The complex case for rejecting AND using plastics and wearing cotton AND silk, leather and fur

A fascinating article on why the ban on plastics is not necessarily, if its overall impact on the environment is understood correctly, an unalloyed good thing as is being made out to be. An eye-opener just as the article on cotton vs. synthetic clothing was. The law of unintended consequences never ceases to fascinate me.

University of Sydney economist Rebecca Taylor started studying bag regulations because it seemed as though every time she moved for a new job — from Washington, D.C., to California to Australia — bag restrictions were implemented shortly after. “Yeah, these policies might be following me,” she jokes. Taylor recently published a study of bag regulations in California. It’s a classic tale of unintended consequences. …

….. People in the cities with the bans used fewer plastic bags, which led to about 40 million fewer pounds of plastic trash per year. But people …. still needed bags. …..This was particularly the case for small, 4-gallon bags, which saw a 120 percent increase in sales after bans went into effect. [Link]

AND…..

…. Trash bags are thick and use more plastic than typical shopping bags. “So about 30 percent of the plastic that was eliminated by the ban comes back in the form of thicker garbage bags,” Taylor says. On top of that, cities that banned plastic bags saw a surge in the use of paper bags, which she estimates resulted in about 80 million pounds of extra paper trash per year……

….. A bunch of studies find that paper bags are actually worse for the environment. They require cutting down and processing trees, which involves lots of water, toxic chemicals, fuel and heavy machinery. While paper is biodegradable and avoids some of the problems of plastic, ….. …. the huge increase of paper, together with the uptick in plastic trash bags, means banning plastic shopping bags increases greenhouse gas emissions. That said, these bans do reduce nonbiodegradable litter. [Link]

You can read the rest in the original itself. But, you have got more than a gist of it.

Now, let us turn to cotton vs. fur and leather. There was this great article in Quartz in February 2019. I thought I had blogged on it but I had not. The author of the article, Ephrat Livni begins the piece well:

Being “good” isn’t as easy as it might first seem. In theory, it’s as simple as minimizing the harm you cause. This is the line of thinking that often prompts people to make decisions like giving up meat, or, in the case of clothing, refusing to wear any materials made from animals—specifically leather, fur, silk, pearls, wool, and feathers.

But in reality, we live in a big, complex, connected world, and the consequences for our actions and decisions aren’t always easy to assess. Sadly, the possible ways that we can cause harm are seemingly infinite, and the chances of our doing so practically inescapable. And sometimes what seems like the simplest or most correct approach, when examined closely, is actually just another tricky thicket of moral quandaries. [Link]

Look at how ethically difficult it gets to choose to wear cotton and synthetics than silk:

In 2010, the majority of textiles produced in the world, 85%, were woven from cotton and polyester. Neither of these fabrics uses any animals—one is natural, and the other synthetic. “Both are responsible for widespread pollution of waterways, soils, and air,” Kwasny writes. “Both consume enormous amounts of resources.” ….

…. Cotton, for example, is the world’s most profitable nonfood crop, and 11% of pesticides used worldwide are sprayed on these plants. …. nearly all the water in Pakistan’s Indus River—97% of it—is devoted to growing cotton. It takes about 5,300 gallons of water to make a cotton t-shirt and a pair of jeans, …. Every time we wash a polyester item, we’re releasing plastics into the world’s waterways and ultimately leading to the death of flora and fauna.  …..

………. to spin enough silk for a kimono requires thousands of silkworms, and that sericulturalists kill these worms once they’ve spun a cocoon around themselves. But the work of farming silk involves a deep interaction with the natural world. …….. Nothing went to waste, and throughout the silk-creation process, farmers and artisans acknowledged that their lives were intertwined with those of the worms.

Similarly, when Kwasny visits a mink fur farm in Denmark, she remarks on the astounding care the creatures receive. ….. she notes that the mink farmers are much closer to nature than most people. They know their minks and check in on them from morning until night, feeding them, cleaning up their spaces, ensuring that the animals are healthy and getting along. During mating season, the humans look in on the minks every 20 minutes to make sure males and females are happy. They raise the puppies whose mothers die in childbirth and they get to know them. And the farmers themselves don’t gloss over the darker parts of their profession; they admit that each creature they raise has an individual character, that sometimes they grow attached to the animals, and that the nature of their work is bloody. [Link]

What are the lessons?

(1) At a policymaking level, one has to be patient and consider ALL evidence, all costs and benefits and exercise judgement even as one is acutely aware of how little one knows and might have missed out a lot. That would definitely make for better policy with appropriate and essential mitigation for the costs. Then, be humble about the policy choice taken and that also gives us the mindset to be open to new evidence and change course, without associating it with losing face.

(2) At the individual level, Melissa Kwasny, the author of the work, ‘Putting on the dog: the animal origins of what we wear’ has many lessons:

(a) In order to have a reciprocal relationship with the world, then, we have to be aware that it’s impossible to be ethically pure. It’s pleasant to think of oneself as a kind and gentle person, but it’s better to be brutally honest and understand that the best any of us can do is be “goodish.”

(b) Instead, it’s better to accommodate complexity and reject blanket answers that are convenient but untrue, and avoid insisting upon a foolish consistency, which as Ralph Waldo Emerson famously said, is the “hobgoblin of little minds.” Emphasis are mine.

In other words, the absolutism of the ‘do gooders’ is a bigger threat than we realise.

(c) This is the gem:

In a reciprocal relationship, you take only what you need, rather than as much as possible. …. Reciprocity begins with awareness. It is guided by respect and restraint. It always involves an expression of gratefulness.

Taking according to one’s need IS NOT the same as giving according to need. That is central planning and communism combined. This is individual, voluntary restraint.

Distilling it further:

  • Awareness (of the limitations of our knowledge and) of complexity and avoidance of absolutism – i.e., awareness that one can only be ‘goodish’ and not GOOD
  • Restraint (taking for need instead of pandering to greed) AND
  • Respect for nature borne out of recognition of interdependence

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