Earlier this month, while visiting a friend in San Francisco, I almost spilled my latte in my lap when I read this on the front page of the Chronicle: “S.F. Mayor Proposes Fines for Unsorted Trash.”
The story began: “Garbage collectors would inspect San Francisco residents’ trash to make sure pizza crusts aren’t mixed in with chip bags or wine bottles under a proposal by Mayor Gavin Newsom.” Isn’t that what homeless people do — rooting around in other people’s garbage? If Bay Area residents are caught failing to separate the plastic bottles from the newspapers, according to the newspaper story, they could face fines of up to $1,000.
“We don’t want to fine people,” the mayor is quoted saying reassuringly. “We want to change behavior.” Translation: Do exactly as we say and no one gets hurt. And San Francisco considers itself one of the most progressive cities in America!
When I was a kid, the environmentalists promoted their clean skies and antilittering agenda mostly through moral suasion — with pictures of an Indian under a smoggy sky with a tear rolling down his cheek or the owl who chanted on TV: “Give a hoot, don’t pollute.” Such messages made you feel guilty about callously throwing a candy bar wrapper on the ground or feeling indifferent toward car fumes. Back then I was a devoted recycler, but not for sentimental reasons. It was the financial incentive: You got up to a nickel for every bottle you brought back to the grocery store. So I would scavenge the landscape to find unredeemed bottles to buy baseball cards and candy.
But now the environmental movement has morphed into the most authoritarian philosophy in America. The most glaring example of course is the multitrillion-dollar cap-and-trade anti-global warming scheme that would mandate an entire restructuring of our industrial economy. This plan, endorsed by both presidential candidates, would empower climate-change cops to regulate the energy usage and carbon emissions of every industry in America. If we do this, the best estimates are that we could reduce global temperatures by 0.1 degrees by 2050 and save on average about one polar bear a year from early death. But no burden is too great when it comes to helping the planet — even if the progress to be made is infinitesimal. To weigh costs and benefits is regarded as sacrilege — the refuge of global warming “deniers.”
There are also new federal and state proposals to snoop on citizens in our own homes. California is considering a plan to police the temperature settings on residents’ thermostats. The feds are checking on the flush capacity of our toilets and the kinds of light bulbs we use. A new game called Climate Crime Cards urges kids to spy on and keep an online record of their family’s environmental faux pas — noting when their parents fail to turn off the TV, plug in too many appliances or use the clothes dryer on a sunny day. Sen. John Warner, a Republican from Virginia, wants to bring back the reviled 55-mile-per-hour federal speed limit law so that America can reduce gasoline consumption. Barack Obama believes that properly inflating the tires on our cars is the solution to our energy woes. Is the government going to start giving tickets for failure to inflate?
The latest rage among the more radical environmental groups is to encourage the government to monitor and ration every individual’s carbon footprint — how much you eat, drive, fly, heat, air condition, throw away and so on. Why? Because the average American emits twice as much carbon as the average European (which is another way of saying we are more productive than they are). This is all promoted as a form of shared sacrifice. But under this system some people are more equal than others. People with enough money like Al Gore can purchase carbon offset credits to justify chartering a plane rather than having to fly commercial. Seems like this is the very kind of elitist policy — reminiscent of the practice during the Civil War of allowing the rich and privileged to buy their way out of the draft — that liberals used to be against.
Do-gooders also once wanted to “celebrate diversity,” but total conformity seems to be the aim of those in Seattle these days, where the city has started putting green tags on garbage cans of homeowners who don’t recycle. Enthusiasts boast that there is a very positive “Scarlet Letter” effect to subjecting noncompliers to public scorn. So you can almost hear the kitchen conversations: “Jimmy, I don’t want you playing with the Williams boys anymore; their family doesn’t recycle.” But wait, aren’t these the same ACLU members who oppose public registries of multiple sex offenders?
Many studies have shown that the environmental benefits from household recycling are minimal or at least highly exaggerated (because it uses a lot of energy and those recycling trucks emit a lot of greenhouse gases). America is not in danger of ever running out of landfill to store our garbage. For example, a study by Daniel Benjamin, an economist at Clemson, finds that we could store all of America’s garbage for the next century within the property of Ted Turner’s ranch in Montana, with 50,000 acres undisturbed for the horse and bison.
In reality, household recycling is mostly about absolving the guilt of Lexus liberals who just hate themselves for enjoying an affluent 21st-century lifestyle. The aim seems to be less saving nature than building self-esteem.
And it has worked. Too well. I can barely tolerate the proud recyclers, hybrid-car owners and “save the polar bear” button-wearers who smother us with their self-righteousness. A few weeks ago I was at the house of some friends, and I accidentally tossed a plastic Gatorade bottle into the glass recycling bin. You would have thought that I had made a pass at their daughter.
Fred Smith of the Competitive Enterprise Institute notes with rich irony that “we now live in a society where Sunday church attendance is down, but people wouldn’t dream of missing their weekly trek to the altar of the recycling center.” These facilities, by the way, are increasingly called “redemption centers.” Which is fine except that now the greens want to make redemption mandatory. Oh, for a return to the days when someone stood up for the separation of church and state.
Mr. Moore is the senior economics writer for The Wall Street Journal editorial board.