(I had originally planned to post this near the beginning of the year, but it hardly seemed appropriate amidst the events of January 6. With the Biden administration now in office, it feels more timely.)
Slightly over a year ago, for my end of 2019 post, I wrote “Can we be hopeful?” In it, I said that, as bad as that year was environmentally, under a president who single-handedly set us back to whatever year ExxonMobil wanted him to, there was room – and need – for seeing the potential for a positive turn in the climate emergency. But that was before massive wildfires, a record-breaking hurricane season, arctic waters that didn’t freeze when they’re supposed to, and numerous floods and heat waves beyond what used to be the norm.
Much of the optimistic viewpoint then was dependent on electing a new president. Any new president.
Perhaps the environmentally horrific events, though they may be overwhelmed in newsworthiness by the COVID-19 pandemic, have served to sway some of the deniers. It’s way too much to hope that they will all be convinced, but we already had a majority of the public onboard; it’s the politicians who have been the most obstructive. Perhaps the further swing in their constituents’ beliefs (I hate when people refer to ‘believing’ in climate change), will overwhelm their fealty to oil industry financial support. But, then again, maybe that’s the EcoOptimist in me.
The gist of that year-old post was that we needed both hope and fear. Fear of what can happen (or is happening) and hope that we can still prevent the worst. It’s a combined carrot and stick, I wrote.
Teaching my first class after Trump’s election in 2016, I barely held back tears, saying that the window on preventing the worst scenario of the climate emergency was closing. (I was also fearful for the immigration status and safety of the many international students in my classes.)
In an earlier draft of this post, pre-inauguration, I had written: while President-elect Biden is not as strong an environmentalist as many of us would have wanted, there’s no comparison to the windmills-cause-cancer malignancy of the outgoing administration. (Trump also said wind turbines are bad because they kill birds, but then authorized oil companies to “inadvertently” kill birds. Hypocrisy and politics seem to go together when they are convenient.)
Editing this delayed post now, just after Biden’s “Climate Day,” his executive orders are wonderfully exceeding our reserved hopes. (As a policy and economics geek when I’m not in my ecodesign role, I especially love that he is eliminating subsidies for fossil fuel companies.)
But is it too late, as I semi-tearfully feared after the 2016 election? Dunno. Some studies say the path past a 1.5° rise is set, that that train has left the station. (The metaphor is appropriate because, like trains, climate change ‘s momentum is hard to slow down.) But I think the mindset it generates is unhelpful because it leaves us with only fatalism and no reason for action. Even if it’s true, we still can affect, if not that perhaps pre-ordained path, the further degree of impact. This isn’t merely EcoOptimism; it’s really the only way to move forward.
So, all in all, we have more reasons to affirmatively answer the question “Can We Be Hopeful?” than we did four years. And far more than we did a year ago.
As I wrote about several months ago, single-use plastic bans and fees have taken a back seat to the urgency of the COVID pandemic. First, there was the mistaken idea that plastic bags were necessary for sanitary reasons. Bag manufacturers did their best to take advantage of this. (As they have for decades as shown in the appropriately if cutely titled report, “Talking Trash: The Corporate Playbook of False Solutions,” from the Changing Markets Foundation.) And then there was just the fact that there have been more pressing things for governments to deal with.
The glut of oil resulting from less travel and manufacturing has created a need for the fossil fuel industry to find other ways to utilize those “stranded assets,” and the primary direction is to increase plastic production, whose raw material is oil. But in Earther, Gizmodo’s sub-blog, Bruce Kahn documents the potential for “peak plastic” and a counterreaction in which governments are creating more bans and fees. (The US has, unsurprisingly, given our current regime, been an exception, but one hopes that will begin to change on January 20th.)
As evidence – maybe – of this, the U.S. Plastics Pact has brought together some of the major users of plastics, Coca Cola, Nestle and Unilever, with notable environmental organizations such as the Ocean Conservancy and the World Wildlife Fund to phase out unnecessary plastic packaging and make sure other single-use plastics are recyclable, compostable or reusable by 2025. Forgive my cynicism, but I’m both dubious of this actually happening and suspicious of the terms recyclable, compostable and reusable.
Foam packaging and containers haven’t, until recently, been as scrutinized, but that’s changing. NYC banned Styrofoam takeout containers and packaging peanuts last year, but it has sizable loopholes and enforcement is spotty. The latest ban, the first one by a state, comes from Maryland: https://www.ecowatch.com/maryland-foam-container-ban-2647845717.html
Are Single-Use Plastics a Global Scourge or Necessity?
