Plastic Pollution and the Neoliberal Arts

Plastic Pollution and the Neoliberal Arts

[Note: this is the first post in a new series of short essays by Environmental Humanities scholars, writers, and activsts on the theme “Backyards”]

A number of recent journal articles and scientific reports have sounded the alarm about the proliferation of plastic garbage. The figures are staggering. According to the Guardian, humans bought 480 billion plastic bottles in 2016, with this figure expected to rise to close to 600 billion by 2021. Fewer than half of these were collected for recycling, and ultimately most of this plastic finds its way to a landfill or to the ocean. This has led to plastic pollution across the world’s oceans and beaches, as well as microplastic contamination of the food web and the hydrological cycle. Microplastics have now been detected not only in seafood, but also in consumables such as beer, honey, and sugar, and plastic particles have been found floating freely in the water we drink and the air we breathe.

Many scholars in the environmental humanities have been considering this issue—from Patricia Yaeger’s 2010 essay in PMLA to more recent work by Stacy Alaimo and Michelle Huang— as have a number of artists working across a variety of media. Chris Jordan, for example, in a series of photographs that has become iconic within the contemporary environmental imaginary, documents the shocking accumulation of plastic in the stomach contents of decomposing Pacific seabirds, while others have incorporated plastic detritus directly into their work, from Judith and Richard Lang’s plastic assemblages to installation pieces like Pam Longobardi’s Bounty, Pilfered (2014) and Mark Dion’s Cabinet of Marine Debris (2013).

Pam Longobardi, Bounty, Pilfered (2014). Fisher Museum of Art, University of Southern California, 2015.

At the College of Wooster, where I work, students have taken up this problem as it has manifested itself in our communal backyard, through both works of public art and political engagement with institutional policy. In 2013, students strung together paper cups across the campus to draw attention to the problem of single-use disposable containers, and that same year they organized to ban the sale of bottled water on campus. As part of the latter effort, the student environmentalist group Greenhouse crafted an enormous water bottle out of chicken wire and filled it with a week’s worth of bottled water purchases, as a means of rendering visible the sheer magnitude of the problem even at a small liberal arts college. The visual aid helped to draw a sufficient number of signatures to the group’s petition to the administration, and the effort to ban bottled water was ultimately successful—with one notable exception: to this day, SmartWater—a product consisting of “vapor distilled water and electrolytes for taste”—remains on sale in vending locations across the college.

Mark Dion, Cabinet of Marine Debris (2013). Fisher Museum of Art, University of Southern California, 2015.

While the elimination of all electrolyte-free bottled water constitutes at least a symbolic victory for student environmental activists, SmartWater’s continuing presence on campus is indicative of a deeper problem. SmartWater remains on the shelves because the college is bound to an exclusive beverage agreement with the Coca-Cola Company, which “worked with us”—as the director of campus dining and conference services euphemistically put it—to phase out bottled water on campus. But that phasing-out ultimately applied only to the Dasani brand of “purified water”—itself weirdly “enhanced with minerals for a pure, fresh taste”—while SmartWater remained available. In this regard “working with us” amounted to effectively disregarding students’ actual concerns and undermining their efforts to reduce plastic waste.

But as Laura Merrell, a student at the college at the time, astutely noted in a letter to the student paper, even if the effort had been a complete success, and SmartWater and Dasani had both been removed from campus, all the other Coca-Cola products—bottled, as we know, in plastic—would still have remained. If the college was truly committed to confronting the problem of plastic pollution, Merrell wondered, then “why stop at water?” Why remove “the healthy drink available in plastic bottles (water), and leave sugary, unhealthy drinks such as Coca Cola”? These are excellent questions, which get at two distinct yet related problems for colleges and universities in the age of neoliberalism: namely those of student health and well-being on the one hand, and institutional environmental impact on the other. In regard to student health, one might well wonder why any Coca-Cola product is allowed on campus at all. To extend Merrell’s logic a bit further: it has become more or less uncontroversial to ban the sale and even the use of tobacco products on college campuses, but why should we stop at cigarettes? If the well-known health risks of tobacco products have made it virtually unthinkable to sell them on campuses, why shouldn’t increasing evidence that high-sugar processed foods and beverages are responsible for accelerating epidemics of obesity, diabetes, and an array other health problems—while at the same time providing no health benefits whatsoever—justify a similar policy with respect to the harmful products (and even more harmful packaging) “soft drink” companies like Coca-Cola are pushing?

