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Bring your own bag. What a difference that could make.

One of the rarely discussed, but most appreciated conveniences of modern American life is the universal availability of bags. Everywhere we go, someone offers us a bag to carry even the smallest items. Almost always these are plastic bags, which we carry home and eventually, usually quickly, dispose of.

How much do we really want to fight climate change and pollution of the earth? One way is to bring your own bag.

In America, I do not often bring my own bag. I do find myself refusing the plastic bags, when I can manage my purchases in my hands and pockets. I could be more thoughtful about bringing my own bag, or bags, which have been made so small they could fit in my pocket. I think I’ll do that.

It will make a difference, but not enough. Relying on other people’s plastic bags, given to us for “nothing”, is merely one of the innumerable conveniences of modern life, with which we are thoughtlessly preparing planetary disaster.

I mentioned American life above, because German life, which I happen to know well, does not have this problem. Retail shopping, to an almost unimaginable degree to an American shopper, relies on shoppers on foot bringing their own bags to many small stores on a daily basis. Food purchasing is not based on infrequent trips to giant stores, whose products will be stored for days in large refrigerators. Like other aspects of the retail sector, sellers provide only the most necessary bags, such as the paper containers in which fresh vegetables are packed at the local farmstand.

Bags are one example of the power of convenience to become a natural, unquestionable part of life, no longer convenience but necessity.

The plastic bag is our problem, not because we are less virtuous than the Germans, but because our transportation and commerce are structured differently, along with assumptions about how the day should be spent. Every large economy will need to find solutions to the climate crisis that fit its particular economic facts.

And bags are only a partial answer. Bags are one example of the power of convenience to become a natural, unquestionable part of life, no longer convenience but necessity.

Bags also point to the only solution that appears to have any chance of succeeding. The dueling partisan philosophies of “market solutions” vs. “government regulation” have battled to a draw in America, symbolized by the hotly debated political question of whether the US should be part of the Paris agreements. In the race to save the planet, our country is wrestling with itself at the starting gate.

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I have much sympathy for regulation. Republicans have tried to make that word a curse, except in all those areas where they want to stop people from doing things conservatives don’t like. Their claims that their version of the “free market” is a commandment from God, broadcast with the financial support of big industry, exist apart from any secular evidence, like other religious dogmas. Democratic reliance on governmental policies always seems to be decades behind the “science” that is so prized in speechmaking. I can’t think of a single bundle of regulations, in banking, manufacturing, energy and food production, or any other sector of economic life, which I am not in favor of strengthening and extending. But that’s not enough.

We can’t expect to reverse the damage our lives are doing to the Earth by voting. Voting is a crucial part of our much broader responsibility. Voting for Republicans is suicide, not metaphorically, but actually hastening the demise of all those conveniences of modern life that appear to be necessary. That the clownish performances of Senator James Inhofe about climate would become a bedrock tenet of Republican ideology might have been hard to predict. Voting for some Green New Deal is barely meeting one’s civic duty.

Severely reducing the environmental impact of our daily lives is inevitably inconvenient. We will need to spend more time and effort and money doing things differently than we are used to.

We may have to give up pre-washed heads of lettuce in large plastic boxes.

We may have to bring our own straws, cups, containers, and bags when we go out.

We may have to go get our own stuff more often and have other people bring it to our doors less often.

We may have to buy more expensive recycled toilet paper, printing paper, tissue paper, paper towels, until their cost drops.

Bringing our own bags is a good beginning. On the basis of my Berlin experience, it has the power to transform shopping. When I take out my own well-used bags at the grocery store, the vegetable market, and the bakery stand, stuff my purchases inside, then carry it all home, I feel more in control of my environmental footprint.

That can’t be reproduced where I live in Jacksonville, Illinois, where it’s just too far to the grocery megamart to carry all that food. What we can do here and now is examine whether we want to insist on keeping those conveniences which are inconvenient for the planet.

steve hochstadt

We’ll have to give them up sooner or later anyway. Why wait until it’s too late to make a difference?

Steve Hochstadt
Taking Back Our Lives