As I picked up after my old hound dog today (yeah, a great “visual” with which to open an essay), I briefly pondered the life cycle of the plastic shopping bag that now contains his ablutions. I recently covered the empty self-importance surrounding the drive to ban single-use plastic bags on these pages, but as always, there’s more to discuss.

In my younger days, I took a couple outdoors courses with Outward Bound. Among the many things I learned in those hard but extremely fulfilling and worthwhile weeks hiking and climbing mountains and canyons, rafting rivers, and living outside was a philosophy of “leave no trace.” We strove to disturb the natural environment as little as possible, packed out all our trash, and were careful about what and where we did disturb. We engaged in this “stewardship” because we enjoyed the pristine nature of those chunks of nature, and wished to preserve it so that others may enjoy it as we did.

In that leave-no-trace philosophy, there was an exception.

For the final few days of a 30 day Canyonlands course in Utah, we entered a national park. Our instructors informed us that a national park designation typically generated at least a ten-fold increase in human traffic, and that this increase meant that “leave no trace” was not realistic. So, while in the park, we followed a different set of protocols, that might be called “minimize the impact.” This meant that, instead of finding our own trails, we’d stick to the already-beaten paths. And, it meant that, instead of determining the best place to make camp, we’d stick to designated and often-used locations. This was an acknowledgment of reality and its own form of stewardship.

The plastic bag reminded me of this, because its detractors have a naively unrealistic and foolishly counterproductive world view. Because bags don’t decompose, and because a small percentage of them end up in unsightly places, they are deemed Bad. And, since they are Bad, something that is not-them must be Better. And, like good little fascists, they seek to force us to switch to reusable bags and non-plastic totes. But, as I discussed in my previous exploration of this subject, this ignores basic economics and other realities. We can understand why, because those matters are “unseen,” and because people are generally not well-versed in contemplating alternatives in a cost-benefit format. They’re simply reacting to something that’s easily presented as “bad for the planet” without considering the big picture.

The big picture, by the way, includes the simple reality that, other than as a habitat for the human race, the Earth is utterly irrelevant. It is solely in its role as our home that it matters, and therefore our attitude towards it should be one of stewardship and best-use as a home, rather than as a pristine Eden, unsullied by the stain of human existence. Unfortunately, the latter view is too often held by environmentalists and other progressive scolds who, in moments of unguarded honesty, lament overpopulation and admit fondness for the idea of major depopulation.

We should dismiss them outright, with prejudice. They don’t care about humanity, we shouldn’t care about them.

The advancement of the human race is rooted in improvements in sanitation. Clean water, management of sewage, municipal waste collection and disposal, sanitary food handling practices, and the like, all promote and protect better living standards. Plastic bags are a part of the sanitation picture. They’re more sanitary than reusables, whether they be canvas or plastic, they are easily and commonly repurposed in many ways, and, at least in America, they end up in landfills. No, they don’t decompose like paper bags do, but paper bags are more costly and less repurpose-able, and therefore consume more resources. This cost/opportunity cost is not to be dismissed.

Yeah, yeah, I know, people hate landfills. New Yorkers know of major landfills in Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island that have been closed in decades past (the latter, among the most notorious in the nation, is now a park), and those of a certain age remember the garbage barge debacle. Fact is, though, that we have plenty of room for our trash in America. My previous post on this topic showed the relatively trivial foot print of a landfill that could contain the entirety of America’s garbage for the next thousand years. Waste management, a critical aspect of modern life, is a political matter far more than it is an environmental one. Indeed, so much that we do “for the planet” has a counterproductive effect, including our big cities’ obsession with recycling.

Our existence on the Earth should not be viewed as an externality, or as Agent Smith’s virus, or as transient. We are all that matters, as far as the Earth goes. Moreso, we are too numerous and have advanced too far in our living standards to make any “leave no trace” sort of philosophy even remotely germane or useful. Instead, we should understand our role as stewards, as keepers of the manse, accept that our existence does have an impact and that this impact is not in and of itself a bad thing, and stewards, in the proper sense of the word, rather than preservationists. As with the national park, we should manage our impact in a way that best serves humanity’s needs. That includes GMO crops, that includes landfills, that includes wise choices in energy generation (as regular readers know, I’m a strong supporter of nuclear power, and have a big problem with the major footprints of solar and wind power), and that includes assessing the costs and benefits of products like plastic bags rationally, across their entire life cycles, and not just based on emotions, heart-tugging enviro-ads, and personal preferences.

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.


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