It’s not easy being green

I’ve been planning the rest of my year in terms of trips, travel and general mechanisms of occasional respite from life on this island. I have two conferences to go to, a tour with my music group, the second annual pilgrimage to Minnesota for the state fair (we got tickets for JONNY LANG at the State Fair GRANDSTAND!!!) and that just gets me through the summer. Further adventures for later in the year still pending. OK, I admit it. I travel a lot. I fly a lot. My current goal is to fly enough this year to be promoted to BA silver frequent flier status. Apparently this makes me evil. I have been taking a lot of crap from my very favorite slightly-over-the-top environmentalist friend, who made a crack about my lack of interest in carbon offsets. I’m so very much of the opinion that they are like the things ancient Christians used to buy off the church in exchange for guilt. I’m just not having it that I am committing some horrid crime by flying. I live on an Island. I don’t own a car and I walk almost everywhere. I’m a pescetarian. I’ve donated lots of money to wildlife organizations and the US national parks system. I care about the environment but am unconvinced that an extra “tax” on my BA flight purchases is a meaningful way to address the problem, as compared to, say, promoting sensible first order basic environmental policies in rapidly industrializing countries like China and India. Of course, in the conversation it came to pass that “love miles” are seen as an acceptable justification for travel even outside of off-setting. So, to my friends and family, many thanks for providing me with an apparently reasonable excuse for my jet-setting lifestyle and poor environmental stewardship.

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11 responses to “It’s not easy being green

  1. This has long been my problem as well – I mean, my daily commute is by foot or bus (if it is raining/snowing), I walk to the grocery store and take my own bags with me, I am a militant recycler, live in a smallish apartment and refrain from overusing either heat or air con… and fly 25,000-50,000 miles a year. Er, whoops.

    The thing is, though, offsets are not only like old Catholic indulgences, but most of them seem like a scam – you’re forever hearing about how those acres of newly planted trees are dying or some ridiculous thing. And how do you know they really get planted anyway? Educating the newly-industrializing economies about the environment and supporting efforts to develop alternative energy sources, all the while not panicking, seems like the way to go. After all, if all the famous faces promoting environmentalism don’t seem to worry about their air-travel habits, why should we? And to be honest, I don’t hold the fact that, for example, Leehom can’t possibly fly fewer than 100,000 miles a year against him, because I like the fact that he is helping to bring environmental awareness to China… though it does bring me back to the old Glen Reynolds line (loosely paraphrased): when the people who claim this is a crisis start acting like it is a crisis, that’s when I’ll sit up and take notice.

  2. I agree completely that it is not easy being green. But with caveats.

    1. I cannot speak about China but I have to say that the vast majority of the Indian population actually does NOT contribute much carbon footprint, contrary to what the western media and analysts think. This is a point that needs to be made again and again when their resources consumption is raised – esp compared to America when the average American in America consumes 4-5 times that of an average earthling.

    The principles of reduce, reuse, recycle apply mostly with reduce and reuse with most. Reduce works because the vast majority is poor and cannot afford meats etc and eats mainly grain and vegetables based meals. Reuse? Well, come to my kitchen and I will show you how it is possible to live in the midst of cultures where shopping is like breathing, but remember one’s “third world” upbringing. The other big issue with resources is wastage too – including that of food. Although no longer scarred by stories of hungry African children, cited to us when we attempted to waste food as children, I rarely waste more than Ā£2-3 worth of food each week. I am aware that I am in a significant minority there too.

    2. That bit over, my view is that the people who really must assuage guilt are those with kids. Everyone I know who has a child has at least 2 cars; the nearest example I see is next door whose non-recyclable rubbish is 5 times mine every week. Their car trips are daily, and last about an hour a day; mine are weekly lasting 15 minutes on the weekend, if that. As you Americans say, you do the math. They also buy much more processed food, ergo more packaging and embedded energy used in the processing of all that food; I am more of a fresh, cut and cook kind of person.

    I think it is not easy being green because people do not agree on the main sources of increased carbon footprints. Of course, distant ndia/ China are easier to flog that Mr & Mrs Jones and their 2.4 children next door, who will vote people in and out of office.

  3. Shefaly has already mentioned the points re: India. I don’t think that the issue of greenhouse gases wrt India and China is totally irrelevant, but the fact is that we in the US (5% population) use 25% of resources, and similar statistics hold for much of Europe. A recent study mentioned how even a homeless person in the US has a larger carbon footprint than a well-off person in “developing” countries. That points to how the systems have been designed and set up.

  4. Sure, but the low carbon footprints in the developing world don’t really change the need for there to be efforts to lessen the impact of pollution in those countries. Forget global warming for a minute, the quality of life in China as a result of the incredible amounts of pollution filling the air is much lower – people get sick more, they can’t spend as much time outside, you have “smog days” that affect every aspect of life in the cities. As the world develops new and better ways to manufacture goods without having these kinds of effects on the environment and on human life, they should absolutely be implemented in China and India first.

    Part of the low average carbon footprint thing in China, at least, is a function of population – each wasteful Shanghai lifestyle gets balanced out by a thousand subsistence farmers. So comparisons of national averages aren’t that meaningful – they need to be comparisons by roughly equivalently sized cities, or some such.

  5. Merry, take a look here: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/3143798.stm

    USA has 5% of world population and India has 17.5% of world population.
    USA emits nearly 6000 units whereas India emits about 1500 units (estimate).

