The Recycling Crowd Embraces Grade-School Juvenility
The third-grade boy shamefully completed his apology, in front of first grade. I was luckier than I felt. Just that morning, I had been convinced that the way to win friends was to do what the popular kids did: Stomp on the first-grader’s coffee-can art project. I knew this was wrong but I immediately impressed the popular crowd -- the wrong way. My swift punishment only reinforced what I already knew: A crowd was a poor substitute for my own judgment. This lesson has served me well throughout my life, yet I was surprised to find myself transported back to that classroom by a New York Times video -- about recycling, of all things. A connection jolted me when I viewed “The Great Recycling Con:” The captains of industry were making the same mistake I had but with a twist: They are stomping on their own cans.
I remember the early days of residential recycling as clearly as that hug. At first, only the neighborhood crank went through the trouble. But, after about a decade of shaming by celebrities and over-hyping of stories -- like the long search of a garbage scow for a customer -- governments got involved. Seemingly overnight, nearly everyone was being forced to recycle or taxed to support it. Companies had marching orders to label products so we could comply. The details of these orders were minute to the point of confusion. This point can be gleaned from the video, but get a load of this subtitle: "The greatest trick corporations ever played was making us think we could recycle their products." I'm disappointed that corporations had voiced so much support for recycling, but they hardly deserve the blame for labeling laws.
But this has been the MO of the left since the industrial revolution. Regarding 1800's railroads, Ayn Rand noted:
[W]hat could the railroads do, except try to "own whole legislatures," if these legislatures held the power of life or death over them? What could the railroads do, except resort to bribery, if they wished to exist at all? Who was to blame and who was "corrupt"--the businessmen who had to pay "protection money" for the right to remain in business--or the politicians who held the power to sell that right?
The railroads played a game they should have opposed -- only to end up blamed for a situation they didn't create. (To the degree they saw this as an acceptable way to win market share, they share the blame.) We see this today with companies bullied into removing harmless ingredients, such as nitrites from food, or parabens from cosmetics, under the perverse twin incentives of fashionable panic and fear of competition.
The worst case involves the fossil fuel industry, which is vital to our lives and prosperity – while under constant and intense pressure from environmentalists. Energy advocate Alex Epstein notes:
The industry never explained the value of energy and why fossil fuels are superior sources of energy. In fact, the industry is constantly out there saying, "We're not against wind and solar, we're for all of the above, we're in the middle of an energy transition," etc. That's why I always stress when I talk to people (a) that low cost, reliable energy is indispensable to human flourishing and (b) that the fossil fuel industry is uniquely good at creating it. People need both of those points.
Epstein is right: Companies should stop fearing the cool media kids scaremongering and start reminding the people who count – their customers -- of the full value they offer.
When I think about that day in school, I wish I could go back and tell that third-grader that real friends don't tempt people to ignore their own judgment; and that he already had good friends, because he had a lot to offer. The same goes for countless productive individuals in whole industries that our media routinely paint as evil ahead of our politicians taking yet more control. Our industry captains have gone along with this for far too long. Rather than accepting these scurrilous attacks, they should view them as personal insults. A great way to begin to fight back is to remind people of the enormous good they and their employees create.