Maybe we jumped to conclusions...
Thank you George Monbiot for raising the issue that we cannot simply go on as we have. We agree that we need a new system: we cannot just replace one thing in a broken system with another and hope to solve the problem. We cannot swap a plastic cup for one made of bioplastic that will typically find no suitable place to biodegrade as we have no collection mechanism and little infrastructure to make sure it does. We agree we need to reduce our use and this means a new system and living differently.
To solve the issues with plastic pollution, we do need to seek structural change and might as a society choose to apply the principles described in Kate Raworth's Doughnut Economics. This proposes limits based on our planetary limits, an ecological ceiling for things such as chemical pollution, ocean acidification, biodiversity loss and a lower limit based upon a social foundation of water, food health, income and work. Given that people are making moves to calculate what the limits of global greenhouse gas emissions and chemical pollution could be, and assuming we could somehow calculate how to divide them up, or allow a market to manage their use, imposing these limits on any multinational corporation in any one country is simply not going to be viable. Action for structural change is needed at a global level and the only global organisations in a position to do anything like apply global limits are probably those such as the UN or one that doesn’t even exist yet.
Whatever the new system is to be, we need a host of voices in unison asking it of our governments, institutions and corporations to create the required kind of change. These voices will only come from engaged and informed people.
People are engaged in an issue because of some good reason and a will to do something about it. The reason to deal with plastic pollution is easy to see, it is washing up on all our beaches and washing down our rivers - no one can deny plastic pollution is occurring. Christiana Figueres wants to paint every CO2 molecule to highlight the challenge of climate change, but we don’t need to do that with plastic.
The will to do something sits in me and in many others, and this engagement is maintained by being able to be personally effective, changing our habits, reinforcing our commitment despite the broken system around us. This can best be maintained within a community of support that shares accurate and interesting information. It also provides the reinforcing social norm such that the whole process feel good and makes it easier to maintain new habits; this is why the SAS Plastic Free Communities initiative is so powerful. Personal changes which are viewed by the individual and the community as positive help reinforce new habits and maintain engagement.
Asking people to speak truth to power on this risks asking them to tackle something so big as to be off-putting.
Coalescing voices to call for such systemic change risks returning to the position that the climate change debate was in decades ago: when challenged with making the sort of changes originally suggested 'we' did not feel like 'we' could personally do anything, the problem was too big and so the emotional shutters come down and 'we' carried on as normal. After all, that holiday advert I saw of a palm-fringed white beach under a blue sky looked enticing and I’m feeling tired and cold this winter evening on my journey home…
This puts us in a catch-22: Needing to build an engaged community now ready to collectively speak truth to power because their conviction has grown. They know that the system is broken and, while we all have a part to play, responsibility also needs to be shouldered much higher up the stack. Yet we know that for people to remain engaged they need to see positive incremental change occur on a personal level.
So what should we do: spend our time helping people see that the system is broken and promising tangible changes when enough people sign up to tackle it, whilst debating a better system or focussing on a ground swell based on personal tangible changes?
It seems like there were others thinking in the same way as us! So we'd like to amend our blog and our new response to George is...
Thanks for putting the problems down so eloquently, we are adding your book to our reading list!