Symbolism vs. effectiveness in helping the environment

“Virtue signaling” is a term that gets knocked around these days. In its defense, it is at least part of a discussion about the importance of virtues – something we could use more of in this era, not less.

But the problem with virtue signaling is that it isn’t substantive. It’s frequently just cheap and easy symbolism. How often do you associate symbolism with solutions of real value?

Unfortunately in the environmental realm, cheap symbolism is common. An issue is raised and a “correct view” is expected. A symbolic solution is proposed and backs are patted in self-congratulation.

Too often, little thought is put into what is actually effective and practical to solve the problem.

The plastic straw-man
Banning plastic straws is the environmental cause du jour. Seattle is, no surprise, a trend-setter on this issue, with the city council outlawing plastic straws at Seattle restaurants. Frankly, I don’t miss them and the less waste overall, the better.

But the backstory is that the straw-banning movement gained momentum when activists latched onto it as a way to draw attention to the serious problem of plastic waste in our oceans. Keeping plastic straws out of our waterways and oceans is not, many pro-ban activists admit, the actual point of the bans. “Our straw campaign is not really about straws,” one told Vox. “It’s about pointing out how prevalent single-use plastics are in our lives, putting up a mirror to hold us accountable. We’ve all been asleep at the wheel.”

Making people mindful of their plastic use is a good thing – but is any thought given to the downsides of approaching these issues symbolically or disingenuously? There is a cumulative effect from playing loose with statistics and from continually starting these “conversations” with a strained pretext, then admitting that “no, this effort won’t actually help, but it’s all part of the ‘larger conversation.’”

Straws are a very minor issue in our oceans, and Western nations banning straws will have basically no impact on the ocean plastics problem. The vast majority of post-consumer plastics in the ocean come from eight rivers in Asia and two in Africa. The other large source of ocean plastic is lost or abandoned fishing gear.

Rich countries have systems for handling garbage. So will an across-the-board straw ban in these countries do anything for the oceans? No. Helping poorer nations with waste infrastructure would do far more to reduce ocean plastics.

There is risk in using issues like plastic straw bans as a pretext to start a “larger conversation” with the public. First, it can leave people feeling they made a real difference when they actually didn’t. Then when they learn the truth, they may feel burned.

In the long run, this can be unproductive. It’s better to focus on concrete steps – such as better waste management and improved tracking of fishing gear – that may not get as much attention but will actually help.

The movement to ban plastic shopping bags is instructive. Studies show that reusable bags must be used thousands of times before there is a net environmental benefit, and few make it that long. Wouldn’t it be simpler to encourage people to store up and then recycle their bags? Many grocery and retail stores accept plastic bags for recycling. It’s simple and effective. Bags are also frequently used as trashcan liners or for pet waste – good second uses for these products.

How to help our resident orcas
There is also a tendency among some to glom onto an emergency situation as a way to push a longer-term agenda that has stalled. We’ve seen this in some reactions to the dire situation of the Salish Sea’s resident orcas.

The whales are simply starving. There are not enough salmon in the Salish Sea this year to sustain the resident population or allow the young to survive.

Gov. Inslee used the occasion to complain that the Legislature didn’t pass his plan to deal with “toxicity” in the Sound, which would have had no effect on the whales’ current predicament, and took a swipe at the Trump Administration, which also has nothing to do with helping orcas right now.

What would help? Todd Myers at the Washington Policy Center points out that the state’s hatchery production has actually declined 40% since the 1990’s. Predation by sea lions at the mouth of the Columbia has also shot up, but federal law makes dealing with that problem a practical impossibility.

Some good-hearted people, including biologists and the Lummi tribe, are working right now to help the orcas with fish and antibiotics. If state government wants to take concrete steps that could help the whales in upcoming years, it can reverse the trend and increase hatchery production (which some environmentalists oppose) for a relatively tiny outlay. It can also push the federal government to allow our state and Tribes to deal with the predation issue, finally.

But some would rather use the emergency to push larger political agendas. You know what they say, never let a crisis go to waste. Politicians love that line.
-Rob McKenna

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Rob McKenna
Rob served two terms as Washington’s Attorney General, from 2005 to 2013. He successfully argued three cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and negotiated three of the largest consumer financial protection settlements in national history, all involving mortgage lending and servicing. He is a recognized leader in the development of consumer protections on the internet, in data protection and privacy regulation.