Like so many other people, I have discovered a new mortal enemy in life – the paper straw. I believe the rise of my nemesis resulted from an image that was widely shared of a turtle with a plastic straw embedded in its nose. For some reason, despite all the other horrific images of animals suffering from plastic pollution, this image was chosen to be the poster child of a new social movement.
I did write this opening paragraph with my tongue firmly in my cheek, however, the removal of plastic straws from society has provoked thought. I don’t believe I would have any objection to the replacement of plastic straws with a more sustainable alternative if it satisfied two basic tests:
1. Is it fit for purpose?
2. Does it help save the environment?
On the first test, the answer is a clear and firm “NO” – paper straws are renowned for disintegrating after a few moments of use. Even worse, when provided with a milkshake as a serious solution for consuming the product, it crumples almost immediately under the pressure it takes to drink said beverage. To me, this would’ve been enough to shelve the whole concept, or at least enough to prove that more research and development is needed.
As for the second question, it speaks to the heart of the issue. Plastic pollution is a huge and complex global issue. Do we really believe that the paper straw is the solution? Will it even make a dent in the problem? Or does it merely satisfy our desire to “be a good person”? Companies have marketed this product to us as a way to prove they are morally good and are looking after the planet – and customers like suckers (pun somewhat intended) have gobbled the bait right up. We feel like we can be satisfied that we have done our part in helping the environment, and can therefore sleep more soundly at night.
I see the same issue manifesting in numerous ways across society.
The corporate world is one of the biggest culprits of propagating this mindset. Somehow, Nike has fixed racism by featuring Colin Kaepernick in advertisements. Sky Sports has also played its part by proclaiming that “Black Lives Matter” at every ad break. I’m also very fortunate to live in a post-sexism feminist utopia now Gillette has told its customers they should all be ashamed of their manliness. These token acts have little to no consequence on society, but somehow, customers feel better knowing that they have done their part to save society from these menaces.
I also couldn’t help but notice that Jill Biden after the first presidential debates had to make the world aware that she was wearing a facemask, even though everyone had already been tested in the auditorium beforehand. She had to show solidarity with everyone struggling along in the real world, and somehow her being seen in a facemask made her feel like she was doing her bit for society. A bit like wearing a seatbelt when your car is parked in my opinion, but whatever makes you feel better about yourself!
Even more progressive and socialist politics fall foul of this worldview. Society has hailed social security, jobseekers’ allowance and the minimum wage as morally right, and they fiercely contend that anyone who opposes them is cruel and cares little for those less fortunate than themselves. I have no doubt that these programs in many cases have helped people get through tough times in their lives, however, I cannot agree that we can “pat ourselves on the back” for simply supporting these policies.
When analysing these various scenarios, I see a glaringly obvious problem with society – people are content with token gestures to illustrate their moral superiority over their fellow man, and these gestures abdicate them from any personal responsibility for the problems they see around them every day.
“Why would I engage with that homeless person – I bought a box of cereal that gives 10 cents from every purchase to homelessness charities. I’ve done my part!”
“Climate change? I’ve done my bit. I’ve skipped school to march and support Greta, so I don’t need to make any further changes to my life. I’m already wayyy ahead of the average Trump supporting, climate change denying ignoramus!”
“I signed a petition calling for McDonald’s to introduce paper straws. I wish everyone could be as responsible as I am. What’s that? No that’s not my litter on the ground, why would I pick it up?”
Society has turned personal responsibility into something that we can outsource to another entity -
Why should we take any responsibility ourselves if we can pay Starbucks to do it for us?