Is recycling a Band-Aid on Sustainability? I was a high school senior the year of the first Earth Day, in spring of 1970. Let me say, right up front I believe in the three R’s – Reduce, Reuse and Recycle — just as I believe in the need for the other three R’s – Reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic — and I believe they are essential to sustainability.
Today, as I was reading a book titled Leading Thinkers: Digital Media and Learning I encountered the statement: “We have waited too long to solve . . . global warming to global economics. . . Now it’s too late, and we’re going to pay the cost for that. They say that “sustainability” is too late.”
The statement was made by James Paul Gee, Professor of Literacy Studies at Arizona State University. Not willing to trust environmental observations to a fellow who had studied linguistics and researched video games and learning, I did some further digging which turned up a peer-reviewed book by Pavel Nováček, Sustainable Development or Collapse, Regeneration and Transformation? From Noah’s Ark to the Titanic and Back Again, a recent publication that examines this very concept. Nováček is the Node Chair of the Central European Node of the Millennium Project. Apparently Professor Gee was making an informed statement. Professor Nováček compares sustainability to those two famous ships, the Ark and the Titanic. He points out that Noah must have looked pretty silly to his neighbors when building a big boat in a spot that never had water; but that the Titanic, secure in its advertising as “unsinkable,” steamed straight into an iceberg. Once it hit the iceberg, there was nothing left to do but get as many people as possible onto the inadequate lifeboats – a far too apt comparison to what could occur if the global economy continues in its current mode.
The message was made clear in a report from the Club of Rome, entitled Limits to Growth, published in 1972. Although progress is often counted in terms of items produced, there comes a time when non-renewable resources are used up and there are too many things that cannot be reused. Nováček prescribes a sustainability retreat. Not only should we recycle more, but we should consume less and reuse more of the things that come into our homes. He points out that had Napoleon refrained from trying to conquer Russia, he would have had a nice-sized empire that he could have held. If the Titanic had changed course when hailed by the California and told that she was headed into a field of icebergs, she might not have sunk.
Recycling is not a band aid. Effective recycling programs should be a part of Nováček’s sustainable retreat. It keeps resources out of the landfills, it makes those landfills smaller and it reduces the need to mine or harvest new materials.
One of the criticisms of recycling has been that it is difficult for companies to obtain enough materials from recycling to reliably produce the goods needed to turn a profit. Another criticism has been that breaking down materials can consume as much energy as is saved while emitting odors and pollutants into the air. Should we not take that as a challenge to make recycling more universally appealing and to create better methods of re-refining once used materials?
I am only a writer – I don’t even have credentials to rival those of Professor Gee. But I believe that he, Professor Nováček, and the thirty scientists and thinkers who made up the Club of Rome have made valid points. I also believe something else: a sustainable retreat is not going to be possible unless ordinary people understand what is needed, and will be able to care for their families and manage their homes while pursuing the activities required to preserve what we have and cut back on consumption. Industry will be essential to the process, but it is the homeowner, the small shopkeeper, the factory worker and the grocery bagger who ultimately must follow through on these observations by recycling packaging, and purchasing goods made from recycled materials because in a world of haves and have nots, they will be the ones asked to make the largest sacrifices in a sustainable retreat.