Julian Simon v. Newt Gingrich: Only Recycle If It’s Worth It

by David Bier on December 16, 2011

in Blog

In his book, Contract with the Earth, former-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich writes, “The universality of the recycling phenomenon should be regarded as a turning point in our struggle to revitalize the earth, and one of the most successful mass environmental actions in human history.” Natural resource economist Julian Simon disagrees. In this excerpt from The Ultimate Resource II, Simon argues that recycling and conservation only make sense if they also make economic sense.

Ultimate Resource II was released in 1996

Should you conserve energy by turning off lights that are burning needlessly in your house? Of course you should – just as long as the money that you save by doing so is worth the effort of shutting off the light. That is, you should turn out a light if the money cost of the electrical energy is greater than the felt cost to you of taking a few steps to the light switch and flicking your wrist. But if you are ten miles away from home and you remember that you left a 100-watt light bulb on, should you rush back to turn it off? Obviously not; the cost of the gasoline spent would be far greater than the electricity saved, even if the light is on for many days. Even if you are on foot and not far away, the value to you of your time is surely greater than the cost of the electricity saved.

The appropriate rule in such cases is that you should conserve and not waste just so far as the benefits of conserving are greater than the costs if you do not conserve. That is, it is rational for us to avoid waste if the value to us of the resource saved is more than the cost to us of achieving the saving – a matter of pocketbook economics. And the community does not benefit if you do otherwise.

Ought you save old newspapers rather than throw them away? Sure you ought to – as long as the price that the recycling center pays you is greater than the value to you of your time and energy in saving and hauling them. But if you – or your community – must pay someone more to have paper taken away for recycling than as trash, there is no sound reason to recycle paper.

Recycling does not “save trees”. It may keep some particular trees from being cut down. But those trees never would have lived if there were no demand for new paper – no one would have bothered to plant them. And more new trees will be planted and grown in their place after they are cut. So unless the very act of a saw being applied to a tree makes you unhappy, there is no reason to recycle paper nowadays.

Human beings produce the living raw materials that we value, as long as the economic system encourages it. As Henry George said a century ago, an increase in the population of chicken hawks leads to fewer chickens, but an increase in the population of humans leads to more chickens. Or as Fred Lee Smith, Jr., put it, there is a choice between the way bison and beef cattle were treated in the U. S. in the 19th century; the bison were public property and the cattle were private, so the bison were killed off and the cattle thrived.

Consider elephants. If people can personally benefit from protecting elephants, and then selling their ivory and the opportunity to hunt them, the elephant population will grow in that place – as is the case now in Zimbabwe, Botswana, and some other southern African countries, where ownership belongs to regional tribal councils. In Kenya the elephant population had grown so large by 1993 that officials were administering contraceptive injections to combat elephant “overpopulation”. But where no one has a stake in the welfare of the elephants because they are owned only by the “public” at large, a ban on the sale of ivory will not prevent the elephant herds from being slaughtered and the size of the herds decreasing – as is the case now in Kenya and elsewhere in East and Central Africa. (Indeed, a ban raises the price of ivory and makes elephants even more attractive targets for poachers.)

There is much confusion between physical conservation and economic conservation. For example, some writers urge us not to flush our toilets each time we use them, but rather to use other rules of thumb that delicacy suggests not be mentioned here. The aim is to “save water.” But almost all of us would rather pay the cost of obtaining the additional water from ground-water supplies or from cleaning the water; hence, to “save water” by not flushing is not rational economics.

It is economically rational to systematically replace light bulbs before they burn out so that all the bulbs can be changed at once; this is not a “waste” of light-bulb capacity. To do otherwise is to commit yourself to a lower level of material living, unless the country is a very poor one where the cost of labor is small relative to the cost of a lightbulb. (In Russia in the 1990s, burned-out light bulbs are sold on the street, to be taken to one’s place of work and substituted for working light bulbs to be stolen to take home.)

Though a “simpler way of life” has an appeal for some, it can have a surprisingly high economic cost. One student calculated that if U.S. farmers used 1918 agricultural technology instead of modern technology, forswearing tractors and fertilizers in order to “save energy” and natural resources, “We’d need 61 million horses and mules …it would take 180 million acres of cropland to feed these animals or about one-half of the cropland now in production. We’d need 26 or 27 million additional agricultural workers to achieve 1976 production levels with 1918 technology.”

Conservation – or just non-use of given materials – is a moral issue for some people, about which it is not appropriate to argue. Todd Putnam, founder of National Boycott News, will not wear leather shoes because “that would be cruel to animals”; … “rubber and plastic are also out because they don’t recycle well.” But there is no more economic warrant for coercing recycling than for coercing other sorts of personal behavior that are moral issues for some – whether people should eat high-fat diets, or pray three times a day, or tell ethnic jokes.

Coercion to conserve is not a joke, though it may seem to be. The community adjoining the one in which I live has an “environmental” television program. On a typical show the theme music is from the crime program “Miami Vice”, and the narrator warns that “a recycling violation is in progress” at that moment somewhere in the community. Because conservation of ordinary resources confers no economic benefits upon the community, each case should be evaluated just as are other private decisions about production and consumption.

LVTfan December 25, 2011 at 10:16 pm


When those who create pollution have to own it, have to figure out what to do about it, and how to pay for it, they’ll pollute less.

If the dollar cost to them is $0, they have to be altruistic to think about someone other than themselves, someone other than the current generation.

One senses from Gingrich’s persona — perhaps incorrectly — that his is the only generation that matters, and of that large generation, he is the only individual that matters. And the rest of us be damned.

But maybe that isn’t what he means us to take from what he says. I’d welcome his clarification and correction.

If we all are forced to “own” the pollution our actions create, we are likely to behave very differently from those who can dissipate the effects among the world’s entire population and future population. Let others — mostly people poorer than we are — deal with the effects, like more extreme weather, or sea-level rise, or health issues, so that Americans can keep enjoying their SUV’s, cheap sooty electric plants, and car-dependent lifestyles.

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