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Earnest people, foolish fears

July 17, 2012

In the current issue of Foreign Affairs, Bjorn Lomborg has a good review of how early environmentalist tomes like The Limits to Growth have shaped the movement for decades, and not for the better.   The Chicken Little-like reliance on alarmism (and, in more extreme cases catastrophism) has led to the focus on big, remote and unlikely problems at the expense of smaller problems about which we could actually do something (see Lomborg’s website for even more examples than he gives in this piece).

One of my pet peeves with the environmental movement is recycling, which (as practiced in the US) is a tremendous waste of resources, especially of energy.  Here is Lomborg on recycling:

. . . recycling tends to be seen less as an economic question and more as a matter of personal and civic virtue. Children learn to “reduce, reuse, and recycle” as part of their official moral education. They are told that by doing so, they are “saving trees.” Yet in fact, well-managed forests for paper production in countries such as Finland and Sweden are continuously replanted, yielding not fewer trees but more. Artificially encouraging the recycling of paper lowers the payoff for such forests, making them more likely to be converted into agricultural or urban land. Nor does recycling paper save the rain forests, since it is not made with tropical timber. Nor does recycling paper address a problem of municipal waste: incineration can recapture much of the energy from used paper with virtually no waste problems, and even without incineration, all U.S. municipal waste from the entire twenty-first century could be contained in a single square dump that was 18 miles on each side and 100 feet high.

The effort to recycle substances such as paper and glass, however, consumes money and manpower, which are also scarce resources and could be expended on other socially valuable efforts, such as building roads or staffing hospitals. And so as the price of paper has declined and the value of human work has risen dramatically, today we pay tribute to the pagan god of token environmentalism by spending countless hours sorting, storing, and collecting used paper, which, when combined with government subsidies, yields slightly lower-quality paper in order to secure a resource that was never threatened in the first place.

Read the whole thing.

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