TCS Daily

Harry Potter and the Half-Wit Prigs

By Tim Worstall - July 26, 2005 12:00 AM

Never one to avoid leaping on a bandwagon I am going to tell you about Harry Potter. Or rather, how others who cannot see a passing wagon without similarly leaping aboard have managed to get their facts a little, umm, confused.

The perpetrators are our old friends, Greenpeace International, who have decided that US readers should boycott the local edition of the latest Harry Potter and buy the Canadian one instead. The reason is, you see, that the US version is not printed on recycled paper:

        "The US publisher Scholastic is one of the largest Harry Potter publishers 
        globally," said our resident book wizard Judy Rodrigues. "If they had printed 
        the book on 100 percent recycled paper, like Raincoast, its 10.8 million print 
        run could have saved 217,475 mature trees."

We can leave aside all those inconvenient little facts about the paper industry, like people go out and plant the trees that they later turn into books, that paper recycling itself produces waste (including, it is said, dioxins) and that the collection of paper to be recycled is highly energy intensive. Indeed, if we try and pick our way through the claims and counterclaims of which is best for the environment or the economy, virgin or reused, we will no doubt end up as deranged as a Greenpeace member.

Fortunately we don't have to. We already have a simple and convenient system for measuring whether one process or another uses more or less resources. It's called the price. This is exactly what markets do, they aggregate all the costs of production into one single set of digits. A lower number means less resources used, a higher one more.

The National Geographic report on this matter tells us that:

        Markets Initiative says that it cost Raincoast some 5 percent more in 
        production costs to use recycled paper-a cost that may be reflected in 
        the Canadian edition's higher cover price.

Total production costs are of course a great deal more than just the costs of paper. So we can see that recycled paper costs substantially more than virgin, and thus must be using more resources. As Greenpeace goes on to say:

        Haven't bought Harry Potter yet?
        Consider buying a Canadian edition of the book, printed by Raincoast 
        books, which is on 100 percent Ancient Forest Friendly paper.

Well, yes, why not? Let's promote the idea of copyright theft (Scholastic having paid a very large sum for the rights to sell the book in the US), and the wasting of resources eh? Great ways to save the planet!

One might even go a little further on this. Bulk transport is undoubtedly more fuel efficient than piecemeal. So our bearded loons are actually suggesting that instead of buying a book from the mountain inside every bookshop in the country, it would be better for a three pound brick of paper to be sent individually from another nation. Genius, eh?

I have to admit that my own seven volume, 3,000 page magnum opus is still mouldering in the slush piles of various publishers in London. Everyone agrees that the basic idea is sound, even desirable: that there should be a school where environmentalists go to learn economics. But no one is quite willing to believe that there is sufficient magic in the world to make it actually work. My premise is, therefore, not sufficiently believable.

Evidence of this can be seen in this decade old report on paper recycling from Friends of the Earth:

        The recent report from Coopers & Lybrand and CSERGE gives further 
        support to the economic benefits that paper recycling can provide [55]. 
        And by actively promoting a UK paper recycling industry, jobs will be created in 
        collection schemes, sorting plants, recycled paper mills, and the design, 
        marketing, advertising and distribution of recycled paper products.

Sigh. The creation of jobs in this manner is not an economic benefit. It is an economic loss. If we do not recycle paper then these people will go off and do something else, perhaps invent the cure for AIDS, build houses for the homeless or bake the perfect apple pie. The very fact that a process "creates new jobs" means that it is more inefficient than the previous method of doing the same thing and therefore makes us poorer.

I'm told that the next book will be the last in the series. A pity really, as it would be interesting to see if Ms. Rowling could be prevailed upon to write something called Harry Potter and the Half-Wit Prigs.*

Tim Worstall is a TCS contributing writer living in Europe. Find more of his writing here.

* prig, n, a sanctimonious person, certain of his or her blamelessness and critical of other's failings.


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