With fast food chains like Starbucks pledging to give up plastic straws in the coming years, debate over the most effective way to address plastic pollution in the world's oceans is producing a lot of social media chatter. The broader context really is that plastic pollution is just one symptom of the larger consumer anxieties we are now dealing with in this era of climate change.
From one perspective, the response to ecological destruction is found in individual consumer habit changes. We talk about not using single-use plastic straws or shopping bags, or about changing out diets to eat less meat, local meat, or even no animal products at all. From another perspective, the response to these same problems is elevated to a more macroeconomic level. Corporate power run amok is the sole cause of our problems, and changing consumer habits ultimately makes no difference. Besides, lots of disabled people need straws.
People everywhere are looking for ways to make a difference. And in a world where we are often powerless to affect institutional change, making different choices as individuals is sometimes the only way we can assert our power to change the world we live in. But critics of this strategy are correct too. Our trans-national and industrialized corporate world is a major player in ecological destruction on a level our individual changes just don't even compare to. Also, disabled people really need accommodations, including but not limited to straws. So what are we supposed to do?
Someone to Blame
Early on in my own environmental activism, I wanted to uniquely blame mega-corporations for their impact on the planet. This helped alleviate my own unconscious guilt about how my lifestyle contributed to climate change and pollution, but it also trapped me in a politicized powerlessness.
As long as the cause of environmental destruction was in a fancy boardroom somewhere, I was off the hook. I could buy whatever I wanted, drive however much I wanted, and live whatever lifestyle I wanted, because it was the lifestyle some other evil system of corporations not only provided but necessitated for me to survive in this world. None of this was my fault. Unfortunately, that also meant that none of this was anything I had the power to change.
An economics degree and decade of experience on the supply side of business production later, I now understand that I was only looking at half the equation. I was placing blame for global ecological destruction on firms ("corporations" specifically), but ignoring the demand side of economics.
As profit-hungry and unethical as we collectively imagine (and correctly realize) that many businesses are, it's fiscally irresponsible to dive into an industry where no one is going to buy your product. Businesses that do this tend to flop rather quickly. Ask me about the demand for vegan soaps or experimental books of post-modern social commentary sometime. Smart businesses, businesses that survive, and businesses that become big enough to have their names known and their brands criticized, are tapped into markets that exist, in part, because people demand that they exist.
Take the animal agriculture market for example. We know that animal agriculture is a leading cause of rainforest destruction, fresh water use, ocean dead zones, and global greenhouse emissions. Commercial fishing is actually responsible for 46% of plastic pollution in the ocean too. We know that processing meat in slaughterhouses puts employees at greater risk for mental illness and amputation. We know that the waste produced from these operations is sprayed into the shared environment of mostly low-income people of color. We know that 82% of starving children live in countries where food is grown for meat animals slaughtered for consumers in the U.S., U.K., and Europe. And we know that the land which must be cleared to accommodate these countries' demand for animal products is being violently taken from indigenous communities elsewhere around the globe.
Still, despite all that, taking veganism seriously as a strategy for fighting climate change (and capitalism, and ableism, and environmental racism) is somehow lagging behind banning plastic straws. I think we all know why. The pressure is on with how we will deal with climate change. The temperatures and oceans are rising. Largely symbolic although arguably also useful changes like abandoning plastic straws replace substantive changes like adopting a lower-impact diet because we are still projecting responsibility for the planet's health beyond ourselves, specifically, beyond the animal products and other usually unnecessary single-use plastic products we refuse to stop consuming.
We want to appear like we're doing something, but we won't actually make a difference if we refuse to look at the deeper economic picture of what's going on.
Supply and demand are also not as simple as businesses providing what customers want. Supply is subsidized and bolstered by propaganda, sometimes even paid for with taxpayer money. Think about every advertisement you've seen for burgers or milk. Especially in the dairy industry, consumption of these products is approved by institutional nutrition. On my own health journey, this has translated to mainstream doctors and nurses incorrectly telling me that I could not survive as a disabled person on a vegan diet. In other words, consumption of animal products isn't purely a choice to be made by perfectly informed consumers. It's cultural. It's institutional. It's biased and based in ignorance. And in the case of ag-gag laws, it's even ruthlessly protected by the state.
Likewise, demand importantly does not always mean that a good or service we actually want is being provided. For example, plastic straws. Speaking as one disabled person, I doubt any disabled person who needs a straw to drink is actively plotting to pollute the planet. Similarly, I doubt any working single mother actually wants to feed her family on cheap fast food burgers and fries. Instead, she's making the best decision she can afford to make. Demand involves the choices we are able to make, and sometimes we only have two really awful choices to pick between.
A Resilient World
These issues complicate legislation that taxes or otherwise targets supply. Taxes and bans cost underprivileged consumers, even if there is also a net gain to the health of the planet. But rather than just giving up on all consumer-driven changes because they aren't accessible to everyone, we could own up to the privileges we have in this system.
Boycotting ecologically destructive choices as individuals who can make these choices will decrease demand for these goods and services. In turn, this drives prices down for people who cannot afford to make better choices. It also incentivizes market innovation. To put it simply: if people refuse plastic straws, plastic bags, new cars, coal power, animal products, and whatever else, industries which wish to survive must make long-term changes to the goods and services they offer. If we are loud enough about our demands for renewable energy, local markets, ecologically responsible accommodations for disabled people, etc. businesses which want to succeed will have to provide these things.
It's true that as individuals we have little power on society beyond our immediate impact on the commons. But as a movement of many individuals, we do have power. The idea of affecting institutional or industrial change is based on this power. Critically, these solutions are not exclusive to one another. As with every movement for social change, a diversity of tactics is necessary. So, yes, be vegan. Yes, fight to restrain corporate excess. Yes, create better businesses. Yes, boycott single-use plastics. Yes, build as many ecologically beneficial off-grid alternatives as you and your friends can. Yes, stop shouting down people who can't make all the same choices as you, or who can and are making choices you can't. And yes, tell everyone you can about every idea you are exploring. Barring economic circumstances beyond our control, including disabilities not yet accommodated for in ways which aren't ecologically destructive, we absolutely have no right to make consumer or supplier choices which destroy the commons. However, the ultimate authority on what choices are within our control and what steps we will take as individuals to change our world is inside ourselves, not in laws and not in corporate boardrooms.
Legislating business behavior is going to encounter a lot of resistance when we're only approaching the economics of ecological destruction as a supply-based issue. Complementing these strategies with changes in consumer behavior takes pressure off of businesses to lead the way in changing culture. And more importantly, consumer-driven changes allow people and our values, not profits and not fickle or cosmetic bureaucratic changes, to be the defining force in future economies.
There is a consumer consciousness being recognized by businesses like Starbucks making changes to their wasteful materials. Consumers owe it to the worlds we want to see to own up to the economic power we share. Eliminating plastic straws is a supply-based response to our demands. We want to see more, much more, and we must keep fighting for that world if we want to see it here.