28 October 2008

Nookie and the Carbon Footprint

Oh, fucking hell...

You're sitting in the airport terminal, rolling your copy of the Economist into a sweaty tube and waiting to see a significant other who lives far away. You're excited. You're aroused. But there's something else, a nagging feeling that gurgles in your stomach and won't go away. Is it pangs of guilt? It should be: The planet is about to suffer for your love.

Perversely, we live in a world where the sustainability consultant in San Francisco is willing to fly in an exotic boyfriend every month from Washington, D.C. All day, she helps companies "green their supply chains" and "internalize core social costs," yet that eco-savvy seems to vanish at night, when she e-mails: Come visit!!! You might say she's willing to be a locavore but not a locasexual.

Consider what happens when these two fly to see each other once a month. Since greenhouse gases emitted from high-altitude airplanes are thought to have several times the impact of ground transport, a carbon offset company would pin their romantic travels with the equivalent of 35 metric tons of CO2 each year. If that responsibility were divided evenly between the two, our sustainability consultant's lifestyle would be about six times worse for the environment than that of the average gas-guzzling American—and up to 10 times worse than that of the average San Franciscan. (Indeed, for her, breaking up would be about 10 times better for the environment than going vegetarian.)

Yeah. And it only gets worse from there.

Look, I'm all for being conservationist in the way we live our lives, but the whole carbon footprint idea is really more about understanding the consequences of our behavior and trying to find ways to reduce unnecessary waste. And on that level, it's a really wonderful thing, in that it helps us to conserve energy by wearing a sweater, or by changing to more efficient lightbulbs, or whatever. But reading these kinds of articles makes me wonder if the authors have ever even listened to the way they sound to other people -- it's proposals like this that asshole conservatives point towards when they talk about "the loony left," and it's proposals like this that almost make me consider joining them for a half a second or so.

Conservationism shouldn't be focused so much on doing less, but on doing the same things with smaller amounts of resources. Not on avoiding plane trips for environmental reasons, but on working to create alternative fuels that will be sustainable, or developing more efficient mass-transit options that will make such flights unnecessary, or something similar. There's a strong dose of "holier-than-thou" (or at least "greener-than-thou") in the environmentalist community, and to my mind it's largely meaningless. The amount of damage to the environment alleviated by using a dozen less gallons of gas or some small number fewer plastic bags is pretty much negligible in the larger sense of things, and making people feel bad about it just muddies up the important messages about things that will make a difference.

Plus people don't want to listen to sanctimonious prigs telling them how to live their lives.

If you're in a long-distance relationship and you feel bad about your carbon footprint, donate some money to an organization or invest in a start-up working on alternative fuels. Or just give for basic scientific research on alleviating the problems caused by global climate change. I guarantee if you're living in San Fransisco and making biweekly trips across country for nookie, you've got the kinds of monetary resources that could do a lot more good for the world than just trying to find hot sweaty action within your local community.

Full disclosure: I was in a long-distance relationship for about a year, about a two-hour drive once a week or so. When she moved further away, I quit my job and moved with her -- that's how I ended up here in Kalamazoo. I realize that the moving option isn't realistic for a lot of people, but it worked for me (although I'm still looking for work). In short: I don't feel bad about the long-distance relationship, and I don't feel "good" about the environmental damage I haven't caused by moving up here. We all make the decisions that we need to make for personal reasons, and creating yet another social pressure based on an environmentalism-gone-wild is just crazy.

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