The news about straw bans sucks the attention away from the reality of our environmental emergencies including climate change and overpopulation. 8 Billion Angels Executive Producer Terry Spahr puts it in perspective in this op/ed piece recently published in The Revelator, an online news and ideas initiative of the Center for Biological Diversity.
The Last Straw?
What’s the real environmental impact of a plastic straw compared to the 80 million people we add to our population every year?
There’s been a lot of press recently about Starbucks, Hyatt Hotels, McDonalds and other companies replacing plastic straws with more eco-friendly alternatives or eliminating them altogether. It’s true that Americans use a lot of plastic straws — somewhere between 200-250 million a day, based on comments by the president of the Foodservice Packaging Institute, a trade organization; extrapolations from BBC Reality Check in conjunction with McDonald’s; and figures provided by the National Restaurant Association.
But do straw bans really add up? Drawing upon data provided by Thomas Corporation, a data company for industrial manufacturers, and a number of other sources, let’s take a look at some of the things that the average American consumes in addition to those plastic straws that are currently grabbing the lion’s share of attention from the national media and environmental groups.
Over the course of a projected 79-year lifetime, the average American currently uses:
23,700 plastic and glass bottles and 27,650 aluminum cans (not to mention disposable Starbucks cups);
Paper products that equate to 474 full-grown trees (that’s six trees a year);
9 automobiles, with each vehicle owned an average of 7 to 8 years;
5 ranges or ovens, 7 washing machines, 6 dryers, 5 refrigerators and 8 microwaves (some appliances may be shared as a family during one’s lifetime);
And, yes, by my calculations, 24 pounds of plastic straws, each weighing just one sixty-seventh of an ounce.
As this partial list clearly shows, straws are just one small piece in the much larger mountain of our collective consumption. This feel-good movement of giving up straws is an easy and convenient “sacrifice” and greenwashes the reality of our environmental emergencies. It does nothing to address all of these products we consume, nor the resources such as fossil fuels and water that are used to extract, manufacture and deliver these goods and services.
The real question is, are Americans, other developed-world citizens and those aspiring to move into this category really ready and willing to sacrifice the stuff that causes truly profound impacts on the environment?
The honest answer, sadly, appears to be no.
And that’s a problem that we need to address as a society. All these goods carry with them an enormous ecological price tag of disruption, pollution, death and destruction to natural habitats like forests, soils, fresh water, oceans and the air. The impact is multiplied by the weight of our collective humanity — almost 8 billion people, with 80 million more being added to the earth every year — which, coupled with our consumption, is becoming too great for our planet to bear.
In fact, Earth Overshoot Day falls on Aug. 1 this year, marking the day that our global consumption exceeds the capacity of nature to regenerate. To maintain our current demand for resources, we would need 1.7 Earths, according to Global Footprint Network, an international nonprofit whose mission is to help end ecological overshoot. The Aug. 1 date projected for this year is earlier than any time in the dozen years the calculation has been made — and a warning about the heightened challenge from our escalating consumption exacerbated by our exploding global population.
Study after study shows that reducing our footprint on Mother Earth through curtailment of consumption will not work unless we fight the rising tide of humanity.
If we truly want a sustainable future, the answer isn’t straws. It’s acknowledging the elephant in the room, having an honest conversation about our human numbers, and compassionately and forthrightly working toward a better, safer and less crowded world.
Is Earth Day Off Its Axis?
Earth Day is the largest civic-focused day of action in the world. It is a global event with more than an estimated 1 billion people in 192 countries raising awareness of environmental issues. But would the founder of Earth Day be happy at the current state of this worldwide day of recognition?
