This research dive, like many things on the internet, started with an image I found on Twitter. It was a chart enumerating the problems disabled people would have with alternatives to plastic straws, and that for one reason or another, plastic straws remain the best option for those who need to use a straw. It’s easy to react with anger when confronted with contrary evidence to something you believe to be a universal good; instead, I changed my perspective. Since the rest of my environmentalist circles hadn’t once mentioned the drawbacks (though I have since found multiple outlets discussing the issue), I turned to my friend Alice Gardner-Bates, artist and disabled activist. She wasn’t fazed at all “oh,” she said with flat affect, “that’s nothing new, eco-ableism is a big problem with environmentalists.”
Eco-ableism is simply a form of ableism, or discrimination in favor of able-bodied people. It seems the world has been designed to erase the needs and existence of disabled people, which facilitates a constant cycle of trauma. Those who suffer traumatic injuries are reminded by buildings, simple household objects, or the way we speak to each other that the world, as designed by able-bodied people, ignores their existence. Just like sexism and racism, ableism marginalizes a group of people and creates a second class citizenry. The “eco” comes from environmental activists who, through attempting to save the environment, don’t do so that takes into account those with less privilege than them. It points to a larger issue within the environmentalist movement – we need more diversity in the voices of our leaders and for everyone to listen to those who have felt overlooked or even attacked by environmentalism. Their feelings are valid because posts and blogs that attempt to shame those who use plastic straws or single-use plates into changing their needlessly wasteful ways say something completely different to the disabled: we don’t care about you.
Why not make straws available to those who ask? That won’t work either. As Alice told me, it puts the server or the person who can grant the single-use item a position of power. There are plenty of stories around the internet about disabled people who had to prove their disability to someone who didn’t believe them. Imagine having suffered a traumatic brain injury that manifests itself a myriad of symptoms including palsy and spasms, attempting to live a happy life, only to have a server demand you explain your unseen disability before you’re able to drink your water. That would ruin any meal. Others who only have limited mobility or cannot stand for long periods of time might need to use paper plates or plastic cutlery instead of having to pay someone else to do the dishes for them. We, the able-bodied environmentalists, cannot be the judge of who needs what.'Eco-ableism is simply a form of ableism, or discrimination in favor of able-bodied people. It seems the world has been designed to erase the needs and existence of disabled people...'Click To Tweet
Few problems worth addressing come easy. I’ve written before about the need to make environmental activism more equitable through the interdisciplinary discourse of environmental justice. If your activism isn’t intersectional, it creates parallel problems while attempting to solve others. Is the world worth saving if only the privileged can stay? Again, we’ve been tricked into fighting between ourselves instead of the industries that created such waste. Instead of relying so heavily on individual action, we should pressure the market to create new solutions. We often think of environmentalism as relying on using less, but the problem of waste is twofold – the quantity and type of materials are problematic. A landfill of exclusively food scraps is just a composter. That’s not to say we should encourage consumerist behavior, far from it. We need to instead listen to marginalized communities and demand that the companies who make plastic, glass, bamboo, or metal straws to come up with a better solution. If something doesn’t work for all of us, none should be complicit.
'Is the world worth saving if only the privileged can stay?'Click To Tweet
This article isn’t a replacement for reading about the stories and concerns of the disabled community. It’s just a start, a reminder to admit when you’re wrong with grace and approach those who you’ve wronged, even accidentally, with compassion. Live your best, most green life. Consider your fellow humans and non-human animals. Just don’t assume others have the same opportunities or privileges that you do. We can create a sustainable, equitable society, but only when we do both together.