Kurt Willems has an interesting post about the Seattle City Council’s decision to ban single-use plastic bags.
In 2008, Seattle tried to impose a fee on plastic shopping bags, but voters overturned it after a petition drive funded by the plastics industry.
Kurt thinks the ban is a good idea, and I agree. But some of my libertarian friends raise an important point: they say while it’s good for individuals to make eco-friendly choices, governments have no business legislating something just because it happens to be a good idea.
Is this a cop-out? A feeble excuse from those with no real intention of making eco-friendly choices?
Not necessarily. One friend who made this very argument also puts his kids in cloth diapers. He uses reusable garbage bags. (I don’t even do that.) He’s walking the talk, as they say.
I happen to be skeptical of big government, without necessarily being anti-government. (I think government has a legitimate responsibility to regulate, within reason, a wide range of things.)
But I’m equally skeptical of big business, without being anti-business. The market plays a vital role in creating economic opportunity for billions. But what happens when a business becomes larger than some countries? Wal-Mart, for example, would be the world’s 25th largest economy if it were a country. Who holds them accountable? Individual consumers? Not likely.
Back to the point: should governments be deciding whether or not we can use disposable shopping bags? Has the Seattle City Council overstepped its bounds? Should environmental responsibility be a personal choice rather than a mandate?
The “personal choice” argument might work if no one else is affected by your behavior. In other words, if you’re the only one impacted by your decision to use a disposable shopping bag, then fine. You should be able to carry on, free from government interference.
But what if you’re not the only person affected by your behavior? Does government have a responsibility to intervene when your choices negatively impact others?
Consider that it takes around 500 years for a plastic bag to decompose. As I understand it, even biodegradable bags take a long time to break down, because decomposition requires air, and there’s not much of that to be found inside a heavily compacted landfill. (Thanks to Dan Martin for providing sharing this insight.)
Something from which we derive a few minutes’ use will spend centuries in a landfill.
So here’s my question. Do we have the moral right to make our trash someone else’s problem? We derive all the benefit; our children and grandchildren get to deal with our mess.
“It’s just a plastic bag,” someone might say. Except that it’s 500 billion plastic bags every year. One million every minute. And almost 90% of them wind up in landfills, where they will continue to be someone else’s problem, long after we’re gone.
Do we have that right?
Do Christians, for whom the second greatest commandment is “love your neighbor,” have that right?
Might our “neighbors” include those who inherit the earth after us?
And do governments have a moral obligation to protect others from the negative consequences of our bad behavior?
Some politicians in the US follow this line of reasoning when they protest the growing federal debt. They say it’s not right for us to spend money we don’t have and leave the bill for our kids and grandkids.
They have a point. But perhaps the same logic applies to the debate over plastic bags, nuclear energy, and other environmental issues.