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I have always been in favour of plastic Christmas trees over real, fresh ones. My parents bought one when my sister and I were really small – I don’t remember not having it – and we are still using it 30-odd years later. That means we contribute a bit less to climate change than those who opt for a fresh tree every year and we save money by being able to reuse the same tree (although, technically, fresh Christmas trees tend to be of the evergreen variety so could be reused if cared for). As the short film, Gloop, points out below, plastic is a fantastic material because it can be formed into any shape and, once shaped, resist deformation. French philosopher Catherine Malabou adopts the metaphor of plasticity to describe the dialectic or relationship between different entities.
Byproduct of oil production notwithstanding, plastic’s adaptability has led to somewhat of an environmental revolution in that products could be made without extracting finite natural resources. However, in an economy driven by capital, the resistability of plastic has had the unfortunate, unenvironmental effect of plastic mountains on land and sea. Furthermore, in the long term, it does break down, with smaller pieces ending up as part of the food chain. The irony is that this contradiction in plasticity fits with Malabou’s description of an underlying relationship between entities that influence each other who also resist the influence.
Despite recent calls from environmental groups for a plastic bag tax in England, the UK government’s reluctance to legislate for it is a sign of its dominance over us.
This application of the ‘polluter pays’ principle in this instance makes complete sense. As the user of single-use bags, the individual is also the producer of bag waste. So, as with household waste, the state has recognised the importance of changing behaviour. A number of local authorities (Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead, Halton Borough) have seen an increase in recycling rates as a result of reward-based incentive schemes run by Recyclebank and others (Bromley, Barnet, Islington) have had success by imposing fines on people who do not separate recyclables from waste. Similarly, when the Welsh Government introduced a 5p charge for single-use carrier bags in October 2011, a study carried out in conjunction with retailers revealed that bag usage fell by between 40-96%, depending on what was being bought. Furthermore, it claims that the fall was even greater than it was in England where some retailers do charge for single-use bags. These figures on their own seem to suggest that a single-use bag charge does have the desired effect of changing individual behaviour. After all, no-one likes to lose out, even if it is only 5p.
But negative and positive incentives (or law in general) do not change behaviour per se. Well, as Hegel would point out, it does and it does not. Of course, the rational consumer does not want to lose 5p. But, as Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler have argued, there is no such as thing as a purely rational individuals – homo sapiens (human beings) are not the same as homo economicus. That is perhaps why, in their book Nudge, they distinguish incentives from the more relational nudges, which are tools that the content architect (or lawmaker) uses to change the content architecture or environment. Libertarian paternalism indicative of a father as traditional metaphor for the state, raising the metaphorical child (household or individual). But in reality, according to Hegel, the relationship is more like a mother and father, where both the state and non-state actors are responsible for the protection of children, or future generations. (Indeed, when Hegel said that ‘the real is rational, and the rational is real’, he was indicating it is rational to be real or relational.) Therefore, a nudge can be viewed as a physical act of the state, which interacts with the body or environment individual to which the individual responds. If an incentive were purely a rational instrument, everyone would have responded to a single-use bag charge equally in all circumstances. But, in keeping with libertarian paternalism, the single-use bag charge does not take away a space for opposition.
I would argue that incentives, such as a plastic bag tax, are nudges precisely because they are changes to the environment to which the individual responds; that is, they are rational because they are relational. As a result, the plastic bag tax is not the only thing in the environment which would call for a response; whether an individual chooses to take a bag depends on the prioritisation of environmental factors (or nudges). The Welsh government’s data showed that bag usage depended on what was bought and where. The food service sector recorded a smaller reduction than retailers because the product is less likely to require bags. In other words, a nudge is about an ability to respond, or be responsible in a particular situation. But, the significant reduction in single-use bags – in some contexts, as much as 95% – suggests that there are or were situations when individuals were using single-use bags when they did not really need them. If this is the case, then using a plastic bag is more than just simple behaviour; it could be argued to be a habit or even an addiction, which we think we need even when we don’t and holding on to it can be damaging. In other words, we have a responsibility to the environment but we do not know we are able to respond to the environment. Even if we we can recognise our responsibility on an intellectual level, our ability to respond is based on how much the content architect allows us to respond.
