Del Monte is marketing plastic-wrapped bananas--to the horror of environmentalists. But what is the right reaction?
A few weeks ago the banana company Del Monte released a packaging innovation: a plastic banana wrapper. The story spread through the Twitterverse as an example of consumer society gone wrong. The wrapper, which appears to be a small, transparent-printed plastic bag, features "Controlled Ripening Technology (CRT)" which allows a banana to stay ripe for six more days on the shelf. Del Monte's UK managing director, James Harvey, was unrepentent in his response to criticisms, stating in the Fresh Produce Journal that "Del Monte's new CRT packaging is designed to provide significant carbon footprint savings by reducing the frequency of deliveries and the amount of waste going to landfill."
This leaves us with two very different views of the same facts. According to Del Monte, the plastic-wrapped banana is a solution to climate change and our wasteful society, and according to many others, the wrapper is an example of technology creating a wasteful need that few people were aware they had. Modern society is rife with examples of humans attempting to improve the convenience and accessibility of nature's products, from red dye on pistachios to bottled water, but the challenge we increasingly face is determining when the net positives of those technological innovations outweigh the net negatives. Few would say that the small number of plastic-wrapped bananas is a notable cause of climate change. In fact the total carbon dioxide released by a few trans-oceanic jet flights would most likely be higher than the excess carbon dioxide caused by the plastic-wrapping, if Del Monte's claims of carbon reduction don't pan out. But it is an important parable in the fight of nature versus the machine, and it's worth examining.
Environmentalists have long been accused of forming a church of nature worship. Early leaders of the Sierra Club, like John Muir, referred to nature as a cathedral, and legendary activist David Brower was referred to as an "arch-druid" by writer John McPhee. Until recently, most religious orders were relatively silent politically on the destruction of the natural world, leading to the formation of activist organizations that served to respond to an unmet moral challenge. This moral intention has long produced a type of earnest belief in those who partake in environmental, green, or sustainable practices, which causes particular consternation when those practices are directly challenged. If you are someone who composts, a practice akin to daily prayer, and someone produces an uncompostable component (a plastic bag) for a formerly compostable product (a banana), this is a form of blasphemy. Practically speaking, that additional plastic bag won't push the planet over the edge, just as taking God's name in vain won't make God disappear, but both are challenges to a belief system.
This nature-centric belief system, which defines the interventions of humans as non-natural, will only draw more challenges as the future progresses. With more than half the world's population already living in cities, and the urban population set to double by mid-century, the future for most of humanity will be in managed eco-systems. Writer Bill McKibben, in his 1989 classic, The End of Nature, imagined that Henry David Thoreau would no longer be able to transcend a tree at Walden Pond, or anywhere else on earth, because all trees have been touched by humans through human-induced climate change and ozone layer depletion. In decades to come it will be nearly impossible for humanity to maintain the pre-modern characteristics of natural areas. Consider that new research suggests that Glacier National Park may no longer have glaciers by 2020, 10 years earlier than previously thought.
Where does this leave the over-wrapped banana? We need to ignore its provocation. We need to move past our sentimentality for the illusion of pre-industrial practices as key components in highly modernized agricultural practices. Yes, the banana has a plastic bag, but that's only one small part of the energy and labor-intensive production that brings it into a northern climate in March. Commenting on the plastic bag around a banana is like being angry that a Hummer has leather seats or proud that Charlie Sheen is a vegetarian. You're missing the main event and focusing on the details. Better that you teach your kids to eat root vegetables in the winter, or that you celebrate that urban moms can buy over-packaged fruit at a gas station instead of over-packaged candy.
Surviving into the future will require humans to acquire a more subtle approach to ambiguous challenges.
Image: Jennie Faber/Flickr