Editor’s Note: David M. Perry is a journalist and historian. He’s the senior academic adviser to the History Department at the University of Minnesota. Follow him on Twitter. The views expressed here are those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Dear Democrats – please, for the love of the planet (and for the love of disabled Americans), stop talking about plastic straws.
At the CNN Climate Crisis Town Hall on Wednesday, 10 Democratic candidates for president spoke powerfully about the need to transform the way we live on this planet in order to preserve civilization as we know it. Even as climate deniers continue to run the Republican Party, Democratic consensus on the threat has never been more clear.
But differences of approach still loom large and we should talk more about them. Since at least the 1970s, environmentalists have been telling Americans to make better individual choices in order to conserve resources. Today, consumer conservation is still useful – we can all plant more trees, stop building golf courses, and for the love of god stop drinking bottled water except in emergencies – but it’s also wholly inadequate to the task of stemming the crisis.
All of our efforts and political will have to address the big structural picture of how we power our world and who does and does not pay for the pollution we spill out across the land, earth, and sky. For the 2020 election, it’s clear that some people are still resisting the hard talks about the way we live. It’s easier to talk about straws.
Sen. Kamala Harris got caught in this trap at the town hall. She said that we should ban plastic straws, even as she joked about the need to improve the quality of paper ones. As she told Erin Burnett, “I’m going to be honest – it’s really difficult to drink out of a paper straw,” noting how they bend “if you don’t gulp it down immediately” and saying we need to “perfect that one a little bit more.”
The many ways that paper straws, like other alternatives, fail to work in the same way as plastic ones is precisely why her support for straw bans shows that, although she just released a comprehensive plan to improve employment and education outcomes for disabled Americans, she’s not fully listening to the disability community.
For at least two years, as straw bans became trendy, disabled writers and allies have been arguing how important plastic straws are for so many different people. It turns out that drinking takes complex motor control, and the combination of tensile strength, flexibility, affordability, and sterility make disposable plastic straws the perfect accessibility tool. Yes, disabled people know about other kinds of straws, but they often present key hazards or costs. My son, who has Down syndrome and autism, has tried many different kinds of straws, but only plastic ones really work.
What’s more, plastic straws have almost nothing to do with the climate crisis. We make a mistake when we blend generic environmentalism, as important as it is, with the specific issue of fighting the carbonization of our atmosphere. They also aren’t a big source of plastic in the ocean. Yes, there was one viral video about a sea turtle with a straw up its nose. That turtle lived. Meanwhile, fragments of plastic fishing nets are killing sea turtles at ever-rising rates. Plastic bags and micro-plastics are filling the oceans. Shifting ocean temperatures are disrupting habitats in ways that threaten sea turtles (along with all other oceanic life). Advocates of straw bans who are surely aware of all this suggest that they will just be a first step, but too often, we never get past it to talking about any next ones.
Meanwhile, many Republicans use the ridiculous straw bans as a way to avoid talking about the deeper crisis. The Trump presidential campaign slapped “Trump” on a packet of reusable recyclable straws – ironically exactly the kind of product that straw banners want to promote – to sell as a way to “stand with President Trump.” Tucker Carlson and other Fox News personalities likewise make fun of paper straws, never mentioning disability rights, and blithely continue resisting the real approaches that might help mitigate the threats from climate change.
Elizabeth Warren, on the other hand, pointed the way forward on Wednesday. She sighed when host Chris Cuomo asked her to respond to President Trump’s war on energy-saving lightbulbs, saying, “Give me a break!” She argued that the fossil fuel industry wants us caught up discussing lightbulbs, straws, and cheeseburgers, when the truth is that “70% of the carbon that we’re throwing into the air comes from 3 industries.” She’s going to start with that 70%, and then, she admits, we can turn to the other 30% and think about consumer choice. But we can’t start with straws and lightbulbs.
Warren isn’t alone. Pete Buttigieg also challenged the premise of emphasizing personal choice over structural change when it comes to fighting climate change. In general, Democratic candidates are offering sweeping plans to combat the crisis. The town hall was a success, pushing these politicians, one of whom is going to challenge Trump next year, to be brave.
Leaders have to not just offer policy, but help us to think differently about the challenges we face. Every straw ban is a threat to disabled folks. At best, they lead to humiliation. At worst, they threaten basic access to hydration. Our community is so tired of our needs being ignored, and that really ought to be enough of a reason to stop promoting these ridiculous bans. But if that doesn’t do it for you, listen to Sen. Warren. The world’s biggest polluters want us arguing about straws and lightbulbs. Let’s not do them any favors.