Maggart: Politics, public policy and the paradox of the potato |

Maggart: Politics, public policy and the paradox of the potato

If you follow conservative media outlets you may have caught the recent hullaballoo sparked after several local governments along the west coast moved to ban plastic straws.

Seattle was the first major city in America to approve a ban. San Francisco followed suit shortly thereafter. Smaller communities from Malibu to San Luis Obispo have taken similar steps. The mandated move to remove the plastic drinking utensils follows efforts by environmental and conservation groups to address concerns over plastic pollution.

The push to ban plastic straws is largely symbolic according to activists. Plastic Pollution Coalition CEO Dianna Cohen recently told Business Insider that her group views the push for straw bans as a way to “help people start thinking about the global plastic pollution problem.”

While plastic straw bans may be seen as symbolic by advocates the cities that have instituted the bans plan to enforce the prohibitions. Businesses in Seattle that fail to comply could face a fine up to $250. Starting in 2019 second time violators of Santa Barbara’s ban on the distribution or sale of plastic straws could face a maximum penalty of a $1,000 fine and potential jail time up to six months.

To many Americans, especially those of a libertarian or conservative bent, these moves smack of liberalism run amok; overbearing governments looking to regulate the minutia of daily life. My guess is straw sales are skyrocketing throughout red state America.

Here in Grand County the town of Fraser has considered implementing a fee, as opposed to an outright ban, on plastic bags. The reaction from some quarters has been less than enthusiastic.

The goal of such actions, be it a ban or a fee, is laudable. Plastic pollution is a problem throughout the world; though it is much worse in other countries, especially in Asia. According to a study conducted by researchers from the University of California and University of Georgia roughly 6,300 million metric tons of plastic waste has been generated by mankind; of which 79 percent has ended up in landfills or in the natural environment.

But the effort to eliminate the environmental impacts of petroleum plastics, and the intentionally contrarian reaction by many people, reminds me that human beings are often inherently averse to having their lives dictated by government, even when those dictations are in their own best interests.

By way of example lets review the paradox of the potato. British advertising executive Rory Sutherland covers this story in a Ted Talk from 2009. For most of European history, and global history as well, human beings struggled to provide themselves with adequate nourishment. Famines were common as were price spikes for commodities such as wheat. Potatoes drastically changed this dynamic.

Potatoes are native to South America and were first introduced to Europe in the 1500s, though they would not gain popularity for roughly two more centuries. The humble tuber is a powerhouse of caloric energy and grows well in poor soils and inhospitable climates. It was an ideal crop for Europe’s beleaguered peasants, if only they would embrace it.

Prussian King Frederick the Great saw the potential the potato held and in 1756 he issued the Kartoffelbefehl, or potato edict, requiring peasants to grow them. The peasantry recoiled. They viewed potatoes as disgusting and tasteless and opposed the mandate. Sutherland notes some Prussian peasants were even put to death for refusing to grow spuds. Realizing the futility of his efforts Frederick changed tactics.

Instead of forcing peasants to grow potatoes Frederick declared potatoes a royal food and legally only royalty were allowed to eat them. The story, most like apocryphal, goes that soldiers were sent to guard potato patches, with secret orders to fall asleep or wander away so potatoes could be easily stolen by peasants. By the early 1800s the crop was a staple for Europeans.

Instead of pursing the worthwhile goal of reducing plastic pollution by banning the sale and use of plastic straws, or implementing fees on plastic bags, maybe we should try requiring everyone drinking in public to use plastic straws, or ban the use of reusable grocery bags. The results might be surprising.

As Mark Twain said, “it is the prohibition that makes anything precious.”

Lance Maggart is a reporter for Sky-Hi News. He can be reached at

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