First they came for the straws. But since I didn’t use straws, I said nothing. Then they came for the balloons. But since I rarely used balloons, I said nothing. Then they came for….
We all know how that mess ends. It’s not good.
Yes, it’s time for another dispatch from the wilder shores of Ecotopia, that imaginary land cherished by radical environmentalists everywhere; where power comes from unicorn poo, nothing is ever built anywhere, the air and water are completely unpolluted, life is extended indefinitely and the environment is pristine because humans are all gone…
Ummmm….. Houston, we have a problem.
The current bogeyman of fashion in Ecotopia is plastic straws. Because, you know, they will soon fill the oceans and kill all marine life, thus ending life as we know it on the planet. By next Thursday. So everyone from Starbucks to Disney must immediately and mindlessly rush to ruthlessly eliminate their use. Except…
The inconvenient truth is that the United States is responsible for a miniscule amount of plastic in the ocean: about 300,000 pounds per year. That may seem like a lot, but China dumped about ten million pounds last year. In fact, we are 20 th out of 20 of the largest ocean plastic polluters, by a lot. According to chart published by “Ocean Crusaders” and widely duplicated, even North Korea dumps more than we do. Let that sink in for a minute. After it does, consider this: plastic straws make up about six-tenths of one percent of our contribution. So why are we rushing to rid ourselves of something so minor, save for people who might find them a saving grace; say, folks with limited use of their arms or hands? Because cuteness counts and the emotions are easy to manipulate.
The history of Strawmageddon perfectly illustrates this hellish pairing. At the beginning of the stampede, one might remember hearing something about “500 million straws thrown away in America every day,” a statistic so mindlessly improbable that it’s incredible anyone believed it. Where did it come from? A 9-year-old child.
It turns out that the “500 million straws per day” was the product of a few phone calls made to straw manufacturers in 2011 by one Milo Cress of Vermont, who was doing a project in his fourth-grade class. Backed by nothing more than a few guesses, his Children’s Crusade against plastic straws was quickly picked up and circulated by the usual suspects including the New York Times, Newsweek, NBC and the further fringes of Luddite environmentalism. He was a cute kid, had an earnest demeanor and a convenient story, so it was off to the barricades. It may have been a complete fabrication, but it was used to ignite the current mob attack on plastic straw makers, so…mission accomplished.
This tells us quite a lot about modern environmentalism. Beneficiaries of a society and economy offering easier, safer and more convenient lives than those of any Roman Emperor or sixteenth-century monarch, this movement rejects the riches and technological advances that make those lives possible. Instead, they seek the narcotic of outrage and find it in the drug of the moment: plastic straws.
Strawzilla panic also shows us that some of the currents in the environmental movement aren’t very good at calculating tradeoffs. Perhaps the current brightly-colored tubes are the environmental equivalent of cyanide, but what’s the alternative? “Nothing” would be okay for your humble narrator; but for many, placing one’s lips on the rim of a glass formerly caressed by hundreds of others is akin to licking the torsos of plague victims. And there are those for whom straws are more than a convenience, as noted above. So, for these folks, what comfort is there in the anti-straw movement?
Paper straws were actually en vogue decades before plastic replaced them, but they are more expensive and harder on the environment; not only does one have to cut trees down, making paper in large quantities requires strong acids and other unfriendly chemicals. And it is energy intensive. Pasta straws – actually a thing in a few places – may work for Bloody Marys, but they make soft drinks taste like the water one uses to boil spaghetti. Unlike the world environmentalists imagine, there are no easy or cheap replacements.
Which doesn’t matter: the Guardians of the Earth and Haters of All Things Modern and Convenient have a cause célèbre, and they have the bit between their teeth. Better hang onto your balloons.
Morgan Liddick is a columnist for The News Virginian. He lives in Stuarts Draft.