Magazine | May 14, 2018, Issue

Grasping at Straws

(Reuters/Darren Staples)

There’s a quick, easy test to discern the political leanings of someone you’ve just met. Of course, if they already have their hand in your pocket, fishing around for change, they might be on the left. Or just happy to see you. But if there’s any doubt, mention that scientists have recently discovered another Earth-like planet. Like this:

“We call it Kepler 186f. If it has residents, no doubt they call it something else. After all, ‘Earth,’ our term, means soil, so we’re all on the planet Dirt. It’s possible every civilization calls its planet Dirt, or, if they’re aquatic, Water. Possibly a confederation of Dirt People and Water People would form the Mud Empire. Anyway, it’s close, and it could be habitable!”

If the other person says, “That’s interesting! I know scientists say there are billions of planets, and a significant number inhabit the so-called Goldilocks zone, meaning a planet that’s not too hot, not too cold, and sustains a population of sentient bears, but what’s this Kepler planet like?” — this person is normal and can be fun to talk to. If, on the other hand, the person says, “Oh, great, another planet humans can ruin,” this person is a curdled misanthrope who wouldn’t mind if the inventor of Styrofoam had been hung by the heels like Mussolini.

A confession: I don’t like Styrofoam cups, I despise plastic grocery bags, and I abhor packaging that seals a tiny item behind a carapace of impenetrable clear Kevlar that you can’t open with garden shears. But I also am annoyed by that great smug Boomer moment in The Graduate when the titular hero is hanging around the pool with all the phony adults and one of them gives him a single word of advice: plastics.

Oh, man, that says it all, doesn’t it? the Boomers hooted. Your whole society is plastic, man! Your soul is plastic! Your God is plastic! Nixon’s plastic!

It was good advice, but lost on a generation that regarded Plastic and Chemicals as unnatural goo that oozed from Satan’s hindquarters. A generation that grew up with shampoo bottles you could drop in the shower without having them break into a score of sharp shards and milk jugs you could toss instead of setting outside for the milkman.

Since the Boomers’ boundless wisdom set the parameters for subsequent generations, plastic is still the standard for mankind’s follies: Our civilization, we’re told, struggles under the crushing load of tossed-off plastic. People have to get a shovel to reach the end of their driveway to get the mail, because overnight a ton of loose plastic has tumbled in from afar. It is generally believed that enormous plastic islands the size of France float around in the ocean because someone in North Dakota threw away a plastic soda bottle instead of recycling it.

Hence, British prime minister Theresa May’s push to eliminate plastic straws, coffee stirrers, and non-cellulose Q-tip sticks by 2042. California already has fines for waiters who give a customer a plastic straw, and legislators are probably working on the Picnic Loophole to tighten access even more.

The plastic straw will be replaced by paper, which is magically sustainable and hence preferable. But consider the industrial operations required to fell the trees, truck them to factories, fabricate them into tubes, and sheath them with another layer of paper for hygienic purposes. It’s a significant endeavor, and therefore straw users should be hissed at in public. Do you need that straw? You do not need that straw.

Next, academics will help delegitimize the paper straw. “Before Western societies imposed a horizontal-normative paradigm, the act of drinking was sacred for many, as they tilted back their heads and beheld the divine. But the straw demands that your head be pointed forward, ever alert to opportunities for exploitation or women to visually assess.”

This paper would be so well received that someone would have to write a thesis on the insidious invention of the bendy straw. “Its minute, machine-made accordion folds provided the illusion of control, as the consumer could adjust the angle to his preference; the choice of color provided an additional delusion of individuality.

“But the sugared water that flowed through the crook in the straw was either Coke or Pepsi, wherever you went. In the late 20th century, it was common for someone to ask for a Coke, only to be told that the business had allied itself with Pepsi. The consumer, thus deprived of the most basic fiction of capitalistic soda diversity, would either refuse Pepsi — a statement of nominal rebellion that only served to underscore serf-like fealty to a brand — or meekly submit to the indistinguishable alternative. For this, he was allowed to choose a straw in the color he believed he preferred.”

Eventually using a straw would be a sign you’re on the alt-right.

Most of the oceanic plastic pollution is old fishing equipment and trash from China and India, but that’s irrelevant. Straws are out, because some people think they’re loaded on enormous barges and dumped in the Pacific, along with coffee stirrers and Q-tip sticks. Where I live, by the way, we are encouraged not only to recycle paper Q-tip sticks but to razor off the waxy cotton residue and put them in our municipal composting bins — an act of civic piety akin to flagellating your back with wet leather straps, but more time-consuming.

If we do get a message from Kepler, and it’s a strangled, panicked voice telling us to switch to cardboard Q-Tips before it’s too late, that’s a different matter.

In This Issue



Books, Arts & Manners


Redeeming the Miracle

Yuval Levin reviews Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics Is Destroying American Democracy, by Jonah Goldberg.




Richard Rustad responds to Yuval Levin & Ramesh Ponnuru’s article “A New Health-Care Debate.”

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