Here’s an afternoon coffee thought: Australians sip through an estimated 1 billion disposable coffee cups each year, with the vast majority of those plastic-lined baddies winding up in landfill. That’s 41 cups per person, per annum. At 18g per cup, we create 18,000 tonnes of new, non-biodegradable trash each year. That’s unconscionable, and there’s little reason not to invest in a reusable cup if you’re a habitual coffee drinker.
But the problem is much larger than that.
I think that’s what scares people most about Greta Thunberg. It’s not her constant pleas for those in charge to believe the science, nor her vitriol for those who have “stolen my dreams and my childhood” through inaction.
What terrifies people is her understanding that environmental destruction is the end point of unchecked capitalism, a system the planet embraced when factories first belched carbon into the atmosphere.
Thunberg’s speech at the United Nations Climate Action Summit on Monday has already been dissected into hashtaggable quips. “How dare you,” uttered twice by the sixteen-year-old, has become a stand-in for her entire address. Yet those three words bookended the core of her speech, which is already lost to the noise.
“We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth,” she said.
That statement removed the onus of action from everyday people, like those who closed down cities last week to demand climate justice, and thrust it upon economic leaders and their enablers. That’s where it belongs – far away from minuscule personal choices, like whether to use a Keep Cup or opt for a paper straw.
Ensuring future generations do not inherit a burnt-out shithole will require a shift in what we produce and consume, and a change in who benefits from that production. That’s a hop, skip, and a Marx from cups and straws, but Thunberg’s comments stand in sharp relief to the idea that individual purchasing decisions will unfuck the planet.
There is a well-meaning logic to personal responsibility when it comes to consumption, and the average Australian still produces many times more waste and carbon emissions than most people around the world. But changing what products and services we use, without changing the conditions in which we make those choices, will guarantee we make the same mistakes.
Remember those 18,000 tonnes of disposable coffee cups? Between 2016 and 2017, Australia’s mineral processing and mining industries produced an estimated 30.6 million tonnes of waste. This is to say nothing of the carbon footprint left by mineral extraction, or the use of Australia’s thermal coal in power stations.
The agriculture and fisheries sectors churned out an estimated 16.2 million tonnes of waste over the same time period (that’s not to mention the full 6% of fishing nets and an astonishing 29% of fishing lines wind up as ocean waste each year). That same report, prepared for the Department of Environment and Energy, echoed Thunberg’s claim in perfect clarity: “Greater wealth results in more waste from renewal of material goods, infrastructure development and increased emphasis on convenience and time-saving.” That kind of endless economic growth is, by definition, unsustainable.
Every culture war over plastic straws distracts consumers from seeking systemic change. Every time the fate of the planet is framed within an individual’s purchasing decision, some fuckwit billionaire – who will be long dead when the first Water Wars roll around – slaps adds another comma on their net worth. Distraction is a business model. It’s how we got here.
This is not to say we should abdicate personal responsibility. There is no reason for us to consume as voraciously as we do. But every time you lift a Keep Cup to your lips, there’s probably someone glad you channelled your climate anxiety where it can’t hurt them.
The targets of Thunberg’s ire win every time you think defeating climate catastrophe comes down to a string of personal choices. How dare they.Image: Tristan Fewings / Getty Images