You may have heard, above the din of the flabbergasted masses on election day last November, that plastic grocery bags were banned in the entire state of California. Given that plastic pollution is basically clogging up massive areas of all the earth’s oceans and waterways, choking wildlife to death, and leaving microscopic particulate to toxify the entire food web of the planet, the bold move by at least one state in the U.S. may have sounded too good to be true. Well it is. Plastic bags are still thriving in California.
True, the supposed plastic grocery bag ban went into immediate effect on November 9, 2016. Most grocery stores had already eliminated their plastic bags by that morning and had paper bags available for 10 cents each if customers neglected to bring their own reusable sack. I thought I witnessed the quickest act of democracy I had ever seen. A store cashier and I applauded the expediency of this policy, yet seeing the ecological devastation that these idiotic plastic creations have caused for decades, I couldn’t help but comment that it was about thirty years too late.
Imagine my dismay when, perhaps a week after California enacted the ban, I saw this:
Soon after plastic bags were “banned,” they were right back again, albeit in a transformed iteration – slightly thicker, decorated, shaped differently, now costing 10 cents, and touted as “reusable” (weren’t the others too?) but still plastic. Clearly, the plastic manufacturers’ lobby groups and associations would not concede to a real ban.
We see this maneuver over and over again with environmental protections as well as other pro-social policies: either the policy is a ruse or it does little to truly alleviate the problem it is supposed to tackle. The chemical bisphenol A (BPA) which is used in plastic products and on thermal receipt paper is a known endocrine disruptor and has shown reproductive and developmental toxicity in animals. As an endocrine disrupting chemical it is also potentially carcinogenic. Though the U.S. EPA has decided not to regulate BPA, many manufacturers have responded to public pressure not by eliminating unnecessary products containing BPA, but by substituting a “safer” alternative chemical, BPS, in its place. And guess what? Turns out that BPS is an endocrine disrupting chemical as well, possibly even more potent than BPA.
This bait-and-switch is emblematic of our so-called “win-win” solutions; they are little more than subterfuge. This is what happens when we try to fix the environment but preserve capitalist interests.
When it comes to environmental protection, ecological sustainability, human health and safety, income inequality and poverty reduction, educational opportunity, and global warming there is no doubt that the current presidential administration does not care. They and most of their GOP counterparts have no objective but the accumulation of greater amounts of wealth and power for themselves and their cohort. So, let us leave them out of the discussion right now. I previously wrote about the failure of half measures during the Wisconsin state uprising of 2011. What is perhaps even more pernicious and more unethical than the utter psychopathy of Trump and his cronies is the duplicity of, and the conciliatory deals proposed and enacted by, those who purport to actually care about the pressing issues we face.
These alleged win-win, non-solutions apply to a variety of societal issues in the U.S. Here are a few exemplified:
Regardless of the fact that the Affordable Care Act (ACA/Obamacare) provided more health insurance to more people than before, it is a wholly deficient measure that enhances the coffers of the health insurance companies, just as it was meant to do (“win-win”). The ACA maintained the highly profitable yet completely inefficient and overpriced U.S. health care industry. While more citizens gained health insurance, they did not necessarily gain affordable access to health care. They still faced the burden of high costs, lack of providers, long waits for appointments, scant coverage for eye and dental care, and often the need to travel great distances to obtain any service at all. The threat of bankruptcy over health care costs still looms for the majority of Americans. There is no viable reason that Universal Single Payer Health Coverage, which would save the country billions of dollars in costs, could not be implemented in the richest in the world, But this is what happens when we try to fix health care but preserve capitalist interests.
The Fight for $15 movement deserves tremendous applause for bringing attention to the plight of low-wage workers, who, despite working one or more jobs, face erratic work schedules, unpredictable conditions, and an almost complete lack of benefits, rendering them unable to make ends meet for themselves and their families. We should have nothing but praise for all in the movement, particularly those whose work to raise awareness and change labor laws represents an additional burden to their already difficult conditions. But the fact that this country does not have a minimum wage of at least $22, which is what the minimum wage should be in 2017, adjusted for inflation and productivity, is shameful Better yet, the U.S. should implement a Universal Basic Income and guaranteed full-time employment with benefits like sick leave, maternity/paternity leave, ample vacation, and pensions. These seemingly idealistic goals are entirely possible if the country taxed the wealthy at previous historical rates, if industrialists paid for all of their externalities – which are currently covered by taxpayers – and if bulk of the U.S. economic budget and discretionary spending was not allocated to the military industrial complex. But instead, the best we can hope for is to raise hourly wages to $15, which is even more than most politicians (both Democrat and Republican) will allow. This is what happens when you try to fix wages but preserve capitalist interests.