The state, in this respect, is not only a metaphorical father and content architect but also a doctor specialising in addictions trying to make us better. The physicality of a nudge is like the swallowing of medicine. An incentive – whether positive or negative – is like a spoonful or sugar to help the medicine go down. The problem is that sugar is also addictive if we become accustomed to it. Government research into incentives for household recycling found that incentives only led to an increase in recycling up to an extent. The Greater London Assembly has cast doubts on the effectiveness of incentives in the long-term – we either get used to the loss or want more and more – and there is a lot of psychological research which supports this. Making it more difficult to have something – and ultimately going cold turkey – is arguably just as effective at encouraging desired behaviour. According to House of Commons research, over 59% of local authorities have reduced residual waste collection, which has led to an increase in recycling, because households were forced by a changing environment to think about what to do with their waste. Similarly, when WH Smiths stopped handing out plastic bags automatically to customers, it saw a 12% fall in bags handed out; because customers had to ask, they had to think about whether they needed it. It was as if WH Smith and councils had been feeding an addiction before. Incentives are not necessary to change behaviour but it definitely speeds up the process. Anything that helps us come off a drug can only be a good thing but to stay off, the drug has to be removed. In that sense, the UK government’s reluctance to adopt a plastic bag tax is only enabling our addiction and keeping us weak. It denies us the opportunity to be grown up and responsible; it does not mean that we have to do always comply – not use a plastic bag – if it is not appropriate to situation.
What more do I need to say?
The prospects of global warming becoming irrevocable came a step closer this week with energy-related carbon dioxide emissions in 2010 being the highest on record, according to the International Environment Agency. But while we are all trying to figure out how to reduce emissions and trying new initiatives and special laws and financial instruments, I fear that the answer may be staring us in the face.
The IEA points out that the record high emissions comes after a drop in 2009, which has been attributed to global financial crisis. According to the Global Carbon Project, global carbon dioxide emissions fell by 1.3%, which was attributed to the financial crisis. However, it was the developed nations that were predominantly affected by financial crisis and that is where the emissions dropped by the largest amounts: 6.9% in the US, 8.6% in the UK, 7% in Germany, 11.8% in Japan and 8.4% in Russia. Meanwhile emerging markets such as China, India and South Korea saw the biggest increases, 8%, 6.2% and 1.4% respectively, because of their increasing reliance on coal.
Carbon dioxide are our own natural waste product and greenhouse gas emissions in general are society’s waste products. Is it possible that we are producing too much greenhouse gases because we are consuming too much, as if we are doing one, continuous, endlessly long fart? The problem is not that we are addicted necessarily to fossil fuels but to the goods we buy. We can’t live without them, so the economy has to keep growing in order to satisfy us. So governments’ plan for tackling with the recession has been either to cut the public deficit so that the economy can grow or spend our way out of the recession and cut the deficit when the economy is strong.
I wonder whether anyone has ever considered that the economy is too big and that the recession is putting it in the right direction. After all, at one time, all our needs were met by the local economy, then the national economy. But now, in the UK for example, our needs are also met in part by the economies of other countries too, such as China. Similarly, the UK economy also works for the good of those in other countries.
This also raises a question over the environmental benefits of recycling. Yes, it means that less resources are being extracted and less greenhouse gases are being emitted from rotting landfills. But perhaps the reason why governments are so eager to encourage it is that recycling guarantees the raw materials for the production process. It means that we don’t have to think about how much we are consuming because whatever we buy can be converted into something else, kind like eating our own shit.
In an interview, economist Jerry Mander warned of the dangers of economic globalisation:
Wherever the rules of free trade and economic globalization are followed, you have economic and ecological disasters immediately thereafter. You’ve got the complete destruction of small, traditional farming in Africa and elsewhere; you’ve got the complete devastation of nature all around the world; you’ve got people shoved off their lands to make way for giant dams and agri-business and so on, who then become part of the mil lions and millions of people roaming the land and going into cities looking for impossible-to-find jobs, all in competition with each other, and violent and angry. And then people are angry with them, because who needs more people around? So you’ve set in to motion a global disarray and nonfunctionalism that would not have been achieved — certainly not at the same level and with the same speed — without this emphasis on global development.
However poorly people lived in terms of material wealth in traditional societies, there was much that they retained. They retained a fair amount of local control. They retained some degree of traditional culture. Even in societies that had already been im pacted, like India, you had a lot of cultural identity and a history of relationships to scale that were really different. It was an economy of small-scale institutions. That has been wiped out by economic globalization with the invasion of franchises and giant institutions that have taken over the land.“