The environment was placed firmly in the public conscience by David Attenborough’s Blue Planet and its emphasis on how our seas and oceans are being clogged with plastic waste with serious consequences for global biodiversity.
It was little surprise that the Prime Minister on 11th Jan 2018 sought to seize the press limelight through a pledge to take “global leadership” on reducing plastics use. It was accompanied by timid policy proposals on a minor expansion of the plastic bag tax, and moves to “encourage” plastic-free aisles in supermarkets. This was all part of an effort to “eliminate all avoidable plastic waste” by 2043.
The speech was greeted by environmental groups as a missed opportunity. And the policy content speaks for itself in supporting such assertions. Is it really that difficult to change our food-wrappers?
This is the latest in a string of Tory PR exercises seeking to appeal to younger and non-traditional Tory voters by exploiting environmental issues. Remember “the greenest government ever” (David Cameron, 14th May 2010 ) before going on to “cut the green crap” (David Cameron 21st Nov 2013).
The nature of Theresa May’s 2043 plastics elimination commitment is mirrored in this Government’s approach to our local air quality. Even after being lambasted by the Supreme Court the best it could do was to propose a phase out of petrol/diesel cars by 2040.
All this not only shows incredibly cynical and duplicitous politics, but also a consistent approach to policy making: policy must not upset the market, although policy/law can have other goals, its principal one must be to preserve the market as is, and the powerful incumbents that operate within it.
This may sound slightly off-topic, but upon the recent death of the enchanting aboriginal singer Dr Yunipingu (really worth a listen), there was coverage of the Australian aboriginal philosophy to life. Central to that is a state of interconnectedness between the people and the land. I borrow the following from elsewhere on the internet :
The two most important kinds of relationship in life are, firstly, those between land and people and, secondly, those amongst people themselves, the second being always contingent upon the first. The land, and how we treat it, is what determines our human-ness. Because land is sacred and must be looked after, the relation between people and land becomes the template for society and social relations. Therefore all meaning comes from land.
Given the very large number of us on this small planet with infinite wants, needs, and consumption opportunities, set against our basic human instincts to nurture life in all its guises, this approach is very intuitively attractive. It also offers an incredibly welcome alternative to the individualism which has arguably reached its apotheosis not only within our consumption led market economy but also with individual narratives that dominate our social media.
And the reality is that the way we treat and manage our environment has very significant implications for our long-term health and security. Our relationship with it is symbiotic. In addition to the well-known impact of plastic in our oceans, our Royal Colleges already tell us that our local air quality costs us 40,000 additional deaths a year in the UK ( http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-35629034 ).
40,000 premature deaths is a staggering number, which in my view represents something analogous to John Snow’s discovery in Victorian London that cholera was conveyed by water not air. That, after some time, led to significant changes to sewerage and water-supply arrangements.
That was over 150 years ago and the changes required were systemic and complicated at the time. Now, we have the technology and policies to change our air quality or plastic-use almost overnight. As an electric car driver and a near daily user of public transport, I can attest to this fact. Of course there will be some disruption to individual’s lives, and a lot of investment will be required to establish a framework of reusable products to replace plastic, but the benefits shall outweigh the downsides. And really, can changing our cups and meat wrappers be that difficult? And taking our attractive aboriginal approach to life, it is our duty to take such steps.
When we were faced with a hole in the ozone layer we banned CFCs. When we discovered lead was harmful to our environment and health, we banned leaded petrol. The truth is such hard regulatory responses are required when an environmental or public health emergency arises. That is what is required for our oceans and air. This will itself stimulate the market to respond within those rules (as I know from my time working with industry). And there will of course be some economic payback on some the measures required: if electric vehicles are UK built, and if fewer materials are used in our packaging supply chains. But that’s not the point. The point is that these steps ought to be policy imperatives as soon as we know of the environmental damage being caused, and therefore the impact on “us” in a holistic sense.