how green are my ethics?

bergens tidende, 23 january 2007

Everyone, it seems, wants to save the planet. This time last year, few people would have heard of the phrase 'carbon neutral'. Now, no one who is anyone will do anything without first counting the carbon and offsetting their emissions. Brad Pitt and Leo DiCaprio have both made carbon neutral films, while Coldplay and Atomic Kitten have produced carbon neutral albums. The city of Newcastle, in the north east of England, aims to be the first carbon neutral city in the world. Rupert Murdoch's Sky empire aims to be the first carbon neutral media company. New Zealand's Grove Mill winery has produced the first carbon-neutral wine. And so it goes on.

To help people reach their Nirvana of carbon neutrality, hundreds of companies have sprung up offering (for a small profit, of course) to plant a tree or build a wind turbine to offset the damage caused by your recent holiday or your new computer (or even your latest film). You can even buy carbon offsets as a wedding gift, presumably to ensure that the happy couple don't start their married life in green sin. This week the British government became the first in the world to introduce official standards for carbon offset companies.

In all this frenzied activity, one question never gets asked. Why do we want to save the planet? That's not as absurd a question as it might appear. How we do things depends on why we want to do it. Everyone, for instance, wants to reduce poverty. But neoliberals and socialists have very different views on how to go about doing it, because they have very different views about why they want to reduce poverty.

When it comes to saving the planet, however, everybody simply accepts that It Is A Good Thing. As a result the act of saving the planet has become almost a religious undertaking, and carbon offsetting a form of penance for our fleshly sins. It's a way of assuaging your guilt for all your decadent activities - such as living.

For the assumption that underlies much of the discussion on carbon neutrality is that any activity that emits CO2 - and that means virtually every human activity - is something to apologise for. All human activities must be judged by their carbon content, and the morality of an action gauged principally by its carbon count. Carbon calculators have become the moral barometers of our age.

This approach leads, however, to a peculiar kind of moral blindness. Ethics gets turned inside out, as the content of an action becomes less important than its carbon count. It does not matter to the carbon calculator whether the person flying to New York is a drug baron sealing a deal or a neurosurgeon about to perform a life-saving operation. Each is being equally sinful to the environment. The worthiness or otherwise of people's activities gets pushed to the background as the focus shifts to the numbers of CO2 molecules deposited in the atmosphere.

Take travelling. Visiting other countries, exploring new cultures, and broadening our social and intellectual horizons is a moral good. Yet the very idea of cheap travel - and particularly of cheap flights - has come to be seen as morally repugnant. Making it more difficult for people to travel is not necessarily an ethically worthy act - after all, it is not just the rich who should be allowed to broaden their horizons.

Much of what humans do - from playing football to exploring the solar system, from staging operas to unravelling the secrets of our genome - is, from a strictly environmental point of view, wasteful and even harmful. That is no reason to stop doing it, or to think that such activities are in some way morally suspect.

Part of the problem is that we have come more and more to see human beings as the problem rather than as the potential solution. We live in an age of cynicism and scepticism, particularly about human capacities. 'In a real sense', the late ecologist Murray Bookchin observed, 'we seem to be afraid of ourselves - of our uniquely human attributes. We seem to be suffering from a decline in human self-confidence and in our ability to create ethically meaningful lives that enrich humanity and the non-human world.'

Such misanthropy makes more difficult the very real problem of dealing with climate change. What we need are not individual gestures to assuage personal guilt, but social and technological measures both to slow down rising temperatures and to mitigate its impact - measures such as improved energy production, greater efficient of energy use, and the building of the infrastructure that many third world countries need to protect themselves from flooding or drought. But in doing this, it makes no sense to view carbon emissions as a sin and carbon neutrality as the ethical yardstick by which we measure all our actions. After all, what's the point in saving the planet, if in the saved planet we are all stuck at home living a dull, parochial existence?