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Friday, August 1, 2008

Give me Liberty or give me Compost!

Posted By on Fri, Aug 1, 2008 at 10:28 AM

By Benjamin Wachs

Gavin Newsom just set the cause of recycling back 20 years.

Thanks a lot.

America’s least thought-provoking Mayor announced a plan today calling for mandatory recycling and composting, requiring garbage collectors to root through your refuse and report when you’ve been bad.

What’s wrong with this? Well, forget that it’s impractical on its face in a city where throwing shit out in other people’s trash is one condom wrapper short of a spectator sport;

Forget that there will be more exceptions to the law than people following it in a city where shared housing, tenants-in-common, and apartment buildings house the vast majority of citizens;

Forget that the law can fine you hundreds of dollars if you’re ambiguous on what constitutes “trash,” “recycling” and “compost” (what about cardboard with a lot of mold on it? How about a recyclable object covered in human waste? What about that one kind of plastic instead of that other kind? What about stuff that you’re just not sure what it is?) – and who isn’t ambiguous about that?

No, leaving all the practical questions aside - which you have to do almost any time Newsom proposes a new program – the problem is that it’s exactly the wrong way to frame the future of recycling.

Go back 30 years to when people were first talking on a mass scale about environmental degradation and global warming. Back then it was assumed that once people understood the magnitude of the problem – once they were “made aware” of what was going on – that everyone would come to a consensus that the problem had to be dealt with.

As assumptions go, it was spectacularly wrong, along the lines of “Pontius Pilot would NEVER kill Christ and risk angering the Jewish ‘street!’” The trouble was that, in their understandable zeal to save the planet, early environmentalists set global stewardship up in opposition to business. To support the planet meant curbing the markets.

This guaranteed environmentalists a set of very powerful enemies and … more importantly … needlessly alienated millions of Americans who thought that business is a positive force in this country, or at least were worried about losing their jobs. The backlash was as immediate as it was fierce: any time an environmental proposal came up it was automatically opposed by business interests and business friendly voters regardless of the merits – because the terms of the debate had been set in such a way that environmentalism and capitalism were mutually exclusive.

Fast forward to 10 years ago, and you’ll see a very different approach: Al Gore and other environmentalists started re-framing the debate: saying that green was good for business, emphasizing that we could have both profits and a healthy planet. This was a seismic shift, and it’s worked: despite having a hostile White House and a Republican congress, the next decade was marked by considerable environmental efforts led by many of the very businesses who had once opposed environmentalism in any form.

Were they sincere about it? No. Did that matter? Not so much. Once they were convinced that there was a buck to be made, and that it was something their customers wanted, businesses couldn’t get on board fast enough. The antagonism set up in the environmental movement’s early days had been a colossal mistake.

Today, Gavin Newsom has pitted recycling against liberty. There’s no other way to look at this, and there’s no other way much of the country will: should this measure pass, agents of the state will be crawling through our trash looking for evidence to use against us.

Separating your trash will go from a chore to a fear-inducing mandate filled with dreadful calculations (what if I’m wrong about where these packing peanuts go - the package says they’re recyclable, but does the city know that? Coffee spilled all over this magazine – does that make a difference? What if my out of town guests don't understand the system?) and people will resent the government, and the environmental movement, for intruding even more deeply into their lives. This is especially true if well meaning mistakes lead to serious consequences: a thousand dollar fine is a lot of money in a city where a lot of people have trouble paying rent.

Newsom is forcing people who love liberty to take a stand against environmentalism, and people who are environmentalists to take a stand against liberty.

We’ve already seen how much backlash such stupid conflicts create.

Recycling will get a black eye in most of the rest of the country … especially places where the environmental movement was already having a tough time gaining entrée. Civic efforts to go green will crash headlong into the Newsom plan as people ask their neighbors “do you want to go THERE? Because that’s where this leads!”

I support better recycling – I’m sure we all do – but not this way. Given a choice between liberty and trash, I take liberty. There has to be a way to make the two more compatible.

Hopefully, despite the mayor’s best efforts, it won’t take us another 20 years to find it.

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Benjamin Wachs


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