Opinion: The Problems with Environmental Progressivism

By Wellington Baumann, Columnist

Take a stroll through your average middle to upper class suburban neighborhood, and you’ll see the wave of environmental progressivism that has washed over our country.  Old roof shingles have been replaced with glistening solar panels, gas guzzling SUVs have been swapped out for dependable Priuses, and that $10 green drink now sports a paper straw.  Moreover, brave and stunning individuals are finally taking a stand for mother earth. Just a couple weeks ago, students from across the nation, with the full support of their professors, rebelliously walked out of class to take part in an hour long protest of climate change.  In the following days, a 16-year-old girl heroically scolded the United Nations with such melodramatic flare that political commentators were tripping over themselves to hand her an Oscar. While we may feel warm and cozy within our cocoon of environmental progressivism, sadly reality feels quite different.  The public policy goals of environmental progressives are wasteful.

A major objective of environmental progressivism is the mass ban on plastic straws and bags.  In recent months, plastic straws have become the enemy of the state even though they represent only 0.025% of plastic waste in the ocean.  What’s more, the alternatives to them, such as Starbucks’ plastic lid, use more plastic per drink than simply having a straw. Additionally, though paper straws are more biodegradable than their plastic counterparts, they require a larger carbon footprint to produce.  The same is true for plastic bags. Studies show that a paper bag will have to be used 43 times and an organic cotton bag will have to be used 20,000 times to equal the per-use environmental impact of a single plastic bag. And even if we stopped using plastic straws and bags tomorrow, the effect on our oceans would be negligible considering how 90% of plastic waste come from 10 rivers located in either Asia or Africa.  Rather than improving trash disposal in third world countries, we are more content with legislating aesthetics here at home.

The Green New Deal, the blueprint of environmental progressivism, calls for a nearly $93 trillion overhaul of our energy grid.  To speak nothing of this colossal cost, the plan hopes move the United States off traditional sources of energy to solar and wind power, but neglects real world constraints.  Solar and wind are region and time specific, meaning that windmills are only useful in windy regions and solar only produces energy during the day, even when the majority of energy consumption is at night.  Even when they are operational, they do not produce significantly more energy than traditional resources. Further, both sources take up a great deal of physical space and are expensive to construct. Regardless, gazing upon rows of solar and wind farms makes environmental progressives feel virtuous even when it is clear that they are less efficient than other resources like nuclear power.

Nuclear energy presents a viable alternative to fossil fuels.  It produces near zero carbon emissions and yields an enormous amount of energy.  Even though nuclear power is on the decline in the United States, it still produces about 20% of our electricity.  Unlike wind and solar, nuclear can meet our increasing energy demand. What’s more, nuclear power is relatively cheap, and as advancements continue in fusion technology, nuclear power will only become more efficient and inexpensive.  Now, nuclear power is not the sole solution to lowering carbon emissions, but the progressives who neglect its potential and current viability are reckless.

Take major 2020 Democratic presidential candidates like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.  Both are opposed to nuclear energy calling it a “false solution” or hope to phase it out by 2035.  Opposition to nuclear energy, within the general public, is primarily rooted in a fear of a catastrophic atomic meltdown, but opponents forget to mention that more Americans have died while installing solar panels on their roofs than in the entire history of nuclear power in the United States.  The safety of nuclear power plants is interestingly demonstrated through their failures. When a tsunami hit Fukushima, Japan in 2011, it presented a worst case scenario for a nuclear power plant. The tsunami disabled their plant’s power supply and cooling mechanisms, causing the cores to meltdown.  But because of safety protocols, there was not a single fatality or case of radiation sickness. And while people have died from disasters like Chernobyl, which are by far an outlier, the overall record of nuclear safety is exceptionally higher when compared to other sources of energy.

I struggle to understand the opposition to nuclear power from people who claim to champion reducing carbon emissions.  Simply put, nuclear power is cheaper, safer, and more reliable than other sources of energy. Yet, we find ourselves pursuing fantasies like the Green New Deal or implementing feel good legislation like bans on plastic bags.  Our era of environmental virtue signaling accomplishes nothing. Real world solutions exist, but instead of adopting them we have chosen to waste our time with legislating aesthetics and preaching self-righteous indignation.

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Author: Wellington Baumann

Wellington Baumann ’20 is a political science major from Westport, Connecticut and has been writing for the Gettysburgian since 2016. He has held leadership positions within the Student Senate and Young Americans for Freedom. Wellington is currently the Vice President of the Gettysburg College Republicans, Captain of both the Moot Court and Mock Trial teams, and serves as an Article and Notes Editor at the Law Journal of the Liberal Arts.

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2 Comments

  1. This piece is so close to understanding the issue, but manages to somehow come to the wrong conclusion. Paper straws and new lids are obviously useless and sometimes counterproductive, but if we want to accomplish larger environmental policy change, legislation has to start somewhere. If we can’t manage to reduce plastic usage by even this minute amount, how the hell are we supposed to make larger environmental change? Also, while America may not be as large of a polluter as other countries, that doesn’t mean that our poor environmental policy should be dismissed. America’s still responsible, and we’re all responsible personally.

    This article offers no real solutions to the problems that it addresses. It’s just a complaint geared towards “environmental progressiveness” that fails to offer any solutions. Brainless, hackneyed, uninspired piece of “journalism”

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  2. My choice to forego a disposable water bottle today, and instead use my reusable one, will not ultimately fix climate change. But it doesn’t make the problem worse. Banning plastic straws, or switching to more sustainable materials, will similarly not solve the problems of pollution and climate change, but it prevents us from dumping that much more plastic into the ocean, or greenhouse gases into our atmosphere. If we can avoid augmenting existing problems, then why would we not choose to do so? Our situation looks bleak, but that is because of the unsustainable and wasteful practices created by generations of people assuming that their actions have no consequences. We can choose to practice different ways of living.

    Why did you think this article was worth writing? Who does this benefit? It is important to inform others of just how serious the global climate situation is, but on what planet was this at all a useful piece of journalism? The utter lack of sources in this article is striking to me, I would be FASCINATED to learn why the hell you think using a cloth bag is 20000 times worse for the environment than using a disposable plastic bag.

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