What do these four symbols have in common? Well, to start with they all cost resources, that is, they are not free. Why in the heck then do practitioners waste their money on them? Why do churches have steeples, and synagogues wonderfully ornate glass windows, and mosques, exquisite wool carpets? Surely the money spent on these trappings could have been used to do missionary work, feed the poor, or heal the sick. What is going on?
For some time, economists have understood that wasting money could pay big dividends, if the money was wasted carefully (see here, here, and here). Ornate signs, symbols, or Super Bowl ads, more than drawing attention, signal commitment. When money is spent on trappings, it will only return if the seller delivers as promised.
So, Christians wear crosses, perhaps for adornment, but also to signal to others that they believe in certain things and might be expected to act in certain ways. Some Jewish merchants close for Sabbath, even while it might appear to cost them money, presumably it pays more in loyalty and customer satisfaction by the symbol of their commitment.
The time that Muslims spend praying each day precludes a lot of production. Yet it remains valuable to them for many reasons, one of which might be external signaling to friends and colleagues of their religious and personal beliefs.
The modern environmental movement is hardly different. People desire to commit to a way of life, to signal their preferences, their values, their beliefs, and they also seek to enlist converts in their cause. Hence, symbols that are otherwise a waste of time and resources, come to play.
As Dan Benjamin at PERC, and others, have noted, a lot of recycling is (directly) wasteful and does not help the environment. Yet recycling remains a mantra of the movement. I offer that it is symbol of commitment, a willingness to waste, that bonds the recycler to a course of action, begs others to join, and creates a sense of community within the movement.
So here’s my prediction. The more people learn from Dan that recycling is wasteful, the more they will recycle. If recycling paid for itself, then it would not serve as a symbol and commitment of heart and soul to the cause. Recycling is good by virtue of the fact that it wastes, and the more that people learn this, the more they will do it. If crosses could heal or feed the masses, churches wouldn’t put them on the top of steeples. Their uselessness is their virtue, their symbol, their commitment.
While I agree with Dan that most street side recyling is an economic waste and environmentally unwise, the green street side recyling bin is a valuable important social sign precisely because it proves a willingness to waste. It says to the person pedaling by, “I am a believer.” The environmental movement would be less without it; that’s why I leave mine on the street for a couple days after the truck comes by and doesn’t empty it (cause it already is).
Bobby McCormick is a senior fellow at PERC and professor emeritus of economics at Clemson University.