Thursday, August 2nd, 2007

Environmental Theater

If you read Bruce Schneier, as any good geek should, you probably are familiar with the term “security theater”: measures that provide the feeling of security while doing little or nothing to actually provide security.

OK, digression. We had this recycling program in Chicago where we put our recyclables in blue bags into the trash, and they pick the blue bags out of the trash. One imagines fancy computerized systems. In reality I think there’s just some people who watch trash go by on a conveyor belt.

This all seemed fishy, but I hate waste on principle so I would dutifully recycled my trash, washed out containers, all that stuff. You’d sometimes hear an environmentalist criticize the program because there was little perceived benefit, and so people didn’t actually recycle much. The system seemed a little improbable to me too, but then I also realized that recycling is a balance and it’s easy to put more effort into recycling programs than is saved through the recycling itself. So maybe this was efficient, all things considered.

Then I learned that actually only 8% of recycling in blue bags is recovered. 92% of the time when I clean things out and put them carefully in their own container, I might as well have just thrown them away. This really pissed me off, because it made it obvious that there never was an honest attempt to reduce waste through recycling. Blue bags were just what they would give people to make them stop complaining about recycling.

The irony is that the environmentalists didn’t complain about the recovery rates (which always were estimated at a low amount). They complained about how many people were recycling. Of course with a recovery rate that low it didn’t matter how many people were recycling. The entire program was a total farce. Now that the program is going away there doesn’t seem to be much anger about how deceptive the program was, and I don’t know if anyone is paying attention to the actual environmental impact of the new program.

Even if they recover the recycling it might still just be a game. Recycling is filled with farce. Metal recycling is great. That’s why there’s trucks that roam the alleys around Chicago looking for scrap metal. There’s a market and someone is willing to pay for the results. There’s not much of a market for anything else; maybe some glass, maybe a little plastic.

People actually get angry when recycling programs restrict the plastics they will take. It doesn’t occur to them that some plastics are simply garbage. They are worthless, and moving them around in special recycling containers just wastes everyone’s time. They are angry because they want to pretend they aren’t being wasteful. They aren’t getting enough environmental theater.

A more concerning kind of environmental theater is ethanol. With an EROI (energy invested vs. energy produced) that hovers just above one, it’s not helping the environment. Biofuels on the whole seem quite questionable. Brazil has more efficient ethanol, but it’s paired with deforestation. A similar thing happens when trees for palm oil replace natural forests. And of course in all these cases, if plants weren’t grown for fuel then plants would be grown for some other purpose. So I can’t really see any advantage in terms of CO2 emissions — and when you consider the relative inefficiency compared to attaining fossil fuels, the net effect of biofuels is probably worse.

Now that environmental concern is mainstream I think we need to be on the watch for environmental theater. Many of the people who play their parts in this theater are well meaning, which can make it awkward. These are people who believe that The Important Thing Is To Raise Awareness. But awareness has been raised, so the time for that kind of bullshit is past. Lying about solutions, exaggerating specific problems, being fuzzy about facts — that’s always been bullshit, and I’ve never found it acceptable. But it’s unfortunately become the norm among advocates of all sorts in these times. The irony is that the advocacy has been done, the case has been made, enough people are convinced, but it may be hard to move beyond the theater to meaningful action. Especially as the well-meaning people are replaced with cynics out to make money.

This is the personal site of Ian Bicking. The opinions expressed here are my own.