The answer, on this 50th anniversary of Earth Day occurring during a pandemic, is both. Single-use plastics have always had pros and cons, but the scale has temporarily shifted. Yes, SUPs are a serious problem. It’s tempting to say they should just be eliminated. (And I have, here and here, as well as keeping track of places where they have been.) The evidence of the problem is overwhelming, from heart-wrenching images of animals killed or maimed (turtles and albatrosses especially) to beaches covered in detritus. And then there is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Moreover, there are ways we can eliminate virtually all of our use of SUPs. After all, we did pretty well without them until a few decades ago.
The major exception has been medical applications. Yes, hospitals and doctors’ offices functioned without them in times past, but medical care has changed and SUPs in the form of things such as biohazard containers and IV bags would be difficult if not impossible to replace. And in many cases, finding ways to sterilize used items is simply not cost-effective, which makes their existence even more crucial in this pandemic. No one has seriously suggested eliminating those applications of SUPs.
In fighting COVID-19, those who have reduced or removed SUPs from their lives face a distasteful choice in order to preserve those lives. Plastic bags and disposable gloves surround us, and it’s difficult in this moment to eliminate them from our daily lives, let alone admonish others.
[Update: since writing this post, the necessity of bagging food in plastic bags has been disproven. It’s disappointing that most people and delivery services are still using plastic. I was happy to see the other day that our chain drugstore offered only paper bags and charged 5c for them, per NYS law. But that seems, so far, to be an exception.]
When I received a grocery delivery (yes, we got a delivery slot after a week), it came in a trunk load of plastic bagged items. Compounding this evil was the fact that those bags had – finally – just been banned in New York State, where I live. But it was hard to argue with the appropriateness of the packaging, much of it double-bagged. And we were, if not overjoyed, at least relieved to see our tomatoes and carrots bagged in plastic within the plastic. In fact, thinking of the at-risk elderly parents we are isolating with, we selected produce that was pre-packaged in those clamshell plastic containers or sealed plastic bags in the theory that they had been handled less than loose items.
You could see this as putting ourselves selfishly ahead of the planet, an equation that had been written much differently until now. We could rationalize that it wasn’t actually selfish, that we were contributing to the health of others who, despite carefulness and social distancing, we might put at risk.
In order to partially justify those grocery bags, we sequestered them for a few days so that we could reuse them. They’ve become handy for uses like safely handling the mail.
sequestering plastics bags so we can reuse them
The question is what our attitude toward plastic bags and take-out utensils will be when this is all over. Will, for instance, that NYS plastic bag ban that took years to achieve be revoked? Will the recent resistance to plastic straws – even though they have little to do with contagion – be lost? Or, will the need to return to normalcy also mean moving ahead with environmental movements that had been becoming mainstream? And another possibility: that we will see climate change for what it is, a slow-moving pandemic. (The bad news: we have a president who has called both of them a hoax.)
Is it “too soon” to start talking about this? Perhaps. But whether the answers are ones that we want to hear or not, it’s important for our own and everyone’s wellbeing, emotionally as well as environmentally, that we think beyond our temporary crisis.
Today marks the day that the New York State ban on plastic bags takes effect (as well as New York City’s $.05 fee for paper bags). I haven’t yet been to any stores to check on compliance. I hope someone who’s more intrepid on a cold Sunday morning than I am is taking up that task. But as of yesterday, shoppers I saw in a supermarket and a drug store were being offered and were taking plastic bags. I guess they were feeling they didn’t need any practice, despite the signs that have been there for the last couple of weeks. And cashiers were still surprised when I refused them.
And there is the predictable backlash. In the New York Post, one shopper was quoted: “Not good for old people, for disabled people. Where do you put your groceries if they’re not in a bag? So it sucks.”
Seniors have been a factor. The city tried to impose a fee on plastic bags in 2017, but it was defeated by the state legislature. When I called my state senator’s office to complain about him voting against the small fee, his office told me that his vote had been based on extensive complaints by seniors that they couldn’t afford the $.05. I’m willing to bet that the plastic bag lobby sent staffers to senior facilities where they could persuade people en masse to call their legislators. (He was voted out of office at the next election. I’d like to think his opposition to the fee was the cause of his defeat, though I’m sure it wasn’t.)
Perhaps it was for the best as the state’s outright ban is better than a fee by the city.
