Friday, May 29, 2009

An environmental reflection on my train ride to Chicago

In a few weeks I'm going by train to Chicago to attend the Chicago Blues Festival. I love taking the train for the ride itself, especially when the ride is short (like a few hours or so, not the 2 day trip across the country I sometimes take). But another reason I want to take the train is that, as mass transport, it cuts down on our carbon emissions. Like many people, I believe that we need to begin examining how we can best conserve resources, stop polluting, and get away from the car as the primary means of transport.

So, in getting my Chicago trip arranged, I happily booked my ride via Amtrak, and in doing so, was surprised to see on Amtrak's website a suggestion that my contribution to global carbon emissions be offset by a contribution to the CarbonFund. I checked out the CarbonFund website and initially thought that its goal was worthwhile; it offered a means to contribute individually to environmental projects while connecting that contribution to one's current carbon use.

But my lingering questions and doubts evolved to be outright skepticism.

First, will carbon offsetting help reduce carbon emissions? Or conversely, will carbon offsetting promote carbon emissions by making us feel good about traveling again. It reminds me of my childhood when I would go to Reconciliation, the Catholic Church's offering of absolution for sins committed. Except now, for liberals and leftists traveling, we seek absolution for environmental sins yet to be committed. I suspect that we're trying to avoid the pain of real resource conservation, perhaps wanting to eat our cake and have it too.

The other problem is, being based on the market, it is open to manipulation by the polluting companies. An article in Business Week (3/26/2007) gives details of how companies profited by the carbon-offsetting outfit, Terrapass, by taking credit and getting paid for clean-up projects that were either happening anyway or mandated by the government.

I need to look more into this issue. I always felt that the environment was a collective problem that required a collective solution, even if as individuals we can do our part. At the very least, whether or not I decide to offset my Chicago trip, I need to resist the logic of feel-good environmentalism and face squarely my love of travel and how (and if) that can be done with sustainability in mind.

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