Virtually all contemporary experts on sustainability assume that traditional economic development was characterized by a linear approach in which materials and energy were extracted, processed, used and dumped in a linear flow into, through, and out of the economy. Much historical evidence, however, indicates that industrial resource recovery was much more widespread than is currently thought. To understand the basic error underlying current assessments of past practices, we must realise that our ancestors did not expand their economies by simply doing more of what they had already been doing, but by inventing new kinds of goods and services and by creating wealth out of what had hitherto been considered valueless things. It therefore seems fair to say that all of today’s recyclable products were considered waste at one point in time, before value was created out of them through the use of human creativity and entrepreneurship. The market process is, of course, not perfect and some potential linkages certainly were and currently are overlooked on occasion. In the end, however, it may be that in today’s economies, regulatory barriers and price-distorting subsidies are more serious obstacles to creating value out of by-products than traditional market incentives.
Pierre Desrochers, “Does It Pay to Be Green? Some Historical Perspectives,” in Sustainable Development: Promoting Progress or Perpetuating Poverty?, edited by Julian Morris (53-54)