Saving Earth the Hong Kong way — S. Mubashir Noor

JUNE 20 — Researchers at Stockholm University revealed in mid-June that nearly 600 plant species have gone extinct in the past two centuries at a ratenearly 500 times faster than nature taking its course. Their study is the latest in a string of research measuring the cost of human progress on the environment.

Likewise, global warming watchdogs including the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have been warning for years now that reducing our carbon footprint drastically by 2030 is imperative to humanity’s continued survival on planet Earth.Most visibly, rising ocean levels from the melting polar icecaps may soonbegin submerging low-lying regions across the world.

The 2015 Paris Agreement on climate changeshould have been a watershed moment in coalescing global consensus on the issue,but it fell prey to major power bickering. Yet green activism continues in the hope that young people worldwide will awaken to their responsibilities and pressure elected officials to take the climate emergency seriously.

They have Hong Kong’s shining example to follow in how democratic direct action can impel even the most unyielding of foes to turn tail.

But more on that later, for nowwe’re stuck with turning plastic straws into public enemy No.1. Everyone wants to ban them.The US city of Seattle went one step further last year by banning allplastic utensils and others plan to follow suit.

Yet passion armed with meagre knowledge is vulnerable to extremist ideas, as we saw with the #MeToo anti-sexual harassment movement,andmake people lose sight of the bigger picture.

Social media are today lighting up with hashtags demanding any place that serves beverages ban plastic straws,while“slacktivists”shame those who point out the obvious problems with such a ban. Long an unfashionable cause, plastics pollutionis now a trending buzzword.

Ironically,it took 20 years after the Great Pacific Garbage Patch—a swirling mass of marine debris in the Pacific Ocean rumoredly larger than the US state of Texas—was accidentally discoveredfor public advocacy to finallywake up to the magnitude of the problem.

Why scapegoat plastic straws? Simple, they are a low impact product. For most people straws are not compulsory for a satisfying dining experienceso they’re easy to wave around as a lightning rod for rabid “greenies.”

Now I admit it is easy to be cynical about the impact of such initiatives and slander those typing away on social media asopportunists seeking more cyber validation.

Or point out that the environmental impact of banning plastic straws will be minimal given they are seventh on the list of global plastic pollutants, and government and civil societyenergies are better directed at reducing plastic bags and food packaging.Or more appropriately, reinvent fishing gear like plastic nets that statistically damage far more marine life than any otherplastic product.

All these are rational arguments yet the flipside is equally compelling. Proponents of the plastic straw ban argue the rising number of young adults participating in grassroots activismis crucial to cutting our carbon footprint across generations whichtop-down government policies simply cannot accomplish.

In short, a broad shift in attitudes toward the environment will start from home and school. Peoplejumping on the green bandwagon to appear “cool” is irrelevant asthe seeds of environmental consciousness planted today will in the future turn “slacktivism” into genuine concern for the planet.

That said, a singular obsession with banning plastic straws poses real-world challenges. First, such a ban would unnecessarily burden handicapped people or those whotemporarily cannotdrink without themfor medical reasons.

You could provide them upon proof, but such a systemmay become anoppressive bureaucracy over who qualifies and who decides why.Also, providing plastic straws upon request is self-defeating as no eatery forces them down your throat, patrons generally have to reach for them.

Next, there are yet no cost-effective alternatives. Straws made of paper or metal not only pose tactile problems as the inability to bend or getting soggy quickly, they also cost three times more than plastics without factoring in the energy needed to recycle them.

While developed nations could bear the added cost, humanity’s major population centers in the developing world with their far lower household incomes will likelyresistshunning plastics in the near future. Regrettably, it is human nature to ignore distant threats asthe effects of today’s atmospheric pollution will be felt in full two decades from now.

What then? While individual contribution to trash landfills is significant, reducing their size will prove impossible without sanctioning mega-corporations and indeed governments for their poor waste management practices.

In fact, given the status quo, nothing short of a revolution will help reorient the priorities of global governments and the recent protests in Hong Kong may offer a clue on how to strong-arm them.

Six years ago, Harvard political scientist Erica Chenoweth after studying over a century’ worth of civil protestsconcluded systemic change could only manifest when at least 3.5 percent of the population pouredonto the streets.And in Hong Kong recently, we saw well over that percentage join the massive protests against the government’s planned extradition treaty with China.

The important thing to note here isdespite the authorities’ initial defiance and statements of support from Beijing, the sheer mass ofhumanity that brought Hong Kong to a grinding halt alsoforced leader Carrie Lam to abandon the treaty’s implementation and may yet claim her government.

Such popular mobilization isessential to combat global warming given the narrow containment window experts keep warning us about. Without such urgency, we face an uncertain future where carbon capture and atmosphere seeding technologies could go horribly wrong. Remember the Chris Evans-starrer “Snowpiercer”? That is our planet one desperate experiment away in the next 50 years.

*The writer is an Ipoh-based independent journalist.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.