Don't misunderstand, I love recycling. My day care children and I hauled our stuff in Radio Flyer wagons to the recycling center before Minneapolis began curb-side pick-up. I raise my kids to recycle.
However, as a former geophysicist and current amateur astronomer, I am especially aware of the limited benefit of recycling to the global environment of our planet. I want to teach my day care children something more about "saving the planet".
Many people seem to feel that careful recycling will help with global warming, loss of endangered species, or "saving the planet". I am concerned that recycling eases the conscience of concerned citizens and reduces the incentive to take more drastic and more effective actions.
The effect on the atmosphere and surface water of billions of people using using huge quantities of recycled products is pretty much the same as using huge quantities of first use products.
The story of recycled material versus ‘first use' material is mostly the same story. Both stories involve people, energy, mining, farming, eating, housing, shopping, working, roads, trucks, cars, buildings, heating, lighting, machinery, packaging, handling, governing, planning, accounting, computing, records, taxes, laws, meetings, analysis, management, and more recycling.
Let's use aluminum as an example. Aluminum ore is
mined, shipped to a processing plant, processed, shipped to a
manufacturer, made into cans (or whatever), filled with something, stored, shipped to a
business or store, sold, transported again, stored again, used, and then perhaps recycled.
Recycled aluminum is picked up by a recycling truck, cleaned and stored, shipped to a processing plant, and the rest is about the same. Processing recycled aluminum uses less energy than processing aluminum ore; using recycled aluminum is far less harmful than mining aluminum. This represents a fine benefit of recycling. Unfortunately, the rest of "The Life of A Can" offers no additional savings.
The mischief lies in the trillions of cans we make, transport, and use, and the contents of trillions of can we create, transport, and use, whether the cans are recycled or not.
Billions of people making, shipping, using, and
recycling "stuff" are changing our planet in unpleasant ways, and
recycling, although a fine practice, makes little global-scale
Creating one new car uses up more energy and materials than can be saved by a lifetime of recycling. One plane ride uses the energy saved by several years of recycling. Our daily commute to work uses far more energy and materials than we save by recycling.
If we could magically know the date when global warming will melt one-half of our polar icecaps – assuming no recycling – was 2100, then the date if everyone recycled perfectly might be 2101. We could perhaps gain as much as one extra year.
I do favor recycling. Recycling saves trees, non-renewable resources, some energy, and some landfill space, but it will not even come close to saving this Earth. That is assuming the planet needs saving, which is still hotly debated.
I will suggest a few Earth Day questions to ask yourself and your children: Do you believe in global warming? Is the earth running out of resources? Should governments encourage conservation? Support birth control? Should we drastically reduce our personal consumption? Vacation close to home? Give up meat? Can humans mine the sea or near-Earth asteroids? Develop nuclear, solar, or fusion power? What else might we do besides recycling to help the Earth?
We adults are far from agreement. Perhaps for Earth Day we might individually work with the children we know to pick one thing, beyond recycling, to do or support, to help preserve our planet.
More: Each year after I publish my "Beyond Recycling" essay, I am asked what I would do to try to help "Save the Planet". I am hesitant to offer my ideas. Once people see the situation as it is, most realize that recycling alone has little impact on species extinction or global warming, but nearly everyone disagrees about what to do.
So this year I will stick out my neck, and risk the readers disapprobation by telling what I feel we need to do, or try to do, to save our civilization and preserve our planet more or less intact.
First, and most important, we need to empower women all over the planet to control their own fertility. Women everywhere must have full access to birth control, family planning, the "morning after" pill, and, when they wish, safe abortion.
Women being in charge of their own bodies is absolutely essential and non-negotiable. Without this, everything else we do comes to naught.
Next, we must grow the middle class, and spread financial power around more democratically, as opposed to having 98% of the world's resources owned and controlled by a handful of old white guys. No one in any corporation may earn more than 20 times the pay package of the lowest paid worker. Corporations may NOT be treated as people.
Extreme wealth is analogous to cancer in my mind. Both cancer cells and extremely wealthy persons tend to use up more resources than other cells or people. Extremely wealthy persons, like cancer cells, are isolated from consequences.
Cancer cells destroy the body they inhabit, eventually destroying themselves. Extremely wealthy persons are protected from the effects of bad roads, poor schools, high crime rates, war, and poverty, until the country they inhabit collapses, at which point the extremely wealthy person can often flee to another country, where the cycle repeats.
Once a family becomes extremely wealthy, they no longer NEED to work. Many wealthy persons are hard working, productive and generous, but this good behavior is optional for the super-rich. According to a front page article in the Star Tribune Newspaper, the United States is dead last among wealthy countries in donations to charitable causes as a percentage of gross national production.
So we are not quite the generous nation we wish to think of ourselves as being. Dead last!
Also, like cancer, once extreme wealth is established, it is difficult to undo. If wealthy persons simply invest in treasury bonds (the US deficit), or the total stock market, and do nothing else, they will have more income forever than anyone needs. Extremely wealthy people can buy elections, or at least heavily influence elections, to ensure wealth-friendly government policies: Little or no "death tax". Low top tax rates. Breaks and support for living and spending abroad.
Super wealthy people foster conditions for the spread of extreme wealth to more persons, by voting each other obscene compensation packages on interlocking Boards of Directors, and via the infamous "revolving door" between government and business. Stopping this activity is esssential to the prevention of the destructiove concentration of wealth.
Extending the cancer analogy, I note that prevention is much more effective than treatment after the fact. I am NOT a fan of high taxes, as I have observed that a wealthy government is even more destructive and dangerous than extremely wealthy individual persons.
To save our planet we need to prevent extreme wealth from forming in the first place. Vigorous enforcement of laws restricting fraud, such as mortgage fraud. Tight regulation of hedge funds. Strong prevention of monopolies, plus great support for effective competition. Shorter time limits for drug patents, so that generics may be sold. Greater range of treatment actions allowed to Minute Clinics and Target Clinics, to increase competition and lower costs. Nurses allowed to write prescriptions.
No subsidies for sports stadia. No more wasteful and unnecessary foreign wars (which create super rich war profiteers).
We can prevent extreme wealth and have limited, smaller, more effective government. We need not choose one or the other, as we have so far.
To save our planet, we must empower women and create economic democracy. In my humble opinion.© 2011