Margaret Wente on coffee cups and plastic bags

Margaret Wente has written a column for the Globe and Mail in which she criticizes Toronto's recycling plans as "not based on economics, or feasibility, or anything that resembles common sense, but on the simple belief that the more we recycle, the faster we will go to Heaven." Her major objection is to a proposal that would have retailers give a twenty-cent credit to customers who use reusable coffee cups. Saying that "[i]t never occurred to [her] that choosing a coffee cup for my double-double is an ethical decision", Wente goes on to argue:

I have now spent many hours researching this matter on your behalf, and I have found entire websites, engineering reports, and university student subcommittees devoted to the environmental impact of coffee cups. The classic of the genre seems to be a study called Reusable and Disposable Cups: An Energy-Based Evaluation, by former chemistry professor Martin B. Hocking, who, I am proud to say, comes from our own University of Victoria.

To perform a proper lifecycle analysis of coffee cups, Prof. Hocking began by calculating the embodied energy (MJ) in each type of cup. Not surprisingly, he found that it takes a great deal more energy to manufacture a reusable ceramic cup than it does to manufacture any kind of disposable cup. For every paper coffee cup you use, you'd have to reuse your ceramic mug at least 39 times to break even, energy-wise (assuming that you wash it once in a while). For every polystyrene cup, you'd have to use your mug a whopping 1,006 times to break even.

I trust that clears things up.

Well, no, not really. First, it's not so unreasonable to expect to reuse a ceramic mug 39 times. That's a little over a month of once-daily use. Using the same mug 1006 times seems a bit less likely -- but then, that's less than three years of once-daily use. Shouldn't a ceramic mug last for three years? Further, the numbers that Wente gives address only the energy costs of production. Recycling and waste disposal both use additional energy. I'd like to see some numbers that take into account the differences at both ends of use. And of course, there are other issues to be considered: landfill space, pollution from production, etc.

Wente also objects to actions dedicated to reducing the use of plastic bags, on similar grounds:

Everybody likes to point to Ireland, which slapped a hefty tax on plastic shopping bags a few years ago. Voila! People practically stopped using them. But then they started buying plastic doggie poop bags and plastic kitchen bags and plastic wastebasket bags to replace all the plastic shopping bags they had formerly recycled.

Here's the thing: I don't use plastic liners in my garbage baskets, except for the large bin in the kitchen. They're actually not necessary. (The dog issue is different, but I don't have a dog). So the argument about shifting around waste doesn't really make sense for me. I also *like* my reusable bags better. They hold more, and they have sturdier, more comfortable handles. Of course, I notice this difference because I carry them myself when I walk back home from the supermarket, or sling them on the handlebars of my bike. I'm betting that Wente still throws her plastic bags in the trunk of her much-loved SUV.

I don't want to make this a virtue contest. Wente is probably correct that plastic shopping bags are not going to push us over some kind of ecological tipping point. But the bigger issue, the one she overlooks because it's the thing she really doesn't want to confront, is the issue of attitude. Why on earth should we defend our 'right' to generate more waste than we really need to? Superficially, Wente is defending single-use coffee cups and plastic bags; dig a bit deeper into this argument, though, and you'll find that she's defending her right to overconsume. Focusing on individual bits of garbage might allow us to justify a wasteful lifestyle. Considering a really different lifestyle, however, makes ours (mine included) seem simply absurd.

My grandmothers would never have thought twice about reusing anything reusable. My mother, for instance, tells me of her mother making aprons out of flour sacks. Why? Simply because you wouldn't waste a perfectly good flour sack if you'd grown up in pre-Confederation Newfoundland. I remember my father's mother reusing Red Rose tea bags through cup after cup, because it was the economical thing to do. (I also believe that she never bought a car she couldn't pay for outright -- on a teacher's pension.) Perhaps instead of defending our 'right' to generate garbage, we could start questioning why we allow ourselves to look at unnecessary waste as anything but a mistake. Perhaps rather than splitting hairs about whether or not we use more energy by buying a ceramic mug than a paper one, we might simply accept that it's decadent, and a bit obscene, not to make the best possible use of everything that we're lucky enough to have.

Of course, my current irritation with Margaret Wente might have something to do with her recent column about "savages".

Near the end of a long social studies unit about the Miq'Maq, my sixth-grade teacher used that word, too. She only let it slip once that whole year, and mumbled it a bit -- but I can still remember her glimmer of satisfaction, and her apparent relief. I have no doubt that she'd been saving that slur for weeks.

Does it surprise you, hearing that, that my sixth-grade teacher was a truly awful woman? She was nasty and smug and more than a bit stupid, though somehow able to keep a lot of people on her side. The sliver of hate that pushed through to the surface in that mumbled slur was an absolutely integral part of this woman's nasty, smug stupidity. It was not some coincidental bit of ignorance.