So, New York is now added to my database of plastic bans and fees worldwide. In fact, just two months into 2020, I’ve added several entries. Some are just bans on plastic bags while others are more extensive bans on single-use plastics: China (plastic bags by the end of 2020 and other single-use plastics to follow), Thailand, Jamaica, Belize, Barbados, Dominican Republic, Grenada, Trinidad and Tobago, and the Bahamas.
A bill in the US Congress, sponsored by Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.), would address the issue of single-use plastics nationwide. One groundbreaking part of the bill, according to EcoWatch, “requires plastic producers to take responsibility for their waste. The bill would shift the burden of waste collection and management from local governments and taxpayers to the manufacturers of items like packaging, containers, food service products and paper, who would be charged with designing and funding recycling systems.”
That’s a good thing because bans are only as effective as the compliance with them. As long as recycling places the onus on the public, this will be a problem. And it’s not always because of our laziness. It’s often just plain difficult. Even after researching it (and how many people do that?), I’m still uncertain what types of plastic can be recycled here in NYC. (Cardboard milk cartons, according to the posters, get recycled with plastics, not paper. Go figure.) The city says all hard plastics – not the flimsy stuff – can go in the recycling bin. But Beyond Plastics and Greenpeace say that much of that can’t actually be recycled, even if a company’s label sometimes says it can be. The city is just trying to make it simpler for us. Sort of.
That Greenpeace report found that:
Only some PET #1 and HDPE #2 plastic bottles and jugs can be legitimately labeled as recyclable in the U.S. today.
Common plastic pollution items, including single use plastic food service and convenience products, cannot be legitimately claimed as recyclable in the U.S.
Plastics #3-7 have negligible-to-negative value and are effectively a category of products that municipal recycling programs may collect, but do not actually recycle. Plastic #3-7 waste collected in municipal systems across the country is being sent to landfills or incinerated.
Many full body shrink sleeves on PET #1 and HDPE #2 bottles and jugs make them non-recyclable.
Remedying this would require something called “extended producer responsibility,” the concept that a manufacturer’s responsibility doesn’t end when the product goes out their door. That’s what that US congressional bill would address.
EPR could go beyond simple plastic recycling. Imagine if Dell or Apple had to take their laptops back at the end of their useful lives. Or if Whirlpool had to pick up your dead refrigerator or washing machine. Not only would it simplify recycling, it would also mean companies would want to design their products keeping in mind that they were going to have to deal with them later on. That’d be incentive to incorporate something call “design for disassembly” in order to make recycling easier.
That would be a breakthrough. It would reverse that shift of responsibility. A more direct approach in the meantime is a good old-fashioned lawsuit. Gizmodo’s environmental arm, Earther, reports that the Earth Island Institute is suing “ten companies—including Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestle, and Procter and Gamble—on Wednesday, alleging that the companies pollute waterways, coasts, and oceans with the millions of tons of plastic packaging they produce. A 2018 report found that globally, Coke, Pepsi, and Nestle account for 14 percent of plastic pollution.”
Ideally, we stop the scourge of single-use plastics. But that’s going to take a while and, meanwhile, we already have an unfathomable amount of plastics ending up in landfills or the oceans. While it’s better, I always tell my sustainable design students, to prevent a problem from occurring in the first place rather than have to deal with it afterward, we have to do both in the case of plastics. There are companies like Terracycle and Smile Plastics that are making things from that stream of detritus. An Israeli startup is working on taking all sorts of garbage – plastics, dirty paper and food waste – and making into a kind of plastic pellet that can then be made into other products. It would solve a multitude of problems including diminishing the amount of methane, a greenhouse gas, produced by landfills.
As great as that could be, it still addresses the problem after the fact. Single-use plastics are a perverse use of an otherwise wondrous material. Because plastics last such a long time, let’s use them for products that last a long time. Not flimsy bags and soda bottles and packaging.
Being the self-anointed EcoOptimist, these days (can I say “in the current environment” or “in the current climate” without being tongue in cheek?) can sometimes be quite difficult when, with each passing day, we hear about another legislative rollback, another record high temperature or another iceberg calving off Antarctica. Indeed, it raises the question of whether being – or attempting to be – optimistic is a good approach. In one sense, the answer is no if it encourages reducing the pressure to act by saying that we can ‘do this.’ On the other hand, as I’ve stated elsewhere, becoming an ‘Eco Pessimist’ can be akin to giving up. Since we’re doomed, a pessimist might say, let’s just enjoy things – drive, fly, be carnivores, live in McMansions – like there’s no tomorrow. Because maybe there isn’t a tomorrow?
