The Irony of Plasticity

I have always been in favour of plastic Christmas trees over real, fresh ones. My parents bought one when my sister and I were really small – I don’t remember not having it – and we are still using it 30-odd years later. That means we contribute a bit less to climate change than those who opt for a fresh tree every year and we save money by being able to reuse the same tree (although, technically, fresh Christmas trees tend to be of the evergreen variety so could be reused if cared for). As the short film, Gloop, points out below, plastic is a fantastic material because it can be formed into any shape and, once shaped, resist deformation. French philosopher Catherine Malabou adopts the metaphor of plasticity to describe the dialectic or relationship between different entities.

Byproduct of oil production notwithstanding, plastic’s adaptability has led to somewhat of an environmental revolution in that products could be made without extracting finite natural resources. However, in an economy driven by capital, the resistability of plastic has had the unfortunate, unenvironmental effect of plastic mountains on land and sea. Furthermore, in the long term, it does break down, with smaller pieces ending up as part of the food chain. The irony is that this contradiction in plasticity fits with Malabou’s description of an underlying relationship between entities that influence each other who also resist the influence.

Why I don’t object to a plastic bag tax?

Despite recent calls from  environmental groups for a plastic bag tax in England, the UK government’s reluctance to legislate for it is a sign of its dominance over us.

This application of the ‘polluter pays’ principle in this instance makes complete sense. As the user of single-use bags, the individual is also the producer of bag waste. So, as with household waste, the state has recognised the importance of changing behaviour. A number of local authorities (Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead, Halton Borough) have seen an increase in recycling rates as a result of reward-based incentive schemes run by Recyclebank and others (Bromley, Barnet, Islington) have had success by imposing fines on people who do not separate recyclables from waste. Similarly, when the Welsh Government introduced a 5p charge for single-use carrier bags in October 2011, a study carried out in conjunction with retailers revealed that bag usage fell by between 40-96%, depending on what was being bought. Furthermore, it claims that the fall was even greater than it was in England where some retailers do charge for single-use bags. These figures on their own seem to suggest that a single-use bag charge does have the desired effect of changing individual behaviour. After all, no-one likes to lose out, even if it is only 5p.

But negative and positive incentives (or law in general) do not change behaviour per se. Well, as Hegel would point out, it does and it does not. Of course, the rational consumer does not want to lose 5p. But, as Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler have argued, there is no such as thing as a purely rational individuals – homo sapiens (human beings) are not the same as homo economicus. That is perhaps why, in their book Nudge, they distinguish incentives from the more relational nudges, which are tools that the content architect (or lawmaker) uses to change the content architecture or environment. Libertarian paternalism indicative of a father as traditional metaphor for the state,  raising the metaphorical child (household or individual). But in reality, according to Hegel, the relationship is more like a mother and father, where both the state and non-state actors are responsible for the protection of children, or future generations. (Indeed, when Hegel said that ‘the real is rational, and the rational is real’, he was indicating it is rational to be real or relational.) Therefore, a nudge can be viewed as a physical act of the state, which interacts with the body or environment individual to which the individual responds. If an incentive were purely a rational instrument, everyone would have responded to a single-use bag charge equally in all circumstances. But, in keeping with libertarian paternalism, the single-use bag charge does not take away a space for opposition.

I would argue that incentives, such as a plastic bag tax, are nudges precisely because they are changes to the environment to which the individual responds; that is, they are rational because they are relational. As a result, the plastic bag tax is not the only thing in the environment which would call for a response; whether an individual chooses to take a bag depends on the prioritisation of environmental factors (or nudges). The Welsh government’s data showed that bag usage depended on what was bought and where. The food service sector recorded a smaller reduction than retailers because the product is less likely to require bags. In other words, a nudge is about an ability to respond, or be responsible in a particular situation. But, the significant reduction in single-use bags – in some contexts, as much as 95% – suggests that there are or were situations when individuals were using single-use bags when they did not really need them. If this is the case, then using a plastic bag is more than just simple behaviour; it could be argued to be a habit or even an addiction, which we think we need even when we don’t and holding on to it can be damaging. In other words, we have a responsibility to the environment but we do not know we are able to respond to the environment. Even if we we can recognise our responsibility on an intellectual level, our ability to respond is based on how much the content architect allows us to respond.

