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Is plastic a problem?

  • Published at 07:32 pm January 11th, 2020
Not as bad as it looks? Mahmud Hossain Opu/Dhaka Tribune

Applying the logic of Chesterton’s Fence

Having plastic floating around the oceans and killing the fish -- and the more photogenic animals like the whales -- is clearly not what we want to be happening. But this doesn’t then mean that we must or even should ban single-use plastics.

As, unfortunately, this paper is recommending. That answer could be true, of course. Perhaps that is the best course of action. But before we decide to do that we’ve got to negotiate Chesterton’s Fence.

This is the idea put forward by the early 20th century writer, GK Chesterton, and it’s a logical structure. Imagine two walking in the countryside and coming across a fence. Looking around, they see no use for it and think perhaps that it should be abolished, destroyed. Why have this, there seems no apparent reason for it.

The logical insistence is rather different though. We need to know why the fence was built in the first place. For only once we know the reason for it can we say that the reason, the justification, has passed. That is, unless we know why in the first place, we cannot say that it is of no use any more.     

We are indeed not talking about a fence in the country-side here, but the same logic still stands. Why did we move over to using plastic, even single use plastic? Only once we know that this need or desire is dealt with in some other manner can we then insist that the material should no longer be used. 

So, why did we start to use plastic? Because, compared to what came before, it’s the miracle material. It’s incredibly, incredibly, cheap. It’s also very clean -- as with most single-use items of course. But it’s so cheap that we can only use it once. 

Certainly, it’s possible to use a cloth bag instead. There are also well-attested cases of food poisoning in the UK from people reusing cloth bags -- using one to carry a raw chicken in and then reusing it being an obvious example of how this might happen and it has, identifiably.

We might say that we don’t have enough resources to be able to have single use items, another idea that doesn’t really stand up to examination. Modern plastics are usually made from natural gas and the climate change people tell us there’s too much of that around for us to be allowed to burn it all.

So we’re not exhausting a scarce resource by using plastics at all. Actually, the equation runs the other way. One official (by the UK government) estimation is that we’d have to reuse an organic cotton bag 8,000 times for each use to use the same resources as our taking a new single use plastic one each time. 

The use of plastic, that is, saves resources.

We the people are better off if plastic is used, which is why we use it. It’s also why we started to use plastic, because it made us better off -- that’s the Chesterton’s Fence answer. That’s also a set of reasons which haven’t been superseded, so there’s no reason to abolish the fence as yet.

Except, obviously, we’re told, there is. There’s that pollution aspect of the plastics as they are thrown away. Which is indeed a very good reason to ensure that the plastics aren’t thrown away. But it’s not a reason to stop using them. That is, we’ve a rubbish collection problem, not a plastics one. 

It’s also true that those stories of ocean plastics aren’t quite what we’re told. Some 60% to 65% of the plastics in the oceans are discarded and lost fishing gear. That’s possibly a problem we should try to solve, but you and I drinking from a glass bottle, or carrying home the supermarket shopping in a paper bag isn’t going to solve it in the slightest.

It’s also true that 90% to 95% of the remaining plastics out there in the oceans come from just 10 rivers in Africa and Asia. Yes, the Ganges being one of them. But consider what that means -- most of Europe and North America is able to use plastics without adding to that ocean problem. 

The justification being used isn’t in fact a valid justification for us all to stop using plastics. It is a valid justification for us all to dispose of those we use as Europeans and North Americans do. That is, we have a rubbish collection and disposal problem, nothing else. And given the use of plastics to us all, that’s probably where we should concentrate our efforts. 

Now, it’s possible that some or all might want to argue with some of those factual statements above. Which is fine, why not? The logic itself still stands though.

If we are to decide that we shouldn’t use plastics any more, then we’ve got to go back and work out why we started in the first place. Only once we’ve made sure that the original reason for doing so no longer stands can we do away with them.

This logic of Chesterton’s Fence also stands in the way of many other decisions people like to make about the lives of others. We can’t justify stopping people doing something until we’ve worked out why they started doing it in the first place.


Tim Worstall is a Senior Fellow at the Adam Smith Institute in London.

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