OK, that’s taking the pessimism a bit too far, but you get the idea. The question is which is more effective: optimism or fear? The carrot or the stick?
As with much else around us, this isn’t a binary choice. We need both: fear of what can happen and the hope of solutions. One without the other is not likely to get us to the necessary results.
Greta Thunberg, whose powerful fearlessness is perhaps the most positive thing that 2019 brought us, is great at combining the two, while also shaming us into action. Speaking to British MPs, she said “The climate crisis is both the easiest and the hardest issue we have ever faced. The easiest because we know what we must do. We must stop the emissions of greenhouse gases.” I’ll skip the hardest in favor of trying to be optimistic here. (And the linked article about the speech in the Guardian was headlined “’You did not act in time: Great Thunberg’s full speech to MPs.” So, I’m being selective in my quotes.)
Project Drawdown also says we know what to do but gets specific about it. In Chad Frischmann’s TED talk he says “we have mapped, measured and detailed 100 solutions to reversing global warming. Eighty already exist today.”
Project Drawdown’s top 10 solutions. https://www.drawdown.org/solutions
In the midst of an otherwise thoroughly depressing Washington Post article titled “The 2010s were a lost decade for climate. We can’t afford a repeat, scientists warn,” a cherry-picked paragraph reads:
[Surabi Menon, vice president for global intelligence at the ClimateWorks Foundation and a steering committee member for the U.N.’s emissions gap,] draws hope from progress that has been made on the ground in the past decade, even as global leaders fell short. Global renewable energy capacity has quadrupled since 2010, largely because of improved technology and falling costs, she noted. People increasingly see climate change as a threat; a Washington Post poll this year found that 76 percent of American adults view the issue as a “major problem”or a “crisis.”
Hope and fear.
At the end of every year, we get inundated with all those year-end summary articles. You know, the ones that appear in every newspaper or TV channel and attempt to provide some insight into the events of the year but usually end up feeling like treacle-y filler: “The ten best [fill in the blank] of the year.” I mostly ignore them because, well, treacle is way too sweet.
EcoWatch’s twenty reasons basically boil down to four: increased public interest (reasons 1, 2, 3, 4 and part of 5), the pending slow demise of fossil fuel companies (#’s 5 and 6), increased media coverage (#’s 8 and 9), and celebrity and political candidate positions (#’s 7 and 10). Nothing that new. Celebrities, for example, have been doing this for years, usually to no avail or, worse, causing a backlash. And the downturn of the fossil fuel industry has been predicted for as long as I can remember. But perhaps the twenty reasons are significant in their totality.
Jane Fonda at one her Fire Drill Fridays protests in Washington, DC. Image from @janefonda Facebook page
While none of the Huffington Post interviewees got down to the specifics of Project Drawdown, they still – to state the obvious – give us hope. More or less.
Gina McCarthy, the EPA Secretary under Obama back when the EPA actually protected the environment, said “my hopeful energy comes from young people.” But that can be read as doing exactly what young activists are complaining about: kicking the can down the road. You can almost hear the “OK boomer” exasperated response.
Marine biologist Ayana Elizabeth Johnson sounds much like Frischmann or Thunberg. “I am certainly bolstered by the fact that we already have all the solutions we need.” Her caveat: she predicates her hopes on having a new president.
Weather and climate expert Marshall Shepherd sounds like a true EcoOptimist when he says “we are seeing a genuine ship-turning moment…. Fortune 500 companies, faith-based communities and the military recognize the ‘here and now’ threat and are acting. There are genuine bipartisan efforts now in our Congress and within states.” Forgive me if I ditch my optimism and find his faith in Congress to be unrealistic in even an EcoOptimistic mindset.
Leah Stokes, an assistant professor at UC Santa Barbara, pins her hopes in multiple fronts: fossil fuel companies “starting to be held accountable,” youth pressure, and presidential candidates trying to one up each other supporting the New Green Deal. But she ends on a less than optimistic note about people losing money and the disproportionate impact on the poor.
Michael Mann, climatologist, geophysicist and co-creator of the famous “hockey stick graph” depicting rapid global warming, takes a measured tack, “The good news is that the impacts of climate change are no longer deniable. The bad news is that the impacts of climate change are no longer deniable.” He, too, however, finds hope in the youth climate movement. It’s hard, though, to accuse him of abdicating leadership and passing on the responsibility since he’s been one of our most vocal environmental advocates.
