Monday, March 26, 2007

Unplanned Child Neutral

After the Oscars, I expressed a vague distaste for the practice of "carbon offsetting," the practice through which environmentalists compeonsate for the carbon emissions of their lifestyle by giving money to organization that plant trees and do other activities to make their lives "carbon neutral."

This Matthew Yglesias post about a Jon Chait article on global warming crystallized my thinking a bit. They were both discussing how irrational and ungrounded conservative "skepticism" about global warming is. It seemed to mostly be grounded is personal distaste for environmentalists, and it is fueled by stoking this distaste for them.

I noted some parallelism between this anf the abortion debate, which I noted here.

Thinking about this some more -- what would we think of a pro-life advocate who railed against the immorality of today's society who got a mistress pregnany who was in not position to raise his child? What if his response to this situation was not to promise never to have another affair, but to declare that he was now going to live an "unplanned child neutral" lifestyle. Every time he got a woman pregnant, he would donate sufficient funds to a Christian charitable organization to care for a poor child in a Third World country.

Would anyone accept this? Would this person ever be considered a credible critic of society again? Wouldn't we demand that if he was so serious about the scourge of abortion and children conceived out of wedlock, he should start by elminating his contribution to the problem, rather than merely compensating for it?

I'm sure the parallels are inexact, and this is more an explanation of my personal feelings than an airtight logical argument. But it does seem that if we are facing as dark an hour as we are being told, "neutrality" in the face of it is not a sufficient response.


JohnMcG said...

One way in which I realize the paralles are inexact is that the pro-life crusader is likely to beleieve that sleeping around is intrinsically immoral in and of itself, not just because it has bad effects. The undesirable results are a manifestation of its fundamental immorality.

On the other hand, the environmental crusader does not neccesarily believe that, for example, flying in a private airplane is intrinsically immoral, just that it has bad effects. Therefore, offsetting those bad effects makes flying in a plane morally indifferent, while nothing can make extramarital sex morally indifferent for the pro-life crusader.

Schadenfreude said...

As a lifelong smoker, let me affirm that I am not just carbon-neutral. I am, in fact, a carbon consumer.

I (breathlessly) await the announcement of my new tax credits.

TenaciousK said...

Guilt: an subjectively unpleasant feeling, whose presumed virtue is to motivate us to avoid experiencing it in the future. Misfirings aside, it’s part of a social learning process.

Indulgences: short-circuits the guilt/learning process by means of a convenient rationalization, such that an otherwise undesirable behavior can be perpetuated. For a price.

The similarity between a carbon offset and an indulgence involves the degree to which a morally undesirable behavior can be maintained, without guilt, for a price. However, there are situations where morally undesirable behaviors ought to be maintained (thinking killing in wartime, that sort of thing), for the greater good. You don’t like Gore because carbon offsets make him look like a hypocrite.

The rub, of course, is that in order for meaningful change to occur, it has to occur en masse. If someone like Gore decides to live a unilaterally green lifestyle, he is placing himself at somewhat of a disadvantage in competitive situations, isn’t he? I’d rather we elect him, or someone like him, and work towards global cooperative behavior, rather than individuals making what will ultimately turn out to be a miniscule difference on the environment.

How many completely green people would it take to offset a single Hummer? There was a silly problem posed somewhere awhile back (could’ve been the Fray – I don’t remember) where two alternatives were examined for a family wishing to cup CO emissions – buying a hybrid car, or dumping the old, less-driven pickup. The short summary: you’ve got to drive the Prius an astounding number of miles to counterbalance the pickup.

In some ways, individual behavior is only helpful as much as it contributes to changes in group behavior. What I’m afraid happens instead, however, is people do a little, feel like they’re contributing to the solution, and then let the rest slide (how human). At least Gore, with his movie, political operatives, and connections, is trying to change group behavior.

Which makes his environmental “indulgences” a lot more palatable, so far as I’m concerned: less a hypocrite than a pragmatist. I don’t think the same can be said for your evangelist, because illegitimate children cannot, in any sense, be said to further the cause for the greater good.

Of course, I’m glad it’s his children he’s aborting, rather than yours or mine. At least his behavior doesn’t influence the prospects for my children down the road (unlike people who are environmentally irresponsible). Perhaps the same could be said for Gore, if his offsets really do offset. I wonder how many of the rest of us could make the same claim?

