Environmentalists need to focus on collective responses, not individual consumption
Over the past few months, mainstream environmentalism has taken a plastic turn. Concerns about plastic waste have overtaken issues of climate change and environmental justice in media prominence. This probably stems from Blue Planet 2 capturing the public imagination with its horrifying scenes of waste filled seas. On social media, these emotive images are a perfect ingredient for viral content.
Understandably, green NGOs have seized on this as an opportunity to promote themselves and their causes. Some have even rebranded – Greenpeace USA, for instance, has changed its profile picture to a turtle with a plastic bag on its nose. Earth Day 2018 has put plastics front and centre and the home page doesn’t even mention climate change. If this new focus inspires more people to take action, then that’s great, but there’s a risk it dilutes the radicalism necessary to tackle to ecological crises of capitalism.
The messaging around these images is far from progressive. It bemoans the behaviour of “humans” and promotes individualistic calls to action. The Radio Times summary of the reaction to Blue Planet 2 is a perfect example of this. It ignores the global inequality in the amounts different people consume, and the structures (capitalist firms) that produce this plastic in the first place. Blaming “humans” for environmental problems is something the green movement has too often been guilty of. It allows conservatives and liberals to green-wash their regressive politics, and at its worst, plays into eugenicist concerns about population.
As Environment Secretary, Michael Gove has embraced this superficial environmentalism. He focusses on banning plastic straws, drink stirrers and cotton buds and proposes a Deposit Return Scheme (praised by some green groups) involving an extra cost at sale, refunded when the waste is returned. The minor changes focused on individual behaviour fit with Gove’s mixed voting record on the environment and obscure the Conservatives presiding over the worst period for UK environmental policy in 30 years, through huge cuts to renewable energy and other measures to address climate change.
This focus on individual actions tends to hit the most oppressed hardest. The people who are likely to consume single-use plastics and lack opportunity to make different choices are those we should keep at the forefront of any environmental policy-making.
Single-use plastics and other disposable items, although bad for the environment, are really useful for hygiene and care purposes. This includes, and is not limited to, straws for drinks or liquid feeds, nappies and incontinence pads, and all sorts of medical equipment and the packaging required to keep it sterile. This means that disabled people, and those with medical or care needs could be negatively affected by a policy that, for example, taxes single-use plastics. Even for the relatively abled; expecting people to carry waste to another location to be recycled, as with Deposit Return Schemes, could prove too difficult or cause injury. When there are already large cuts to welfare for disabled people, this would place an additional, unacceptable, burden on them.
Linked to this, is the amount of additional labour it places on the people who perform the majority of domestic labour and care work, which in current society is the mostly unpaid or very low paid work of women, and, in particular, women of colour. Consumption is often driven by time-poor and economically disempowered women, with their money highly controlled and limited by the government (or their partners) despite the essential work they do. Overall, working class and low income people are likely to bear the brunt of any policy that focusses on consumption, as they have the least choice on where and what they can buy and how much time they have to put in the extra effort. The middle class and affluent, particularly those with cars, would be most likely to benefit.
Environmental policy which places more of a burden on the downtrodden is not good environmental policy. If we suppose individual behaviour makes a significant difference to the environment, the policy focus should be to make that behaviour the easiest option rather than punishing those with little choice
An alternative that places less of a burden on individuals is improving municipal recycling (and reuse) collection. Having standardised kerbside collection schemes across the country with further investments to increase what can be recycled or reused, and providing appropriate containers for household waste sorting, can reduce the impact of household waste on the environment. Importantly, this should not rely on individuals having to put in extra effort. Greater investment into research (such as better automation of waste sorting) could make recycling more effective, or at least reduce the impact of plastic waste, as with the interesting development with the PETase enzyme.
The most impactful alternative would be to reduce the plastic produced in the first place. This is complex. Manufacturing is almost entirely the domain of private companies. Much plastic packaging (particularly with food) is made necessary by the long supply chains of globalised free trade. Solving these problems may require collective ownership of production. Shareholder control is narrowly profit-focused and resists change, but democratic control can allow workers or the public to push for environmental reforms. At a minimum, it will need significant state intervention.
Focusing on collective responses to environmental issues may put off some conservatives and liberals, but it’s an argument we need to win. We can’t solve the environmental crises while a small class of people, incentivised by short term financial gain, control most of the world’s economic activity. It’s vital for green movements to put alternative models of ownership at the forefront of our campaigns. The people of Earth care about the environment, but are disempowered. Let’s stop blaming their individual consumption habits. Instead, let’s incite them to demand democratic control, so that the forces of production and distribution are geared towards meeting everyone’s needs without destroying the ecosystems on which they rely.