A very pale shade of green

The BBC brings us a short article about carbon footprints by environmental author-consultant Mike Berners-Lee, who brings the rewarding news that “we can actually afford to chill out about certain carbon footprints, which aren’t as bad as many of us might think.”

I am always interested in lectures and tirades predicated on various kinds of environmental “footprint”. It seems to me that this concept and near-relatives like “food miles” are the modern analogue of the Marxian labour theory of value—the latest in a series of attempts to divorce the notion of “value” from brute considerations of exchange, and to anchor it metaphysically in some other quantity. In environmentalism, as in Marxism, this exercise appears to end by dividing the extremists and the hard men from the accommodators or “realists”, who don’t wish to frighten either the horses or the bourgeoisie and who are always ready to let some economic practicalities into the discussion through a back door.

Berners-Lee, who has a new book out, obviously belongs to the latter category. Witness item two on his top-ten list of things we don’t need to feel guilty about:

Using electric hand driers beats reusable towels because it avoids laundry and comes in at three to 20g CO2e per go. …The footprint pays its way by reducing the burden on health services—fewer germs usually mean less illness.

The footprint “pays its way” by reducing illness? Which medium are we using to make this “payment” again? This sounds suspiciously like concern for mere human welfare at the expense of the planet, comrades.

Roughly speaking, humans emit carbon because of certain things they like to do; in descending order of general environmental harmfulness, these would include 1) travel, 2) productive work, 3) leisure, and 4) respiration. It seems to me that a burden of infection imposed by the abolition of hand dryers would reduce (2) and might well prevent a certain measurable amount of (4). It is not as though Berners-Lee is unaware that we living mammals are all exhaling carbon even in the quietest moments—see his item number eight:

Getting cremated is likely to be less than a 10,000th of your life’s carbon footprint, at 80kg CO2e. On this one occasion you can treat yourself to whatever form of disposal you prefer, safe in the knowledge that you have already done the most carbon-friendly thing possible.

Having embraced economic opportunity costs when it comes to a little thing like hand dryers, Berners-Lee ignores them altogether when it comes to one of the few individual decisions in our lives, one with an indisputably pretty huge “footprint”, that cannot in fact make a damn bit of purely selfish difference to us or give us an experience of pleasure or convenience. This attitude is shocking to me if only for the offence it presents to my Presbyterian frugality genome. Yes, in dying, you and I will have done “the most carbon-friendly thing possible”. But we are all going to die one way or another; why should we consider, given the whole premise of “footprints”, that this gives us license to go about it in an environmentally destructive manner?

And what a curious mixture of politeness and harshness: yes, your death is altogether good for the planet, and you should be aware of this every hour between now and then, as you tot up the “costs” of every picnic, pie, and pencil; but by all means feel free to muck up the atmosphere once you’ve shoved off, carbon-blower.

Berners-Lee also veers into arbitrariness, I think, when he informs us that “adding milk at least doubles the footprint of a cup of tea,” but that “if this helps to make your life feel worth living, you can enjoy it without guilt.” The same thing could easily be said of a Ducati Monster 1100. Surely we should feel precisely as much guilt as the excess emissions, added up over a lifetime, warrant. Nobody needs hot tea at all, let alone to have it with milk. Nobody, that is, except the English. (Nobody but an Englishman would talk of tea as a spiritually indispensable bulwark against despair.)

A hundred years ago tea was a representation of imperialism, just as much as it might be, today, of capitalist wastefulness in the husbanding of BTUs. The Berners-Lees of that day would have said much the same thing that today’s model does now: “If that cuppa helps to make your life feel worth living, go ahead and enjoy it without bothering your head about tea plantations and Opium Wars.”

All this would be of purely idle interest, except to those of us who tend to see environmentalism as a scheme for sending everyone pre-emptively to purgatory and then, à la Berners-Lee, getting rich off the sale of indulgences. What strikes me is that as time goes by we can expect the earnest, radical environmentalists to direct ever greater quantities of their energy against namby-pamby greenwashers; I can’t help wondering whether a working knowledge of the history of the European left from 1928-39 will prove unexpectedly rewarding in the coming decades.




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A very pale shade of green

  1. "All this would be of purely idle interest, except to those of us who tend to see environmentalism as a scheme for sending everyone pre-emptively to purgatory and then, à la Berners-Lee, getting rich off the sale of indulgences."

