Is carbon-offsetting just eco-enslavement?
In offsetting his flights by sponsoring ‘eco-friendly’ hard labour in India, David Cameron has exposed the essence of environmentalism.
If you thought that the era of British bigwigs keeping Indians as personal servants came to an end with the fall of the Raj in 1947, then you must have had a rude awakening last week.
In a feature about carbon offsetting in The Times (London), it was revealed that the leader of the UK Conservative Party, David Cameron, offsets his carbon emissions by effectively keeping brown people in a state of bondage. Whenever he takes a flight to some foreign destination, Cameron donates to a carbon-offsetting company that encourages people in the developing world to ditch modern methods of farming in favour of using their more eco-friendly manpower to plough the land. So Cameron can fly around the world with a guilt-free conscience on the basis that, thousands of miles away, Indian villagers, bent over double, are working by hand rather than using machines that emit carbon.
Welcome to the era of eco-enslavement.
The details of this carbon-offsetting scheme are disturbing. Cameron offsets his flights by donating to Climate Care. The latest wheeze of this carbon-offsetting company is to provide ‘treadle pumps’ to poor rural families in India so that they can get water on to their land without having to use polluting diesel power. Made from bamboo, plastic and steel, the treadle pumps work like ‘step machines in a gym’, according to some reports, where poor family members step on the pedals for hours in order to draw up groundwater which is used to irrigate farmland (1). These pumps were abolished in British prisons a century ago. It seems that what was considered an unacceptable form of punishment for British criminals in the past is looked upon as a positive eco-alternative to machinery for Indian peasants today.
What might once have been referred to as ‘back-breaking labour’ is now spun as ‘human energy’. According to Climate Care, the use of labour-intensive treadle pumps, rather than labour-saving diesel-powered pumps, saves 0.65 tonnes of carbon a year per farming family. And well-off Westerners - including Cameron, and Prince Charles, Land Rover and the Cooperative Bank, who are also clients of Climate Care - can purchase this saved carbon in order to continue living the high life without becoming consumed by eco-guilt. They effectively salve their moral consciences by paying poor people to live the harsh simple life on their behalf.
Climate Care celebrates the fact that it encourages the Indian poor to use their own bodies rather than machines to irrigate the land. Its website declares: ‘Sometimes the best source of renewable energy is the human body itself. With some lateral thinking, and some simple materials, energy solutions can often be found which replace fossil fuels with muscle-power.’ (2) To show that muscle power is preferable to machine power, the Climate Care website features a cartoon illustration of smiling naked villagers pedalling on a treadle pump next to a small house that has an energy-efficient light bulb and a stove made from ‘local materials at minimal cost’. Climate Care points out that even children can use treadle pumps: ‘One person - man, woman or even child - can operate the pump by manipulating his/her body weight on two treadles and by holding a bamboo or wooden frame for support.’ (3)
Feeling guilty about your two-week break in Barbados, when you flew thousands of miles and lived it up with cocktails on sunlit beaches? Well, offset that guilt by sponsoring eco-friendly child labour in the developing world! Let an eight-year-old peasant pedal away your eco-remorse…
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Climate Care has other carbon-offsetting schemes. One involves encouraging poor people who live near the Ranthambhore National Park, a tiger reserve in Rajasthan, India, to stop using firewood for their stoves, and instead to collect cowpats and water and put them into something called a ‘biogas digester’, which creates a renewable form of fuel that can be used for cooking and the provision of heat. One of the aims of this scheme is to protect the trees of the national park, as tigers are reliant on the trees. It seems that in the carbon-offsetting world, beast comes before man.
In these various scandalous schemes, we can glimpse the iron fist that lurks within environmentalism’s green velvet glove. ‘Cutting back carbon emissions’ is the goal to which virtually every Western politician, celebrity and youthful activist has committed himself. Yet for the poorest people around the world, ‘reducing carbon output’ means saying no to machinery and instead getting your family to do hard physical labour, or it involves collecting cow dung and burning it in an eco-stove in order to keep yourself warm. It is not only Climate Care that pushes through such patronising initiatives. Other carbon-offsetting companies have encouraged Kenyans to use dung-powered generators and Indians to replace kerosene lamps with solar-powered lamps, while carbon-offsetting tree-planting projects in Guatemala, Ecuador and Uganda have reportedly disrupted local communities’ water supplies, led to the eviction of thousands of villagers from their land, and cheated local people of their promised income for the upkeep of these Western conscience-salving trees (4).
The criticism of these carbon-offsetting schemes has been limited indeed. Since The Times revealed the treadle pump story last week, many have criticised carbon offsetting on the rather blinkered basis that it doesn’t do enough to rein in mankind’s overall emissions of carbon. Some talk about ‘carbon offsetting cowboys’, as if carbon offsetting itself is fine and it’s only those carbon-offsetting companies who go too far in their exploitation of people in the developing world who are a problem. In truth, it is the relationships that are codified by the whole idea of carbon offsetting - whereby the needs and desires of people in the developing world are subordinated to the narcissistic eco-worries of rich Westerners - that are the real, grotesque problem here.
