In today's New York Times opinion column, Timothy Egan asserts that we're headed toward a "Nanny Nation," where everything that is virtuous about environmentalism becomes mandatory by law. He points to plastic bag surcharges in Seattle and San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom's proposal of fines for unsorted garbage as evidence of "forced high-mindedness."
Here on the West Coast, we sort our garbage—or else. We rummage through our food scraps, just ahead of the worms. We take our little canvas bags to the grocery store lest we get caught with the embarrassment of a dreaded paper-or-plastic denouement, and the scorn of neighbors.
If we smoke cigarettes, we do it in the alley—huddled with the other losers. We've banned junk food from our school vending machines and soon—in 32 square miles of Los Angeles where a moratorium on new fast food restaurants will be in place—it will be treated like tobacco: the cheeseburger as death-wich.
We do this because we're so-o-o-o virtuous, and our self-regard is tied to the size of our curbside proclamations. Mostly, we do it for others—the poor, the fat, the ill-informed. Of course, we would never smoke, or get caught finger-licking the extra-crispy runoff from KFC, or tossing a foil wrap in the trash.
This makes me wonder:
• Is trash, as one commenter on the article remarked, a common resource that should be regulated?
• Egan says in the column, "if you make a fruit forbidden, it only becomes more enticing." But does this apply to environmental efforts, like recycling and eliminating plastic bags? It seems hard to believe that a charge on plastic bags will make us want them more. Same for sorting trash—will anyone get a hidden thrill out of throwing bottles and cans in the regular trash, just because that act carries a fine?
• Does "leading by example," as Egan says, really work? In another commenter's words, "Sometimes a rule or regulation teaches people how easy compliance can be." Incentives, rather than just examples, do wonders for changing behavior.