the dangerous seduction of recycling

Bagging up my trash in Portland‘s required blue bags and bringing paper bags of recyclable stuff to the curbside, I thought (resentfully), “I can’t believe the government is forcing me to do this.” I laughed at myself for thinking it because it’s so unlike me. It’s my position that the government is us (“We, the people”) and if we don’t like what the government is doing, we work to change it. Yes, it can be more complicated than that. But in general, that’s how I see it. As my grumbling went on and I thought, “I can’t believe my taxes are going to this forced recycling,” I was seething just a little bit.
Discussing recycling I tend to say, “It’s not that I think recycling is bad, really, but…” But that’s not true. I think recycling is harmful. I think people spending time and energy bagging up their # whatever plastics and cardboards, metals, and glass makes it easy for them to be otherwise apathetic. It soothes the conscience. It makes people feel there is hope for saving the earth. People believe they are doing something. It’s terribly difficult to feel that there’s nothing we can do. Personal/household recycling is an opiate keeping us dull so we let the big businesses continue on with their devastating activities. We’re not going to get too worked up about supporting candidates who will draft and bring to law legislation that regulates the people (major corporations) doing the real damage. We’re helping solve the problem already, see?
As for facts and evidence backing up my gut-level description here, I don’t remember where I learned about the relative impact of household recycling in relation to restrictions on industrial pollution and/or incentives to create truly sustainable alternatives to our production, consumption, and waste systems as they are now. Some of it came from either in Green Metropolis: What the City Can Teach the Country About True Sustainability, or SuperFreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes And Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance. Or, it was neither of those and it was just a modge podge of various things I read or heard. In any case, I’ll still recycle. I’ll still buy less and reuse whenever I can. I’ll do those things. But I’ll know that I’m not really doing anything to tackle the environmental crisis. Even if every single one of us was diligent about our household recycling, the environmental crisis would not go away. The environmental crisis will be slowed if we focus our attention on industrial pollution (internationally) and the inventions of new technologies to end our dependence on fossil fuels.
I’ve been in a bit of an activist’s hibernation as I dealt with recent challenges of life. I’ve been focusing on parenting my young ones and getting us through some tough times. Things are settling down now, though. Maybe I’ll learn about my elected officials and legislation and talk to local non-profits about the work they are doing. My older daughter has wanted to “help the earth” and I teach a writing class at her school. Maybe I’ll find out who the biggest polluters are near us and see if my daughter’s class wants to take on a letter writing campaign. Maybe I’ll do something with the potential to actually help slow the emission of greenhouse gasses and keep the water clean and… but, yes, on Sunday night, I’ll bring my paper bags filled with cardboard and plastic and metal and glass out to the curb for Monday morning’s pickup.