The Final Straw: decoupling Environmentalism from Eugenics

The spectre of plastic straws is haunting the world. European and American powers have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: Pope and Prime Minister, Tory and Labour, French socialists and American conservatives alike. With good reason, too – single-use plastic, particularly straws, are generally accepted to be a crisis, one that can be curbed through easy, simple, effective measures – the only cost is the safety and comfort of disabled people worldwide.

In the past few years, Europe and North America has seen a stunningly successful campaign to ban plastic straws. Why? While the British government has claimed that up to 1% of single-use plastic straws end up in marine environments, this statistic has been shown to be entirely baseless. The Western World generally, and the UK specifically, is not a major culprit when it comes to plastic in oceans – more than half of plastic in the ocean comes from just five countries: China, Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, and Sri Lanka.

Plastic straws in themselves are not even a significant portion of that plastic: the primary culprits are fishing nets, ropes, and lines. But plastic straws are a particularly visible and upsetting portion of that pollution. Thus eliminating plastic straws feels like a much bigger victory than it is. It’s a symbolic fight more than anything, but, for many environmental activists, one well worth fighting for.

However, in their efforts to grasp pointless symbolic victories they have wilfully ignored loud protests from disabled people who require single-use plastic straws to survive. Plastic straws were invented for disabled people and originally used primarily in hospitals. For many disabled people, it’s an essential means by which they ingest a large variety of foods and drinks.

I imagine that the adamant environmentalist reading this article may at this point question why disabled people can’t just find alternatives to disposable plastic. For some disabled people, this is certainly possible. But the unfortunate reality is that there is no alternative to plastic straws that is as accessible to every disabled person. My position, and the position of disability rights activists worldwide, is that if a space is not accessible to everyone, it may as well be accessible to no one.

Metal, bamboo, and glass straws are an injury risk and not positionable. Paper straws are a choking risk. Many of these options are costly or not safe for hot beverages. Yes, some disabled people can use some of these options. But not every disabled person can.

That disposable plastic straws are the only option available for disabled people is a problem, but the onus is not on disabled consumers but on corporations that aren’t interested in making these alternatives. All too often, environmental activists blame the consumer for the actions of corporations, and when it comes to disability, activists blame disabled people for our own exploitation.

The reality is that any environmental activism that centres around stigmatising plastic straw usage, even with the understanding that disabled people need them, is going to have the effect of ostracising and isolating disabled people, and is inherently ableist.

But, for too many environmental activists, this isn’t a problem. They’ve bought into an outdated malthusian idea of overpopulation: there are too many people anyway, and they pose a threat on the environment. This idea goes as mainstream as Greenpeace, who still cite overpopulation as a major environmental concern.

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, these ideas contributed to eugenicist social policies that tried to breed out “undesirable” peoples (namely minorities, the poor, and the disabled). This is because, inevitably, when we come to accept that the planet can only be saved by having less people on it, that leads to conversations about just which sort of people that should be. And so, some environmental activists are engaged in a new eugenicist project; this time not based on race or eliminating crime, but on eliminating traits deemed unsuitable for the continuation of the planet. 

Just as the spectre of plastic straws haunt the Western World, so too does the spectre of eugenics haunt the environmentalist movement. Increasingly, activists have pitted the fight for a clean planet against disabled people, and the consequences have been dire. This is a mainstream shift – in the past few days, activists have even set their sights on asthma inhalers, trying to force disabled people into a costly change while ignoring that asthma is often caused by pollution. 

What is the solution if you can’t do that? According to one (now former) friend of mine: lay down and die. Who cares if a few disabled people have to die to save the sea turtles. There’s too many people here anyway. Some even have their own term for such a movement: “eco-fascism”. They’re extremists, of course – I doubt anyone association with Greenpeace or the Greens would wilfully call themselves a fascist.

Yet, it certainly fits with the new environmental movement. Save the planet for white, rich, able-bodied vegans. Recycle. Never eat meat. Ban plastic straws. Ban inhalers. Ban farms. Ban zoos. Ban milk. Buy a Tesla. Let disabled people die. 

I’m sure many of you are concerned with my use of terms like eugenicist. Yes it may be harsh, you say, but it’s not like they’re intent is eugenics. They don’t hate disabled people and want them all killed off. Environmentalists just want to make the earth a better place, and certain ones feel that, if disabled people have to make considerable sacrifices for this, than so be it. And if a few disabled people die, well than good. Less people.

Disabled people did not ask for our own exclusion. It was not disabled people who ignored our concerns about plastic straw bans. It was not disabled people who started going after inhaler users. It was not disabled people who embraced eugenics to combat climate change.

I’m not saying that environmentalism is bad. But if one’s environmental activism is not rooted in the foundational ideas of justice and equality, then what’s the point? Consider your own complicity. Take time to think about whether you’re being a good ally. If you’re uncomfortable right now, maybe the problem isn’t disabled people and our pesky concerns. Maybe it’s you.


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