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The deeper meaning of recycling

A weekend trip to the town dump can be profoundly edifying. After a week of sorting everything you throw away into separate bins — bottles and cans in one, cardboard and paper in another — hauling it all to the local “transfer station” yourself is a rare satisfaction. The wholly positive American compulsion for recycling builds to a climax there, when cars and pick-ups vie for space at the aligned and labeled dumpsters. Engines are left running when people hop out to enact what’s now a ritual of citizenship. Putting all that detritus into its proper receptacle, side-by-side with neighbors doing likewise, under the approving eye of the hired attendant, has become a source of civic happiness.

In cities, the sorting is mostly private, and single-streaming may mean that separation of materials is less fussy. Yet just by putting blue bins on the sidewalk, neighbors are still displaying their commitment to reuse for the sake of a better planet. In only a few years, recycling — which ideally saves some of the energy involved in making new stuff from scratch — has become a main point of connection that average Americans have with the critical project of lowering the emission of greenhouse gases to stave off global warming.

Yet even as you take your special bins and sacks out of the car, a question often comes to mind: How much of a difference is this actually making?


With the exception of the most stubborn climate-change deniers, almost everyone understands that apocalyptic atmospheric possibilities are real — and may come, as a new study suggested this month, sooner than anyone yet imagines. Indeed, with drought around the world already causing traumatic social dislocations like water scarcity, the destruction of agriculture, and consequent mass migration and explosive urbanization, environmentally sparked political catastrophes are already occurring. As US News reported recently, today’s horrors in Syria began with a recent drought that ravaged more than a million people. In some places, the climate-induced apocalypse is now.

“We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors,” the saying goes, “we borrow it from our children.” But that span of generations points at the problem. Short-term impulses undercut long-term solutions. The socially agreed public policies now in place, from recycling mandates to emissions standards to alternative energy incentives to international sustainability agreements, fall woefully short of what is needed to head off the scientifically predicted rise in global temperature (perhaps as little as 4 degrees Fahrenheit) that may destroy civilization.


Meanwhile, the complexities multiply. Natural gas is far better for the planet than coal, but the newly unleashed American bonanza of fracking for shale gas and oil, which may make the nation energy independent this year, amounts to a huge reinvestment in hydrocarbon extraction at just the worst time. When oil companies, funding both climate deniers and political candidates, blithely thwart cap-and-trade plans and carbon taxes that would restructure the energy market, how can alternative energy like wind and solar hope to become commercially viable? When a gutted US social contract prevents the government from reliably fulfilling its most elemental obligations day to day, what meaningful collective action is possible on problems of the future?

Such are the thoughts that intrude in line at the transfer station. They can only add to the enervated state into which apocalyptic warnings always drop frightened humans. Psychic numbing, in psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton’s phrase, can be a symptom of what’s called the pre-traumatic stress syndrome caused by a looming peril. Sky-is-falling alarmism creates a sense of powerlessness.

But the universal acceptance of recycling amounts to a mundane act of resistance to such political despair. The reduce-reuse-recycle movement has, in fact, accomplished a worldwide social revolution in less than a generation, showing what is yet possible. Politicians and activists alike can build on the widespread good will with which ordinary citizens have responded to the call to amend one of our most basic habits of life — how we dispose of waste.

Environmentally conscious production, supported by minimal but real regulation, has changed consumption — enough to show that the fuller transformation needed is not utopian.


Going through the motions at the dump is more than going through the motions. It is practice for the change that must lie ahead. And it is the public’s quiet declaration that the time for that change is here.

James Carroll writes regularly for the Globe.