By Julie Marsh
I recently had the opportunity to participate in a conference call with Bill McKibben.
From the background information provided before the call:
Bill McKibben is one of the most vocal and visionary leaders in the climate movement. Now he and his crew of climate activists are launching a new campaign to rally people from every country around the number 350 - the "most important number on the planet." We need to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million.
We're encouraging everyone to think about the impact they can have on the climate, from small personal actions to huge collective action with 350.org and Brighter Planet's new "350 Challenge" for bloggers.
Before the call, I checked out the 350.org and the Brighter Planet websites. From 350.org:
Everyone on earth, from the smallest village to the cushiest corner office, needs to know what 350 means. The movement to spread that number needs to be beautiful, creative, and unstoppable.
What we need most right now are on-the-ground examples for how to take the number 350 and drive it home: in art, in music, in political demonstrations, in any other way you can imagine.
And from Brighter Planet's 350 Challenge:
Post the 350 Challenge badge on your site and we'll offset 350 pounds of carbon in your name! 350 pounds! That's like flicking off 100 lightbulbs for a day. Or going two full weeks without your car!
Brighter Planet is a Vermont start-up committed to fighting climate change and building a clean-energy future. Borne out of a Middlebury College classroom, we are dedicated to demonstrating how small actions can lead to meaningful change. Through our products, services and expertise, we help you to reduce greenhouse gas-emitting activities, expand your use of green technologies, and build renewable energy projects.
I had two specific questions for Mr. McKibben. First, I wanted to better understand carbon offsets. As noted above, the 350 Challenge offers an offset of 350 pounds of carbon in exchange for posting the 350 Challenge badge -- but what exactly does that mean? Second, I was looking for concrete, efficient, inexpensive ways to modify lifestyles so as to be more environmentally conscious.
The essence of my second question was covered by another blogger in her question: "Realistically what can we as parents do -- not only ourselves to make change, but also things that we can do to encourage our children?" She cited examples such as turning off the lights and shutting off the water while brushing their teeth.
Mr. McKibben responded: "All the kind of stuff that you're talking about and all the kind of stuff that we're talking about with offsets, like through Brighter Planet, are really important and really good and they're not going to solve the problem." He went on to say that the thing that we and our kids need to do is figure out how to get involved politically. He described local rally efforts to publicize the number 350 and advocated making change on a larger scale, noting that kids thrive on seeing results in the media.
In his answer to my question regarding carbon offsets, Mr. McKibben explained: "The kind that we're talking about that the people at Brighter Planet produce, ways for you in the course of your day, since we all burn energy in a modern human life, to offset the carbon in that." The specific example he gave involved using the Brighter Planet credit card for transactions, where instead of giving you airline miles, they'll give you carbon offsets -- meaning that they'll contract with a company that takes that small increment of money and uses it to build windmills on impoverished Indian reservations.
In other words, carbon offsets represent investments in environmentally-friendly, less carbon-generating technologies and projects.
Finally, he noted that carbon offsets by themselves are not a way to solve the global warming problem, merely a way to cover one's tracks a little bit, and he described offsets as a "symbolic and pragmatic way to make at least some small change around the edges."
As I stated on the call, I have an undergraduate degree in Environmental Science. Through my father's work in environmental management and restoration, as well as my own education and internships, I've been conscious of environmental issues for nearly twenty years. I drive a hybrid, and I'm working to implement other practical steps to effect conservation in my daily life.
I came away from the call feeling more disillusioned than inspired. Political activism may be a calling for other people, but it's not for me. Pragmatism is my watchword, not symbolism. And while Mr. McKibben may characterize carbon offsets as both symbolic and pragmatic, they seem more like indulgences to me (of the "Get Out of Purgatory Free" kind).
The Brighter Planet website also left a bad taste in my mouth. The "Act" page states "Use our practical solutions to do your part and build a clean-energy future" -- but what are those practical solutions? A credit card, a check card, and a link to buying offsets -- hence my comparison of offsets to indulgences.
I'm going to continue with the steps I've already begun taking -- in fact, I just ordered my older daughter to turn off the bathroom light -- and start going further in other ways. I'll buy canvas bags to use at the grocery store (and reuse the plastic ones I already have). I'll shop at the local farmer's market this summer. When light bulbs burn out, I'll replace them with the new fluorescent ones.
Those steps are my version of carbon offsets. What are yours?
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