    I enjoyed the Marx analysis/angle of your post, Cosh, because it is not said nearly enough.

    Many people who believe in global warming have rather apocalyptic ideas and the 'green movement' has turned into a religion for atheists. I wish these people would find God already and let me eat my burgers, and drive my SUV, in peace.

    I liked you purgatory metaphor because that's exactly what is happening. You notice how ideas/new technology from private companies that might help reduce CO2 are routinely mocked and derided? Also notice activities that many enjoy are also being targeted? Global warming believers are rather Calvinistic, they seem to believe in total depravity, and instead of taking care of their own lives they want to impose their misery on the rest of us.

    All the greenies want is higher taxes and for government to manage the CO2 problem without actually trying to reduce anything. Then we can be constantly controlled by Big Brother, and when some of us complain, others can bewail THINK OF THE CHILDREN!!!

    "(Nobody but an Englishman would talk of tea as a spiritually indispensable bulwark against despair.)"

    Never thought of it this way but you are probably correct. Tho it doesn't have to be specific to English, it can be Brit, because my nan was Scottish and a cuppa was the solution to all of life's problems.

    • "Many people who believe in global warming have rather apocalyptic ideas…"

      "the 'green movement' has turned into a religion for atheists."

      "Global warming believers are rather Calvinistic, they seem to believe in total depravity, and instead of taking care of their own lives they want to impose their misery on the rest of us."

      "All the greenies want is higher taxes and for government to manage the CO2 problem without actually trying to reduce anything."

      Ah, argument by sweeping, unsupported generalization. Where would global warming deniers be without it?

      • Odd. The local school board built a new school; LEED certified, geothermal, the pinnacle of environmental stewardship. Cost a pile of money, probably twice than otherwise, but grants from other levels of government made up the difference.

        The building uses more energy/sq ft. as another local school that happened to be built in 1956. And is at 1/3rd occupant load. Not enough kids.

        So let's review. Twice the construction cost, high energy consumption, poorly planned.

        "All the greenies want is higher taxes and for government to manage the CO2 problem without actually trying to reduce anything" seems to fit.

        The building got awards for all the right reasons.

        I'll make a sweeping generalization. Any time the word 'green' is uses, hire a lawyer, sue for fraud. A good start.

        Any time 'environment' is uses, ditto.

        Derek

        • So somebody makes a mess of a project, and that proves the entire environmental movement is a fraud.

          I don't think that stands up to scrutiny.

    • "Many people who believe in global warming have rather apocalyptic ideas and the 'green movement' has turned into a religion for atheists."

      This is kind of an ironic thing to say, when you consider that Elizabeth May might be the most openly religious political figure in Canada.

      • And another 'ironic' thing is that most of May's supporters are unaware of her interest in religion and would be horrified by it if they knew, particularly how she sounds quite conservative when talking about abortion.

        • "And another 'ironic' thing is that most of May's supporters are unaware of her interest in religion"

          Having been to dozens of Green Party events, this might be the funniest thing I've ever read. I picture a bunch of people stumbling around saying "who is this woman and how did I end up in this church basement?!?"

          Next you'll be telling me that Jim Flaherty's supporters don't realize he's short, or Stephen Harper's supporters don't realize he's actually a reptile.

          • I agree, poor choice of words.

            I know a few militant atheists who consider themselves Green Party supporters but they know nothing about the party or May. They would be shocked to find out May is studying to become Anglican minister.

            I assume you are fan of Green Party if you have attended dozens of events. Many Green supporters are progressives and they can be rather anti-religion, do you notice any tension?

          • Parties have tensions. Consider social conservatives vs. civil libertarians in the Conservative party. I'm not sure what your point is beyond "Greens are clueless idiots, unlike other parties which are full of Rhodes scholars".

  2. Good post.

  3. The extreme global warmists like Berners-Lee are a threat to the rest of us. They simply cannot understand the true concept of value and have replaced it with their concept of control. Once they get into tea and cremation, we know we're in trouble, on the way to serfdom. Save us.

  4. Wouldn't conversion to Soylent Green be better than cremation?

    • depends on the resources necessary to create it, vis-a-vis other available food sources.

