In the days leading up to Copenhagen, it seems that everyone has been talking about false market based climate ‘solutions’ such as carbon offsetting and trading. A couple of weeks ago, I cycled over to the Green Festival in San Francisco, put on by the non-profits Global Exchange and Green America (formerly Co-op America), to find out why carbon offsetting continues to be promoted as a solution, despite evidence that it can actually worsen emissions, and provide psychological cover for carbon-heavy lifestyles.
With this in mind, I put on a suit and tie, bought a half dozen helium heart balloons, tied them onto the back of my bike and coasted into downtown, red balloons flailing wildly in the wind as I flew down the Post St. hill. The romantic descent was only quelled somewhat by a sudden waft of urine as I navigated around garbage trucks through the Tenderloin. Luckily the balloons were hard to miss, and (I hoped) would act as airbags in case of assault by four wheeled death monster– an idea actually in development according to the blog Copenhagenize.
Why was I doing such a thing on a sunny Saturday afternoon in November when I could have been out riding on beautiful Mt. Tamalpais overlooking the Pacific Ocean? Screw nature. Forget love. I was heading to the Green Festival obsessed with profit. Yes that’s right. My mission was to gauge American consumer interest in an innovative new product created by 3 young entrepreneurs in the hills of mid Wales.
CheatNeutral.com, the company created by Christian Hunt, Alex Randall and Beth Stratford, promises to ‘offset’ your indiscretions by channeling your fee to another couple so as to “buy” their fidelity. The idea is that the overall ‘heartbreak, pain, and jealousy in the atmosphere’ would thereby remain stable. Romantic candlelit interludes and carnal pleasure fests alike- quantified and fed into the capitalist system, a privatisation of the most private areas of your life.
According to Operations Director Beth Stratford, Cheatneutral is one of a growing number of ‘guilt management tools’ now being marketed to assist in the rationalisation of a whole range of immoral and selfish acts.
But would San Francisco, the sex positive playground of the West, the home of the polyamorous burning man hipster, the Lusty Lady and the Barbary Coast take the bait, buy the snake oil and pay to break their partner’s heart? Or would it click that carbon offsetting is a dangerous distraction from the changes in behaviour that are now essential if we are to avert a future catastrophic crumbling of civilisation? Perhaps both.
Eager to find out, the new San Francisco marketing director for Cheatneutral.com strolled into the giant hall with hundreds of exhibitors flown in from around the country, thousands of attendees from the Bay Area and the vibe of a giant Whole Foods Market. My mission: to separate the sneaky cheaters from the loyal and faithful- to see whether the Green festival is really green– or just greenwash.
I handed out Cheatneutral Flyers, and explained the valuable service that we offered. Past stalls with hemp dresses, organic lotions, yerba mate beer, and assorted green sundry, I plied the trade, and neither the humour (nor the serious message) seemed to be lost on people, besides a few who started inquiring about prices and who I had to hurriedly explain that it was actually a joke.
Walking down the hallway, I ran into none other than Gavin Newsom the San Francisco mayor who has had his share of embarrassing extramarital affairs. A moment like this only comes along every so often. I strode up to him, his handlers visibly nervous at the approach of this suited man with a walrus moustache grasping a bunch of heart balloons. “Mayor Newsom, I’d like to tell you about our company. We’re Cheatneutral.com and we’re proud to be able to offset your sexual indiscretions for a small fee.” He looked confused for a minute, then smiled broadly. Apparently, he has been waiting for just such a service. He accepted the flyer, then continued down the hall, the gallons of product in his coiffed hair leaving a slime in his wake that would rival the Exxon Valdez.
I approached the booth of a company called “Brighter Planet” who sell carbon offsets- even allowing you to earn them for every dollar you charge to your credit card! Talk about missing the point.
Here are the chilling words from their website:
“At Brighter Planet, we’re proud to be pioneers of a new environmentalism: one that is accessible to everyone, fits easily with one’s lifestyle, and is fun to share. We invite you to sign up and join our growing community!”
I had a genial conversation with the guys from the company- one of them couldn’t stop laughing, while as soon as I started taking pictures he became very huffy and kicked me out of their booth. I guess it’s hard to admit that you are making a living by lying to people, making them feel green when they’re really not.
The day ended with a rap and ride by Fossil Fool, with his phenomenal new pedal powered mobile sound system:
“Don’t be greenin’ it if you ain’t meanin’ it
Only hurts the movement for those who believe in it…”
The Low Down on Offsetting
Offsetting isn’t going to deliver us a stable climate any more than clicking your heels together and saying “there’s no place like home”. Offsets and other carbon trading measures simply allow the global rich to continue their unequal, immoral, and selfish appropriation of the Earth’s atmosphere. Offsetting and other false solutions to the climate crisis need to be stamped out and ridiculed at every opportunity.
Put simply, carbon heavy behavior like excessive consumption, driving and flying need to become so socially repugnant that if you choose to engage in them you will lose your friends and everyone will hate you. Period. Full Stop. It cannot be overstated the dramatic and tectonic- yet potentially sudden changes that this will require.
