I think when most people throw things away (including me), they implicitly believe it just kind of stops existing, even most people who have warm fuzzies/invested identities in environmentalism. They explicitly believe it gets hauled off to a landfill, of course; but there’s nothing to gain from this rising to conscious attention when you actually throw things away (besides guilt if you’re into that), so the enacted belief appears to be that garbage cans are black holes.
If you have the implicit belief that things stop existing when they’re thrown away, you might be expected to have a related implicit belief that throwing away things you don’t really have to throw away is very bad. How could you just obliterate finite resources? Don’t you care about the children?! And indeed, people who throw away their paper and plastic might be seen as thoughtless. There’s a lot of social and institutional pressure to recycle.
Lessons of my childhood: if you don’t recycle then you’re obese and unattractive.
(These traits are how you identify the Bad People)
So what actually happens? Well, your garbage is hauled off to a landfill, where it sits… and sits… and sits. Until somebody digs it back up because it’s valuable to them.
We could take this used resource and reclaim it now, substituting for extracting more of the raw resource today, or we could put it in the ground until the mine site we’re creating becomes valuable enough for the future to reclaim it, substituting for extracting more of the raw resource in the future. After the cost curves for “mine from ore” and “mine from landfill” intersect and the landfill reclamation happens, about the same amount of the resource will have ultimately been extracted from the Earth either way. So, how do we tell when one is better than the other?
I think it’s currently cheaper to recycle aluminum than it is to dispose of it and extract more from the Earth, even without subsidy. (Hidden behind the word “cheaper” is all the land, energy, and human effort that goes into recycling/disposal). I don’t think this is true for most other consumer recyclables yet; for some regulatory environments and for some waste types I bet it is, but I’d naively expect to see more private efforts to get people to recycle if it were always economically efficient. Older landfills had land and water pollution problems, but modern landfills are not particularly environmentally dangerous besides releasing methane (which is often recovered and used), and they take up very little land compared to, say, agriculture; you’d probably preserve much more pristine Earth by buying non-organic vegan food than anything relating to how you deal with your garbage.
So, you heard it here first–throw everything in the trash! The future thanks you for concentrating all these eventually-valuable resources in one place, and your local economist death cult thanks you for taking price signals seriously.
This is not a blog post about why recycling isn’t important. Cute half-informed arguments probably shouldn’t be more convincing than conventional wisdom, so do whatever makes you happy. This is a blog post about purity norms.
There’s this stereotype that people in the Blue Tribe are mostly morally concerned with harm/care and fairness/reciprocity, while people in the Red Tribe care more about loyalty to the ingroup, respect for authority, and sanctity/purity. There was some research published several years ago that apparently confirmed this, and now its status as Science Fact has diffused into not-quite-common-but-not-uncommon knowledge.
Do you think it’s suspicious that some social scientists found Blue Tribe is so psychically different from Red Tribe? Particularly when most other social science comes to the conclusion that everyone is largely the same–this sentiment is right in the mission statement of many sociology departments. Perhaps this research is more about confirming preexisting beliefs than discovering what reality looks like! [*gasp*] [*shock*] (There’s been some other research that found this isn’t really right, but of course that’s fighting against a preexisting widely-held belief and an authoritative thing that seems to confirm it, so it hasn’t diffused nearly as well.)
(I’m focusing on the Blue Tribe here because I expect 90% of people who read this will be in Blue Tribe, with the last 10% in Grey Tribe, and if I focused on Red Tribe you’d just say “Yeah, those outgroup members are ignorant and wrong! Yay ingroup!”, which doesn’t teach anyone anything. For the most part, yes, this stuff is basically symmetrical. I do want to make an honest attempt to see Grey Tribe sacrality for what it is too, my own cherished ingroup, but that’ll be its own thing.)
Things like eating organic food and environmentally-motivated acts often (not always!) serve as expressions of purity, in that they’re small sacrifices of ease, pleasure, or money that allow you to self-signal and other-signal as someone who’s concerned about clean, wholesome things that support whatever you think of as the natural order. Trying to make sense of noble, priceless environmentalism with mundane, tasteless money, like I did above, might have pushed a button especially hard; the pure is contaminated by contact with the impure, as a general rule. None of this is wrong, necessarily–it would be way too convenient if you could just reverse all your purity norms and quickly arrive at the “correct” ones–but it’s pretty clear what psychological role they fill for a lot of people; the same one “real” religious practices fill for most others.
They’re practically begging you to notice
This is not intrinsically bad! I have my own pseudo-religion too, of course; I’m sure our minds are shaped this way for good reasons, many of which probably still apply in the modern world, like bonding and solidarity and all that junk. Unlike a lot of people who say things like “[not-technically-a-religion] is a religion”, I’m not suggesting you should stop believing and doing these things, or that you’re necessarily incapable of thinking effectively about anything remotely related, or that you believe and do these things solely to signal affiliation with the ingroup (even if that is a safe yet incomplete explanation for pretty much all human behavior). For the most part, though, just being the sacralizing impulse instead of being reflectively aware of it doesn’t seem like the best strategy for forming accurate beliefs or being effective.
This is not a blog post about purity norms. I like reading about the mechanics of psychology and culture as much as the next nerd, but you can find people trying to see purity norms for what they are in lots of other places. This is a blog post about training yourself to notice motivated reasoning in general.
A few minutes ago, when I was suggesting that recycling may not be particularly important in some sense; did it make you feel uncomfortable or annoyed? Maybe you started looking for explanations for why it’s wrong, and maybe you quickly both found them, and found them convincing. This is what it feels like to perform motivated reasoning–the train of thought at the beginning is hardly perfectly convincing, and could easily crumble under the right data (trains crumble, right?), but I don’t think it’s obviously definitely wrong to the point where any non-expert could reasonably reject it in a matter of seconds, either.
If you’re interested in at least being aware of when you perform motivated reasoning, and you have some attachment to being environmentally virtuous, then you can use my cute little argument that recycling is unimportant as a training example for what the “defend against people questioning my purity norms at all costs” cognitive algorithm feels like from the inside. Maybe go back to it and focus on that feeling–it has a particular hue other kinds of discomfort and annoyance don’t. That’s one way among many to help you notice the possibility that you’ve already decided what’s true, that one part of your mind has turned off another part of your mind that a third part of your mind might prefer to leave on, and whatever you get as output will probably be uncorrelated (not anticorrelated) with reality.
The broader method that this is an instance of does actually work for people. It might be even easier to first practice on more tangible implementation intentions than [experience a certain feeling] -> [look out for an accompanying mental motion], but designing and carrying out implementation intentions that use thoughts and feelings as their inputs and outputs is something that I (and some other people) think can make you much better at thinking over time when turned into a habit.