JohnMcG said...

I agree that the usefulness of carbon-emitting technology in bringing out Gore's message presents a paradox, and that those who call for him to refrain are probably more motivated by a desire to muzzle him than love of the earth.

But I also think the evangelist could justify his affairs -- I work hard, I neeed to unwind, I have needs, I don't want to burden my wife, etc. These aren't really valid explanations, but I'm not sure all of Gore's would be either. Yes, he needs to to travel to get his message out, but does he need a private plane? Yes, he should have a comfortable home, but a mansion?

Again, I don't think this invalidates the threat of global warming, but it is a stumbling block that gets in the way of me following him (though I did just purchase myself a compact flourescent bulb to try out). I'm not so much saying I don't like Gore as pondering why his message has failed to resonate with me.

Maybe what this discussion will do is bring these stumbling blocks out to the light and drive them away for me.

Dawn Coyote said...

I'm in the camp that says that if you sets out to change the world, you'd better be prepared to model the change you hope to effect, but really, how much could Gore reasonably cut back and still be as effective as he is?

I wonder Gore's detractors (those who wish to muzzle him, as you say) are stuck on a previously held opinion, appropriate in the context of a federal election, but counterproductive to conservation goals that serve the greater good.

Thomas Paine said...

I also share the "vague distaste" for carbon offsetting although I suspect that it is a net benefit.

I think the parallels to the anti-abortionist you cited are actually pretty good. The comment that the environmentalist does not believe that flying around in a corporate jet is not inherently immoral could be seen as a parallel to the anti-abortionist who presumable does not believe that sexual activity is inherently immoral.

In both cases, most proponents of either perspective would suggest that it is not sex or jet planes that are immoral, but the excesses.

I don't suppose many of us would begrudge a corporate executive or politician using his/her private plane where that really is integral to carrying out his/her business functions -- but routinely using it to fly to the west coast just to be able to enjoy cocktails while watching the sunset over the Pacific (this is a real world example for a global warming activist acquaintance of mine) does seem inherently wasteful.

Ditto for heating and cooling multiple mansions that one uses only a few weeks out of a year.

Sure, buying carbon credits might help encourage 3rd world industrialists to build their new plants to a stricter standard than required, as the credits would fund the incremental cost, but if the wealthy individuals REALLY gave a fuck for global warming, why not buy the credits WITHOUT wasting hydrocarbons themselves -- instead of being carbon neutral, they could be carbon negative.

Carbon trading makes more sense in the industrial world -- if an older, rust-belt cannot easily meet current regs, it might make more sense to by credits than to just shut down (putting people out of work).

TenaciousK said...

I don't know about you, but for most of my life, I was taught that consumption was virtuous (employs people, etc.), and that the market would ultimately take care of us; being competitive actually produces greater aggregate cooperation, because everyone has a stake in the game.

I think environmental responsibility is only one area where this argument falls flat on its face (the relationship between social remediation and punitive correction is another). Allow people to freely compete, sure, but within bounds that benefit all of us! Not that government is a panacea, or anything - just that this is one of those situations for which we have governments.

We need our energy consumption governed.

Archaeopteryx said...

Mcg: I'll let you know if that whole "I need to unwind so I'm impregnating random women" deal works with Mrs. Archaeopteryx.

Schadenfreude said...


Always remember and don't ever forget: It's easier to beg forgiveness than to ask permission.

Never, ever tell the wife in advance (about anything).

maximo said...

lots of people accept carbon-life-form offsets.

cf. war in iraq.

biteoftheweek said...

I learned about the carbon offsets at Sundance. I already bought into it for my work car.

2 reasons:

1. I want to set an example for my kids and those I work with

2. It was cheaper than buying a new Prious.

Catnapping said...

If it's just carbon offsets, we should probably keep in mind that Gore's energy needs are met are hydro-electric and nuclear if it's just carbon the wingnuts wanna make a big deal out of...well, much carbon waste is produced from water??

As to the SIZE of Gore's utility bill...excuse me, but we're not talking about a single household...we're talking about a very LARGE building filled to the GILLS with staff. Gore and his wife are very active in their global communnity, and run several business and non-profits from there, ey?