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Scavengers collect waste at Sidoarjo garbage dump in East Java, Indonesia, on June 5. About eight million tonnes of plastic waste is dumped into the world’s oceans every year. Photo: AFP

Why giving up your plastic straw won’t save the planet

Anson Au says people in Hong Kong and elsewhere should come together to hold governments and large corporations responsible for environmental degradation, rather than focusing on lifestyle changes at the individual level that have barely any impact

Last month, after China announced its decision to refuse the import of further plastic waste from about half the world, activists, athletes, scholars and writers have all put out a call to action for Hong Kong citizens to phase plastic out of our lives.
Local organisations like Eco Drive have since urged Hongkongers to re-evaluate our lifestyles and reduce plastic consumption in our daily habits. Small changes make a big difference, goes the refrain, as lifestyle guides invent new ways to tweak our habits in an apparent bid to save the planet, from how we purchase our coffee to keeping track of the number of shopping bags we use and even carrying our own spoons, straws, containers and the like. 

But we’re missing the forest for the trees. The fault of climate change and environmental destruction, and the key to reversing them, doesn’t lie with us as consumers. If we look closely at China’s decision, it is apparent that the environmental consequences of how resources are managed doesn’t concern what we as individuals decide to do with them. It’s about what corporations and governments decide to do.

From as early as the 1970s, oil companies like Exxon and Shell discovered through their own scientific research on the climate effects of fossil fuel use that these were causing climate change. Exxon scientist Henry Shaw estimated that global temperatures would increase by 3 degrees Celsius and carbon dioxide emissions would double in the atmosphere.
The forecast was grave: the world would experience catastrophic effects as early as the first half of the 21st century. After discovering the results, oil companies hid their research and began a decades-long crusade against environmental protection. They publicly debased climate science and politically lobbied against any effort to lower greenhouse emissions.

Watch: Can Hong Kong’s consumers say ‘no’ to plastic?

A 2017 landmark paper in Climatic Change shows that the largest gas, oil and coal producers and cement manufacturers are responsible for approximately half the increase in global temperatures, over half the rise in carbon dioxide emissions in the atmosphere and about one-third of the rises in sea levels.  
Climate change didn’t begin with my decision to buy a coffee or use a straw. It began with corporate decisions to abandon humanity and reject science

Climate change didn’t begin with my decision to buy a coffee or use a straw. It began with corporate decisions to abandon humanity and reject science for the sake of profit by continuing to produce harmful products.

It continues with governments and politicians accepting donations for political favours, their inertia to act, veiled behind claims that big companies are too important to the economy and excuses about how their products are too embedded in our society to change. But a convenient status quo abandons our future.

And we allow it to continue when we get misled by pundits too eager to point the finger at us and not at the companies and governments. We’re letting them get away with their crimes.

To stand up to them, we have to make a strong case for the impact climate change has on our lives as a collective, rather than as individuals.

Unlike the famous tobacco lawsuits in the US, which are perhaps the most illuminating example of individual challenges to corporations, the victim’s identity is more difficult to visualise with climate change and environmental pollution.

This is because it’s not any one individual, but all of us who are affected – by polluted water sources, contaminated produce and exposure to toxic levels of carcinogens in a growing list of products. And so we must act as a collective.

Our role in the fight to reverse climate change isn’t as individual consumers, but as activists working in concert. Boycotting Starbucks for throwing their coffee cups in the trash is cute. But that’s all it is. It doesn’t build a collective, long-term strategy.

According to a report by the Institute of Policy Research at Northwestern University, many boycotts don’t last very long and barely have any impact at all on the revenue of large companies.

Just as the environment needs sustainable energy sources, our fight for climate change needs sustainable political strategies. Hong Kong needs a concerted social movement to push corporations and the government to undertake proper, sustainable resource management and to hold them accountable when they fail to do so.

The Hong Kong Climate Ready Action Plan 2030+ announced a substantial increase in the government’s natural gas investments. We must push officials to abandon investment in fossil fuels and use renewable alternatives, such as solar and wind technologies, and development projects to integrate them into corporations and households.
Companies must be halted from relying on the plastics they currently use for packaging and consumer goods. Never mind reducing our reliance on single-use plastics. Even some continuous-use goods are often produced using fossil fuels, like toothbrushes which rely on petroleum.

We must discard fossil fuels entirely. Paper packaging and biodegradable plastics are already available technologies used in consumer products around the world. Research should be funded to develop similar products and adopt them in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong deserves a better future, and we deserve a better Hong Kong. We can’t accomplish this by passively refusing to buy, but by actively taking a stand and making our concerns heard by the people in power.

As one proverb goes, “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they will never sit in.” Reversing climate change might take time, but it starts with identifying the root cause and severing it. Let’s roll up our sleeves and get digging.

 Anson Au is a scholar and writer whose work covers culture, health, and politics. He is currently a visiting scholar at the Seoul National University Asia Centre and at Yonsei University, as well as a PhD student in sociology at the University of Toronto

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Political strategies, not boycotts, needed in climate fight