Guys who speed around in fancy cars must be deprived of the sex that presumably results from this primal macho display. Nothing like starving Africans and flooded homes to extinguish a girl’s appetite. But don’t worry we at Cheatneutral will compensate you for your flaccid moments with our Offset Project Program.™
Joking aside, bottom line is that we need to make this into a battle for individual hearts and minds- and that inevitably means behaviour shift as well. For too long we have been afraid of confronting each other’s oil addictions, discouraged by green organisations petrified of “offending the motorist” or being seen as too marginal.
Yet a major intervention, with all the family and friends round, sitting us down, smiling, and telling us that things can’t go on like this, is now what we desperately need. That for our own lives and happiness we should move back into the neighbourhood where we live, stop working so much so we can buy stuff we don’t need, get acquainted with our neighbours and ride a bicycle. Doesn’t sound that bad to me.
The implications of the science are far more radical and marginal (by today’s standards) than even the most rabid hairshirt hippie ever dreamed up in a haze of cannabis laced idealism. Yet, it doesn’t seem to be translating into personal limits.
We need to put the science of climate change first- not our heavily ad-influenced assumptions about personal mobility and Victorian attitudes about our relationship with the natural world. Let’s figure out how much damage we’ve done, what it’s going to take to limit the worst of it, how much carbon all six billion of us can safely continue to emit, and restructure our societies to allow that to happen.
I’m talking- if not cold turkey- then a pretty cool bird. Using fuel simply to meet basic human needs, and to assemble infrastructure we will need over the long term, before the resource becomes unaffordable and out of reach. A pre-planned soft landing, lifting our heads out of the thick tar sands of oil addiction and see the forest for the trees (don’t get excited Green America- trees won’t offset the Alberta tar sands!).
As I understand the science there may not be even enough atmospheric space left for the global south to meet their basic needs like food, water, clothing and shelter and for us in the North to meet our own, without taking unacceptable risks to our safety (sorry, Donald Trump, your flight to the Bahamas is not a basic need).
The battle is not so much political or economic as moral. We are not powerless automatons, a society destined to perish in our own effluent just because some asshole in a suit wants to sell us the latest product. Presumably we all have free will and determine our own course in life- the effects of propaganda aside.
If we don’t buy their shit, and don’t buy into their insane growth-at-any-cost worldview, then their climate-wrecking machine will grind to a halt just as surely as a car without oil will sputter.
Anyone who’s been watching ongoing international climate negotiations can say it with confidence. Copenhagen will not yield a safe, sensible plan for climate stability. Governments and the corporations propping them up cannot be trusted it seems with such a basic function as protecting life on planet Earth.
It’s time to drop the pretense that the plane and the car aren’t selfish symbols of a 20th century level of unprecedented personal mobility that we can no longer afford- personally, culturally, or globally. We can no more neutralise the billions of tons of carbon that we are responsible for ejecting into the atmosphere as offset that selfish and ill-advised cheat that tore apart our lover’s heart. Love is not for sale. Neither is the atmosphere.
The credit for the title of this post goes to Zach Houston, who I found in a corner typing poems for people on an old manual typewriter at the Green Festival. Cheatneutral inspired a poem:
the car ban off streets
will be the only true
beauty is not even
having to travel
because we can
You sound young, angry, and idealistic.
I like it. Very refreshing.
Now I’m back to reviewing arcane city staff documents so as to, hopefully, stop them from widening the freeway bridge.
I’ll try to do it in with a fresh perspective.
My only additional comment is that we should all start referring to carbon credits as indulgences. Why reinvent the wheel?
Get all the carbon offsets you want for free:
The next time you go out on one of these “missions” (the account of which was very entertaining), take a bunch of these certificates of free carbon offsets and hand them out.
I like the idea of the cheatneutral program, but how do I know that the faithfulness I am buying from people in mid-wales is incremental fidelity? How do I know they weren’t going to behave before I gave them up my money? In fact, how do I know they will behave after I give them my money.
I expect cameras in their bedrooms as part of the auditing process , only subscribers get logins. This way, you can see if your money is well spent.
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Great video. +1 Regular reader of your blog.
Wow. This is powerful writing. Please keep it up.
RE: “the dramatic and tectonic- yet potentially sudden changes that this will require.” search for #freepubtrans on twitter – we believe that this is the path to the end of autosprawl. Also you may already know about it but there is an excellent video: The Story of Cap and Trade, by the same people who made The Story of Stuff.
Hi free public transit- thanks for the comment and nice words. I was totally in favor of free public transit, but then my university professor told me that there are studies that show that free buses actually discourage people from walking and cycling, and do very little to reduce emissions. After all it is the drivers that need to switch modes. In the UK, the free bus pass for over 65’s has resulted in buses full of pensioners out for a ride around the countryside- fun for them but not exactly reducing emissions. Public transit has a key role to play in weaning us off our oil addiction, but generally saves only about 50% of emissions. The real win is re-localizing communities so everyday tasks can be carried out by foot and by bike. Oh yeah, and making gas $20/ gallon. 🙂
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