This plastic bag conspiracy is a truly deadly distraction
We are using more carrier bags, news that turns this column, on a cloudy Saturday, into a prophecy of death. Look at the data from Wrap, an organisation that promotes recycling, and learn that, after a fall in the number of carrier bags used by British consumers since 2006, prompted by a sort of existential national hysteria, we now see a gentle rise of 5.4%. In 2010 we used 7.6bn; in 2011 we used 8bn for onions, old socks, and other carrier bags.
So what? you say. To use 7bn is unfortunate, and 8bn is carelessness? No. Using fewer carrier bags was the Useless People's Recycling. It was the tiny – and entirely cosmetic – commitment to the survival of the planet that the Daily Mail, and therefore everyone, would consider. The thought process was this: we have a bloodied biosphere. Perhaps I don't need this carrier bag. (Preens.) This is the present I make to Planet Earth, my home (and I have no other, unless I believe Hollywoodland and its stories of spaceships and arks). I will save the turtle.
It sounds mad, and it was. The Daily Mail launched a campaign in 2008. The British Retail Consortium followed in 2009, taking "a symbolic step towards using resources more wisely". The supermarkets cried and promised to do better, because nothing is more important than the environment, not even profit. David Cameron was properly faux angry, and in 2011 gave one of his funniest faux angry quotes, which made him sound like King Leonidas of Sparta, yet lurking in Sainsbury's: "I know that retailers want to do better but if they don't I will be asking them to explain why not." (No wonder Putin doesn't fear him.)
The carrier bag is a simple and unpleasant item and it makes up 3.2% of our domestic waste. Cling film is a bigger threat, in waste terms – where is the War on Cling Film? – but it was the carrier bag that was chosen to express our limp desire to live. Remember the carrier bag in the film American Beauty, a windy, Oscar-winning metaphor for loss, scudding about by the garage? They swallowed it.
In Wales, there has been a charge of 5p per bag since October, and use has since fallen by 96%. The Welsh environment minister congratulated the public on the decline, in the way politicians have of clapping babies when they throw their plates at the wall, and said they were doing "brilliantly". (Now imagine him saying it with water up to his neck.) Northern Ireland will introduce a charge next year, and Scotland is thinking about it. Other countries have gone further. Plastic bags are banned in South Africa and China. In Germany and Denmark they are taxed. In Italy they must be biodegradable. Do I smell an opiate for the oblivious?
This rhetoric is rubbish too because, as the environmental catastrophe mounts, we are doing less, not more, to preserve ourselves. The British Social Attitudes Survey, which is as good a measure as any of what we are not thinking about, reports that anxiety about the environment has lessened, even as the threat has grown – 37% think environmental threats are exaggerated, up from 24% in 2000. The proportion that believe fossil fuels contribute to climate change is down from 35% to 20%. I am no statistician but I think this means that ignorance has almost doubled in the last decade. We should be proud.
We could blame big business, which spends billions on disinformation, greenwashing and buying politicians, because abandoning hyper-capitalism is unthinkable, until the office burns down. We could blame a certain kind of "journalist", who thinks with his Oedipus complex, looks at the rain and writes that global warming is a myth because he is angry with his father. (Read the papers, fool. Greenland has melted.) My favourite story denied global warming since ice in the author's gin and tonic melted but didn't spill over the top of the glass, ha ha! Or we could blame our own blitheness and greed; we live in the moment, like dogs.
Some environmentalists liked the war on carrier bags, because they feel they have to congratulate the public for every mirage wandered into. Others named it for what it was – a cuddle blanket that was briefly, and horribly, fashionable, thanks to Anya Hindmarch's ridiculous I'm Not a Plastic Bag bag, which was the goody bag at the Vanity Fair 2007 Oscar night party and therefore made environmentalism "hot" in the same way that, in the words of Sacha Baron Cohen, "Sting has got the Amazon and Bono has got Aids". Such mumbles on the edge of catastrophe were best expressed by Mitchell and Webb in the comic skit they set in Pompeii. As the mountain thundered Webb suggested "a most humble offering to appease the gods". But what? "We sort our rubbish into separate bins," said Mitchell. "We need to dedicate some of our precious time to a futile, time-consuming ritual."
As George Monbiot has written here, the last Earth summit in Rio was a collapse and a wave goodbye; unlike the joyful Olympics, which have swimming and archery and triumph through metaphor, leaders of the most powerful countries did not even bother to attend the wake for the Earth – who wins elections on a death and regression ticket? Almost no one is talking about the gravest problem, over-population, except Jonathan Franzen, and he is a novelist. Recycling carrier bags was our Toytown salvation, except it wasn't, and even that isn't fun anymore. Oops.