Even though a full fifteen years have passed since the sixth grade, I still wish that I'd spoken up in that moment, instead of swallowing my discomfort -- so I'll speak up now. Wente's column doesn't have the bluntness of a simple slur. It pretends to be reasonable, and it pretends to rest on fact. But -- it doesn't. It simply asserts something that Wente believed before she started her research, and pretends to back it up with some selectively gathered bits of information. (Two of the authors that the cites have since written in to object to her characterization of their work.) It also assumes an unsettling degree of intellectual authority, and rests on an incredibly uncritical appraisal of value and reason and truth. Today's column, not coincidentally, does the same thing.

Perhaps the ugliest utterances are also the most revealing.


Protecting Marriage on YouTube

It is, of course, much to my dismay that California voted in favour of Proposition Eight. It's only since the election, however, that I've become aware of some of the materials posted by the "Yes" campaign -- and I think they are instructive in understanding the real basis for objections to legislating same-sex marriage.

I have often said that I simply don't understand the argument about same-sex marriage as a threat to 'traditional' marriage. On some level, I assumed that this whole debate was about something metaphysical, some fear that if you let the gays into the Magic House of Procreative Marriage, they'll spread Sin Spores and everyone will get dirty. That kind of anxiety never made sense to me, and it left me feeling simply confused about the whole debate.

Then I watched this clip. It's predictably manipulative, in a lot of ways. The description of Jan and Tom and their family is an almost-amusing construct of the 'normal' family: they own a minivan, they have a dog, Jan cooks while Tom mows the lawn, and they sure do love their gay neighbours. (Though, G-d forbid, not too much!) The general tone of the ad is calm, and the language clearly tries to be neutral, creating the impression that these arguments against gay marriage are reasonable, and not based on blind hatred. Of course, they talk about homosexuality as a 'lifestyle choice', suggest that 'strong families' need a heterosexual nucleus, and talk about tolerance of homosexuality (as if it's something to tolerate?). If you're in the habit of reading this kind of language, you'll catch the nastiness under these euphemisms -- but perhaps not otherwise.

What I find instructive about this ad is not so much its strategies of manipulation, however, but the concrete objections that it voices in relation to gay marriage. First, they express concern about 'teaching gay marriage' in public schools; second, they suggest that legalizing same-sex marriage is likely to result in government interference in churches, who they suggest might be forced to perform same-sex marriages. I have to read these objections as showing, in part, a desire to maintain institutionalized discrimination.

Rather than simply labelling these objections as discriminatory, though, I want to understand them. The issue of government interference in the church is a clear extension of the conservative tendency to limit (or pretend to limit) the scope of government in general. This objection creates a bit of a feedback loop, of course. It declares a desire to maintain the separation of church and state -- but it wants to maintain that division by passing legislation that is in keeping with conservative Christian values. I can acknowledge that an individual congregation should have the right to determine its own collective values, and I quite agree that the state should have limited control over religious practices in general. But can't this objection be addressed by simply affirming the separation of church and state? If there is a provision that allows same-sex couples to be married in town hall, or in progressive churches, but still allows individual congregations to refuse to perform ceremonies -- well, that objection loses all validity, and we're back to the Sin Spores argument. (As I understand it, Canadian legislation still leaves this choice up to individual churches, and our society hasn't crumbled.)

It's the argument about 'teaching homosexuality' in schools that I find to be most revealing. Instinctively, I find this argument to be absurd. As I see it, there is literally no possibility that reading King and King is going to change the sexual orientation of a single second-grader. What it might do is make a child with same-sex parents feel a bit less excluded -- or, better yet, mean that when one of these kids hits high school and comes out (comes out anyway, to be clear), he or she will be a little less afraid, and a little less abused and persecuted by his or her peers. To me, that sounds like a good result.

Thinking about this issue a bit further, I asked -- why would a person be so concerned about what their children see and hear? Why not trust that your child will develop the skills to sort out right from wrong on their own terms, and with your guidance?

My best guess is this: if you accept the authority of religious doctrine without question, then perhaps you believe that's the only position a person can take in relation to authority, or in relation to information itself. Your concern then becomes teaching your children not to question authority, not to struggle to reconcile their beliefs and values and opinions with what they encounter in the world, but instead with controlling the authority to which your children are exposed.

I feel like this interpretation has given my some new insight -- though I'm not sure quite where it leads me. It does, at least, remind me how happy I am to have been raised as I was, to understand doubt and questioning as part of real faith.

(Christian to Christians: if the Spirit is alive, shouldn't we let Him move? And if God is love, isn't He there when two people declare it?)