November 12, 2007

A Realistic Approach to Saving The Earth

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As Cornell students we are expected to meet certain standards. Among these are high SAT scores, a high GPA, an intellectual curiosity and…recycling? The other day I went to Trillium for lunch. As I was throwing my garbage away I saw a Cornell employee came to stop me from throwing my water bottle into the trash. Apparently there was a special blue bin just for water bottles. I find this forced recycling not only to be a nuisance, but ineffective and inefficient. Recycling costs more than simply the disposing of trash and is based on the false premise that landfills are overflowing with garbage. Furthermore, the whole pro-environmental movement is taking the wrong approach to fixing the environment.
Many firm believers in recycling believe that it ultimately reduces pollution and saves the planet because our landfills are overflowing and there needs to be an alternative way of disposing of garbage. According to the EPA, landfill capacity has been maintained over the past 20 years. There is not much evidence that landfills are becoming overcrowded or that in the near future there will not be enough space to dump our garbage. In fact, the EPA is involved in a program to convert methane gas that is released from landfills into usable energy. There are obvious flaws in the landfill system, but the notion that in the coming years they will no longer be able to hold all of our garbage is simply false.
Recycling is not a complete fallacy, only a substantial one. The costs of recycling compared with those of traditional garbage disposal are significantly higher. According to an article in Environmental Health Perspectives (a peer reviewed journal), In San Jose, Calif. it costs about $119 more per ton of waste to recycle than it does to simply bring the trash to the landfill. Part of the problem is that many private firms are contracted by the government to recycle, requiring relatively high fees. In addition, the machines and transportation that are needed in order to recycle costs more than traditional ways of getting rid of garbage. Furthermore, the environmental gains of recycling are not so clear-cut. For example, recycling newspaper is beneficial to the environment, but recycling office paper may take more effort and harm the environment more than if it was simply brought to a landfill. Recycling needs to be done in moderation with a serious contemplation of the costs and the benefits. Consumers also need to be smarter about recycling. Throwing every water bottle or piece of paper in to the recycling bin is not an efficient way of cleaning up the earth.
Power Shift 2007 is a “national youth summit to solve the climate crisis,” that took place last week. Essentially, it was some 3,000 students looking for change in the environmental policies of the U.S. government. First of all, this was not the great movement that those in Power Shift would make it out to be. As far as protests go, this one was fairly weak. The march against the Vietnam War in 1965 had about 25,000 protestors and a march for lesbian and gay rights in 1979 had around 100,000 protestors. In addition, we all know that young people in this nation do not vote nearly as much as other demographics. Furthermore, other than Al Gore there is really no champion of the cause and no pressure on politicians to change.
The unfortunate facts of this era are that lobbyists, money and power are needed to affect change. Rather than seeming 100 percent cynical, I concede that a social movement can cause change in government. However, this social movement needs to be widespread and massive. It needs to be more than 3,000 students and a Facebook group of 2,000 members. Change is going to need to come from the top. What is needed is either a man like Al Gore to regain enough political clout to pressure politicians, or a group of powerful and wealthy interests who can truly influence politicians. Money from industries that wish to stop environmental legislation is not insignificant. A realistic approach by the environmentalists will help more than claiming that a few thousand students going to Washington is a real sign that there is a desire for change.
Problems with the environment constitute a serious issue requiring serious solutions. An all-out effort to recycle trash is not efficient and is misguided. Furthermore, promoting a 3,000 person “social movement” as a great achievement is not going to lead to change. Other than a massive social movement – and based on the turnout of the Power Shift 2007 efforts, this seems unlikely in the near future – the elites in this country will need to show some concern. The way to do this is to use money and power, not to have Live Earth and Power Shift 2007. Global warming and other environmental concerns may cause the downfall of nations before terrorism or nuclear war. We face a real problem, and a real answer is needed.