May 19, 2021 Reading Time: 5 minutes

I’m a heretic in a world where environmentalism is a leading religion. I think it’s okay to use a lot of paper, and I generally ignore the little exhortation at the bottom of so many emails saying “Think about the environment before printing this.” This isn’t to say I do use a lot of paper: most of what I read, write, and assign to students is digital now. You’re not “wasting” paper by using it and throwing it away any more than you’re “wasting” corn by eating tortilla chips. There’s a good case to be made that you probably should eat fewer tortilla chips—I certainly need to—but “Eating tortilla chips wastes corn” is not one of them.

Contrary to popular belief, economic progress is not the enemy of the environment. In a 2015 episode of EconTalk, Rockefeller University’s Jesse Ausubel explains “the return of nature” as we get more and more output with less and less land. Andrew McAfee has done some very interesting work in recent years suggesting that we’re reaching “peak stuff.” I haven’t yet read his book More From Less: The Surprising Story of How We Learned to Prosper Using Fewer Resources–and What Happens Next, but I’ve listened to a few podcasts in which he discusses what he calls “dematerialization” (like this episode of EconTalk). We are using less material and less energy to produce every dollar of GDP, but perhaps more importantly, we are using “less energy in total as economic growth progresses.” McAfee argues that our consumption of a lot of different kinds of stuff has likely peaked.

Why? Don’t people consume voraciously? Wouldn’t we need something like three earths to support everyone at an American standard of living? I doubt it. As people get richer, they stop spending their incomes on more burgers but on better burgers. In other words, they substitute quality for quantity. When we go to a very nice restaurant, we spend three times as much as we might spend at McDonald’s. We are not, however, getting three times as many french fries and three times as much beef. We are getting better fries and better beef.

But isn’t it wasteful to throw away food or use a lot of paper? Probably not: paper is cheap, and your time is expensive. Holding everything else constant, it’s probably a good trade-off to “waste” paper if it means saving your time for something more important. As Thomas Sowell points out in his book Basic Economics, it is actually wasteful for someone with a very high opportunity cost of their time to spend a lot of that time fixing broken things–or salvaging paper that is probably “reusable.” That so much goes into landfills in the United States and Europe may be the product of prices that don’t fully reflect all the relevant costs and benefits, but it is not a moral failing on our part. It’s a failure to let labor move to where it is most valuable. If you’re “thinking about the environment” before you print something, you’re probably economizing on what is abundant (paper) and wasting what is most scarce (your time).

Of course, participating in rituals that appear to be wasteful, at least on the surface, is part of participating in a complex society. There might be a kind of ritual value to saving paper and turning the lights off when you leave a room, just like there’s a kind of ritual value in singing the school fight song at a football game or taking communion at church. You’re the kind of person who doesn’t use “too much” paper and doesn’t waste electricity. That’s cool, and as a father who embraces all the Dad stereotypes, I’m right there with you. While writing the first draft of this article, I switched off a lamp thinking “I’m sitting next to a window; I don’t need the extra light.” I’d still rather cut off a finger than leave a room without turning off the lights, and I think I would rather watch people burn money than watch them throw food away. However, you’re not really “saving the earth” by using less paper. We should take seriously the possibility that our endeavors could backfire: by spending my “environmental consciousness budget” on basically trivial things like saving paper, then perhaps I end up with less energy for higher-impact environmental endeavors, like understanding how going “anti-nuclear” actually increases pollution or helping with a local park cleanup.

Am I encouraging prodigality and profligacy? No. I’m counseling regularly measured, well-thought-out prudence. Maybe the prices really are wrong, and the by-now-well-developed norms against using paper are an efficient response to that. I would rather see the energy directed toward rooting out and eliminating the sources of the distortion.

Consider too the constant additional cognitive burdens both large and small that people are expected to bear. Do we really want already-stressed out people adding to their cognitive load by thinking they might be sinning against Gaia or Greta Thunberg by printing or discarding a sheet of paper? As Bryan Caplan has pointed out, “Recycling is the philosophy that everything is worth saving except your time.”

Think for a moment about aluminum cans. A quick Google search turns up a scrap metal price of about 48 cents a pound. That’s hardly enough to make it worth my time, of course, but it may very well be worth the time of people who might have a comparative advantage in sorting recyclables. It’s also not like aluminum decays quickly. Another quick Google search suggested that aluminum cans won’t decompose for a century or more. This means that if we start running low on aluminum, we can probably start expecting people to mine landfills for the cans we’re discarding today.

Yet a third quick Google search suggests paper takes about 2-6 weeks in a landfill to decompose (another site said 5-15 years). But that’s beside the point. If we start really straining our ability to produce new paper or if we start running out of landfill space (and, therefore, the price of discarding stuff rises), we can expect again for people to start paying for and reclaiming the stuff we throw away. The world is an enormous place, and there are enormous tracts of land to be had at pretty low prices. Yet another Google search suggests that a landfill of 250 square miles, 400 feet deep would hold a century’s worth of American garbage (assuming the population doubles and we all keep producing about 3.5 pounds of trash a day). That sounds absolutely enormous—but Jefferson County, Alabama, where I live is just over 1,100 square miles. The United States is about 3.8 million square miles, which means our 400-foot century-long landfill would cover less than 0.007% of the US’s land area. Assume we produce the same amount of trash every century (a not-unreasonable assumption) and assume none of it ever goes away, and after a thousand years you’re still at less than one-tenth of one percent of US land area taken up by landfill space. Global land area is about 57.5 million square miles. It’s staggering when we think about just how much land is out there, even if these numbers are off by an order of magnitude. Idiocracy was funny and all, but the idea that we’ll all be living under mountains and mountains of garbage doesn’t really seem to hold up.

This claim, of course, basically assumes there is no technological change that continues the “dematerialization.” As more and more value comes from things other than the narrowly material, we can expect to get not just more and better silk stockings for steadily-decreasing amounts of effort, we can expect to get more and better silk stockings for steadily decreasing amounts of silk.

Art Carden

Art Carden

Art Carden is a Senior Fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research. He is also an Associate Professor of Economics at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama and a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute.

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