Michael Mann’s “hockey stick graph.” Mann says we can be hopeful in spite of what the graph depicts.
Gizmodo Earther reporter Brian Kahn along with writer/activist Mary Annaïse Heglar tackle ‘the hope question’ head on. Hope, they say, is not sufficient and perhaps, given the state of climate inaction, we’re beyond the point where hope is useful. Kahn writes “I get that hope is a thing we’re all looking for amidst the worsening climate carnage, but I firmly believe hope isn’t the most useful thing to steer us away from a worst-case scenario.” EcoOptimism, however, is not ready to give up on hope as part of the path to solutions.
Heglar, in what became a lengthy Twitter thread, says the question of hope is “stale AF” and writes “my wish for 2020 is for people to stop asking climate activists what gives us hope and start asking ‘how can I help?’” This is closer to the EcoOptimist position of combining hope and fear, adding action into the mix.
Kahn’s concise version is: “Fuck hope. Long Live Action.” As with EcoWatch, he reaches out to climate activists to ask, “how can I help?” Among his respondents, 350.org founder Bill McKibben replies he’s concentrating on taking on the financial industry that bankrolls fossil fuels. Margaret Kleinman, founder of Climate Mobilization, directs us to “Break the silence: Start talking about the climate emergency and the need for WWII scale climate mobilization — in a realistic, blunt, emergency-focused way.” Anthony Karefa Rogers-Wright, policy coordinator at the Climate Justice Alliance echoes Kahn, albeit in a slightly more family-friendly way: “Hope without action is like expecting a rock to float on water because you meditate.
Still, I think there is a place for hope – and that it’s actually necessary – so long as it’s in tandem with both fear and action. The realistic EcoOptimist will say that we can really only hope that the seemingly hopeless events of 2019 will result in governmental change. Will the massive heat waves and fires in Australia cause voters to depose their anti-climate change prime minister? Will China’s tepid attention to climate change expand? And the big one, will this country be able to vote out (I’m not placing any hope in impeachment – I’m not that optimistic) a president (there are too many derogatory adjectives I could have put in front of that word) who has single-handedly put us decades back in time?
We can still be optimistic while holding our breath. Better yet, let’s mix optimism with action. Anyone want to go to DC with me and get arrested with Jane Fonda? I’m in, so long as we don’t fly there.
There was plenty of news on other environmental fronts, as I wrote in that post. Most notably, climate change took a beating under our rogue president, but that beating, as I’ve been noting in several posts (here and here), has engendered a backlash in which other institutions (local governments, NGOs, businesses and even the military) have been taking up the mantle.
Similarly, the rapidly increasing awareness of the scale of our plastics problem has resulted in a correspondingly rapid escalation of attempts to address the problem. Hence my continuing tabulation of the bans and taxes worldwide on single-use plastics – and my desire to acknowledge EcoWatch for their reporting.
On the flip side, George Monbiot writes in The Guardian: “We won’t save the Earth with a better kind of disposable coffee cup.” In it, he touches on two points. The first is one that I try to make in all my classes and involves taking a step back to see if you are asking the right question. Regarding disposable coffee cups, he writes:
[S]ome people asked me, “So what should we use instead?” The right question is, “How should we live?” But systemic thinking is an endangered species.
The version of this I usually pose in my classes asks: if you were tasked with challenging the plastic waste generated by toothbrushes, what would you do? The usual answers are to make it of recycled plastic or biodegradable plastic or design it with replaceable heads, etc. But the “right” question to ask, instead, is: is there a better way to clean our teeth? This opens up a different realm of possibilities in which, maybe, we don’t need toothbrushes at all.
The second point Monbiot makes is a “structural” one. In the case of plastics and many other materials, the solution to waste, we’re told, is to recycle. But as I and others have written, this puts the responsibility in the wrong hands, purposely shifting it from corporations to consumers, i.e. us.
Following the failure of legislation loose alliance of oil and chemical companies, along with drinks and packaging manufacturers, pursued a two-part strategy that would successfully defuse anti-plastic sentiment for a generation. The first part of the strategy was to shift responsibility for litter and waste from companies to consumers. Rather than blaming the companies that had promoted disposable packaging and made millions along the way, these same companies argued that irresponsible individuals were the real problem. This argument was epitomised by a 1965 editorial in a US packaging trade journal headlined “Guns Don’t Kill People”, which blamed “the litterbugs who abuse our countryside” rather than the manufacturers themselves.
