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Got oat milk?

the unlicensed ethicist

Dear Unlicensed Ethicist:  While getting my caffeine fix en route to Perkins, I ordered a large iced coffee and asked the barista to leave room for oat milk. From the back of the line, a customer snickered that I could have just said leave room for milk. A little self-conscious, I turned and answered that oat milk is much better for the environment. My antagonist joked that I’m saving the world one grande blonde at at time. Am I a poser for mentioning the environment when I really choose oat milk because I like the taste?

Of course you’re a poser. But who isn’t? Let she who has not posed cast the first stone. To some extent, homo sapiens spend a good percentage of each day modeling and mirroring behavior. But sometimes we pose—meaning we behave in a certain way to give others a false impression—and it can be embarrassing to be called out for it.

Ask yourself: Why did you say oat milk? The last time we checked, oat milk has the same volume as any other type of milk or milk substitute.

Is it possible that you just like the way it sounds? Perhaps you practice saying “leave room for oat milk” in the mirror each morning, to get the delivery just right. That’s highly unlikely, but that smooth delivery would surely achieve the desired effect of turning heads. You’d be the envy of every other poser.

Announcing “oat milk” to the world is not necessarily a bad thing. There are myriad benefits to using alternatives to milk, and regardless of your motivation, the end result is the same. It’s like giving to charity—$10 donated by a publicity-seeker generates just as much social utility as $10 donated by an unconditional altruist.

Even though ordering a coffee with oat milk on a daily basis will not save the planet, it is a small step in the right direction. It brings to mind those soggy paper straws that appeared on campus last year, which are biodegradable, yet are too often paired with plastic cups. At the end of the day, it makes sense to choose paper straws over plastic, just as it makes sense to choose oat milk over any milk sourced from an udder, whether cow, goat, or emu. Neither is perfect, yet each is more sustainable than traditional consumer products.

In the midst of all this environmental degradation, we can’t just throw our hands up in surrender. Some products are beyond the pale and deserve to be boycotted. There should be a ring in hell reserved exclusively for consumers of Fiji Water, whose carbon footprint is surely gigantic given the fossil fuels required to transport the commodity halfway around the globe. The branding experts at Fiji have convinced tens of thousands of consumers that their local water just can’t compete with a “protected artesian aquifer found deep underground in the remote Fiji Islands.”

And what about the fruit cup from Vondy that you had for breakfast? It’s five pieces of off-season cantaloupe embedded in a lidded plastic cup, then sealed in saran wrap for good measure. It may fall short of your daily recommended serving of fresh fruit, but it far exceeds your quota for low-density polyethylene. Next time just grab an in-season apple, and hold the plastics.

Returning to your question, the Unlicensed Ethicist cannot deem you a poser. Getting to the bottom of that could take years of analysis. But using a milk alternative is a good thing, and there is nothing wrong with letting others know it. In fact, your public declaration may even convince someone else to switch over, or at least give it a try. Mother Earth will thank you.

Lena Yannella is a Trinity sophomore. Her column, “the unlicensed ethicist,” runs on alternate Tuesdays. To submit an ethical quandary, shoot her an email at lena.yannella@duke.edu.

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