Editor’s note: For years, the St. Petersburg Conference on World Affairs has brought together diplomats, journalists and academic experts to discuss key international issues. This year’s edition is planned as an in-person and live-stream “hybrid” event. It will be held from Tuesday through Friday. It is free, but sign-up is required at worldaffairsconference.org. This column was written by a conference participant.
Climate change is a wicked problem, one that is complicated, interconnected and nearly impossible to solve. Wicked problems are so complex, we struggle to simply define them. Clearly climate change is the wickedest of problems, one that has vexed nations, global companies and Nobel laureates alike. If none of them can crack the problem, what can a city or an individual realistically do?
Yet on Dec. 13, 2018, the City of St. Petersburg struck a major blow toward solving the wicked problem of climate change by doing something very small. The City Council voted to ban the plastic straw in the city by 2020. The United States uses several hundred million plastic straws each day, a veritable mountain of plastic waste that has up to a 200-year life cycle. Those plastics eventually break down into micro plastics that end up in every ecosystem, including our own food chain. Yes, we end up eating those straws.
Of course there was some push back, the most common thread being that this was a small, symbolic gesture and the city should be focusing on the more pressing sewage and waste water problem that had bedeviled multiple administrations. Their point was that we should be fixing that seeming important and “real” problem instead of this seemingly small, activist-driven one. But something small can have enormous impacts.
That small change in behavior and policy — not using a plastic straw or using a non-plastic alternative, repeated, millions of times — actually has a major impact on the overall environment. Solving the small problem — over and over again to address the bigger problem — is within the reach of cities and individuals alike. It has been said that climate change is a huge problem that is made up of hundreds of smaller problems. Rather than looking at the huge, existential-sized problem and throwing up our hands because we have no idea where to begin and we don’t believe we can make a difference, let’s recognize that addressing small, perhaps even silly seeming issues, can actually cut the Gordian Knot of a wicked problem. Will there be citations and enforcement by the city? Perhaps, but enforcement is not the point. The city has declared its values and its standards. Those who would live here and do business here now know what is expected of them and hopefully they rise to that expectation.
As human beings living on a small planet, we are interconnected in ways we can’t even begin to fully comprehend. That interconnectedness has created problems that are so big and so difficult to see in the immediacy of our daily lives, we feel them far less than the most banal and mundane problems. We see climate change as a vast, global problem, but how it manifests in our daily lives is less obvious. A storm seems stronger than before, summer is hotter and drier, the winter feels a bit different but overall not unfamiliar. Global climate change is a huge problem but as I sit in my house or walk my neighborhood, I just don’t feel it.
But the small step of banning the plastic straw in St. Petersburg has made an element of that big problem small enough to be relatable and actionable by me, the resident of the city.
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We usually know how to fix small problems. They do not require some major technological leap or a massive retooling of infrastructure. We know where to start, and when we as residents realize the problem is fixable by us, that we don’t have to wait for the government or some giant enterprise, we find agency in something that has felt beyond our power. That lesson is powerful.
So while nation states argue over treaties, and states debate cap and trade, it will be our cities and our fellow citizens that can and must take action. Small steps, repeated over and over again will prove to be decisive and over time, will move mountains.
Peter Kageyama is a St. Petersburg-based urbanist and writer. He has written four books on cities and emotional engagement including “For the Love of Cities: Revisited” (2021). He will moderate a panel at the St. Petersburg Conference on World Affairs featuring former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman and former Calgary, Canada, Mayor Naheed Nenshi.