Vikings were not ‘green’ – recycling was an economic necessity

An article entitled Turning Swords into Battleaxes: Recycled Vikings! just came across the twitter feed. It’s premise, that Vikings ‘recycled’ because they took broken weapons to their local blacksmith and had them made into new ones. While this is a nice story, and it’s point is somewhat relevant, let’s not delude ourselves. The Vikings weren’t ‘green’. The Vikings weren’t reusing the metal in their weapons to get carbon credits and offset all the villages they burnt to the ground. The Vikings ‘recycled’ because they had to. Metal was hard to acquire and it was much more economically viable to use metal that they already had than it was to go mine more.

In fact, if the point of this article is to encourage modern man to recycle, it kind of misses the point. The steel industry has been recycling for 150 years. Since WWII the recycling rate for steel has exceeded 50%. Why is this? Again, economics. It is cheaper to recycle steel than it is to mine new iron and process it into steel. Raw materials are saved and 75% less energy is used annually by steel manufacturers, so of course they recycle.

There is one good point that the article illustrates, and that is that waste is a phenomenon of our modern wealthy society. Many primitive cultures are renowned for for their efficiency. I remember back in school hearing so many stories about how the Native Americans would use very part of a buffalo. Why? Because it was the only resource they had. They didn’t have cotton blankets, steel sewing needles or pleather jackets. They had to use the skin and bone of the animal as well as the meat. In our modern world resources are still plentiful and it’s more cost effective to use those resources than it is to be green, conserve and recycle. Until that changes I fear there is little hope to stop the rampant waste that our society is built upon.