More radical eco-activists argue that carbon offsetting is a distraction from the need for us simply to stop flying and producing and consuming. They claim that carbon-offsetting gives people in Western societies the false impression that it’s okay to emit carbon so long as you pay someone else to clean it up for you. They would rather that we all lived like those treadle-pumping, shit-burning peasants. A group of young deep greens protested at the Oxford offices of Climate Care dressed as red herrings (on the basis that carbon offsetting is a ‘red herring’), arguing that: ‘Climate Care is misleading the public, making them believe that offsetting does some good.’ (5) The protest provided a striking snapshot of the warped, misanthropic priorities of green youthful activism today: instead of criticising Climate Care, and others, for encouraging poor Indians to stop using machinery and to burn cow dung, the protesters slated it for giving a green light to Westerners to continue living comfortable lives.
Carbon offsetting is not some cowboy activity, or an aberration, or a distraction from ‘true environmentalist goals’ - rather it expresses the very essence of environmentalism. In its project of transforming vast swathes of the developing world into guilt-massaging zones for comfortable Westerners, where trees are planted or farmers’ work is made tougher and more time-consuming in order to offset the activities of Americans and Europeans, carbon offsetting perfectly captures both the narcissistic and anti-development underpinnings of the politics of environmentalism. Where traditional imperialism conquered poor nations in order to exploit their labour and resources, today’s global environmentalist consensus is increasingly using the Third World as a place in which to work out the West’s moral hang-ups.
The rise of the carbon-offsetting industry shows that a key driving force behind environmentalism is self-indulgent Western guilt. It is Western consumers’ own discomfort with their sometimes lavish lifestyles - with all those holidays, big homes, fast cars and cheap nutritious foods - that nurtures today’s green outlook, in which consumption has come to be seen as destructive and a new morality of eco-ethics and offsetting (formerly known as penance) has emerged to deal with it (6). It is no accident that the wealthiest people are frequently the most eco-conscious. British environmental campaign groups and publications are peppered with the sons and daughters of the aristocracy, while in America ridiculously super-rich celebrities (Al Gore, Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt) lead the charge for more eco-aware forms of consumption and play. The very nature of carbon offsetting - where the emphasis is on paying money to offset one’s own lifestyle, in much the same way that wealthy people in the Middle Ages would pay for ‘Indulgences’ that forgave them their sins - highlights the individuated and self-regarding streak in the Politics of Being Green.
Carbon-offsetting also shines a light on the dangerously anti-development sentiment in environmentalism. As the British journalist Ross Clark has argued, the success of carbon-offsetting relies on the continuing failure of Third World communities to develop. Clark writes: ‘Carbon-offset schemes…only work if the recipients [in the Third World] continue to live in very basic conditions. Once they aspire to Western, fossil fuel-powered lifestyles, then the scheme is undone.’ Delegates to the G8 meeting in Gleneagles, Scotland in 2005 offset the carbon cost of their flights by donating to a charity that replaced the tin roofs of huts in a shantytown in Cape Town with a more insulating material, thus reducing the level of heat that escapes and protecting the environment. It sounds good, but as Clark points out: ‘The carbon emitted by delegates’ flights will only continue to be offset for as long as the occupants of the huts carry on living in shantytown conditions.’ If they were to improve their lives, and replace their insulated shacks with ‘much more power-hungry bungalows’, then the carbon-offsetting scheme will have failed, says Clark. The shantytown-dwellers will have reneged on their side of the bargain, which is to remain poor and humble so that wealthy Western leaders can fly around the world in peace of mind (7).
Again, this is not ‘cowboyism’ - it is mainstream environmentalism in action. From the increasingly hysterical attacks on China for daring to develop, to the emphasis on ‘fair trade’ and ‘sustainable development’ in the work of the myriad NGOs that are swarming around the Third World, the green message is this: poor people simply cannot have what we in the West have, because if they did the planet would burn. The treadle-pump scandal revealed in The Times only shows in a more direct form the way in which today’s environmentalist agenda forces the poor of the developing world to adapt to poverty, accommodate to hardship, and effectively remain enslaved for the benefit of morally-tortured Westerners.
It is time to end this eco-enslavement, and put forward arguments for progress and equality across the globe. I would never pick up shit and use it to warm my home, or spend hours on a treadmill in order to raise water. Would you? Then why should we expect anyone else to do such things, especially in the name of making some rich snots feel better about themselves?
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here.
(1) To cancel out the CO2 of a return flight to India, it will take one poor villager three years of pumping water by foot. So is carbon offsetting the best way to ease your conscience?, The Times (London), 28 August 2007
(2) See the Climate Care website here
(3) See the Climate Care website here
(4) The inconvenient truth about the carbon offset industry, Guardian, 16 June 2007
(5) To cancel out the CO2 of a return flight to India, it will take one poor villager three years of pumping water by foot. So is carbon offsetting the best way to ease your conscience?, The Times (London), 28 August 2007
(6) See Live Earth: a global pulpit of pop sanctimony, by Rob Lyons
(7) The great global warming swindle, Spectator, 11 August 2007