Policy Arguments from Ideology are Easy and Intuitive. That Doesn’t Make Them Right.
Evidence-Based Policy is Bigger than You or Your Feelings — Part V
We need to talk about academics, people with higher education degrees, and anyone with enough sophistication to critically reflect upon matters of import. People that apply their brainpower to complex problems in their jobs every single day, who basically have been indoctrinated to be critical thinkers and, if you’ve ever visited an academic conference, can be viciously critical indeed. That’s exactly why I’m so utterly astounded when I hear them talk, without further reflection, about matters in which ideology reigns supreme such as environmentalism. Arguments based on ideology are powerful because they are often simple, actionable, and intuitive. But that doesn’t make them right.
Sometimes they can be downright harmful. “Let’s ban all plastic!” sounds absolutely reasonable to most people with university degrees. Because, I mean, have you seen the oceans? Have you seen whales full of plastic and landfills flowing over with the stuff? By no means am I against removing plastic in principle. I’ve written extensively about the importance of energy consumption, climate change, and environmental impact. However, I’m firmly against ideological black-and-white thinking, because it does not constitute a basis for sound policy. In this specific case, a simple bait-and-switch tactic seems to hold sway. The hard fact-based question ‘When, where, and how is a ban or even the mere hate of plastic beneficial?’ seems to be substituted by the easier moral question ‘Do we ought to hate & ban plastic given that we know that’s it bad?’. Scholars and intellectual elites thriving on nuance and critical thinking are suddenly on board with simplistic one-size-fits-all approaches.
Here’s one specific example: some supermarkets have recently decided to ban plastic packaging of fruits and vegetables. The reaction? Unrestrained jubilation by the eco-conscious intellectual mainstream. Because plastic is bad and we want it gone. Now. Is that sound policy? I’ll give you one (among many) counterarguments: cucumbers. As it happens, cucumbers with plastic packaging last more than three times as long as unprotected cucumbers, because they are better protected against damage and evaporation. So in this case, an ultrathin plastic layer drastically limits food waste. Indiscriminately banning all plastic in the produce section of supermarkets would therefore not have an unmitigatedly positive effect. Again, I don’t propose the opposite extreme of not banning plastic at all. Instead, I argue for nuance and subtlety. Remove plastic where it’s net beneficial (and ideally expedient) to do so, not because ideology requires you to do it.
Similarly, it’s frustratingly easy to conjure up hatred against plastic shopping bags (which several countries already banned completely) among intellectuals. Instead, you should evaluate this: when, where, and how is a ban on plastic bags beneficial? Answer: if the alternative is ecologically net beneficial in comparison. Oftentimes, the alternative for plastic shopping bags is cotton bags, which are decidedly more environmentally expensive to produce. In fact, so much more expensive that you would literally need to do thousands of shopping trips until you reach net zero in comparison to single-use, super-thin plastic bags. If people really do that, it’s advisable to ban plastic shopping bags. Yet if you uncover that people only use cotton bags for, say, 30 shopping trips on average before they trash them then it’s just not beneficial to use them as an alternative for plastic bags. Either is fine a priori but you can’t make an informed decision before you know the facts. But astonishingly, in areas such as environmentalism, climate change, and social norms, blanket judgment of the form ‘all plastic is bad and should be removed’ is touted from the very same people who increasingly earn their living by reflection and thinking. A common error is to mistake the debate around plastic as a moral issue. It’s not. It’s first and foremost an environmental issue, in which we mainly care about the net effect on the environment and climate. Facts, trade-offs, and consequences do matter.
So how did we end up in this black-and-white, us-versus-them scenario? Like in nearly all social phenomena, the most polarized voices usually are the loudest. Activists drive the laudable and crucial process of bringing issues into the consciousness of the mainstream, into court rooms, and into parliaments. Yet activists are usually emotionally involved in the issues they are championing, because of personal experiences or deep-rooted conviction. Hardly a recipe for nuance and subtlety. Normally, this is fine because there is a social counterweight pulling in the opposite direction (or at least a different direction), which effectively results in a moderating influence. Take the opposing forces of conservatism and liberalism for example. The necessity of some form of agreement or consensus by compromise exercises a moderating influence on social changes enacted by either group. This typical arrangement of opposing forces may even initiate and promote a form of ‘safe’ radicalization on both sides. Similar to a river which pushes you off course while swimming, you have to aim higher to end up where you wanted to in the first place. If people know this, they will use it. Think of price negotiations at a market, where you as a buyer intentionally start out lower to end up at the right price point.
But here’s the problem: there is no actively opposing force in issues such as the ban of plastic. While some people might resent change in general, no major group has a strong negative opinion about removing plastic (except for some industries intimately connected with producing or using plastic) and any lack of action can be rather attributed to inertia than opposition. In contrast to other social issues, no politician will be elected by promising to ‘end the war on plastic’ and there will be no March for Plastic. This scenario paves the way for ideology in the sense that the collective mainstream agrees in principle on a rather extreme position. The lack of an opposing moderating influence and the resulting uniform group opinion severely disincentivizes any diverging position and indeed even punishes it with social ostracism. If you speak up in favor of some plastic, you will be silenced by morally charged accusations and opprobrium. Yet this enforced consensus is detrimental to the proclaimed goal. If the goal is a cleaner environment, shouldn’t you evaluate the consequences of any action with regard to this goal rather than whether these actions check an ideological box?
In the example of removing plastic from the produce section, the damaging act of removing plastic wrap from cucumbers is likely to stay, as a reintroduction of plastic after such a ban seems unlikely. Therefore, in ideologically influenced situations, even corrective action after overzealous implementation is absent, increasing the permanence of errors we make today. There should be room for thought, for reflection, for criticism of such decisions, both before and after they are made. In fact, there should be even more than that. Especially people with a background in higher education should be aware of their moral duty to carry over their focus on critical and evidence-based thinking, which they display in their work domain, into the public realm for better decision-making and public policy.