Whoops: How I Accidentally Became a Shill for the Plastics Industry
by Noah Dillon
October 1, 2016
I usually write about art, only occasionally taking a swing at topics in science and skepticism. But a recent essay attempted to address the way that people perceive global warming and the actions that they take in trying to remediate it. This difference between assumption and reality is something that drives my writing about art and probably drives a lot of skeptical inquiry. You can find it everywhere, and I found it very loudly in the response to my essay.
I live in New York and over the past few years, walking around, I've founds tons of tote bags thrown out in the trash, or simply discarded on the sidewalk. I was really captivated by this recurring image: this object, which was seen as reusable and environmentally beneficent, was being treated as disposable. I reasoned that it's because those bags are so common that they are treated as valueless, even as they retain an aura of being invaluably eco-friendly. I was galvanized in this suspicion when I heard Craig Good's guest episode of the Skeptoid Podcast, #460, "Plastic Bags." Good noted a life cycle impact report done by the United Kingdom Environment Agency, which is where I started reading about the topic in earnest.
Authors like Michael Specter precede me in this, identifying the confusion of moral and scientific responses to climate change. They aren't the same thing, but they can often feel that way, with vague and ad hoc-ish rules like "don't eat anything grown more than 50 miles away" or "canvas is better than plastic" floating around somewhere in most everyone's rear brain. That stuff is largely unexamined, and when you dig into such rules, you typically find that they quickly fall apart and it's really easy for them to be counterproductive to addressing climate change. (You also find, as noted by Brian Dunning in Skeptoid Podcast episode #15, "SUV Phobia," that a lot of huge carbon problems get overlooked as we focus on consumer choices versus large structures, in that case the public anxiety about SUV carbon emissions rather than those from container ships.)
So, I wrote an essay, focusing on my main interest: images—specifically, how we prefer the image in our head, rather than reality. I argued that we can't treat tote bags as disposable and collectible and environmentally friendly, especially if we collect them and dispose of them but never use them. I illustrated it with photos of the tote bags I had seen in the trash, along with some found fashion and stock photographs, and I self-published it as a little book last summer.
This year, a friend recommended that I pitch it to The Atlantic, which has a great series called Object Lessons, with essays and books on the significance of all kinds of products, from USB drives to bread, and even abstractions like waste and silence. The Atlantic accepted and published a revised version of the essay on September 2.
It was exciting to see my writing read widely and responded to. Since The Atlantic's readership probably dwarfs every other place I've previously written for, my tote bag essay was being (mis)read and (mis)understood by more people/trolls than ever before. I was really interested in all the comments left at the bottom of the essay, which mostly came in three flavors. One was basically benign, with the poster saying "I've kept tote bags in my car for decades and I use them every time I go to the store." That's great. That's exactly what the essay advocated for, pretty much, although I fret about the talismanic pride taken in promoting one's eco-conscientiousness. Another was vociferous trolling by people claiming that my essay champions their belief that global warming is a myth. These people are jerks who ignore that the fundamental premise of the essay is the threat of global warming and wondering how our choices might best combat it. This is another preference for the imaginary, where confirmation bias blinds them to reality.
The third kind of comment were from people who flat out disbelieved all the evidence I presented, misread the essay, and accused me of being a paid shill of the oil and plastics lobby who's trying to trick people into using more plastic. Again, I didn't advocate for more plastic usage. I advocated for more rational thinking about bag usage, and environmentalist action in general, which concludes that the way we use bags now is crummy and that there are several solutions that could be better, including, explicitly, using tote bags all the time.
Seattle's NPR affiliate, KUOW, contacted me about the story and I was interviewed by Bill Radke and Posey Gruener on their show, The Record. Bill jokingly asked if I was an agent of the plastics industry, but his jest was a serious ergo decedo fallacy leveled at me in earnest by a bunch of anonymous commenters. Hopefully I come off as more of a person in an audio conversation than I do when someone is simply misreading my writing.
It got mentioned a few other places online, too. A friend sent me a link that kind of freaked me out. Plastics Today, a industry magazine for people interested in polymers, published a response essay, "Want to save the environment? Use plastic shopping bags!" by Clare Goldsberry. As I chided some of the online commenters for assuming that I had to be bribed to write my article, here came an industry group to champion me, with the misunderstanding or misrepresentation that I was encouraging people to use more plastic bags. They advise readers, "When you go to the grocery store, loudly state that you'll have your groceries packed in plastic bags! [...] Then carry those bags out of the store with pride!" Oof. But I disagree, and I don't know how anyone who's read what I've written can draw any other conclusion.
I've recently started watching Adam Ruins Everything, which consists of its host, comedian Adam Conover, uses data and evidence to unpack some of the ways that we mistake common sense and spectacle for reality. I don't find it especially funny, but definitely entertaining and informative, and Conover points out over and over how alienating and buzz-killing it can be to be a skeptic. When you tell people that their green totes can actually be more harmful than a plastic bag that ends up in the landfill, they tend to get offended. You're contradicting what they assume in their heart is true. You're telling them that they're doing something wrong. And you can sound crazy, or corporatitist. People really like the pictures in their heads, and hate having you tell them those pictures are untrue.
It's not my fault that the plastics industry propagandized my writing. They don't support me and I don't support them. I don't eat meat and neither did Adolf Hitler. That doesn't mean we share views or that he paid me to support that position. And I'm not trying to ruin anyone's fun when they broil and eat a baby cow. Or when they scoop your old books and magazines and computer cables and tchotchkes into a $1 Whole Foods tote and leave it out by the curb. I'm also not trying to be some kind of martyr or know it all—I'm not. I just don't think a lot of people (including me) think very hard about the environmental impact of such actions. But in order for people to think about that stuff, people need to find the truth and say it, without expecting even just thanks, and in fact anticipating just vitriol. It's done every week by volunteer contributors to this blog, and by hundreds of other people and venues dedicated to science and skepticism, who are often insulted or spammed or worse just for trying to separate evidence from nonsense. There just aren't a lot of incentives for that. I'll still do it, though. Bring on the trolls!
by Noah Dillon
@Skeptoid Media, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit