So apparently a viral video of a sea turtle with a plastic straw stuck up its nose (WARNING: Graphic content that might be upsetting to some viewers) sparked some outrage and gave enough momentum for Starbucks and some other companies to announce they are getting rid of plastic straws. It’s not hard to google plastic straw ban and find a bunch of anti-plastic environmental groups that have had campaigns for a while to get rid of single-use plastic straws. You can go there to read all the statistics about it. That’s not what this post is about.
What I found interesting was some of the pushback I read online from various sources. Some were concerned that disabled people who genuinely need the flexibility of plastic straws would be ignored or forgotten. Others pointed out that this small victory might cause us to ignore the larger environmental picture and forget that there was more work to be done. Others criticized this particular kind of activism as generally ineffective as it is focused on working within a problematic consumer-capitalist system. Now, let’s be clear, there are people with way more experience and expertise in activism than me. However, I have been involved enough in activism to have some thoughts and insight that might be helpful.
Let me start with our differently-abled brothers and sisters. They absolutely have the right to have accommodations and things that help them function and get through a world that is often not designed for them. The problem is when we pit different groups against each other that face injustices. What we need more of is intersectionality between these groups. One excellent example of this kind of work is the environmental justice movement and the work of Dr. Robert Bullard, often credited with starting the movement. I can’t speak for disabled people that need the flexibility of plastic straws, but I have to imagine that there are solutions that don’t involve producing plastic straws for everyone and could potentially not involve plastic at all. Environmental activists can advocate for solutions for people that need flexible straws while still reducing plastic straws. Advocates for differently-abled folks can and should get behind saving the environment so the people they advocate for have a planet to live on too. These issues are not mutually exclusive and have solutions that can benefit everyone when we don’t pit them against each other.
I also resonate with the idea that sometimes these smaller issues can detract from the larger environmental problems. I wrote a whole chapter in my alma mater’s freshman reader about the ways that recycling (while certainly important) can trick us into thinking we’ve done our part and are actually solving the problem when we’ve barely scratched the surface. This New York Post editorial makes that exact argument. So, on the one hand, I do feel some sympathy with this take on the issue. If it stops at plastic straws, then we haven’t really understood what the issue is with single-use plastic n the environment.
Plastic bag bans have been controversial in my home state of Texas, and some activists were so focused on this being the way forward that they seemed to ignore other avenues for reducing plastic. This highlights a truth about activism and organizing that can be hard to remember sometimes. A win is a win and a loss is a loss, but neither one of them is the whole thing. It can be easy to be consumed by a particular campaign, especially when you are in it and focused on getting a win. I think getting companies to ban plastic straws is a win. Will it solve the problem of single-use plastics? Not even close! However, in activism and organizing work it is important to celebrate wins no matter how small, because it builds momentum and shows that our efforts to make change can bear fruit when it often feels thankless and exhausting to fight against what feels like impossible odds.
This brings us to the final criticism I read that is perhaps the most difficult to unpack. Activism that focuses primarily on consumer choices as the means to make change in the current system places the onus on consumers to make better ethical choices rather than the companies that are producing these problems in the first place. In many ways, it simply buys into the free market logic that the individual consumer possesses the most economic power and by boycotting, purchasing more ethical products and joining with other consumers can change the system for the better. Put another way, it absolves companies that produce products from any moral or ethical choices they make since the consumer is supreme and they are simply meeting the demand of (apparently morally corrupt) consumers. I have written at length about this problem of ethical consumption in another series on “Holy Purchases.”
Activism and organizing will always be a mixture of dealing with the reality of what is, what we can accomplish in the short-term, and what we want to accomplish in the long-term. Those three things have to remain in tension to stay focused on the ultimate long-term goals while working on the immediate short-term steps that we hope/think will get us there. We might want government, corporations, or politics to be different, but it won’t help us to pretend that they are different than they are. Some movements like Occupy Wall Street, Eco-villages, and intentional communities, for example, try to embody another way of being as a counter-example to the current structures and systems. We need these experiments and examples, but they won’t make large-scale changes on their own. As a friend mentioned online, they don’t have a lot of affection for nation-states, but creating regulation that can have a positive effect on the planet is better than just dreaming anarchist dreams.
So, while there are certain bases for the criticism of the movement to ban plastic straws, I find it a bit overblown. Let’s work toward intersectionality in our movements. Let’s keep in mind the larger environmental goals and not make plastic straws or plastic bags out to be more than they are. Let’s not place the burden of guilt and effort on consumers to change systems and problems that those in power have created. BUT let’s also not forget to celebrate the wins and build momentum toward a planet that we can all live on and share together!
Photo from New York Post.