Straw Wars: The One Time Disabled People are NOT Told to Suck It Up

Tim de Visser explores the oppressive elements in environmentalist initiatives that ignore the lives of people with disabilities.

For the last couple of months, there’s been talk of a ban on plastic straws, or even all single-use plastics. The impetus was simple: plastic waste is a real cause of suffering and death for marine animals, and a threat to the general sustainability of life on earth. Its production is a major factor in carbon emissions. No one is arguing that point (save for industrialists and their cronies). But there was a group speaking out against the ban that is often overlooked in these kinds of discussions. With the power of social media, they’ve made themselves heard: disabled people.

You see, when you have limited or no control over the muscles in your mouth or hands (or you don’t have the latter), drinking can be a hassle. Virtually the only way to drink unaided from a cup can be a bendable straw, which are currently made from plastic. Re-usable metal straws or compostable bamboo straws will benefit some people, but for others, their pointiness can be a hazard. Plastic straws are cheap and readily available everywhere, meaning that it is one of those accessibility concerns that rarely take a second thought. A ban on plastic straws would change that. And people with palsy, spinal damage and Parkinson’s disease were not shutting up about it. Some commenters were less than sympathetic to their concerns.

I’ve seen commenters on Facebook write things like ‘I’m not going to kill the planet for the convenience of some disabled people’. This sentiment ignores firstly that drinking unaided is not a ‘convenience’ but a source of dignity and a material need for most of us, and secondly that while the impact of plastic straws is easy to personalize, they are hardly ‘what’s killing the planet’. 46% of the infamous ‘Trash Island’ is composed of fishing nets. But so far, the fishing industry hasn’t had to deal with a ban.

This kerfuffle may be the first time that disabled people have made a noticeable impact on an environmental debate. The pattern is typical though: a lot of environmentalism puts the burden of saving the planet disproportionately on the poor and disabled. This is not usually the result of malice, but rather ignorance (although persistent and, as in the example above, sometimes willful). Environmentally sustainable products and solutions often require more human power, time and money to use; resources that the rich and abled simply have more of.

Interestingly, the poor and disabled rarely get credit for all the environmentally destructive behavior they can not engage in if they even wanted to. Not driving a car or flying a plane is only considered an admirable sacrifice for the environment if you have the option of doing those things. But if you can’t do those things, and you also need a plastic straw to drink? Or you can barely afford food, let alone sustainably produced items? Or you don’t have the free time, money or hand-eye coordination to forgo any other convenient, cheap, ‘wasteful’ products? Then it seems that some environmentalists will blame you personally for the destruction of the earth. Or at least completely disregard your needs.

On balance, carbon footprint and negative impact on the environment correlate with wealth. Rich people are not only usually more wasteful than poor people (because they can afford to be, and live in places where the effects of that waste are not as noticeable), they also by definition have more control over the industries and regulations that truly govern the amount of pollution, overconsumption and waste that ruin the environment. This is how places like Europe can enjoy a higher standard of luxury while still having stricter environmental and labour regulation than other places: we’ve outsourced the social and environmental costs to Asia, Africa and South America.

Food waste is a political problem. Carbon emissions are a political problem. Child labour is a political problem. These are not personal moral problems that you can disinvest from and be done with it, judging everyone else.

The market will not ever solve these problems. They are a result of the market: they are byproducts of policies that are very profitable to rich and powerful people who can avoid these negative consequences. The market will only succeed in hiding the issue, usually by relocating to a poorer place and some good marketing. The true solution will only come from a sense that we as a global community need to reorganize the way we produce and distribute goods and services.

Small tasks are things like changing the rules about food waste so that corporations can’t just deliberately throw food away if they could just as easily give it to starving people. Possibly setting up a distribution system to make that happen. Maybe disincentivize overproduction by farmers by changing or scrapping subsidies. Making companies that use forced or inhumane labour practices criminally liable. I say small, but they will make a lot of rich people much less rich, and that is going to make it hard, but not complicated.

Larger tasks include: how to transition to an economy that is not dependent on fossil fuels while minimizing the opportunity for massive poverty and violence. What are some alternative ways to produce energy and deal with waste? If there aren’t any feasible options to maintain current levels of consumption, who has to sacrifice what? If we let the market decide, we already know the answer. And it will not affect everyone equally.

The inevitability that our current way of life is going to become impossible means that we have to think of new ways of life not just as individuals, but as a society. It would be really nice if it did not rely on everybody spending more money, and doing more stuff by hand. Not all of us have money. Not all of us have hands*.

Tim de Visser is a white, straight, cis male. And that’s all he has going for him. He’s also disabled (from birth), mentally ill (from growing up), and underemployed (for now). He’s worked as a freelance journalist and studied philosophy at Utrecht University, specializing in political philosophy and ethics. He’s not like the other Atheists.

*for the record: I have both. That is not the point.