Commentary: An Environmental Irony
Capitalism and Recycling
Richard T. Ritenbaugh
Given 24-Apr-10; 12 minutes
It is not an uncommon accusation among environmentalists that capitalism and capitalists are the scourge of the earth—that big corporations essentially rape the earth for resources; they pollute the soil, air, and water with their runoff and byproducts; and capitalist consumers contribute untold amounts of trash to the environment—dooming this planet to resource depletion, "global warming," and a future of horrible wastelands around the earth.
This is the prevailing view, right? Yes, it is—I agree. It is the prevailing view out there, but you’ve been played if you believe those accusations and dire warnings, because they are not true.
Two articles came out this week in response to Earth Day and all the heightened environmental "awareness" (the term they always use) that goes with it. To put it bluntly, these two articles show that 1) wealthy, developed nations with economic freedom do a better job in cleaning up the environment than do poorer and developing nations, and 2) much of the recycling we do to “do our part” is actually counter-productive! It is counter-intuitive to think that we could be recycling and "doing our part" in "saving the planet" and "saving the environment," but it actually maybe is not.
We will get to that point first. According to the Washington Examiner:
Some national recycling experts have begun calling for government restraint in trash recycling, which can be more costly and environmentally damaging than dumping.
"We just assume recycling is always better," said J. Winston Porter, president of the Waste Policy Center, an environmental consulting and policy organization. "But there's a point at which you shouldn't just recycle for recycling's sake."
Porter is no libertarian recycling skeptic. He is not a conservative anti-environmentalist. He is a former policy administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency, so you know he has to be probably left of center. This man helped set the federal government's first nationwide recycling targets. He says:
"People want to recycle and it makes them feel good, and it should. But don't just assume that everything you do is going to be good for the environment, or make sense economically, because that's just not true."
For instance, recycling is a manufacturing process and, like most manufacturing processes, produces pollution or by-products. An EPA study of toxic chemicals found such chemicals in both recycling and virgin paper processing, and for most of the toxins studied, the recycling process had higher levels than the virgin manufacturing did. In order to clean up the recycled paper and make it usable once again, they actually had to add more chemicals and toxins to the environment. In addition, curbside recycling programs require additional trucks, which use more energy and create more pollution. Instead of having one truck come around to collect your trash, you now have to have two, and that just doubles the pollution.
On the economic side of things, recycling is often more expensive than producing new products, not to mention the consumers' time and effort to recycle may be more than its worth.
This shows you that is both more toxic to recycle and it is economically not as good.
Now, back to Point One, which was about the wealthy, developed nations with economic freedom: In an article titled “Happy Earth Day? Thank Capitalism,” Jerry Taylor, Director of Natural Resource Studies at the Cato Institute, writes:
Indeed, we wouldn't even have environmentalists in our midst were it not for capitalism. Environmental amenities, after all, are luxury goods. America—like much of the Third World today—had no environmental movement to speak of until living standards rose sufficiently so that we could turn our attention from simply providing for food, shelter, and a reasonable education to higher "quality of life" issues. The richer you are, the more likely you are to be an environmentalist. And people wouldn't be rich without capitalism.
Wealth not only breeds environmentalists, it begets environmental quality. There are dozens of studies showing that, as per capita income initially rises from subsistence levels, air and water pollution increases correspondingly. But once per capita income hits between $3,500 and $15,000 (dependent upon the pollutant), the ambient concentration of pollutants begins to decline just as rapidly as it had previously increased. This relationship is found for virtually every significant pollutant in every single region of the planet. It is an iron law. . . .
If you understand what he is saying here, initially, when nations begin to develop, until their per capita income gets to a certain point, they are adding pollutants to their environment. But once it gets over this $3,500 per person limit, the pollutants tend to decrease because of capitalism, because of the wealth in the society, because wealthy people are able to handle the pollutants properly.
. . . capitalism rewards efficiency and punishes waste. Profit-hungry companies found ingenious ways to reduce the natural resource inputs necessary to produce all kinds of goods, which in turn reduced environmental demands on the land and the amount of waste that flowed through smokestacks and water pipes. As we learned to do more and more with a given unit of resources, the waste involved . . . shrank. . . .
In the United States, [due to economic incentives] pollution declines generally predated the passage of laws mandating pollution controls. In fact, for most pollutants, declines were greater before the federal government passed its panoply of environmental regulations than after the EPA came upon the scene.
When the EPA began to do their thing, there were already marked improvements because the private sector was doing its job: reducing pollution.
Property rights—a necessary prerequisite for free-market economies—also provide strong incentives to invest in resource health. Without them, no one cares about future returns because no one can be sure they'll be around to reap the gains. . . .
If you don't own the property, you don't know if you are going to be there a few years down the road to make use of it, so why clean it up? If you own the property, you have incentive to keep it as pristine as possible so that you can continue to gain profit from it down the road.
Furthermore, only wealthy societies can afford the investments necessary to secure basic environmental improvements, such as sewage treatment and electrification. . . .
Finally, the technological advances that are part and parcel of growing economies create more natural resources than they consume.
Another counter-intuitive point. You would think that the wealthier we were, the more resources that we would consume. But actually, as we grow in technology, the more resources we create.
That's because what is or is not a "natural resource" is dependent upon our ability to harness the resource in question for human benefit. Resources are therefore a function of human knowledge. Because the stock of human knowledge increases faster in free economies than it does in socialist economies, it should be no surprise that most natural resources in the Western world are more abundant today than ever before no matter which measure one uses.
As we gain in smarts, we figure out better ways to use what we have, and it actually creates new resources. If you just look at socialist economies, like the USSR and China, they were/are known as heavy polluters, because there is no economic incentive to clean it up.
The environmental movement, in my mind, is a sham and its arguments are not based on facts but on emotion, tugging at our heartstrings to do what these people consider to be “socially responsible” things, like recycling. "You're helping your neighbor; you're helping your community." I'm not saying we shouldn't “do our part,” because we should. God gave us dominion over the earth, so we should protect it and do what we can in our own sphere, whatever that happens to be—to reduce waste and clean things up; however it suits us to follow that mandate.
But we should never believe that environmentalism is about cleaning up the planet. Do you know what it is about? It is about modifying our behavior to suit them.