A couple of months ago, it felt like the world had a collective “woke” moment when we realized the damage caused by one of our most banal consumer choices.
Environmental activists and researchers have been telling us for years that single-use plastic straws and bag products are inflicting a huge environmental cost on sea life.
The issue broke into the mainstream after several highprofile corporations, cities and even nations began passing plastic straw bans in response to an environmentalist campaign that saw celebrities challenging each other and their fans to “stop sucking” on plastic straws.
But then plastic straws were revealed not to be the worst pollutant of oceans, bumped down a slot by cigarette butts. Instead of popular energy transferring to a global anti-smoking ban, the movement to ban straws puttered along, and consumers became confused about what impact they could really make. Just tell me who to boycott this week, right?
And that’s the real question: Exactly what consumer choices can we make to cut back the incomprehensibly large amount of plastic waste we produce?
The answer is absolutely nothing. There is no product to buy, no “loot box” to sign up for and no single thing we can spend our money on to alleviate these issues.
Consumer choices like recycling, buying sustainable products and not flicking your cigarette butts onto a sandy beach are all highly commendable actions that do make some difference.
But when looking at the total amount of pollution created by governments and multinational corporations, consumers can’t realistically hope to make a dent. Buy an electric car, they tell us (“they” being electric car manufacturers). No emissions mean you’re doing your part.
But they don’t tell you that the creation of that car’s battery or countless individual petroleum based products used in its construction will inflate your carbon footprint far beyond what it would have been had you just driven your old gas-powered car into the ground. I also don’t see Tesla Motors’ corporate board vowing to never travel by air again, with each flight dumping more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than your old clunker.
We can minimize our consumption, grow our own food, bike to work and do our part to contribute less to our species’ coming existential climate crisis.
But that’s not systemic, and systemic change is the only thing that can hope to address the sheer scale of climate change.
To have any hope of halting the exacerbation of climate change, climate scientists say we would have to keep about 80 percent of known fossil fuel reserves in the ground.
What are consumers supposed to do to convince oil giants to ignore the unimaginably huge profits encased within those deposits, use their stoves less often? How are you supposed to boycott a utility company that has a monopoly on your town?
Systemic change requires mass organizing, direct action and
personal sacrifice beyond buying a reusable straw.
If you’re not already imagining a world without out-of-season fruit in your market, without mass air travel, without a global empire of American military bases needing to be fueled, without automobile transportation as we know it and without the hundreds of useless throw away products that flood our everyday lives, you had better start.
Consumer activism versus systemic change is a choice between an eventual climate apocalypse and a hard-fought but hopeful future. We are making that choice now, whether we realize it or not.
It won’t be much longer before the climate destruction cake is fully baked, and it won’t be too many generations before the effects of our choice are reaped.
Boycott straws, take your own bags to the store, walk instead of driving, but realize that’s not even a beginning if the goal is to make a substantive and lasting difference in our planet’s wellbeing or humanity’s prospects for long-term survival.