Coffee, tea… eco-guilt?

Virgin Atlantic's attempt to shame its passengers into onboard eco-penance is the latest flight of fancy from a guilt-ridden aviation industry.

Nathalie Rothschild

Topics Science & Tech

Playing on people’s guilt is the oldest trick in the book when it comes to charity fundraising. But the airline Virgin Atlantic has taken the concept to the extreme by trying to shame its passengers into donating money to the Swiss-based charity myclimate. If your idea of a holiday is a guilt-free escape from everyday life, then a Virgin Atlantic flight is sure to rid you of that apparently selfish delusion.

Virgin cabin crew have been instructed to offer passengers ‘carbon offsets’ along with the booze, perfume and other items on sale on the in-flight duty free trolleys. As a Virgin spokesman told The Times (London): ‘If the person sitting next to you chooses to offset their flight, it may prick your conscience and you may pay too.’ (1)

Prices of offsets vary according to the distance of the journey and the class you fly in. Using tenuous calculations to assess their passengers’ impact on the planet (2), Virgin has figured out how much we must cough up to cleanse the filth generated by our energy-guzzling lifestyles. An economy-class return flight from London to New York will set you back just £11.98. This money will go to myclimate, which supports projects in the field of renewable energies and energy efficiency in Africa, Latin America and Asia.

No, £11.98 is not a lot of money, but that’s not the point. Not only does carbon-offsetting resemble a modern form of penance, encouraging us relatively wealthy Westerners to feel guilty about our convenient lifestyles, but the charities that promote offsets apparently have little time for public engagement and activism in order to convince us of their worth. Instead, they opt for simply selling us the feelgood factor.

Moreover, rather than working for genuine global material equality, many carbon-trading organisations only work towards sustainable underdevelopment for Third World residents – effectively, as Brendan O’Neill has argued on spiked, subjecting people in the Third World to ‘eco-enslavement’ (3). So why should we be coerced by Virgin and others into supporting them?

Many airlines now offer carbon-offset options to customers as part of their online booking procedures, but there has been a slow uptake. Apparently, holidaymakers are reluctant to spend more on their travels in order to offset their carbon emissions. Some tourist agencies are trying to get around their customers’ impertinence by introducing underhand methods to get them to repent their carbon sins. The tour operator First Choice, for instance, not only donates to the Travel Foundation, a charity that supports sustainable tourism projects around the world, but has also introduced an ‘opt out’ carbon-offset scheme for its customers. Unless they specifically request otherwise, adults pay £1 and children 50 pence to offset emissions from their flights. First Choice then matches all donations (4).

Yet Virgin Atlantic’s scheme takes the prize, because sitting crammed in an airplane seat, buckled up and with the aisle blocked by a duty-free trolley, there isn’t much you can do to avoid the imploring carbon traders. Annoying as those street ‘charity muggers’ are, stopping us on every corner to ask leading, conscience-twisting questions like ‘Do you care for the elderly?’ or ‘Are you willing to spare two minutes for cancer research?’, at least you can easily brush them off. On a plane, there is no escape.

Some of the money donated by Virgin passengers to myclimate will go towards supporting a power plant in India that runs on farming waste such as sugar cane husks. The purpose of this project is to use biomass as a fuel for energy production and to avoid waste materials rotting in the fields, where they release greenhouse gases and pollute the environment (5).

Sounds harmless. Yet biomass is a medieval fuel source and is not suitable for a twenty-first century energy supply. It could be argued that as an intermediary solution for impoverished rural communities, projects such as that run by myclimate make sense. Yet there is no sign that myclimate or other environmental charities would support those communities to move towards the modern forms of energy supplies that we in the West benefit from. In the developed world, we now take things like getting light by the flick of a switch or travelling great distances in a few hours for granted. Why should we feel guilty about this – and worse offset our guilt by donating to charities that seem designed to prevent people in the Third World from having as much as we have?

Flying, once an activity associated with freedom and discovery, and later seen as an immensely practical means of transportation, is now increasingly viewed as a mode of global destruction. Those who take flights are seen as selfish or even sinful and there is an array of campaigns to reduce air travel and to encourage us to make up for our planetary impact by donating money to carbon-offset schemes. By seeking absolution for our eco-sins in this way, the logic goes, we can continue to fly and at the same time silence that niggling thought that we are contributing to climate change. I’m not a Catholic, but I’m beginning to get a sense of what it might feel like to be one.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Austin Williams denounced the carbon colonialism being enforced around the world.Brendan O’Neill said carbon-offsetting is a form of eco-enslavement, but Michael Buick of Climate Care disagreed. Josie Appleton argued that life’s too short to be carbon-neutral. Nathalie Rothschildspent a day with the dreadlocked doom-mongerers at the Heathrow Climate Action Camp. Brendan O’Neill said the anti-flying puritans should be allowed to protest. Or read more at spiked-issue Environment.

(1) Madam, do you wish to offset your carbon now or risk social Siberia? , The Times (London), 8 November 2007

(2) For an explanation of why we should take carbon trading figures with a pinch of salt, see Down with carbon colonialism, by Austin Williams

(3) See Is carbon-offsetting just eco-enslavement?, by Brendan O’Neill

(4) Holidaymakers reluctant to offset emmissions, The Telegraph, 9 November 2007

(5) See the myclimate website

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Science & Tech


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