Saturday, August 16, 2008

Carbon feet

The language of global warming is fraught with moral connotations, which is unfortunate because such language automatically divides things and actions into "good" and "bad". As we've seen, such language is neither helpful nor good for the causes they purport to further, because any free-thinking mind with half an ounce of logic can come up with cases against the both the good and bad sides. But what rankles me most about global warming is how imprecise the language is, and how slovenly the words are tossed around. To whit: carbon footprints.

I don't have carbon feet, nor do I walk on graphite or diamonds--but the most abstract definition of one's carbon footprint refers to how much carbon dioxide one generates throughout the course of one's life, day, year, month...and this is the first of the problems related to the words surrounding global warming. If I have a Hummer that I only drive once a year (I don't, nor would I ever get one), technically my carbon footprint would be smaller than that of a Prius that gets driven every day. But on the one day that I do drive it, yes, it leaves a major footprint behind--but I'm willing to bet that it's less than the impact of an everyday Prius.

This calculator
has a nifty little feature that enables you to calculate how big your carbon footprint is, and then it gives you tips to "offset" it. What exactly is meant by that, I don't know--unless you can magically remove all of the carbon dioxide that your actions have emitted, you're not offsetting anything. You can, obviously, engage in activities that use fewer or no fossil fuels, but that's not taking out the carbon dioxide from leaving your TV on all day when nobody's home to watch it. The whole idea that you can offset your carbon footprint is absurd. Certainly, you can and should minimize the amount of emissions your day-to-day activities involve. But there's no magic carbon quota that you can't exceed, so there's no logic in saying "Well, if we take the SUV, we'll have to hang our laundry out for a month to dry instead of using the dryer to offset our carbon footprint." The carbon dioxide from the SUV is still going to be there irrespective of how you do your laundry.

This is not to say that we shouldn't take steps to minimize our reliance on fossil fuels and all of the activities and items that stem from them--electricity, plastics, cars (obviously). But we need to quit deluding ourselves that driving a Prius could possibly be good for the environment. Most of the "offsetting" activities are, ate best, merely not bad, or not as bad, for the environment.

Our own carbon feet are pretty small: we don't own a car--we have bikes. We reuse plastic bags. We recycle. We don't eat organic all of the time, but I'm starting to get my in-season produce from the organic farmers' stall in the farmer's market. Appliances, for the most part, get turned off when they're not used. This blog is written from a laptop, which uses less energy than a full-sized desktop. Most of our furniture was acquired secondhand or built. We do these things partly by choice, but mostly by economics.

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