“There won’t always be a happy marriage between impactful environmentalism and progressive values. For environmental groups to weather the political storm, they’ll have to be able to tap sources of support from outside the left.”
Environmentalism, once a point of mutual agreement between liberals and conservatives, is flagging under the demand to meet the highest standards of left-wing activism. For an example, look no further than the latest craze in pop environmentalism: local straw bans.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that straw bans—local laws prohibiting restaurants from giving straws and other single-use plastics to customers—are springing up across America. All told, 28 U.S. cities, joined by a growing list of businesses that includes Starbucks, have so far banned or limited the use of plastic straws or are considering doing so.
While these bans are moving at a steady clip in progressive enclaves, they haven’t been without detractors. As one might expect, the plastics and restaurant industries aren’t thrilled, and the bans have exasperated others who point out that plastic straws make up about .03% of the plastic that enters our oceans each year.
Those objections were never destined to blunt the enthusiasm of the celebrity-fueled campaign to #stopsucking. But another argument, made from within the ranks, has proven far more effective: Several disability advocates have pointed out that plastic straws, considered by most an item of convenience, are in fact essential to the dining experience for people with mobility issues. By outright banning them, they argue, these cities and businesses are forgetting about and harming disabled people.
The traction of this counter—the same argument has appeared in the Washington Post, Vox, Time, The Guardian, NPR, Teen Vogue and many more outlets—says a lot about how far-left environmentalism has moved. The appeal on behalf of the disabled is effective because it, like other forms of progressive activism, appeals to the moral touchstones of protecting victims and promoting equality. Environmentalism, though practically a poster child for non-partisanship, is often pitched the same way: save the rainforest, protect the environment, the victims of climate change. This has no doubt added to its polarization, as this messaging is less effective with moderates and conservatives.
The progressive desire to protect victims and strive for equality have unquestionably been the impetus for much positive change in American society. But they can also be a weakness. Left unchecked, progressive movements can auto-cannibalize, as these motivations are pursued at the expense of all else—including their original goals.
A few notorious examples: The now-defunct Cape Wind project, which could have farmed enough wind energy to power 200,000 homes, met tremendous resistance from Massachusetts residents who cited concerns about the effects on local fish and bird populations (as well as some less noble complaints about the view). The Ivanpah solar tower faced constant legal and political resistance from California environmentalists, despite estimates that it would prevent the emission of 500,000 metric tons of carbon per year. Dams and other forms of hydroelectric power, responsible for close to half of all the renewable energy generation in the United States, are also known to provoke the ire of green activists.
In each case, progressives who otherwise champion the worthwhile goal of cleaner energy are letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. The desire to avoid harming anyone vulnerable at any cost can lead to paralysis. In environmentalism, where big changes are difficult and marginal actions more tempting, the costs are more likely to be borne by those for whom a seeming inconvenience can be a prohibitive obstacle. That can be uncomfortable under normal circumstances, but when advocates are overwhelmingly hyper-sensitive to the “losers” side of the equation, as progressives often are, it can be downright intolerable.
Yet if we mean to make an omelette, eggs must be broken. While I personally think the straw ban craze is more performative than functional, there will no doubt be times when our society will have to make trade-offs to protect our natural world. If you think “the rich” alone will bear these costs, you’re kidding yourself. I’m not saying that environmentalists should be okay with making the lives of disabled people harder (and in this case, the workaround suggested by disability advocates—that restaurants simply stop offering them to everyone and keep some on hand for requests—is entirely reasonable). But I am saying that there will be tough choices on the road ahead. Environmentalism must decide if it will pursue left-wing purity or practicality.
Should it choose the latter, it will need to diversify its support. There won’t always be a happy marriage between impactful environmentalism and progressive values. For environmental groups to weather the political storm, they’ll have to be able to tap sources of support from outside the left.
Of course, this isn’t a one-way street; non-progressives will have to start caring about these issues in much more visible ways and be willing to push their representatives in a better direction. There are plenty of reasons conservatives and others should care about our environment. Unfortunately, for the moment, conservative political environmentalism remains somewhat niche. That’s a shame because the long-term viability of life on Earth is perhaps the greatest and most complicated matter concerning humanity. It would be foolish to think any political faction could tackle it alone.
Eddie Ferrara writes about policy from a data-driven perspective. He studied sociology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He blogs at eddiethoughts.com. Follow him on Twitter @EdwardFerrara_.