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by Peter Hume, columnist

Many otherwise sensible people unwittingly believe it is better for the environment for us to waste more rather than less natural resources.

For example, I once read that in India they recycle even a single thread from a piece of fabric, which sounds very conservationist, doesn’t it?

But imagine that an Australian public official were to be given the job of doing that: typically with a carpeted heated office, a desk, chair, computer, telephone, a kitchen to make a cup of tea in, a car, a salary of average weekly earnings, tax and super and so on.

You can see that the economic activity to produce all those conditions of employment would consume more natural resources than would be saved by recycling single threads from fabric, wouldn’t it?

This means that whether recycling something is worthwhile from an environmental point of view, depends on the living standard of the people doing the recycling. The higher their living standard, the more their recycling will waste rather than conserve natural resources.

Take another example. Suppose for the sake of argument that energy from a source environmentalists don’t like, such as petrol, costs $1 for a given unit of energy; and that energy from a source they do like, such as solar, costs $2 for the same amount of energy. Environmentalists want government to subsidise solar by paying the extra dollar. Then we will have “environmentally sustainable” energy.

But that is to look only at what is seen, and to ignore what is not seen. The government doesn’t get the $1 from a moonbeam. It gets it by taking it from the surplus produced by people, such as farmers, miners, manufacturers, and photocopying office workers, who have to consume natural resources in order to make the dollar. In fact because of the $1 taken in tax, they have to engage in even more productive activity, and consume even more natural resources, just to stay in the same position.

For some reason, many people seem to have enormous difficulty grasping this simple concept.

Can anyone explain why?