I have written about education before and I have worked in both secondary and higher education. There is no doubt that the U.S. public education system is troubled, but the solutions are clear – smaller class sizes, more resources (mainly books), better classrooms and environments, more autonomy for teachers, better working conditions for teachers, less emphasis on technology and tests, and a decrease in child poverty. However Democrats and Republicans alike, instead of paying attention to the underlying problems in so-called “low-performing” schools, have chosen to privatize education through charter schools. While charters do not perform better than public schools, they do have fewer regulations. That climate allows for the funneling of public funds through the school to the people at the top of the corporate charter, often large, for-profit enterprises. The overall charter endeavor leaves the majority of students in the same predicament as before, but can bring great profits to those enterprising educational entrepreneurs. This is what happens when you try to fix education but preserve or augment capitalist interests.
Need it even be said? The United States has done little to nothing to tackle climate change. President Obama signed on to the non-binding U.N. Paris Agreement in 2016, but the U.S. was already set to exceed its carbon emission targets even before the Trump administration policies ensured that the whole accord would be kaput. President Obama and Candidate Hillary Clinton supported fracking and subscribed to an “all-of-the-above” (meaning fossil fuels, solar, wind, hyrdro, nuclear, etc.) policy on energy, which might have been semi-sufficient if we started this attempt at slowly adopting renewable, cleaner energy sources in 1960 or 1970. But all-of-the-above is completely unacceptable in terms of maintaining our planetary existence now. Nevertheless, this is what happens when you try to fix the problem of global warming but preserve or augment capital interests.
Can the U.S. do better? Let’s see what other countries are doing:
Kenya is currently joining a number of African nations including Cameroon, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Tanzania, Uganda, Ethiopia, Mauritania and Malawi in banning the manufacture and import of ALL plastic bags.
According to the New York State Department of Health, Australia, Austria, Bahrain, Belgium, Brunei, Canada, Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hong Kong, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Kuwait, Luxembourg, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Singapore, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United Arab Emirates, and the United Kingdom all have universal health coverage. And this list does not even include all of the African nations that have nearly full, supplemented, and/or sliding-scale health care access.
Finland’s routinely ranks as the top education system in the world. Though a few independent public schools exist, there are no private schools and nearly all schoolchildren are afforded the exact same educational opportunities. Of note, there is not the large economic gap between Finnish children as there is for America children, and though Finnish teachers do not have higher salaries, they have myriad state-supplied benefits and far superior working conditions than their American counterparts.
The Kingdom of Bhutan is a model of sustainability for the world. Their political and social infrastructure is premised on Gross National Happiness rather than a Gross Domestic Product. Their emphasis is on simplicity, sustainability, environmental preservation, and the overall quality of life of its citizens. Not only has Bhutan already become a carbon-neutral country, wherein it absorbs as much carbon as emits, it has become a carbon-sink, actually absorbing carbon in excess of its emissions. In addition, it is progressing toward becoming a zero-waste nation with 100% organic agriculture – an ambition to which the entire world should aspire.
We’re Not Really Even Trying
The continued existence of the human species on the planet is questionable at this moment in history. The pollution, waste stream, impoverishment, and sickening of people and the planet plough ahead almost unabated in the United States as in most of the world. While some in the country deny or neglect the problems and plunge forward with their lives, business as usual, there are others who see, feel, and experience the signs of utmost distress and hope to do something about it. Unfortunately, our collective stance on taking action is not one of ambition but one of conciliation, rationalizing that addressing the pressing issues in our society is “complicated” or “complex.” Translated, “it’s complicated” simply means that we can only do what will not impede capitalism and the accumulation of increased profits.
With any viable solution proffered in the U.S., there are always caveats, always concessions to ensure that the suggestion meets the standards of “win-win” – which really just means that we citizens cannot tackle any issue unless the answer involves a win for corporations and industries. Consequently, even as we proclaim otherwise, we aren’t really even trying to provide health care, alleviate poverty, enhance education, minimize the effects of climate change, or rid ourselves of plastic bags; we are merely trying to placate the complainers, alleviate our own guilt, and rationalize our pathetic inaction on the moral atrocities that we have normalized in our culture. As long as our underlying assumption and purpose is the preservation and augmentation of capitalism, just as with the plastic bag “ban” in California, our solutions will always fall short.
Kristine Mattis holds a Ph.D. in Environment and Resources. She is no relation to the Mad Dog General. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @kristinemattis