    I agree that both India and China would benefit if they adopted sustainable and less polluting means of development (I’m not a financial expert, but I’d think all the pollution will come home to roost one day), but why should these two countries take a lead in sustainable development while we continue to live our luxurious lives? It’s a case of USA saying to India/China, “Oh we’re developed and you’re developing, and developed is better, but we want you to remain developing, while we continue to live our lives the way we’re used to, wasting a lot of energy.” Does it seem fair to you? It doesn’t to me.

    Besides, are USA and Europe willing to share with these two countries, their technology that would enable sustainable and less polluting development?

    It’s a tricky issue. šŸ™‚

  6. Any way you slice it – absolute or per capita – USA has a disproportionate share of the greenhouse gases it emits.

  7. Amit,

    I don’t think anyone is denying that the US is a net greenhouse producer and the current administration has not known what to do about possibly reducing this. But one cannot deny that the current *growth* in greenhouse gas emissions are not coming from the US but from developing countries. My points are twofold. One, in the developing countries we have a chance to stop the badness before it gets out of hand, and perhaps China is far worse than India in this regard, I don’t have numbers in front of me. Two, my real point was about individual action versus larger policy. The US is a mess not because of individual people’s emissions (although as Shefaly points out they are worse than in some places, especially in some situations) but due to larger industrial producers. My flights on BA compared with coal electricity plants are a big difference.

  8. NFAH, as happens with many internet discussions, this one also meandered from the post topic. šŸ™‚

    I’m in agreement with you regarding one’s individual actions, and your flights. I believe that changes need to be made both at the individual and systemic levels, and the latter will have a much greater impact. Seems like you are already doing your part, so if I were you, I wouldn’t feel much guilt over flying.

    Re: India and China, again, I agree that it’ll be better for all if a sustainable growth is followed by those two countries. But how do we do that as we continue to live in an unsustainable way at a systemic level (not individual)?

  9. NFAH and Amit:

    Interestingly now you both are arguing along the lines of philosophical divide that also separate various political scientists and policy makers from their peers both in theoretical and in practical approaches to problems of an earth-shattering kind whether it is obesity or climate change. šŸ™‚

    Very much on topic, I’d say but along a dimension that emerged in the discussion.

  10. Amit:
    You noted that:
    USA has 5% of world population and India has 17.5% of world population.
    USA emits nearly 6000 units whereas India emits about 1500 units (estimate).

    I don’t dispute it. In fact, I’m sure that’s true – it just doesn’t mean that much after the initial finger pointing. You have the wasteful lifestyles of Americans being replicated in major cities like Shanghai, and that is going to be a problem long-term.

    But the larger point has nothing to do with national comparisons. The reason to improve manufacturing and lessen pollution in China is for the sake of the Chinese people. Even if global warming didn’t exist, that would still be true. China needs better air, period.

  11. 1) The issue with the developing world is that the growth in consumption is explosive without the concomitant capital investment dedicated to efficiency- all the effort is directed toward growth, the opposite of the investments made in the “first world” countries. Here is an example. I visited a factory in China near the Great Wall on a cold day in March, and there was a guy in a room opening directly to the outdoors. The single pane glass window (AKA “heat exchanger”) had visible gaps betweent he glass and the frame; I don’t even want to think about the roof and wall insulation (i.e., lack thereof). The door didn’t fit. He had an electric space heater going full blast. Had they sealed up the air leaks and added wiondow filom insulators aroiund the window, he could have turned the thermostat down to half.

    2) Yes, Amit, the US-India-China-Australia agreement specifically calls for technology-sharing.

    3) The issue is not consumption vs. population- that measure is always selected by flat earth greens to make the inapposite point about alleged disporportionate consumption. The issue is production- that is, output. What does the economiy produce- and then see how that compares with consumption. As India and China get further modernized, thta measure will increase for them as well, because you can’t produce output without investing energy and capital. For example, economic energy efficiency (from Wiki re energy efficiency):

    “Referring to the above examples, 1 million Btus consumed with an energy intensity of 8,553 produced $116.92 of GDP for the US. Whereas, each million Btus of energy consumed in Bangladesh with an Energy Intensity of 2,113 produced $473 of GDP, or over four times the effective US rate. Russia, on the other hand, produced only $48.37 GDP per 1 million Btu based on an energy intensity of 20,676. Thus, Bangladesh could be perceived as having nearly ten times the economic energy efficiency of Russia.”

    You don’t want to be Bangladesh, so it isn’t really as simple as raw numbers. The world does need output. And if it is environmental issue that worry you, comparing inputs without accounting for output is like measuring your weight based on simply adding the weight of all the food you eat. After a year, you must weigh 8 kg. By some measures (not all), North America is actually a net carbon absorber.

    Shefaly, I understand that world population is relatively high, though the developed countries (especially Europe) are hardly even replacing existing population except for immigration. I respect any individual’s choice not to have kids, but I wish you and your husband were reproducing your bright genome for the benefit of all of us.

    My last word: I will start to lose sleep over environmental issues such as carbon footprint when those elites who preach conservation to me show that they themselves beloeve it is a crisis by their own actions. That is, Al Gore shuts down 3/4 of his new house and starts to fly commercial instead of by private jet, and drives a SmartCar instead of an SUV. Possibly the most environmentally friendly residence in the US is Bush’s ranch house in Crawford, Texas. Recycles everything, including water, heats geothermally, has solar panels, etc.

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