Monday, July 20, 2009

Hurray for old bags

I am, of course, referring to the news that plastic bag use has halved in three years. As The Social Business says there has been a subtle shift from being asked at the checkout if we need a bag to "Have you got your bags with you?"

This is obviously very welcome progress. The downside is that halving plastic bag use still amounts to 372 million bags a month which is a massive contribution to the plastic slick.

Just like changing your light bulbs, putting a brick in your cistern or general recycling reusing your bags is one of those very small individual contributions that people can make. Even if we all committed to best practice on these issues we'd still be screwed, just a bit slower is all.

The big action really needs to take place at a higher level. Massive coal fired power plants aren't the product of individual choices made on a day to day level but government policy. Just in time deliveries, discarding wonky veg and extreme product packaging are decisions taken by big business and our power as consumers is very limited when it comes to improving their behaviour, particularly on the behind the scenes stuff.

Some people are understandably disheartened by these facts but conclude, wrongly I think, that individual action doesn't make any difference at all. That in fact it means that people are just trying to make themselves feel 'ethical' whilst ignoring the big problems. I think that attitude's mistaken for two reasons.

Firstly, the cumulative household waste of a town is enormous and a movement to reduce, re-use and recycle just like our grandparents did would have a significant impact on these industrial levels of pollutants. Social action involves individual contributions and it's a mistake to think there is no connection between personal behaviour and, for example, the overuse of landfill.

Just because it requires the actions of millions does not mean it is either impossible nor irrelevant. It does mean however that we start to see ourselves as part of society rather than passive onlookers, whose personal actions have no bearing on our communities.

However, more importantly still, our ability to build a political current or social movement that forces government and business towards more ecologically sustainable practices is massively hampered if we restrict it to propaganda about what they have to do. People taking action in their communities, when shopping, in their homes or at work can feel like small fry sometimes when compared to the size of the task but no serious challenge to the way things work right now can happen without it.

The idea that everything is someone else's responsibility is part of the consumerist philosophy. It entrenches the idea that we are atomised individuals rather than members of society with collective responsibilities - something that's absolutely essential if we're to see a fundamental change in society.

Ask yourself whether big business is more or less likely to ameliorate it's most damaging practices if its offices all have car sharing schemes, cycling clubs and recycle their waste paper. Is the government more or less likely to promote renewable energy sources if they know that millions of voters are committed to environmentally friendly practices in their day to day lives?

Ultimately are we more or less likely to see fundamental social change (sometimes known as a revolution) if large sections of the population already advocate ecologically sustainable living in their day to day lives, even though this conflicts with the ethics of consumer capitalism. In fact that conflict is a motor for reform and deeper upheavals.

I'm not saying these things bring about change in themselves but they certainly do play their part in raising consciousness on the most important political issue facing our generation world wide. Climate change.

I don't think people should have any illusions that buying ecover products is somehow a revolutionary act, but it just seems fanciful to think that social change won't involve millions of people incorporating their beliefs into their day to day lives. Reusing your old bag today might just help bring about a mutiny, and it certainly wont hurt.


weggis said...

If I didn't know you, Jim, I'd say that your model of "collective social action" has more than a resemblance to the "market"?

Jim Jay said...

Some of it is the market (as it exists) but obviously I include community action, strikes, and all those millions of other ways people can take collective action.

ModernityBlog said...

I forget, can a Greenie correct me, but don't many of the new energy saving light bulbs contain mercury?

Barkingside 21 said...

Yes they do, but in minute quantities, less than they used to use in teeth fillings when I was a kid.
There are places to dispose of them though along with fluorescent tubes.

Barkingside 21 said...

Oh! It, Mercury, also used to be used in the whooping cough vaccine.

Jim Jay said...

Thanks B21

ModernityBlog said...

Thanks for that, but at what point would an accumulative amount of mercury be considered dangerous ?

I say that, because it seems to be that most people won't recycle their bulbs (Greens would, but) so if those millions of bulbs end up in land fills, even with small amounts of mercury, at what point does it become an issue?

Just a thought

ModernityBlog said...

ops, should be:

because it seems to me

Jim Jay said...

One important part of this is that these bulbs should be lasting much, much longer and therefore wont be pumped into landfill at the same rate so therefore they should be doing *less* environmental damage - it's not that they don't do any because if you make something and then it consumes electricity it's 'harmful'.

Having said that the quality at the moment varies and I think there's a an issue with some makes or types that look like they should do the job but actually expire much too quickly.