I have recently done a few posts on recycling and I plan to end the year with a short series on ideas pertaining to “recycling.” These are largely observations of mine based on reading hundreds of papers students have written for me on recycling over the past few years.
Let’s start with the simplest of all ideas. On occasion, I receive e-mails with this as the tagline/signature:
What do the laws of economics tell us about whether recycling paper, or even not printing paper at all, will necessarily “save” trees? It is not clear at all that recycling or not printing saves trees. Remember the law of supply. Think about why we have so many chickens today as compared to Bison or Bengal Tigers. It is pretty certain that if you found a way to “recycle” chickens the number of chickens in the world would not increase, and is very probably going to decrease. Think about what printing and using lots of paper does. It incentivizes producers to produce more inputs to make paper – in other words, if end users want lots of paper, then paper companies need to figure out ways to supply more wood pulp, and usually they do this by planting more trees than they cut down every year. So, if you are worried about “saving trees” you would do well to ignore the e-mail tagline. Not only that, you might even want to proselytize the opposite. Indeed, others in the blogosphere have offered, with tongue only slightly in cheek, that the best way to save the Bengal Tiger is to start eating them.
A few extra observations.
I recognize that biologists argue that managed/planted forests are not as diverse as “virgin” ones. But this brings up an issue beyond the point of this question for now. My experience with self-professed “E”nvironmentalists is that they really have no interest whatsoever about whether trees remain standing or not. How could they? If they did, they would at least have to have paused once or twice to ask if recycling paper is a good way to achieve their objective, if at all. But they do no such thing. Just remember the religious zeal with which people claim that “recycling is obviously good” to get a sense for the point I am making. It suggests to me a motivation similar to all of the anti-capitalist rhetoric that is out there which uses high minded, moral sounding ideals to shroud an entirely different motivation. In this case, “E”nvironmentalists are imposing their preferences on others, forcing others to become part of the movement by mandating recycling, and perhaps even to use this idea to discredit entrepreneurial commercial society.
I’ve posted this before, but because it is very likely that recycling paper does not save trees, in fact it is probable that it reduces the amount of trees than would otherwise have prevailed, does that mean you should make it your mission to print any and everything you possibly can … and to throw it all into the regular trash? Is that what I am advocating when I question the wisdom of paper recycling programs? Two things will help you reflect on it:
(1) Because I know rent-control is a really bad way to help the poor find housing, does that mean I am advocating for the poor to live in appliance boxes and starve to death?
(2) Do you know why throwing rocks through windows is not good for the local economy?