This was memorialized in the famous “Crying Indian” television commercial in which the supposed Indian (he was actually Italian) sheds a tear about littering, saying “People start pollution; people can stop it.” Corporations may be considered people, but that’s obviously not whom the makers of the commercial were referring to.
Monbiot continues his point:
This represents the mistaken belief that a better form of consumerism will save the planet. The problems we face are structural: a political system captured by commercial interests, and an economic system that seeks endless growth. Of course we should try to minimise our own impacts, but we cannot confront these forces merely by “taking responsibility” for what we consume.
He casts a much wider, more foundational outlook:
One-planet living means not only seeking to reduce our own consumption, but also mobilising against the system that promotes the great tide of junk. This means fighting corporate power, changing political outcomes and challenging the growth-based, world-consuming system we call capitalism.
Disposable coffee cups made from new materials are not just a non-solution: they are a perpetuation of the problem. Defending the planet means changing the world.
While this would appear to negate much of what we are doing, the more profound questioning leads to EcoOptimistic responses that look at how to not simply address a problem in short-term, limited ways, but instead to change things – concepts, systems, thinking (i.e. systems thinking) – to get to the core and truly address causes.
Putting the cost of recycling onto manufacturers is a response to this. In England, there’s a proposal to force retailers to pay the cost of collecting and recycling packaging materials. Germany has had a version of this since 1991, and it’s getting expanded. (The EPA had a webpage about packaging regulations employed by other countries but – no surprise – it’s been removed. You can find some of it preserved by the Internet archive Wayback Machine.)
You could look at this as a New Year’s resolution for us: challenge ourselves to challenge the others who create problems by selfishly shifting responsibility. Many of us make resolutions to go the gym more often. The problem is that, aside from rapidly letting the well-intended resolution fall by the wayside, it doesn’t really address the causes of the problem such as fast food (which is largely a creation of big business) and sedentary lifestyles, which are in part of product of suburban sprawl (sitting in cars) and in-home entertainment. You could make an argument that cars, television and single-use plastics are a result of consumer demand, but what created and then encouraged that demand?
We can all use some positive news these days, especially on the environmental front in which science is considered political opinion, denial is an alternative fact and the word “protection” in the Environmental Protection Agency’s name is a cynical leftover from its original mission. And while I don’t want to gloss over the issues – there isn’t enough paint in the world to do that – I offer here The Distillery, a weekly (or thereabouts) selection of posts to help offset the PTSD of our current nightmare.
The posts I pick will be “real” in the sense that they aren’t pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking, as fun as those can be, but are evidence of EcoOptimism.
Yeah, we’ve all heard about the UN IPCC report that gives us 12 years to get our shit together. And then we got that surprisingly frank White House “National Climate Assessment” that, despite the Trump regime’s best efforts to bury it, made headlines. Plus, of course, there was devastating evidence of climate change already rearing its head in the form of a sometimes record-breaking series of hurricanes and typhoons.
But fortunately for the holidays – and perhaps for our sanity and our therapy sessions – we can snag some happier news. So I started compiling EcoOptimistic articles a few months ago, though some of it is from earlier in the year, when I realized that, now more than ever, we need to counterbalance the daily litany of the-end-is-nigh headlines.
It’s not that I don’t believe those headlines. Rather, it’s that I won’t give in to the fatalism of them. Many of us, sometimes – OK, often – including me, feel the despair coupled with the frustration and anger at those who avert their eyes, who won’t listen to fact or reason, who pursue blind self-interest, or who rationalize it in desperate ways. (No, it won’t cost jobs.) But letting them rule the news is infuriating and letting them determine our future is unacceptable.
Perhaps one of the most (eco)optimistic events of the year was the surprise election of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to the House of Representatives. Her “Green New Deal,” which combines environmental issues with job issues, is creating a politically appealing scenario that’s garnering more and more support with both local officials and voters.
And combined with this poll, perhaps the political “climate” may have turned a corner.
EcoOptimism’s take: Um, OK. Not entirely sure what to make of this, but nevermind.
While it’s a bit cliché to refer to the younger generation taking the reins, there has been some notable news on that front, too. The suit by a group of teenagers against the federal government is continues to move forward despite the administration’s efforts to get it thrown out of court. A Swedish 15-year-old made headlines at the recent UN climate change conference, lecturing the officials, “You are not mature enough to tell it like it is.”
