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In the essay Eight Great Myths of Recycling, Daniel K. Benjamin (formerly a Professor of Economics at Clemson University) lists a number of misunderstanding related to recycling, including specifically:

  • We squander irreplaceable resources when we don't recycle.

  • Recycling saves resources.

Specifically the author writes

Trees are renewable, but what about nonrenewable resources such as fossil fuel? Here, too, there is no reason to fear that we will run out.

for myth 5.

Are the authors claims about "never running out" of resources justified as a reason not to recycle?

  • 1
    realated: skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/7613/… – vartec Apr 17 '12 at 13:04
  • @vartec, it is related, but the thesis of the author is "almost all recycling is unncessary". – picakhu Apr 17 '12 at 13:07
  • I'm not convinced this is a good fit for Skeptics.SE, but I am having trouble articulating my objection. The question seems to be too broad, making this a scientific-research-level question rather than picking apart a single claim. – Oddthinking Apr 17 '12 at 13:16
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    There doesn't seem to be a specific testable claim here. Benjamin sets up some aunt sallies (aka straw men), such as "Recycling always protects the environment", and then finds corner cases. Is our skepticism to be targetted at the aunt sallies; at whether those aunt sallies are widely-believed; or at Benjamin's essay critiquing the aunt sallies? Perhaps picking a single specific claim, such as "We squander irreplaceable resources when we don't recycle", and asking about that, would be best. – EnergyNumbers Apr 17 '12 at 16:32
  • thanks picakhu - @chad, I guess this takes care of your concern as well. – Sklivvz Apr 17 '12 at 19:55
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+200

This specific part of the author's argument is economic. The argument seems to take roughly the following form:

  1. Direct resource extraction will become more difficult as we exhaust the easily-accessible and are forced to extract deeper, further away, and more dangerously
  2. More difficult --> more expensive
  3. More expensive --> we will find and use cheaper alternatives
  4. Using those cheaper alternatives in accordance with economic concerns will avoid problems and cause good things

I see some problems with this argument.

First, economic efficiency is a tool, not a master. It is used to produce good. It's trivial to find examples where economic efficiency produces suboptimal human outcomes. It is wrongheaded to assert that because something is economically efficient that it is therefore good.

It can therefore be argued that letting resources get rare and expensive and being economically forced to use something else is not necessarily the optimal outcome.

Second, isn't recycling one of the alternatives he thinks will naturally arise? The costs of resources are going up, not necessarily to the immediate producer or consumer, but to society. Society considers the costs and externalities of continued direct resource extraction and decides cooperatively to recycle more and extract less. I fail to see the logical fallacy.

This is a great example of the pitfalls that arise from relying on economic costs to drive shifts in resource utilization. Those costs are frequently either not easily recognized by the decision-maker, or are externalized to someone else. As Michael Greenstone and Adam Looney of the Hamilton Project note in the realm of energy,

the status quo is characterized by a tilted playing field, where energy choices are based on the visible costs that appear on utility bills and at gas pumps. This system masks the “external” costs arising from those energy choices, including shorter lives, higher health care expenses, a changing climate, and weakened national security.

Their example is electricity, but the principle applies to any resource or scarce good. They quantify energy costs, including external ones:

enter image description here

(Image via Ezra Klein)

So purely rational economic actors, per Benjamin's model, will choose poorly due to externalized or unaccounted costs. In this way, alternative resources that are cheaper in fact might be eschewed because they appear more expensive. For example, recycling to conserve energy, land, or resources might be the most cost-effective choice, but since those costs are spread out across society (and perhaps concentrated on groups with less political power), using Benjamin's approach would cause it to remain the choice not taken.

Third, we have historical examples of cultures that run counter to his purely theoretical construction. Easter Islanders cut down every last tree, regardless of his idea that the increasing costs will spur innovation and the use of alternative resources. Theories which have counterexamples should be re-evaluated.

  • You might not want to use the deforestation of Rapa Nui as an example because Jarred Diamonds thesis for its cause is deputed. You can find research that suggests erosion, climate change, and the introduction of Polynesian rats as additional factors. – Conrad Frix Apr 23 '12 at 21:40
  • @ConradFrix I'll have to look into that. – Dave Apr 24 '12 at 2:12
  • @ConradFrix After some research on your point, I see your point. Of course all theories are disputable. My understanding is that even if climate change and invasive species are contributing causes, the population still had a choice with regards to managing their ecosystem. We face a similar choice with regards to natural resources, and should perhaps consider the consequences of their decision when pondering our own. – Dave Apr 24 '12 at 2:26

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