A year ago, the South Pacific nation of Vanuatu become the first country to ban plastic drinking straws. It also joined dozens of other countries that have restricted use of plastic shopping bags. And later this year, it will again be a global leader with a ban on disposable diapers that include plastic material. It certainly deserves credit for taking these steps, especially as they spurred other Pacific nations to follow suit.
Yet where Vanuatu really stands out is how its leaders pitched this environmental cause.
Yes, they cited the plastic pollution washing up on Vanuatu’s shores, choking both wildlife and tourism. The country’s nearly 300,000 people spread over 65 islands could easily notice such problems. Leaders also spoke of the need for collective sacrifice and daily inconvenience, especially for parents who will have to give up their current type of diapers. And yes, resistance to the bans continues.
But what they really played up well were potential gains in economic benefits, cultural traditions, and other aspects of social well-being. It was a reminder to environmentalists of the limits of using fear and loss as sole motivators to change personal behavior or badger governments into action.
Vanuatu is still tallying up the benefits to its economy from the bans, especially in tourism. But it has already seen one effect: the revival of traditional woven bags made of natural fiber to replace plastic bags. “The more we use them, the more we encourage our cultural art of weaving, in turn strengthening the cultural heritage of Vanuatu,” says the country’s first lady, Estella Moses Tallis. The country has become an innovator in finding many alternatives to plastic, notably in trying to design biodegradable diapers. One inventor has created water taps made of bamboo instead of plastic pipes.
Too many eco-causes are framed as a choice between self-interest and the greater good of society. “It worries me to see pro-environmental action being equated with personal sacrifice,” says Kate Laffan, a behavioral scientist at University College Dublin. She says a growing body of research suggests that, rather than posing a threat to individuals, the adoption of a more sustainable lifestyle “represents a pathway to a more satisfied life.”
The morality of an environmental cause lies not in what it is against but what it is for, especially values that elevate people’s thinking. A recent study at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia looking at 39 pro-environmental behaviors found 37 were linked to life satisfaction.
This approach isn’t positive thinking. Rather it is positive results, or just the kind of pitch that Vanuatu promised and is delivering in its plastic bans.