I’ve mentioned before that Teen Vogue has been consistently taking up environmental topics, most recently taking up the issue of ocean plastics here and here. (See more on that topic below.)
RENEWABLE ENERGY IS COMPETITIVE WITH – AND SOMETIMES CHEAPER THAN – FOSSIL FUELS…
One of the first items in that Earther post above notes the falling prices of renewable energy. “Beautiful, clean coal” is not cutting it financially despite the administration’s best efforts. And there are some significant milestones accompanying it. It’s been happening all year, not just in the last few months.
EcoOptimism’s take: Yes, we may need our rose-colored glasses here, but it’s evidence of – don’t get too choked up here – “yes, we can.”
SINGLE-USE PLASTICS ARE IN THE CROSSHAIRS…
In some previous years, I’ve nominated a word of the year. (2012, 2013, 2014) This year, Collins Dictionary did it for me, choosing “single-use.”
Spurred by a graphic and very disturbing video of a turtle having a plastic straw removed from its nose, the nascent movement to regulate or ban SUPs got a jump start. EcoOptimism has been charting the international movement.
Along with bans have come alternatives. We’re not talking about bioplastics, which while interesting have their own issues, but about reducing or replacing demand.
EcoOptimism’s take: There isn’t a much bigger lemon than all that plastic waste and, while we may have mixed feelings about roads (unless they’re for non-fossil-fueled vehicles and don’t encourage more sprawl), here’s some lemonade.
I’ve been meaning to do a Distillery post on plastics for a while but, like plastics, the news has been accumulating faster than I can keep up with….
They barely existed until Leo Baekeland invented Bakelite in 1907. In the 60s, they were the future, at least according to the advice Dustin Hoffman was given in The Graduate. Now, of course they’re everywhere. Literally. This thoroughly unnatural human-made detritus has been found in the deepest trench in the ocean.
Plastics are no longer the future. But they’re definitely the past in the sense that all the petroleum-based plastic ever made is still here. And will be for a very long time since they break down excruciatingly slowly.
What’s so insidious about plastic is that it’s in virtually everything. So much so that we don’t even notice it anymore. And it’s perhaps the egregious example of take, make and waste, especially since we tend to use plastic – which essentially lasts forever – for things have only a fleeting life of usage. Consider take out containers. The food goes in and gets consumed, often in a matter of minutes, but then the plastic container may end up in a landfill for hundreds of years or more. Or it may end up in ocean garbage patches of unfathomable size, killing fish and animals that mistake it for food.
The newest topic in plastics is straws. They weren’t on anyone’s radar until now. Among all the other things around us made of plastic, they seem insignificant. But it turns out they aren’t and it just takes some simple visualization to get it.
We could say something like “if you put every straw end on end it would circle the Earth a million times.” Never mind the actual number; it’s too abstract. Like the national debt, it’s so big that we can’t grasp it. It’s unrelatable. But make it something we can see, and everything changes.
But the Distillery and this blog are about positive “EcoOptimistic” news and topics. And on the topic of plastics, amidst all the bad news – indeed because of it, which qualifies it as “good news disguised as bad news” – there’s been a strong, almost startling, movement by governments and companies to address this scourge. In Facebook terms, it’s trending. So let’s look at the extent of this overdue but amazing trend.
As evidenced by these posts, the UK seems to be a leader in the movement to eliminate plastics. The “Together We Can” pact involves governments, businesses, local authorities, NGOs and citizens and is described as “is the only way to truly transform the UK’s plastics system.”
That last one also touches on one of the topics “du jour” in plastics, straws, as do the following posts. The first is, again, from England, but the second is from Taiwan and the third lists a number of American cities.
Amidst this, companies other than supermarkets are getting the message, too. McDonalds is trialing eliminating plastic straws in the UK. There have been many reports about this, but as perhaps a sign of its wide support, here’s one from – get this – Fox News.
McDonalds in the UK, however, is more enlightened than the mother ship here in the US, where the board of directors is fighting a stockholder initiative to get rid of plastic straws.
And then there’s the issue of plastic bags. They, too, have a fleeting useful life, usually less than an hour (unless you reuse them – and the dog-poop excuse doesn’t count). One stat says “Worldwide, a trillion single-use plastic bags are used each year, nearly 2 million each minute.”