The state, in this respect, is not only a metaphorical father and content architect but also a doctor specialising in addictions trying to make us better. The physicality of a nudge is like the swallowing of medicine. An incentive – whether positive or negative – is like a spoonful or sugar to help the medicine go down. The problem is that sugar is also addictive if we become accustomed to it. Government research into incentives for household recycling found that incentives only led to an increase in recycling up to an extent. The Greater London Assembly has cast doubts on the effectiveness of incentives in the long-term – we either get used to the loss or want more and more – and there is a lot of psychological research which supports this.  Making it more difficult to have something – and ultimately going cold turkey – is arguably just as effective at encouraging desired behaviour. According to House of Commons research, over 59% of local authorities have reduced residual waste collection, which has led to an increase in recycling, because households were forced by a changing environment to think about what to do with their waste. Similarly, when WH Smiths stopped handing out plastic bags automatically to customers, it saw a 12% fall in bags handed out; because customers had to ask, they had to think about whether they needed it. It was as if WH Smith and councils had been feeding an addiction before. Incentives are not necessary to change behaviour but it definitely speeds up the process. Anything that helps us come off a drug can only be a good thing but to stay off, the drug has to be removed. In that sense, the UK government’s reluctance to adopt a plastic bag tax is only enabling our addiction and keeping us weak. It denies us the opportunity to be grown up and responsible; it does not mean that we have to do always comply – not use a plastic bag – if it is not appropriate to situation.

Do you understand what my PhD is really about?

That’s been the most difficult question I’ve had to deal with during the course of my PhD. Honestly, how do you explain something really complex to people who don’t know anything? Usually, I waffle on about recycling and incentives and through in something around relationships until they go away. But lately I’ve been trying to prepare for my transfer from MPhil/PhD to PhD and I just could not get my thesis abstract quite right. Eventually, my supervisor suggested to write an abstract as if for the layperson, like a blog post. And it worked. So, I am curious now, how comprehensible is my thesis abstract? Please let know what you think.

In my thesis, I argue that a post-humanist approach to environmental law can be developed from a reading of Hegel. Society is ultimately made up of networks of individuals-in-families. Hegel calls the force that hold society together (mutual) Recognition but Jessica Benjamin reads it as Love. The conservation of society comes from the self’s responsibility to (or ability to respond to the needs of) others who depend on the self in the present and the present generation’s responsibility to future generations. Through Catherine Malabou’s reading of Hegel, the family based on marriage and procreation represents a plastic future that is not just a distinct entity from the present but exists simultaneously and is continually transformed by and into the present. This is reflected through the expansion of human civilisation. This means that to be human is constantly changing over time to include whatever is in its environment. In other words, to be human is to be post-human – the human self is its environmental other. The totality of relations between individual humans and their environment is reflected in the relationship between society and the environment. If law is an expression of the self’s responsibility to the other, then all law is arguably environmental law.

Therefore, I argue that law can be nothing more than an aide-memoire of the responsibility and dependence of the self and other. This can be seen from analysis of EU and national waste legislation, local authority literature, government and NGO reports and journalistic articles. The government recognises the role of individuals-in-households and the importance of changing household behaviour to reduce waste and increase recycling rates. This corresponds with the Hegelian family as the basis for society. But there is a debate regarding the limit of the law. On the one hand, the household is the untamed environment of the state; on the other hand, it is protected from the legal environment. Local authorities have an array of different household waste and recycling policies, such as incentivisation, co-mingling and the frequency of collections. The evidence indicates that the more invasive the policy into the running of the household, the more the household is able to reduce waste, increasing recycling and also prevent waste. This demonstrates that when the legal environment is brought inside the household, it reminds the household not only of its responsibility to the state but also of society’s responsibility to the environment.