      • I seem to remember that the bodies were just tipped into the vat of boiling water, mixed around with flavoring and coloring, and then dried and stamped into little green wafers. Maybe they get fussied up a bit like upscale crackers. Nothing too fancy. Bit like a glue factory I suppose.

    • I'm thinking composting would be best. Aerobic composting, mind you, with regular turning and the addition of lawn clippings and leaves, not aneorobic composting underground.

  5. "In environmentalism, as in Marxism, this exercise appears to end by dividing the extremists and the hard men from the accommodators or “realists”"

    Well, it's just win-win for you Colby. If someone is concerned about the environment, they're either a hardline extremist (a crazy viewpoint for which you will undoubtedly mock them) or they're an accommodator and you will mock them for lacking the integrity of the hardliners. I think your attempt to jam environmentalism into Marxism has distorted it beyond all recognition.

    It sounds like Berners-Lee has written a low-key book attempting to make carbon emissions of day-to-day activities understandable to laypeople. Your response is to nitpick and sneer whenever he suggests that something small is not worth worrying about.

    Are you a global warming denier? If not, what approach would meet your exacting standards?

    • His point is to illuminate how valuing activities and products on the basis of their carbon footprint is detaching their value from any medium of exchange. Once you do this, as Marx did, then you are entering into very disputatious waters, since you cannot mix these two values without all kinds of trade-offs on both sides. If a towel is cheaper to use than a hair-dryer, but the hair-dryer is deemed less carbon intensive than a towel, how do you resolve the choice in ways that an economy can manage?

      • Yeah, I understand that. My point is that Berners-Lee seems pretty circumspect about the whole thing and is actually trying to quell frustration and confusion about that very tradeoff. We're not going to save the world by choosing hand towels over dryers so there's no point agonizing over it.

        Worse, business is exploiting people's confusion and good intentions through "green" products that offer marginal environmental benefits (but usually improved margins) and through greenwashing. It wouldn't surprise me if every corporate BP washroom had a "Save the Earth! Use Fewer Handtowels!" sign. All this focus on insignificant improvements makes it hard to understand where the *real* opportunities for improvement can be found.

        And all this talk of Marxism is just silly. There are extremists in the environmental movement (just like in the conservative movement, just like in business, just like in the animal rights movement) but it's not right to characterize the whole movement on that basis.

        • "Circumspect" is one way of putting it. "Arbitrary" was mine. He's urging decisions and tradeoffs that are based on no logic–only his OWN feeling on what might be important for you and me, or, in particular, for an English audience (we can't do without tea! Perish the thought). The implication is that he just has the moral authority to let us off the hook as he sees fit.

          You're right about the "win-win" thing, but what if I really do win both ways? If I criticized the Christian faith on the grounds that it similarly divides men between cruel literalist fanatics and make-it-up-as-you-go-along purveyors of personal salvation, and I often do, would that particularly bother you? Or would it in fact be a valid criticism?

          • Sure it's arbitrary but I think he's talking about arbitrary decisions that don't have a huge environmental impact. I understand that doesn't reflect a perfectly consistent set of underlying values, but if you're trying to make a principled decision on whether to put milk in your tea, you're wasting your time.

            A Bugatti Monster 1100, on the other hand, might be big enough to warrant a serious evaluation of its value to the purchaser vs its cost to the environment.

            He doesn't sound judgmental or preachy to me, so I disagree that he's staking claim to some moral authority. We would probably have to read the book to settle that.

            "You're right about the "win-win" thing, but what if I really do win both ways?"

            I think that criticism of Christianity is perfectly valid, but it ignores millions of people in the middle who benefit from religion without laying awake nights trying to sort out which extreme is correct. So I guess you would be correct while missing much of the reality. And I say this as someone who's no fan of religion.

            Likewise, you can criticize people who think we should cull the human population AND the people who think switching to CFL's will save the world. You would be right, but you're missing lots of good work in the middle – new MPG regulations in the US, the phase-out of incandescent bulbs in Ontario, the (someday) shutdown of the Nanticoke coal power plant, etc. Heck, you could probably criticize each of these as well, but even imperfect initiatives can make a real difference.

            I think the problem with your approach is that it both demands and criticizes perfection, making practical efforts impossible.

          • I do not think there can be any reasonable question that the product he's offering is reassurance.