Plastic bag bans have been instituted in various locations around the world, but of course the US is lagging behind. And also, of course, California led the charge last year by becoming the first state to ban them. An effort to curtail usage in NYC by charging five-cents per bag failed last year, but almost exactly a year later, Governor Cuomo is proposing an outright ban rather than a fee. Washington, DC’s five-cent charge imposed in 2010, it should be noted, is credited with reducing usage by 87%.
We can all use some positive news these days, especially on the environmental front in which science is considered evil, denial is an alternative fact and the EPA is now what I’m calling the Environmental Destruction Agency. And while I don’t want to gloss over the issues – there isn’t enough paint in the world to do that – I offer here The Distillery, a weekly (or thereabouts) selection of posts to help offset the PTSD of our current nightmare.
The posts I pick will be “real” in the sense that they aren’t pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking, as fun as those can be, but are evidence of EcoOptimism.
Here on this anniversary of Earth Day, it seems appropriate to update a topic I first wrote about in 2012 in a post I titled “Planets Are People, My Friends.” It was a reference at the time to a statement by then-presidential candidate Mitt Romney who told attendees at a rally that “corporations are people, my friend.” While the statement was actually in response to a comment about taxes, it also could be seen as being about the infamous Citizens United Supreme Court case that basically said corporations have the same free speech rights as people, and that spending on political campaigns is a form of free speech. That court decision has had a disastrous affect on our elections ever since.
While that Supreme Court case was about establishing the rights of corporations, my post drew a parallel with the equally odd-sounding idea of nature having rights. It talked about movements to give rights to South American forests, a New Zealand River and apes in Spain. Since then the movement has spread further.
EcoOptimism’s take: In addition to being about recognizing nature’s rights, this also ties into some EcoOptimism posts including a recent Distillery post on the topic of intergenerational rights, meaning the right of young generations to grow up with a healthy environment. The Colombian Supreme Court case that decided this was brought by Colombian youth.
EcoOptimism’s take: More evidence of the growing trend of youth suing their unresponsive government. In this case, the suit is directed toward adamant climate change denier Governor Rick Scott. Scott has also been the subject of another teen-led suit. That one is over gun control in the aftermath of the Parkland High School shooting and has grown into an example of what galvanized youth can do.
The last time I wrote about the problem with making economic growth a national goal, it was February 2013 and Obama was president. It seems sooo long ago.
EcoOptimism is a bit obsessed with the concept of growth (here and here, as well as the link above) and its misplaced and misleading focus on Gross Domestic Product. It‘s a contender for the most frequent topic here, up there with “win-win-win,” which is the essence of EcoOptimism.
In one of the other posts on this topic, I wrote that a major problem with economists’ and, especially, politicians’ attachment to the supposed necessity of growth – and particularly growth as measured by GDP – is the attractiveness of the word itself. Who can argue with growth? Who can oppose it and survive attack?
So I looked at ways to get around this by using a different word – a word or phrase that sounded as positive and appealing as growth. I mentioned “post-growth” as a phrase that many growth critics favor. I suggested “regrowth.” I brought up a less familiar term, “plenitude,” employed by Juliet Schor in her book by the same title.
But I wasn’t overwhelmed by any of them. I’d written in one of those previous posts: “how [can we] make a counterintuitive idea appealing? Facts and figures we have aplenty. It’s the sound bite we’re missing.”
While reading yet another book that criticizes focusing on conventional economic growth, I started getting worked up about a new way of putting it: “real growth.” Aside from its simplicity, its strength is that it makes conventional growth sound the opposite of real.
But from there, I jumped to thinking about things unreal and, in our current political climate, the word “fake” seemed an obvious synonym. I’ve been, shall we say, annoyed about the co-opting of the phrase “fake news.” It was originally used, back in the beginning of the campaign we wish we could forget, to refer to social media posts that we now know were planted by Russia and had a major influence on the election. But somehow, in an example of brilliant PR, the phrase got adopted by the right wing and by the man I’ve referred to as SCROTUS (so-called ruler of the United States) to malign any news they didn’t like. So, much as I hate that, I have to admire its success.
Which brings me back to growth and, specifically, the potential of “real growth” as its counterpoint. By implication then, conventional growth is not real. It’s FAKE. (Putting it in ungrammatical caps as SCROTUS does somehow makes it more effective.)
So I hereby propose, using all the powers vested in me, this combination of terms: real growth vs fake growth. Can “fake growth” make the point? Can it provide the sound bite in a social media world, where other terms haven’t?