Plastics help green the Earth despite Trudeau government plans

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Appeared in the National Post, June 30, 2021
Plastics help green the Earth despite Trudeau government plans

According to many environmentalists, coal, petroleum and natural gas—and the fuels, lubricants and various products made possible by these fossil fuels—help drive widespread environmental problems. As journalist and activist Murray Dobbin put it a few years ago, the “ever-increasing production and use of fossil fuels will, over time, kill billions of us and irreversibly change all life on the planet.” Taking its cue from the likes of Dobbin, the Trudeau government wants to designate all plastic manufactured items—not just straws!—as "toxic." Surely such a bold move is justified, in light of how terrible things have become for humans and their planet.

Yet, one has to wonder.

As many people have pointed out, plastic materials have many benefits. They’re versatile, cheap, lightweight and resistant. They protect our food, reduce food waste and help produce a lot more food a lot more efficiently—and therefore more cheaply—than was possible a few decades ago. And crucially, plastic pollution is not a problem in advanced economies such as Canada as we’re pretty good at burning and recycling plastics, either into energy or other products.

Indeed, plastics and fossil fuels benefit both humanity and our environment. We are born and live surrounded by plastics and countless machines created with and powered by fossil fuels. There’s now nearly eight billion of us, with the vast majority of people living much longer and more prosperous lives than the one billion people that were around when coal use took off two centuries ago. Moreover, the richer we are, the greener most parts of the planet become.

More people, more industry, more food, more consumption AND a greener planet? How can this be? Easy. We’ve gotten better and better at substituting resources produced on the surface of the planet with resources dug or pumped from underground. Before 1850, approximately three-quarters of all products used by human beings came from living plants or animals competing for resources on the Earth’s surface. As late Harvard geologist Kirtley Fletcher Mather observed in 1944: “Today only about 30 per cent of the things used in industrialized countries come from things that grow; about 70 per cent have their sources in mines and quarries.”

Indeed, refined petroleum products (fuels, lubricants), synthetic products (plastic, fibre, cloth, rubber, sweeteners, vitamins, medicines), metals, sand, clay, silicon, potash and phosphate have gradually reduced the demand for wild fauna such as whales (whale oil, baleen, perfume base), birds (feathers), elephants, polar bears, alligators and other wild animals (ivory, fur, skin), trees and other plants (lumber, firewood, charcoal, rubber, pulp, dyes, green manure), agricultural products (fats and fibres from livestock and crops, leather, dyes and pesticides from plants), work animals and the large quantities of food they consume (horses, mules, oxen) and human labour in various forms (lumbering, agricultural work).

This large-scale substitution process allowed our ancestors to, in the words of historical demographer E. A. Wrigley,break free from photosynthesis” and become independent from the soil. These advances, in turn, made marginal agricultural land, sometimes cultivated through environmentally damaging methods such as slash-and-burn, available for spontaneous reforestation, rewilding and tree plantations while sparing many non-cultivated marginal wetlands, grasslands and forestlands from the plow. In North America, Europe and other parts of the world, there are more forested areas now than in the 1850s and 1950s.

Plastics are not perfect, but if handled properly they are better and greener than substitute products made of plants and animals. Turning our back on plastic will make us and our planet worse off.

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