"The market can manage waste without sacrificing our liberty. The war of the environmentalists against waste is actually a war against personal choice."
In defence of waste
by, Pierre Lemieux
“In the natural world”, writes ecologist David Suzuki, “nothing is wasted. Zero waste needs to become the basis of the human economy as well as nature’s economy.”
The problem is, what is waste? Everything over and above what one needs? But what does one need? MP3 players and GPS systems? To survive, we actually need very little. Less than six pounds of soybeans per day provides all the calories a person needs. In his 1854 book Walden, Henry David Thoreau argued that a wooden box measuring six feet by three with a cover would provide shelter when needed. We pay too much for shelter, he explained, adding rhetorically: “Would the savage have been wise to exchange his wigwam for a palace on these terms?”
With a diet of soybeans and a wigwam for shelter, individuals would leave a tiny carbon footprint. They would also have a life expectancy of less than 50 years, which is still the case in sub-Saharan Africa. There would be no ecological waste, just wasted lives.
Man not only has needs, he also has preferences. “Waste” has no meaning outside of these preferences. Merely surviving is not the goal. Most people want fun too.
In fact, there is no more waste in social interaction than in the natural world — which is not surprising since man, the rational animal, is part of nature. The symmetry between human and animal behaviour allows evolutionary biologists to use the economic concept of cost, like when Richard Dawkins shows that sunk investments in a sexual relationship cannot explain a male’s future fidelity towards a female (The Selfish Gene, Oxford University Press, 1989, p. 150; see also my Comprendre l’économie, Belles Lettres, 2008, p. 48).
An individual makes his choices according to his preferences given his constraints, that is, given the configuration of prices and other conditions that reflects other individuals’ choices. He maximizes his benefits over his costs, which is just another way of saying that he doesn’t waste anything.
Markets have the advantage of helping in the computation of costs and benefits. If it costs me less to purchase a new printer and throw away the old one instead of getting it repaired, it means that the resources used up to manufacture a printer are worth less than the resources used in repairing it. The worth or value of something is calculated by having all individuals bid for the resources according to what these resources are worth for the satisfaction of their preferences. The market is an on-going auction that directs resources and the goods and services they produce to those who attach more value to them.
Note that repairmen are no more slaves than consumers. If repairmen worked for free, repairs would be cheaper.
Of course, nothing should prevent individuals from living according to Thoreauvian voluntary simplicity. But the term “voluntary” has its importance, as opposed to people being forced by law to do what is supposedly good.
In the absence of markets, or if markets are overridden, resource allocation is decided by authority. In practice, this allocation method means giving the greatest weight to the preferences of politicians and bureaucrats — or of the autocrat. This is the sort of society that Suzuki and his coreligionists want to establish.
The environmental movement is a statist religion with its plastic-bag sins, Goddess-Earth dogmas, carbon-footprint incantations, and global-warming eschatology. Just read the very beginning of Le Devoir’s November 8th and 9th review of Suzuki’s latest book: “The environmental catastrophe is on its way. It’s difficult to doubt it without demonstrating an unusual bad faith.”
By the way, why does Suzuki publish paper-made, copyrighted, highly-subsidized books, instead of webbing his writings in low-footprint electrons for everyone to read? Heretics of the world, unite!
This is not denying that there can be real environmental problems. It is not impossible that free, decentralized individual actions, when aggregated, bring consequences that have higher costs than benefits. We observe this in the case of resources with no well-defined property rights, where, as a consequence, nobody is responsible. Economists call these phenomena “externalities”. Assuming the prediction of global warming — conveniently renamed “climate change” to hedge the possibility that we may be in a cooling cycle — materializes, we still have to inquire whether the remedies proposed would not be worse than the disease. Coercively enrolling people in the service of the new class of environmental priests is such a despicable alternative.
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Pierre's weekly columns are also published at Liberty in Canada