Considering the extent of the hazards to both student health and planetary ecosystems—the Coca-Cola Company alone accounts for 100 billion plastic bottles every year, making it the top offender in the crisis of plastic pollution—the most reasonable course of action would seem to be a campus ban not only on bottled water, but on all the various “beverages” with which soft drink companies flood our markets and media landscapes. But what is “reasonable” here—on my campus as it is throughout the realm of American higher education—is largely determined by what Wendy Brown has identified as an ascendant “neoliberal rationality,” one that not only “disseminates market values” into every area of contemporary life but that entails “the dramatic curtailment of public values, public goods, and popular participation in political life.” This is all exceedingly obvious in the exclusive beverage contracts to which most colleges, universities, and even public elementary and high schools are bound—contracts that often involve not only exclusive “pouring rights” for a single purveyor, but a “volume commitment” that actually requires the campus community to consume a minimum amount of product over the life of the contract. And neoliberal rationality is similarly apparent in both the achievement and the undermining of the Wooster student initiative to challenge the force of the contract and remove plastic water bottles from the campus. The removal initiative itself reflects a political imaginary circumscribed by neoliberal criteria, with environmental activism reduced to negotiation with administration and its corporate sponsor for the removal of a particular item from the array of commodities available for purchase, while the continuing presence of SmartWater reveals the concerted corporate-institutional opposition to even that attenuated effort at political activism. Given that what is at issue is quite literally a livable future—in terms of individual health and the viability of human societies under conditions of global environmental disruption—it is all too evident that the very idea of the common good has been radically subordinated to the prerogatives of the market.

“You’re going to have to answer to the Coca-Cola Company.” Stanley Kubrick, dir., Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

According to this market logic as it plays out here at the college, to disassociate from Coca-Cola (or Pepsi, or whoever) would be as unthinkable as disbanding the college’s iconic troop of bagpipers. In this regard it is perhaps unsurprising that in 1997 those same bagpipers were actually featured in a Coca-Cola advertisement.

The ad implies that the fun of college, of bagpiping, and of drinking Coke are linked in a way that is all but self-evident. It shows that the cultural significance of Coca-Cola—the view of it as something to be consumed and enjoyed and celebrated, on college campuses and everywhere else—runs deeper than any contract; but this cultural significance and the logic of the contract are mutually reinforcing. Here at the college, the presumed self-evidence of Coca-Cola’s necessary role in American life works hand in glove with the ever-intensifying predominance of neoliberal rationality to undermine student activism and to shape institutional food policy, in both regards with consequences quite contrary to the notion of a common good that the liberal arts college had been intended to foster.

One way to re-center a notion of the common good on college campuses—institutional backyards to many of us—would be to reclaim control over what we literally consume there. This would require reclaiming in the first place a notion of political action beyond the neoliberal logic of consumer choice, such that the corporate sponsors of higher education could no longer curtail and undermine student agency by reshuffling the commodities in the cooler. Rather than choosing between Dasani and SmartWater, Coke and Pepsi, could we imagine a campus experience free entirely from the political, social, economic, and ecological toxicity of these corporate purveyors? Just as many campus communities, mine included, have decided that cigarettes have no place in their shops and vending machines, we could also render soft drinks—with their well-known health and environmental hazards—a thing of the past. To take such deliberate action with respect to food and drink would contribute to a conception of education as Henry David Thoreau once imagined it, as a chance “to solve some of the problems of life”—from climate change and human health to the revitalization of democracy—“not only theoretically, but practically.” By rejecting not just bottled water but beverage contracts and the beverages themselves, we would signal a commitment to confronting the linked crises of public health and planetary-scale plastic contamination, as well as the neoliberal rationality that drives them both.

John Levi Barnard is an assistant professor of English at The College of Wooster