What do Brexit, a loaf of bread and a high profile environmental campaign have in common? You might be tempted to answer “not very much,” but they are in fact linked by deeper, hidden forces which are currently the rise of populism and the rejection of the neoliberal world view.
It’s not often that everyday objects like a sliced white can speak so much truth, but that’s exactly what happened in the bread aisle as I endured the ritual torture of grocery shopping. I’d arrived at the supermarket earlier than planned, having fled the house after Sky News tried to force feed me another helping of environmental advocacy. Now don’t get me wrong, it’s true that the amount of plastic polluting our world is a real and pressing problem, and I for one am pleased that such a large organisation is bringing attention to this urgent and important issue.
There were films of plastic, debates about plastic and statistics surrounding plastic still rolling around in my head while I engaged in the drudgery of the supermarket shop. First stop was the fruit and veg, and I immediately recalled the apocryphal tale of four apples shrink-wrapped on a plastic tray, which is often cited as the pinnacle of ridiculous and completely unnecessary plastic packaging.* In fairness there are very few people who’d approve of such a thing in today’s more environmentally conscious climate, but still it happened once upon a time.
Then I came to the bread, and as I was loading my favourite brand into the trolley I suddenly remembered that bread was once packaged in nice neat waxed paper parcels, whereas now it’s nearly always wrapped some sort of plastic bag.
So who actually asked for such a change? I don’t recall the old way of wrapping bread being a particular problem, and I certainly can’t remember the consumer demanding his apples be packed in plastic trays. So how did we get to the place where we find ourselves now?
Like so much in modern life, to find the answer we must follow the money and the power to the point where somebody’s holding of either increases. It’s a fundamental truth that businesses must either cut costs or grow revenue to increase profits, and in the food sector that means processing. The more any given food is processed, the greater value is added to it, and that fundamental economic and marketing truth goes a long way to explaining our apocryphal apples wrapped in plastic. What else can you do with an apple and still preserve it as recognisable piece of fruit?
It’s only now, after decades of profligate plastic usage that we’re starting to understand just how big a problem we’ve created for ourselves. Naturally we’ve started seeking solutions, which ironically involve looking back to an era when paper was king and glass bottles were easily reused or recycled. Taking the longer view, it turns out that maybe we were once wiser than we knew, and many “old fashioned” ideas had a lot more to their credit than the loudest of lobbying voices cared to admit.
Just like our apples wrapped in plastic, the European Union has also quietly grown into an expensive and wasteful hazard, and its baleful influence had to reach choking point before most of us noticed its creeping incursion into all our lives. Outside of a few noisy special interest groups, hardly anyone in Europe ever wanted or asked for the gargantuan behemoth we’re battling now; and just like our irresponsible push to plasticise, we stand aghast at the damage we’ve unwittingly unleashed.
The good news is that just like the packaging industry, the future for nation states can be found in the past. That doesn’t mean slamming on the brakes and trying to throw history into reverse, but instead taking some fundamentally sound ideas from a time before the EU and reimagining them for the century to come. Just as some bright inventor will soon come up with bio-degradable waxed paper 2.0 and make a ton of money, so we’ll develop new ways of working together in an increasingly globalised, interconnected, yet de-centralised world.
Doubtless many aspiring authoritarians will argue that our increased interconnectedness demands an even greater degree of supranational governance and regulation. Well, that all sounds fine in the lobbies at Davos, but history is now revealing the folly of exchanging the reality of national sovereignty for the illusion of increased prosperity and security.
The European Union is the plastic apple tray of the political world. We don’t need it, we never asked for it, and all it does is serve the interests of a small group of men sitting on the top floors of tall buildings.
We’ve allowed one hell of a mess to build up over the years, and it’s going to take a long time and some innovative thinking to repair the damage.
Image courtesy of tinpalace at Freeimages.com
*Some commentators maintain that wrapping food like fruit prolongs shelf life and decreases food wastage, and thus the environmental impact is more nuanced.