The current effort to ban plastic bags at retail outlets in Nevada County is rekindling the debate over where personal freedom ends and collective responsibility begins. As is usually the case in these debates, the answer is a shade of gray rather than black or white.
The Truckee City Council has voted to phase out plastic bags, Nevada City is willing to take the plunge if Grass Valley goes along, and the county supervisors are conducting a survey of retailers that will let them delay action for a couple of months. (With any luck, the state Legislature will take the decision out of their hands.)
The drive to get rid of plastic bags was started by a group of students who, with an assist from an outfit named Bag Busters, made presentations to the four governing bodies. While most people like the idea of getting rid of plastic bags, two recent letters to The Union illustrate the other side of the issue.
Looking at the big picture, Matty Larive of Nevada City wrote that “the government — county, state and federal — needs to get out of our lives! . . . Don’t tell me what I can do when it’s none of your business.”
Writer Melba Sachs of Grass Valley noted the following: “Remember when we were made to use plastic bags because the last politically correct cause was all about saving our trees? . . . now they tell us plastic bags are clogging our landfills.”
The social movement to save us from ourselves began with the war on tobacco, an easy target because you can actually prove the stuff kills people. Smokers have become so ostracized that they now make up less than 20 percent of the adult population.
Ralph Nader’s “Unsafe at Any Speed” encouraged social crusaders to make car safety a major issue. While the automakers fought them, seat belts and air bags became standard equipment in cars. About 25 percent of people still resist using seat belts, but air bags became so popular that manufacturers brag about how many they put in cars.
The current campaign is focused on our bad eating habits, specifically the junk food that is said to be a major cause of childhood obesity and diabetes. Soft drink manufacturers and junk food purveyors are certainly feeling the heat, voluntarily cutting calories and fat, offering their products in smaller portions and even sponsoring youth fitness programs.
New York City tried to limit the size of soft drink cups, and several municipalities in California tried and failed to tax the sugar content of soft drinks, so a bill has been introduced in the state Legislature that would require sodas to carry labels warning about the hazards of tooth decay and diabetes.
“We’re in the midst of an obesity and diabetes epidemic that’s wreaking havoc on the public’s health,” said Sen. Bill Monning, D-Carmel, who introduced the bill. “It is critical that consumers have the right to know the unique health problems associated with these sugar-sweetened beverages.”
It’s unlikely people will spend any more time reading these labels than they spend reading the labels we’ve lived with for years. (Have you ever seen anybody read the nutrition information posted on the wall at your local McDonald’s?)
Then there are annoyances like bike and motorcycle helmets, car seats for children that require an engineer to install and playgrounds that are big on safety but light on fun. It makes me wonder how I’ve managed to live as long as I have.
Closer to home, residents have complained about officials who restrict the use of off-road vehicles on public lands but can’t stop people from dumping their trash in our national forests or creating booby-trapped marijuana grows. Then there’s the matter of compelling people to make their property fire safe, a third-rail political issue in Nevada County.
Certainly, some good has come from all of this: Auto fatalities are at record lows, fewer motorcycle riders are vegetating in nursing homes and people who really care can find out what’s in that food package.
But when you let government rule writers do something good, you also create a pathway to mischief. All of this legislation and government regulation is designed to save us from ourselves and to lighten the burden that our foolish actions place on society. If we can’t be responsible adults, the government will take responsibility for us.
In the process, the government nannies are taking the fun out of life. As much as we may not like to admit it, people are emotional, irrational and do stupid things. That’s what makes most of us interesting.
But Americans are a resilient lot, and the success of the “Jackass” films proves that youthful stupidity will never go out of style. The “20 Dumbest . . .” programs on TRU TV show that people continue to find creative ways to injure, maim or kill themselves.
It almost gives you hope for the future.
George Boardman lives in Lake of the Pines. His column appears in Monday editions of The Union.