The goal of Earth Day 2018 is to mobilize the world to “End Plastic Pollution.” The National Geographic Society estimates there are over 5 TRILLION pieces of plastic floating around our oceans. That’s 10 times more than all the stars in our galaxy. In addition to the plastic toys, chairs, and other objects we purchase, an average American consumes over his or her lifetime an estimated 44,300 plastic, glass, and aluminum cans and bottles of water, soda, juices, milk and various other non alcoholic liquids beverages. Many of these containers don’t make it into landfills and end up on our roads and in our waterways. Obviously, plastic pollution is an enormous problem for our environment, but does this specific focus ignore one of the overarching principles its founder was trying to emphasize by establishing this annual day of recognition?
The founder of Earth Day, the late U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson (D-WI), was one of the great environmental heroes of America. Drawing on his experience as the “Conservation Governor” of Wisconsin, Nelson’s success in bringing the environment to the forefront of Washington politics signified the beginning of an era of bold federal legislation, including the Environmental Protection Act, and the growth of the modern environmental movement. As part of his campaign to create a national environmental agenda, he made the case for the inextricable link between the global population and the health and wellness of our planet. Nelson understood that no matter how much we may try to lessen the impact we have on nature, through recycling, conservation or lowering our consumption of resources, each one of us alters the environment in which we live.
Over time, he became very frustrated with mainstream environmental organizations’ retreat from advocating limits to population growth. Instead, they chose to focus more on safer, more visible issues like urban sprawl, traffic congestion, endangered animals, dam removal, clean air initiatives, forest conservation and climate change. In a March 2000 speech, Senator Nelson opined, “Will there be any wilderness left? Any quiet place? Any habitat for song birds? Waterfalls? Other wild creatures? Not much.”
Will we forget and ultimately fail in achieving Gaylord Nelson’s goal of forming “a new national coalition whose objective is to put quality of human life on par with gross national product?” Or, will the Green movement that now celebrates Earth Day heed his wisdom and foresight and reignite an honest and forthright dialogue on the fundamental cause of all of our environmental crises? Overpopulation.
At the the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Award Ceremony this year, one film thought to be an odds-on favorite was conspicuously absent. Despite its big budget, bankable star and blockbuster marketing campaign, “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power” ended a disappointing run as the follow-up to the critically-acclaimed 2006 original film, “An Inconvenient Truth” by being snubbed completely by the Academy and the filmgoing public. And deservedly so.
An Inconvenient Truth detailed the perilous increase in world greenhouse gas emissions and Gore’s dispiriting fight to reverse their effects on climate change. Eleven years later, An Inconvenient Sequel showcases his high-profile Climate Reality Project, an effort to educate and energize volunteers to promote the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s Clean Power Plan. The sequel also attempted to take a more optimistic approach to the climate change discussion by highlighting the dramatic increase of renewable energy adoption across the globe. Among the success stories the film touts is Georgetown, Texas, which has adopted 100% renewable energy despite being lead by a pro-business Republican mayor. At the end of the movie, the audience is lead to believe we are on the path to a safe, prosperous and sustainable world because of the rapid growth of renewable energy.
What Al Gore conveniently does not reveal in his sequel is that, according to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy June 2017, oil, gas, and coal burning have increased twice as fast as the growth in renewable energy in the same period since An Inconvenient Truth was released. In fact, the growth of fossil fuel use in the past 11 years exceeds all the world’s existing solar, wind, hydropower and biologically-derived energy combined.
Whether the Academy recognized this filtering of facts to fit a preconceived story narrative, or didn’t find the film compelling for another reason, is hard to know. What would have been more powerful from such a leader on climate change is the real inconvenient truth: We are losing the climate war of the past decade by attempting to reverse greenhouse gases. Perhaps the film would have been nominated if Gore had explored the fundamental cause of the growth in global energy demand and why 21 of the 37 major aquifers in the world continue to diminish at alarming rates, 13 million acres are lost to deforestation every year, 90% of the world’s fisheries are in peril, and why five times as many plastics in our oceans than stars in our galaxy.
Since Gore’s original film release in 2006 the earth has added 80,000,000 more people every year, all of whom require water, food, clothing, shelter and cooking fuel, and who desire reliable electricity, transportation and many other goods and services. Almost a billion more people.
