Monday, June 20, 2005

ragamuffin...rutabaga...

Greg Staples and others (Andrew, Sean, Cosh, Janes) have been discussing things you can't say in Canada, spurred by a Peggy Wente piece in Reader's Digest.

I have little to add myself, but I did perk up at #2: "Recycling is a waste of time and money". I might dispute this statement, but it's clearly a debate that would benefit from the inclusion of more (any?) science, economics, and plain-old critical thinking. To further this discussion, it's time for another installment of (dut-dut-DAH):

Classic Kirchhoff
(originally published April 28, 2004)

It's proper to begin with this pithy point supporting the affirmative:
Of course, recycling costs money, which is a rough but not entirely unreliable proxy for the fact that it also generally consumes more resources than it saves.

But lest you stand firm on that rather solid rule-of-thumb, consider this:
But recycling is an example of what my number-crunchy analysis might fail to capture. Don't get me wrong: recycling of paper and plastic (materials which are easily incinerated and derived from resources either renewable or effectively infinite) would definitely be among the 50% of state activity that would be cancelled in the Evan-utopia, but let me play devil's advocate here.

Arguably, recycling produces moral edification that cannot be reduced to stats about resources or energy. It's clear that the sorting of trash has caused us all to think of consumer goods as part of a longer narrative where the remnants persist even after we "discard" them; we've learned to at least make reflexive jokes about items whose packaging vastly outweighs the goods inside. Hence, even if there's no environmental gain in recycling our current garbage, it's not absurd to think that we might be producing much more garbage if we were less conscious of it, especially given that we're twice as wealthy as our counterparts in the early recycling era...

I grew up during the 1970s, a time when they had to run TV commercials to tell people that if you threw cans and wrappers and crap out of your car window, the crap would, in fact, just lie there by the highway wherever it landed. Apparently this was not sufficiently obvious from first principles. I don't know if this was an aesthetic failure or a widespread causal misunderstanding, but a notable attitude change has occurred since then, and I'm not sure it can be entirely separated from faith-based activities like sorting magazines and margarine tubs into colored bins. Recycling might be best defended as a secular sacrament, a communal ceremony that reinforces modes of thought which are not completely unreasonable.

I doubt you'll find a heartfelt argument for recycling that makes as much sense as that bit of devil's advocacy.

I harbour comparable sentiments about impaired driving. I think the quantity of Checkstops, and PSAs, and miscellaneous finger-wagging about driving under the influence, in this 21st century, is massively overscaled. I think it assumes everyone is a potential criminal, and it too often diverts police resources from arresting people who pose much greater threats to public safety: not just the small group of people who regularly drive erratically and extremely impaired, but regular non-driving-related criminals.

At the same time, I grew up during the 1970s, a time when they had to run TV commercials to tell people that if you were too drunk to walk and/or stay awake, you were not able to drive a car safely. Apparently this was not sufficiently obvious from first principles. Far fewer people stumble into the driver's seat in 2005 than in 1965, and I'm not sure this can be entirely separated from faith-based activities like tying red ribbons around car antennae, or modifying the standard New Year's greeting to include "Be sure to call a cab".

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