Nov 042009
Authors: M. Alex Stephens

On Halloween, Chipotle has a real cool offer. If you dress up in aluminum foil, like one of their tantalizing burritos, you’ll receive a free meal. You probably saw all the shiny college kids there Saturday night.

That got me thinking, just what’s up with recycling nowadays? Has it gotten us anywhere? Are we still producing the nightmarish mountains of garbage that Captain Planet so vigorously fought? Have we made any headway toward becoming more sustainable?

Americans are still producing heaps of trash. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, between 1960 and 2007, the average Americans’ daily waste has nearly doubled from 2.7 to 4.6 pounds per day.

That really stinks, but the upside is that we are recycling more than ever. Roughly 30 percent of our total waste is finding its way to recycling centers, which includes more than half of all aluminum discard and 57 percent of all paper.

The Internet is littered with all sorts of statistics advocating the positives of recycling: Energy savings, resources preservation, jobs created, averting climate disaster, defending ground water, yada yada. Recent polls say recycling is good, and evidence supports it.

That’s all fine and dandy, but is it helping to sustain our environment? No. Think about the three R’s: reduce, reuse and recycle. We’re still individually producing 60,000 pounds of pure waste throughout our lifetime, assuming each of us recycles as much as possible bringing it down from 90,000 pounds. Recycling is good without a doubt, but something deeper utterly negates it.

The root cause of all the environmental disaster we hear about every day, from mass deforestation to the death of the Chesapeake Bay to global warming, is blindingly clear. It’s been there since our generation was conceived.

It’s been programmed so purely into our foundational thoughts that we don’t perceive it anymore, yet we are completely reliant on it. Simply, it’s our way of life. It’s hyper-capitalism, the unnatural enemy of the earth.

Our age is that of hyper consumerism. Since our birth, we’ve been taught that producing and consuming equals good, conserving and saving equals bad. And why shouldn’t we have?

Our behemoth economy, unprecedented in the history of the world, has proliferated off wanton spending on pointless irrelevancies. Our standard of living is a direct product of a consumerism that would have been unimaginable 200 years ago.

But our standard of living has come at a terrible price. We are so insulated from the consequences of buying trivialities like electronics, toys, designer shoes and clothes, furniture and meat that we don’t connect what our appetite for “more” has done.

China rapes the Earth of every conceivable resource it can so it can satisfy our desire for cheap goods.

Industrial farms pump endless tons of toxic animal excrement into our waterways so each of us can have a chicken sandwich for lunch. Ocean liners travel thousands of miles to bring us strawberries during winter, and far-away factories strangle the air with smog to make our cars.

When the actual cost is out of sight, the real choice is out of mind. All this happens out of innocent ignorance. None of us escape blame. We don’t think about consequences because we don’t think like a society of 350 million, let alone 7 billion.

We think like individuals, and as individuals we rationalize that there’s no harm in individually buying what the market is selling. What happens when we, all 350 million Americans, want the newest cell phone? When we all want a 30-rack of beer for the weekend? When we all want a gallon of milk?

Unfettered capitalism is now synonymous with unconscionable consumption. Once admirable, capitalism is now an unchecked force whose very continuation relies on the extraction and pollution of everything Earth has to offer.

Will our children inherit such a drained planet that they will wonder if it was ever verdant? We have the power to save it. Not through mere recycling, but with a simple choice: To consume or not.

M. Alex Stephens is a senior political science major. His column appears Thursdays in the Collegian. Letters and feedback can be sent to

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