That is the Real Inconvenient Truth.
Not being afraid to address our numbers openly and rationally is the path to the best achievable solution to climate change and all of our other environmental emergencies.
As soon as I stepped off the plane, I tasted acrid air thick with smoke from burning trash, smoldering rice fields, charcoal cooking fires, and exhaust from the legion of motorbikes, tuk tuks and trucks clogging the streets of Delhi, India. Delhi is considered the 3rd largest city (behind Tokyo-Yakahama and Jakarta) in the world with more than 26 million residents. Yet, in 1950 there were just over 1 million residents. This exponential growth has hindered the government’s ability to keep pace with providing clean water, sewage treatment, waste management and clean air. As a result, the city has suffered a shocking deterioration, not only in the quality of its natural systems but in the quality of life for its residents.
After filming some recycling initiatives and the poisoned Yamuna river that runs through the heart of Delhi, the 8 Billion Angels crew and I traveled to an area in the southern part of India that, in contrast, seemed like it belongs on another planet. Kerala, a state on India’s tropical Malabar Coast, has nearly 600km of Arabian Sea shoreline. It is known for its palm-lined beaches and network of canals. Inland, are the Western Ghats, mountains whose slopes support tea, coffee and spice plantations as well as wildlife. National parks like Eravikulam and Periyar, plus Wayanad and other sanctuaries, are home to elephants, langur monkeys and tigers.What is the difference between Kerala and its neighbors to the north? Kerala has a fertility rate of 1.7 children per woman, far lower than India’s average of 2.4 and even lower than the United States at 1.85. The result is a state that offers both a high quality of life for all its citizens and a level of environmental sustainability that has allowed for nature to thrive.
During our stay, we met and interviewed Kerala’s representative in parliament, Shashi Tharoor, who described to us the Kerala Model. “You’ve got a huge culture of openness, of coexistence, of literacy, education, and the empowerment of women. When women are in charge of their own destiny, when they are educated, when they’re in employment, and when they are essentially able to decide things like how many kids they have, and space them, and so on and so forth, and when you got the kind of human development that ensures that those kids survive, then you won’t have more children.”
Shrink Your Carbon Footprint and Heal the Planet
The average American pigs out at the proverbial fossil fuel trough by consuming goods and services that add 20 tons of Greenhouse gases (CO2) annually to our atmosphere and oceans. By comparison, the average global citizen consumes and emits 5 tons of CO2 annually. Based on 7.5 billion people, the world needs to reach an average of 2.5 tons per person annually to prevent our pending climate and extinction emergencies.
What carbon diet choice resolutions are you willing to make?
These small changes are relatively simple and can help:
- Hanging your clothes outside to dry instead of Clothes dryer saves .21 tons CO2 annually
- Recycling everything possible saves .22 tons CO2 annually
- Washing clothes in cold water saves .25 tons CO2 annually
- Driving a Prius or another hybrid car saves .5 tons CO2 annually
- Not eating meat or fish saves .8 tons CO2 annually
But why not resolve in 2018 to make the changes that will have the greatest impact toward fulfilling your goal of being the “biggest loser” of carbon consumption:
- Switching from a gas-powered car to an all electric car saves 1.3 tons CO2 annually
- Buying green energy saves 1.5 tons CO2 annually
- Taking 1 less transatlantic flight saves 1.6 tons CO2 annually
- Living car-free saves 2.4 tons CO2 annually
And the biggest thing anyone can do to help the planet:
- Having 1 less child saves 58 tons CO2 annually
For each child we bear we are responsible for 50% of his or her carbon emissions for their entire lifetime. When you add up the carbon legacy of each subsequent generation it equals 60 tons of CO2 saved annually having one less child.
If you are past childbearing age, you can still help by promoting the benefits of a small family ethic among friends and family.