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The Magnificence of Disposable Diapers

Mises Daily: Monday, November 17, 2008 by

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My son is almost three months old, so suffice it to say that my wife and I have spent a lot of time thinking about, purchasing, changing, and disposing of diapers. I was reassured when I read that, according to a British government study, the carbon footprint attributable to disposable diapers is markedly lower than the carbon footprint attributable to reusable diapers.

This is not new information, but I was glad to see that there is now even more evidence that disposable diapers are more environmentally friendly than cloth diapers. It is yet another example of bad outcomes when good intentions are substituted for careful analysis. However, this still fails to consider the most important resource saved by disposable diapers: our time and energy.

No amount of innovation, no new technology, and no new medical advances will change the fact that there are only 24 hours in a day. Thus, every second is precious. Technology cannot give us longer days, but it can allow us to accomplish more in that span. Changing a diaper is a simple process: remove, discard, replace. We don't have to worry about messing with a stinking heap of diapers that have to be washed, dried, and reused. An even more pleasant byproduct of changing baby technology is that our "Diaper Champ" guards us from the offensive smells that would emanate from a more traditional diaper pail. Disposable diapers make our lives better by economizing on our time and energy, and innovations in diaper-disposal technology make our house a more pleasant place than it would otherwise be.

In one of my favorite passages in Ayn Rand's classic Atlas Shrugged, oil tycoon Ellis Wyatt talks about how the time we save with capital and technology make it as if we have defied death, if only for a few hours at a time. While it is appointed unto man once to die, technology makes our steady march to the grave much more pleasant and fulfilling. Among numerous other innovations, disposable diapers allow me to spend my time doing other things — writing articles about the economics of disposable diapers, for example — instead of washing excrement out of cloth diapers.

The time we save because of disposable diapers may seem trivial, but disposable diapers are both a cause and an effect of what economist Julian Simon called The Ultimate Resource. According to Simon, the ultimate resource is the human mind, which is utterly boundless in its creativity. Automation and innovation free the mind from mundane tasks and allow us to apply our mental energies to more stimulating problems. In this sense time and labor-saving innovations are a cause of further innovation. They are also an effect.

Disposable diapers did not appear out of nowhere, nor were they given to man by beneficent Prometheus; they are the product of human intelligence applied to objective reality as we best know it. Someone, somewhere had to discover that when certain chemicals are combined in a certain way, when certain machines are arranged in a given fashion, and when a certain series of actions are undertaken in a particular order, a disposable diaper is produced. Mundane? Perhaps. Miraculous? Almost certainly.

This brings me to a final point about what we're to do with the mountains of disposable diapers that will supposedly clog landfills for the next ten or twenty generations. In an interesting and entertaining EconTalk Podcast, Michael Munger — one of my co-bloggers at Division of Labour — hypothesizes that someday, people will be strip-mining old landfills for petroleum products that they can convert into fuel. Disposable diapers would certainly fit the bill. For someone who is truly concerned about the future of the planet, exploring ways to convert potential energy (existing garbage, for example) into kinetic energy would probably be a better investment than trying to convince the neighbors to use cloth diapers.

For the environmentally conscious, it appears that disposable diapers are not the enemy. If anything, they are better for the environment than the reusable diapers that have been trumpeted as the diapers of choice for the progressive and the enlightened. And once again, analysis trumps intentions. So go green: put down the cloth diapers and buy that extra-large package of disposables.