      • Let me put it another way: I don't see anybody except environmental extremists arguing that carbon footprint should be the *only* metric we apply in valuing activities and products. If I'm wrong, I'd appreciate a source from you.

        What I see happening is that carbon footprint must become one of the criteria we use. And I see Berners-Lee trying to demystify this new criterion.

        • communist!

        • Well put, TJ. Berners-Lee seems to be writing against the more nonsensical, zero-sum type environmentalism (that usually is taken by critics to be the sole manifestation of modern environmental consciousness). Anything that can help inject a bit of sanity can't be that bad.

        • But the criteria he uses seem truly mystifying. Why, exactly, are traditional burial and milk with your tea fine? If it's just because it's normal and to be expected, then we're clearly in the realm of drawing up new, almost random moral rules, without great regard to whether they're actually helping the planet or not.

    • "Are you a global warming denier?"

      Are you still beating your wife? Two billion people in Asia don't give a fig about AGW other than to use it as an excuse to extort guilt money from chumps like you; it makes no sense whatsoever to worry about the carbon footprint of a cup of tea when China is building a new coal plant a week for the next ten years, and you know it.

      Appropriating the suffering of the Jews who died in WWII to demonize climate realists by calling them "deniers" is way out of bounds and not a great way to kick off a conversation.

      • So your point is that global warming is real and manmade, but there's nothing we can do about it, so it's stupid to try, because of China.

        Is that correct? I disagree – I think that even in the face of growing Chinese emissions, we can and must reduce our own.

        I fail to see how that makes me a "chump" or deserving of your sneering tone.

        Your comment about the Holocaust is unworthy of response.

        • "I think that even in the face of growing Chinese emissions, we can and must reduce our own. "

          This is akin to a sprinter declaring that since most of his opponents are taking steroids, he should slice his own legs off.

          • Interesting analogy!

            But I'm not sure what the environmental equivalent of "slicing our own legs off" is; can you flesh that out for me?

  6. " On this one occasion you can treat yourself to whatever form of disposal you prefer, safe in the knowledge that you have already done the most carbon-friendly thing possible."

    Ultimately I think this is what it's all about: an excuse to promote population control. The notion that people are a disease on this earth is not a new one; it is the extreme of self-loathing to which moral relativism inevitably leads.

    Of course, population reduction can only be achieved in two ways: (1) limiting the number of new people, and (2) terminating the ones already here. Our society increasingly promotes both, particularly with respect to the third world….whose consumption and "carbon footprint", interestingly enough, are the least significant.

    • it's the exact opposite – finding ways to use less more efficiently so that population control doesn't become exercised on us by outside factors.

      • This from last year's Financial Post is just one example of what I am talking about. There are many more.

        From the linked article: "A planetary law, such as China's one-child policy, is the only way to reverse the disastrous global birthrate currently, which is one million births every four days. The world's other species, vegetation, resources, oceans, arable land, water supplies and atmosphere are being destroyed and pushed out of existence as a result of humanity's soaring reproduction rate."

        If the point was merely "let's not waste our resources, but rather be responsible" you'd find conservatives generally in agreement. It's the "let's enforce public control over private property and aggressively promote contraception and abortion" that has us concerned.

        • I recall that article and it was an excellent example of concern trolling except apparently for money. It was a self serving account of how financial post subscribers would like to view environmentalism, not the real thing.

          • Can't be that, because I used to consider myself an environmentalist and really didn't want to view them that way. But it happened in spite of my best efforts. I was all fire and brimstone over the disappearing rainforests back in 1989-90 when "scientists" were saying they'd disappear by the Year 2000 and that they produced 90% of the world's oxygen. Except scientists weren't saying that at all. Rather, it was the Giaia worshippers who were shouting this from the rooftops and being quoted uncritically in the media. I got taken once. Won't happen again. I am very much a convervationist, but the environmental movement is far too nutty and extremist for me.

          • So 20 years ago you believed a theory that was being pushed by non-scientists and turned out to be false and that soured you on the environmental movement.

            I suggest you take a look at the global warming information that's available. There's no shortage of scientists endorsing it as real and urgent.

          • You don't have to deny the science, it's the solutions automatically attached to global warming that reek of Marxism

  7. A good post, Colby. But I'm mixed up about your Presbyterian frugality genome: does it really prevent you from consuming more than you need but also allow you to excrete when and where you want without worrying about the consequences? Is there nothing in the genome that spells out, "Don't shit where you eat"?

