Too Good To Throw Away
Recycling's Proven Record
Though motivated in considerable part by antigovernment ideology, the antirecycling backlash is no less than an attack on the principles underlying resource conservation and preservation of the earth's biodiversity. The fact that habitat, ecosystems, and species are vanishing at the fastest rate in 65 million years is, apparently, of little concern to the antirecycling crowd. Scientific and economic facts confirming the value of recycling represent just another opinion to the antirecycling movement, and until that opinion conforms with their ideology, they insist it must be wrong. Despite decades of investigations confirming the benefits of recycling, the Cato Institute insists that "Debate on recycling is effectively foreclosed by politicians, bureaucrats and environmentalists who insist on recycling without looking at the facts." Science notwithstanding, antirecycling interests characterize attempts to preserve resources and ecosystems via recycling as "inconvenient."
But as E.O. Wilson has observed, the antienvironmentalist is mistaken, incorrectly believing that humanity's superior intelligence exempts it from ecological limits. According to Wilson, opinions on humanity's relationship to biological limits fall generally into two schools:
The first, exemptionalism, holds that since humankind is transcendent in intelligence and spirit, our species must have been released from the iron laws of ecology that bind all other species. However serious the problem, civilized human beings, by ingenuity, force of will, and-who knows-divine dispensation, will find a solution.
Population growth? Good for the economy, claim some of the exemptionalists, and in any case a basic human right, so let it run. Land shortages? Try fusion energy to power the desalting of seawater, then reclaim the world's deserts. (The process might be assisted by towing icebergs to coastal pipelines.) Species going extinct? Not to worry. That is nature's way. Think of humankind as only the latest in a long line of exterminating agents in geological time. In any case, because our species has pulled free of old-style, mindless Nature, we have begun a different order of life. Evolution should now be allowed to proceed along this new trajectory. Finally, resources? The planet has more than enough resources to last indefinitely, if human genius is allowed to address each new problem in turn, without alarmist and unreasonable restrictions imposed on economic development. So hold the course, and touch the brakes lightly.
The opposing idea of reality is environmentalism, which sees humanity as a biological species tightly dependent on the natural world. However formidable our intellect may be and however fierce our spirit, the argument goes, those qualities are not enough to free us from the constraints of the natural environment in which the human ancestors evolved.
Like all proponents of recycling, Wilson weighs in on the side of environmentalists.
To be effective, recycling needs to draw upon corporate as well as governmental expenditures. It also requires a rethinking of long-held assumptions about our relationship to the earth's resources. Thus, it should come as no surprise that moving the manufacturing sector off its reliance on virgin resources and toward high-volume recycling is an uphill battle, despite the extraordinary support it enjoys throughout the industrialized world.
Nor should the fact be lost that recycling is a well-established, consensus-driven national policy goal. As Mike Shapiro at the EPA recently commented:
We believe that recycling and composting, along with waste prevention, are vital components of the national approach to integrated solid waste management. More importantly, there's tremendous potential for growth in recycling and increased efficiencies as these municipal programs innovate and mature. Now is the time to invest our efforts in improving the cost-effectiveness of recycling so we can do it even better.
Meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs is the fundamental principle underlying the concept of sustainability. In both a material sense and in the way it fosters community participation and a concern for unseen people, faraway places, and future generations, few policies advance sustainability as much as recycling. The antirecycling message is being widely disseminated and, invariably, it is generating pro-environment responses from average citizens as well as representatives from all levels of government. (See Appendix D for a small town view of "Recycling Is Garbage") Far from trashing recycling and impugning the motives its proponents, all sectors of the polity would do well, materially and spiritually, to embrace and help advance the sustainable, community-building, natural harmony it promotes.
215. Naturalist, E.O. Wilson (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1994), at p. xi.
216. Cato Institute report, at p. 19.
217. Tierney, at p. 28.
218. In Search of Nature, at p. 189.
219. "Sustainability and Recycling: A New Vision for the Future."
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