The Pain of Plastic1
November 30, 2018 by lucieromarin
Recently, Australia’s two leading supermarkets decided to charge for plastic bags, with the alleged intention of reducing plastic waste. Drama ensued. I didn’t notice it at first – I’ve been shopping out of the same canvas bags for ten years – but eventually the news brought it to me.
Newspapers carried giant headlines about the BAN ON PLASTIC BAGS – even though plastic bags weren’t banned but were simply no longer being given out for free. People actually broke down and cried at cash registers. At the time, I attributed the brouhaha to the fact that no one likes change and no one likes responsibility. Any change which means you have to take more responsibility for something than you used to will always be resisted. That’s just how we are.
Then I noticed Catholics complaining about it. This did startle me; I’d just assumed we’d all be, like, “Yay! The world just got a bit more olden-daysey, like the times when women stayed at home and made all their own clothes and China didn’t dominate the world market!” But it wasn’t so. Some referred to ‘my right to a plastic bag.’ Others saw the change as another step of the Communist incursion into Christendom. Still others talked about where you could stock up on plastic bags cheaply. They shared images of trolleys being hoisted into cars. It was as though no one knew that bags could be made of cloth.
One protest was, “This is going to have no impact on the planet whatsoever compared with the damage done by China/India” or “It’s not my waste in the ocean.” This is an odd objection for anyone who believes in natural virtue. I mean, if I give you a black eye, that’s a really small amount of violence compared with the Israeli/Palestine conflict. Me withholding that violence is going to have no impact at all on world peace, so I should just lash out, right? No; we do what’s right because it’s right, and we leave the diffusion of good consequences to God.
It’s a particularly odd objection for a Catholic, given that our religion is usually about the value of doing small things with great love. Do we suddenly resent taking up the virtue of economy in a small, small way, just because we object to the people who made the exercise of that virtue necessary? Do we resent having to be marginally less slothful than we used to be, just because we object to the people whose decisions edged us out of that sloth? Is there any chance at all that this is no more than ad hominem outrage?
The oddest thing was that some of the greatest outrage issued from the mouths (or, more accurately, the typing fingertips) of people who usually declared themselves in favour of a return to the Good Old Days. Whether those aspirations were expressed in memes showing 1950s families bowing their heads over their meals or the advocacy of the return of medieval chant and colour to the sacred liturgy, each advocate preached that the modern world is somehow wrong, and that its problems would be solved by a reclamation of past virtue in general and the restoration of woman as full-time housewife in particular. Apparently, they did not know that in these honourable times, women shopped out of their own bags.
Have we forgotten that women throughout Christendom used to be the guardians of the virtues of thrift, economy and making-do? Have we actually forgotten that these are virtues?
We were not suddenly forced to grow our own food, milk our own cows, and weave all our own cloth. We didn’t even have to make our re-usable bags ourselves. We were left with plenty of opportunities to waste plastic, food, water, and any other number of resources if we really feel that it’s important to do so. Remembering to take a few cloth bags shopping is the most basic return to the kind of habitual virtue of provident economy that accompanied the Christian woman in every century before this one. As such, the people who want girls to read Little House on the Prairie, and Anne of Green Gables and Little Women should have welcomed the opportunity to grow in the practise the natural virtues of the traditional Christian housewife. But it’s not just that they rejected the opportunity. They didn’t even see it. How did this happen? How did an assumed right to waste come to be a characteristic of Catholic culture, when our own grandmothers were proud of their ability to waste nothing?
Of course the supermarkets did not really care about the planet. Of course many left-wing folk use ecology as an excuse to promote an anti-life agenda. Of course the voices of climate-change pundits are frequently accompanied by the rattle of a bandwagon. Of course the people who march in green parades while wearing clothing made in China, carrying signs made of paper and plastic, smoking, drinking coffee (out of disposable cups), and stopping by McDonalds on their way home, should ponder this disconnect. None of this has anything to do with whether or not waste is a virtue.
Waste is not a virtue. It is not now, and never has been. Waste has never been the Catholic way to resist socialist oppression. It has never been the way to show God that we love Him and are grateful for what He has made. Thrift is not stinginess. Thrift can be thoughtful, creative, prudent, skilful, compassionate and loving. Waste has never been any of these things. It has only ever been waste.
And pro-lifers. Let’s care about the children after they’re born. (It might not be your plastic, but maybe offer up for them the agony of cloth.)