Jan. 22, 2007

Carbon Offsets

Here in Canada we are probably going to have a spring election and the number one issue may very well be the environment. This has a lot to do with the bizarre weather we've been having across the country. (Still no snow to speak of here in North-West Ontario) Finally people are starting to notice. But all we are hearing so far is various tinkerings and feel-good measures. Nobody wants to face up the stark fact that life-styles will have to radically change if we are going to do anything meaningful to reverse the climate catastrophe.

I don't blame the politicians entirely; if they told it like it is they'd never get elected. People are hoping that minor adjustments to their consumer habits will be enough. Actually it may be worse than this. People don't really want to save the ecosystem, they just want to assuage their guilty consciences.

Take one of the commonly hyped "Green" solutions; carbon offsets. The idea is that if you create a lot of carbon dioxide by flying, driving or what have you, you can negate the effect by paying a few bucks into a carbon fund that subsidizes alternate energy projects in the Third World. (See for instance the recent flap about Tony Blair's air travel)

Critics of carbon offsets have compared them to the medieval sale of indulgences. (See this very good essay by environmentalist George Monbiot in the Guardian) Actually the theological basis is almost identical. The church claimed that the saint's had accumulated a surplus of holiness, more than they needed to get into heaven, so they could sell it to you, direct to the sinner, allowing you to offset your adulteries, thievings and what not.

Trouble is, the adultery is still committed, and the carbon is still pumped into the atmosphere. The only tangible benefit is that the sinner feels good about it.

We need to look at radical down-shifting of our production and consumption. I said in this blog before that the Buddhist virtue of contentment with little could be a key; that's something so out of synch with modern values that it won't be easy.

The way people live in the rich countries (Europe, North America, Japan and a few others) is so out of harmony with what the earth can sustain that it is dysfunctional. And huge masses in India and China are scrambling to join the party. Consider how we live compared to our ancestors of only four or five generations ago. Houses are bigger (requiring more material, more energy to heat etc), people have more clothes (a common man in the nineteenth century might have a couple of sets of work clothes and one set of "sunday best"), our food is trucked from remote locations (and grown with massive petro-chemical inputs) and much of our entertainment is energy-intensive (the new plasma TVs, a totally unnecessary item, are huge energy hogs), people dry their clothes in electric dryers instead of on a clothesline etc. etc.

Besides using too much and living too fat, there is another problem. We are all in too much of a hurry. I would like to consider the case of jet travel. It is now possible to get almost anywhere on the globe in a day and a half. Is this necessary? Remember that Jules Verne, little more than a hundred years ago, wrote a novel verging on science-fiction about a man travelling around the world in eighty days.

Jet travel isn't even fun anymore. All the endless paranoid stupidities of taking off your shoes, not being allowed to carry a water bottle, being x-rayed and interrogated are just the start. Unless you are rich enough to avoid flying cattle-class, the cabins are cramped, the air is plastic, the food likewise (if there even is any) and the movies usually awful chick-flicks. The only good thing left about flying is being able to look out the window and see the clouds from above. And worst of all, you don't get the experience of travelling at all, which is to pass gradually from one terrain to another. First you are in some sterile airport where everywhere you look useless crap is being marketed, then you spend a few hours in a horrible aluminum can and then you're in another almost identical airport.

What's the alternative you say? Unfortunately, at present, there often isn't one. Speaking personally, I'd rather take a train when I go on teaching trips but a previous government in it's infinite wisdom pretty much destroyed passenger rail in Canada, and it doesn't even serve Thunder Bay anymore. And of course, you can't cross an ocean in a train.

Here's what I'd like to see; the return of sailing ships. Wind power drove our ancestors across the oceans and it could again. Think of it, the three-masters of the Royal Navy produced zero emissions. I wouldn't mind old-style sailing ships, actually, but there are modern high-tech alternatives, such as this kite-driven experimental freighter. Most of the practical designs which may be coming on line would be hybrids, which use diesel engines whenever there isn't sufficient wind. Or how about bringing back Zeppelins?

I know what some people are thinking, who has two weeks to cross the Atlantic? Maybe you only have a three-week vacation. But this is a symptom of the whole problem. If we didn't consume so much crap, the economy wouldn't have to produce so much, everyone could work less and get longer vacations. We wouldn't need to be in a hurry. A three-month vacation for everyone, leisurely sails across the sea for a standard middle-class vacation. A pristine planet.

But no, you'd rather have sixteen pairs of shoes.

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LINKS - Expedia offers carbon offsets for green travel
A look at carbon offsets from David Suzuki's web-site
The New Age of Sail from the New Scientist