So, since all law is environmental law, the marginalisation of sections of society is akin to the landfilling of waste. Previously, the household could buy products and dispose of waste by sending it into the environment and forgetting about it. Similarly, sections of society (individuals-in-households) arguably make use of other individuals-in-households until they do not need them any more. This master/slave dialectic is reflected in various ways, including age, socioeconomy, race, physical ability, sex, etc. Hegel argues that this relationship is always one step before breakdown, so perpetuating the imbalance. But since the human is post-human, the relationship has a plasticity that indicates that wasted communities are recyclable. However, through law, their wasting can be prevented because recycling is Hegelian Recognition. I argue that this will result in a more equal society, with an aspiration of a zero waste society. In other words, social equality does not come from the creation of rights (alone) that require resources to enforce them but responsibility that requires a sense of agency or subjectivity.

How do you solve a problem like global warming?

The prospects of global warming becoming irrevocable came a step closer this week with energy-related carbon dioxide emissions in 2010 being the highest on record, according to the International Environment Agency. But while we are all trying to figure out how to reduce emissions and trying new initiatives and special laws and financial instruments, I fear that the answer may be staring us in the face.

The IEA points out that the record high emissions comes after a drop in 2009, which has been attributed to global financial crisis. According to the Global Carbon Project, global carbon dioxide emissions fell by 1.3%, which was attributed to the financial crisis. However, it was the developed nations that were predominantly affected by financial crisis and that is where the emissions dropped by the largest amounts: 6.9% in the US, 8.6% in the UK, 7% in Germany, 11.8% in Japan and 8.4% in Russia. Meanwhile emerging markets such as China, India and South Korea saw the biggest increases, 8%, 6.2% and 1.4% respectively, because of their increasing reliance on coal.

Carbon dioxide are our own natural waste product and greenhouse gas emissions in general are society’s waste products. Is it possible that we are producing too much greenhouse gases because we are consuming too much, as if we are doing one, continuous, endlessly long fart? The problem is not that we are addicted necessarily to fossil fuels but to the goods we buy. We can’t live without them, so the economy has to keep growing in order to satisfy us. So governments’ plan for tackling with the recession has been either to cut the public deficit so that the economy can grow or spend our way out of the recession and cut the deficit when the economy is strong.

I wonder whether anyone has ever considered that the economy is too big and that the recession is putting it in the right direction. After all, at one time, all our needs were met by the local economy, then the national economy. But now, in the UK for example, our needs are also met in part by the economies of other countries too, such as China. Similarly, the UK economy also works for the good of those in other countries.

This also raises a question over the environmental benefits of recycling. Yes, it means that less resources are being extracted and less greenhouse gases are being emitted from rotting landfills. But perhaps the reason why governments are so eager to encourage it is that recycling guarantees the raw materials for the production process. It means that we don’t have to think about how much we are consuming because whatever we buy can be converted into something else, kind like eating our own shit.

In an interview, economist Jerry Mander warned of the dangers of economic globalisation:

Wherever the rules of free trade and economic globalization are followed, you have economic and ecological disasters immediately thereafter. You’ve got the complete destruction of small, traditional farming in Africa and elsewhere; you’ve got the complete devastation of nature all around the world; you’ve got people shoved off their lands to make way for giant dams and agri-business and so on, who then become part of the mil lions and millions of people roaming the land and going into cities looking for impossible-to-find jobs, all in competition with each other, and violent and angry. And then people are angry with them, because who needs more people around? So you’ve set in to motion a global disarray and nonfunctionalism that would not have been achieved — certainly not at the same level and with the same speed — without this emphasis on global development.

However poorly people lived in terms of material wealth in traditional societies, there was much that they retained. They retained a fair amount of local control. They retained some degree of traditional culture. Even in societies that had already been im pacted, like India, you had a lot of cultural identity and a history of relationships to scale that were really different. It was an economy of small-scale institutions. That has been wiped out by economic globalization with the invasion of franchises and giant institutions that have taken over the land.

