizens into consumers.

It’s not hard to see why we have been herded down this path.

As citizens, joining together to demand political change, we are powerful.

As consumers, we are almost powerless.

Meanwhile, just 100 companies have been the source of more than 71% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions since 1988.

More than 50% of global industrial emissions since 1988 – the year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was established – can be traced to just 25 corporate and state-owned fossil fuel producers.

ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, Saudi Arabian Oil Company (Aramco) and Chevron are identified as among the 10 highest emitting investor-owned companies since 1988.

While companies have a huge role to play in driving climate change, the barrier is the “absolute tension” between short-term profitability and the urgent need to reduce emissions.

What do we see if we break the surface tension, the tension between what we know about the crisis we face, and the frivolity with which we distance ourselves from it?

The first thing we encounter, looming out of the depths, should scare us almost out of our wits.

It’s called Growth.

Economic Growth is universally hailed as a good thing.

Governments measure their success on their ability to deliver it.

But think for a moment about what it means.

Say we maintain the modest 2021 rate of economic growth of 3.4% global growth a year.

This means that all the economic activity you see today – and the environmental impacts it causes – doubles in 20 years; in other words, by 2041.

Then it doubles again by 2061.

Then again by 2081.

All the crises we seek to avert today become twice as hard to address as global economic activity doubles, then twice again, then twice again.

Have we reached the bottom yet?

By no means.

Just as it was once blasphemous to use the name of God, even the word appears, in polite society, to be taboo: Capitalism.

Most people struggle to define the system that dominates our lives.

But if you press them, they’re likely to mumble something about hard work and enterprise, buying and selling.

This is how the beneficiaries of the system want it to be understood.

In reality, the great fortunes amassed under Capitalism are not obtained this way, but through looting, and monopoly followed by inheritance.

The looting takes place not just across geography, but also across time.

The apparent health of our economies today depends on seizing natural wealth from future generations.

This is what the oil companies, seeking to distract us with MCB and carbon footprints, are doing.

Such theft from the future is the motor of economic growth.

Capitalism, which sounds so reasonable when explained by a mainstream economist, is in ecological terms nothing but a Pyramid Scheme.

Contemporary environmentalists and Climate Change activists are split into three groups, Dark, Light, and Bright Greens.

Light Green environmentalism is focused on the private actions of individuals, such as choosing to use reusable biodegradable bags instead of plastic bags, eschewing single-use plastics like plastic straws.

The idea is that small changes in the lives of many individuals will encourage environmental responsibility and make the public more responsive to greater changes.

Light greens see protecting the environment first and foremost as a personal responsibility.

They focus on environmentalism as a lifestyle choice.

Light Greens believe in voting with their dollars, that their own ethical consumption adds a drop to the ocean of overall change needed.

These are the Prius drivers, folks with solar panels on the roofs of their energy-intensive-standards suburban homes, folks who delight in organic everything and eschew single-use plastic.

In contrast, Dark Greens believe that environmental problems are an inherent part of industrialized, Capitalist civilization, and seek radical political change.

Bright Green environmentalism is based on the idea that environmentally-friendly technologies can enable human civilization to thrive without degrading the environment.

Ideas range from clean energy technologies that prevent ongoing pollution to hypothetical nano- and biotechnology that could undo preexisting environmental damage.

Bright Greens believe that radical changes are needed in the economic and political operation of society in order to make it sustainable, but that better designs, new technologies and more widely distributed social innovations are the means to make those changes—and that society can neither stop nor protest its way to sustainability.

Bright Green dominates the environment movement today, and, as such, it is Bright Green that dominates public and political discourse.

The Bright Green approach puts its trust in technology to give us answers in time, if we just put suitable resources into researching and applying solutions.

Bright Green environmentalism sees Light Green environmentalism as superficial Frivolous Bullsh_t moves which claim to be environmentally preferable, but in fact offer negligible real benefits, and the Dark Green perspective as too pessimistic of modern civilization’s technological ability to adapt to environmental challenges and too radical and far too unpalatable for mass acceptance.

They’re probably correct in this assessment.

But, all of the Bright Green “solutions” being pursued so far (primarily alternative energy sources and more efficient energy-burning technologies) will not avert a climate catastrophe because they cannot replace carbon fast enough.

All of the solutions being pursued have gigantic environmental footprints of their own in their destruction of planetary resources and ecosystems (through mining and material processing for example), as well as immense energy consumption in their production.

All of the solutions are a continuation on a grand scale of the capitalist-industrial progress-and-growth model that has produced the climate and environmental crisis in the first place.

The solutions proposed produce the illusion that we can solve this problem without any slow-down in economic growth, or population growth or any need for drastic changes in our individual personal lifestyles and our levels of consumption or our global political or economic systems.

Critics of Bright Green environmentalism argue that the idea that technological progress will solve ecological problems is popular because it deludes people into believing that it will enable them to avoid having to seriously question and change their individual and collective way of life.

Critics of Bright Green view Capitalism as intrinsically unable to regulate itself, in spite of environmental regulation in Western countries.

The central psychological barrier to taking dramatic action is the distribution of costs and benefits through time:  the immense costs and unimaginably immense hardships up front, the possible benefits accruing largely to unknown people too far in the future.

The central psychological barrier to taking dramatic action is depressingly, Human Nature.



  1. If Peter’s going to drop trouser and blast ass all over this website yet again, so am I.

    Let me show you a picture of some military trucks and suggest they are full of dead COVID bodies.

    Are you real spooky scared yet?

    Here’s a picture of some Chinese authorities welding a guy in his home. Maybe just literally stock photography.

    Are you very scared yet?

    What do I have to show you to make you scared?

    Do I need to suggest you’re going to die in wheezing chronic pain on a ventilator over a bug of influenza-like mortality you’ll most likely survive with mild discomfort?

    Or do I need to manipulate you by suggesting you’ll kill grandma in the same way if you don’t gobble up the propaganda?

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