The summer of 2018 saw a popular collective movement from companies and consumers alike as they rallied against the use of plastic straws. Companies such as Starbucks began to announce the eradication of plastic straws from their practices. In large part, this movement was in response to a viral video depicting a sea turtle with a plastic straw caught in its nose that sparked a conversation between many online. This video (thats original upload amassed over 30 million views) provided the perfect spark that triggered a movement leading to the plastic straw apocalypse.
This is in large part because it is easy to enact change when the dilemma has a tangible (and cute) icon, like sea turtles, and puts a real face on the thing doing them harm: straws. In our country alone, we learned Americans use 500 million straws every single day. And so the story wrote itself — if you want to be environmentally conscious and do your part, all you need to do is forgo the straw and save a turtle! However, the sobering reality is that plastic straws only account for about 0.02 percent of total ocean plastic — a quite literal drop in the ocean of plastic.
I don’t want to say this is a bad thing — quite the contrary. I am all for ditching the straw and “saving the turtle” at every opportunity. In fact, this is a good example of how non-environmentally-minded people can support environmental causes when given the proper motivation. As great as this moment is, imagine if we could take the momentum generated surrounding plastic straws and apply it to other, larger environmental causes such as climate change — one of the biggest economic threats of our generation.
Truthfully, this tactic has already been tried to no avail. Growing up as a kid, I remember watching the documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” for the first time. Controversial for the era, the 2006 documentary highlighted and explained the problem of global warming and called its viewers to action to do something about it. Of the many stories and facts given during the film, the images that stuck with me the most were of polar bears swimming around, unable to find stable ice. The narration explained the melting of arctic ice was destroying these bears’ homes, and if global warming continued uninhibited, there would be no more polar bears.
This is the exact same kind of situation that led to the plastic straw craze over the summer: an innocent animal being harmed by the unintended consequences of human activity. Yet the campaign to save the polar bears failed to reach a more general audience in the same way. Perhaps that is because it was pre-social media, or that our generation is more motivated by environmental concerns than previous generations (both of which are reasonable, plausible answers to why there was not the same kind of movement then as there is today).
I would offer a third possible answer. The main reason everyday people are willing to forgo straws in the name of saving the environment is not due to some newfound respect for nature but rather a result of the ease of changing actions. Saving the polar bears implies drastically changing our lifestyle — mainly the reduction of fossil fuel consumption. And regardless if you hate fossil fuels, every single American benefits from how cheap and convenient these fuels are. Even as clean, renewable alternatives are rapidly becoming cheaper and more efficient, we are still rely heavily on fossil fuels.
Plastic straws and sea turtles, on the other hand, require a much simpler response. After all, unless you need them for medical reasons, refusing straws has little impact on our everyday lives. It’s much easier than trading in your gas guzzler and installing solar panels in order to save a polar bear. So the question arises: How can we get people motivated about climate change in the same way?
The answer to fighting climate change lies in breaking down a seemingly impossible monumental problem into everyday, small-scale decisions.
Take meat consumption, for example. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, livestock production results in greenhouse gas emissions, primarily through the natural production of methane. In order to make a dent in reducing carbon emissions, we are going to need to reduce the amount of meat we consume.
When most people hear that, they scoff and make a claim about how we are natural meat eaters, and how they would never go vegan. As frustrating as it is to hear people be so dismissive immediately, I cannot blame them. I consider myself an environmentalist, yet I still consume meat (I mean, Chick-fil-A nuggets are too good to pass up, right?).
The misconception here is that changing our food consumption needs to be a drastic, life-altering vow. Instead of trying to get everyone to go completely vegan, we should start by trying to make conscious, modest yet impactful choices to reduce our consumption. The aggregation of these small choices will result in a huge impact on climate change. For instance, if every American simply forwent meat just one day a week, it would be the equivalent of taking 7.6 million cars off the road.
When framed this way, suddenly the impossible seems conceivably possible. After all, how much would it really cost us to drop the steak dinner once a week?
Even more exciting news is the development of the alternative meat industry. Products such as the Impossible Burger or Beyond Meat offer a meat alternative that tastes, feels and is otherwise interchangeable with traditional beef at a fraction of the environmental impact. Prices for these alternatives are already competing with the real thing. Pretty soon we will be able to save the environment while still getting our beef fix.
If we are going to make a serious dent in climate change, and save the polar bears, Americans will seriously need to reconsider their consumptive habits. Partaking in “Meatless Mondays,” while a great beginning, is not the be-all, end-all of climate solutions. Not to mention, fighting climate change is not solely a consumer-responsible task (indeed, we will need larger institutional support as well). Changing a culture takes time, but we need to start somewhere, and if we focus on it there can be real, tangible change.
Timothy Spurlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.