Recycling Nudges

Respublica have posted about the benefits of incentivised recycling. Jonathan West looks at government statistics, highlighting that the amount of waste sent to landfill has gone down over the last 20 years and the amount recycled has gone up. He acknowledges:  “So our behaviour is changeable, great! And we need to change it more.”

But he then asks how behaviour can be changed more.

I would suggest that this is the wrong question. Before wondering how one can do more, one needs to ask “why do we need to do more?”. Now I am in no way a climate change sceptic. I firmly accept that global warming is happening, that greenhouse gas emissions from landfill is a contributor and that we don’t have access to an infinite amount of resources. But since recycling rates are increasing, why not trust that it will continue to increase?

Guilty Green

Recyclebank operates incentivised recycling schemes on behalf of local authorities in order to encourage households to recycle more. It clearly believes in its mission but I think it’s great that it is willing to accept that its staff are not perfect environmentalists but are human like the rest of us.

Incentives – attack on imagination?

I now have a channel on Youtube where I will be collating posted videos on incentivised recycling, and particularly the Recyclebank schemes operating in the UK. Honestly, for subject that sounds as if it would be as interesting as “watching paint dry” (to quote someone I know), you’d be surprised how many videos there are. I thought the Channel 4 News item about the scheme in Windsor and Maidenhead offered some food for thought:

The journalist spoke to a resident (described as recycler) in Windsor and Maidenhead. When talking about the reaction of his children, he said that they were disappointed that they no longer get the washing up bottle at the end of the week to turn into a robot but are happy when they are taken to the cinema. Why this particular juxtaposition? To me, it sounds like that the children are disappointed when they are denied the opportunity to use their imagination but are ‘happy’ when given the opportunity to have their imagination fed with pre-made images.

All of sudden, incentivised recycling sounds less like an instrument for environmental protection and more like an attack on people’s freedom through the suppression of people’s minds. It sounds fantastic but, in the light of cuts to higher education funding, particularly in arts, humanities and social sciences, it does raise an interesting question.

Eric Pickles – Liar, Liar

Captain SKA calls George Osborne, Nick Clegg and David Cameron liars. But it seems that the government as a whole suffers from pathological mendacity.

Even straight-talking, cuddly, Yorkshire man, Eric Pickles, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, can’t help being economical with the truth.

So, under the proposed Localism Bill, the government is going to repeal the power of local authorities to charge for waste collection – or, as he likes to call it, impose a bin tax or fine. (The power was given under sections 71-75 of the Climate Change Act 2008.)

Instead, the government wants to encourage local authorities to reward households according to how much they recycle. It cites Windsor and Maidenhead council as an example, where households are given points which can be redeemed at local businesses. (The same scheme is also operating in Halton borough council.)

What Eric Pickles fails to mention is that the whole point of charging for waste collection was never to be an extra source of revenue. The charges would have solely been used to fund some form of incentive for recycling (and the costs of administering the system). A ‘pay as you go’ recycling scheme would essentially be a way to redistribute money from the least environmentally conscious to the most environmentally consciousness. In a sense, it was a way for the state – or the local community – to recognise desirable behaviour.

So what’s the alternative? Well, the scheme operated by Windsor and Maidenhead Council and Halton Council are administered by Recyclebank. The incentives are funded from general taxation, from whatever the council saves by not having to fork out on landfill tax. But, as well the money only coming from the local community in the form of council tax and business rates, there is the additional source of the central government grant (and thus society at large). This isn’t exactly in keeping with the idea of localism and decentralisation that the government is trying to promote.

But, where is the actual money going? It is not going to the households based on how much they recycle – they are only getting points and vouchers. The hard cash is going businesses that take part in the scheme, according to the consumer choice. The state therefore is giving up control over the distribution of taxpayers’ money to the market. Furthermore, when the government talks about incentivising households, it is really redistributing money from individuals and households to business. In light of the last two years of bank bailouts and public sector cuts, incentivised recycling is not what it seems.