Do we need coercive tactics to reach environmental goals?

Fist. coercion to meet environmental goals

How should meet environmental goals such as solving problem of plastic pollution? Individual acts such as removing plastic from the beach? Organizing beach cleanups and involving thousands of people? Or producing less plastic in the first place? Clearly, the answer is “all of the above.” 

But here’s a too-common and foolish answer to the question I found in the comment section of a blog post:

Holding these greedy petroleum based plastic bottling manufacturers accountable is the only solution. All single use plastics must be banned including plastic bags, bottles, plates, utensils, cups, and foam take-out containers. If people want a soda from either a convenience store, fast food restaurant or vending machine, they should be forced to use a reusable container. (Emphasis added.)

As H.L. Mencken observed a century ago, “Explanations exist; then have existed for all time; there is always a well-known solution to every human problem—neat, plausible, and wrong.”

Environmentalists’ advocacy of coercive tactics falls under that heading.

Coercion as a strategy

Thumbscrew. Coercion
Thumbscrew / Wikimedia Commons

The idea that coercion is necessary to achieve environmental goals has been persistent in the environmental movement at least since Garrett Hardin’s 1968 essay “The Tragedy of the Commons.”

The commenter above, for example, is but one of many people who see corporate greed as the root cause of our problems. But greedy or not, corporations attempt to give their customers what they want. And what many customers want is the convenience of disposables.

And so the commenter says that customers should be forced to do what they don’t want to do. 

Who is supposed to force them? And how?

Hardin seemed to think that coercion included ordinary legislation. And indeed, several jurisdictions have taken steps to ban certain disposables. 

Such bans haven’t worked very well to meet environmental goals in the past. 

In the 1970s, phosphates in detergents polluted every lake or stream that received water from wastewater treatment plants. Suffolk County, New York decided to ban sale of detergents. So residents simply bought them from neighboring counties. Eventually manufacturers of detergents found a substitute for phosphates that didn’t cause algae blooms and kill fish. 

Despite the doubts of too many environmentalists, we need to seek technological solutions to our environmental problems. 

But the commenter didn’t say we should pass laws against disposable containers. S/he said customers should be forced to use a reusable container. 


Organizing boycotts? Holding demonstrations outside convenience stores? Vandalizing vending machines? Over the years, environmentalists have used all those tactics.

It sounds so neat and plausible, but it won’t work. And society won’t tolerate any kind of coercion unless valid legislation really comes under that heading. 

Advocating force and coercion is the kind of shrill and intolerant rhetoric that gives the environmental movement a bad name. 

What’s more likely to help meet environmental goals?

Technology offers the promise of biodegradable and compostable containers and packaging. It might be a long way off. We can’t sit on our hands waiting for it. 

But here are a couple of useful tactics in the meantime:

A public relations campaign eventually turned public opinion against the tobacco industry. Turning public opinion against disposables might be more difficult since they don’t have such obvious public health risks as lung cancer. But persuasion works better than force.

One possible legislative solution, extended producer responsibility, makes producers of disposables pay for collecting and recycling them. The whole concept has stirred up opposition, but some large corporations are already on record as favoring it. 

TerraCycle has made partnerships with several of them. Corporations such as Taco Bell pay consumers to collect single-use products and ship them to TerraCycle, which thereby gets free resources to recycle.

Shop related products:

Governing the Commons / Elinor Ostrom

Before and After the First Earth Day, 1970: A History of Environmentalism, Its Successes and Failures, 2d ed / David M. Guion

The Politically Incorrect Guide to Climate Change / Bjorn Lomborg
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