    Anyway all this Christian stuff is the wrong model. Buddhism's "middle path" sounds more germaine to Berners-Lee: cut out the raping and murdering but don't beat yourself up over the jaywalking and bad manners in Internet forums.

    Or maybe karma is more apt: have your tea but balance the scales by taking the bus once a week instead of driving your car. That won't appeal to your rigorous accounting standards but most of us aren't interested in organizing our lives by spreadsheet. (To use a different anology, calorie counters are no better at losing weight than dieters who simply avoid certain foods and make an effort to stop eating when they're no longer hungry.)

    Some of us ARE interested in conservation and preservation. But it's complicated. So we're going to be arbitrary about it some of the time. Maybe that's better than nothing.

  8. A good post, Colby. But I'm mixed up about your Presbyterian frugality genome: does it really prevent you from consuming more than you need but also allow you to excrete when and where you want without worrying about the consequences? Is there nothing in the genome that spells out, "Don't crap where you eat"?

    Anyway Christianity is the wrong toolkit for this slushy, complicated problem. If you have to pick a religious system (and you started it) Buddhism's "middle path" or HInduism's idea of "karma" are more apt: cut out the killing and raping but don't beat yourself up over the jaywalking and bad manners in Internet forums. Or have your tea (in moderation) but right the scales by taking the bus to work once a week instead of driving your car.

    That' won't measure up to your rigorous accounting standards but most people aren't interested in living their lives by spreadsheet. Some of us ARE interested in conservation and preservation. But it's complicated. So we're going to be arbitrary about it some of the time. Maybe that's better than doing nothing.

      • Maybe it's worse because:

        - poorly-informed decisions could increase CO2 emissions and further accelerate global warming, or

        - global warming is/may not be actually happening, so we would forgo pleasure for nothing?

  9. thanks cc

    eco-narcissists make me nutty. it is good to care about the state of nature, and our effect on it, but to use this concern in others as a vehicle for self-promotion, extracting a guilt toll on the bridge to the future etc. is sickening.

    i hope this type of stupidity doesn't deter anyone from serious conversation and contemplation about nature and humanity.

  10. The English think they can solve anything with a cup of tea.

  11. Coal is cheap, plentiful, and efficient. Clean coal technology also means it's relatively clean. It's not as clean as solar or wind, but it actually produces power with an economy of scale that makes it reliable and cost effective. So of course we must reject it out of hand and chase rainbows instead. Chasing perfection in the form of emissions-free energy production is a losing cause. Solar & wind just aren't going to account for much energy production. Ever. We should be working on ways to make fossil fuel use cleaner and more efficieint, instead of looking for the mythical perfect solution.

    • It ain't that much cleaner, and relying on it dosen't help that much.

  12. Well, if you look at the comments to the Berners-Lee article, you'll see you're ignoring a third problem, perhaps the most important: namely, that there is an infinity of potential alternative standards of environmental value. MBL tells us to "chill out" about plastic bags because their carbon footprint isn't large, but their landfill footprint and their urban-filth footprint is another story. There's also the sulfur footprint of the carbon-cheap seaborne vegetables on which England depends so heavily. It's a good thing people aren't interested in living by spreadsheet because we'll need a lot of them.

    • Let me walk back the spreadsheet point this far–we ought to do our best to make informed decisions, and many calculations reveal counter-intuitive results. Buying organic vegetables at your grocery store may well be worse than than buying the local non-organic stuff because somebody burned a lot of diesel fuel to ship that shriveled, sad-sack pepper from far away.

      Lots of environmental choices are difficult to evaluate. I can't tell you what the equation looks like for the energy and materials expended on making my rain barrel compared to the benefit derived from conserving water. I switched from an organic fertilizer in my garden to a chemical fertilizer because I suspect their footprints are about the same (the chemical stuff is 5 times more concentrated and therefor 5 times cheaper to ship–though of course, I have no idea how to quantify production costs). I haven't done any math at all on the benefits of composting my kitchen scraps–I just took a little leap of faith.

      Unquestionably, I'm going to get some choices right and some of them wrong, and I'm banking on my intuition being better than 50-50. I hope somebody is working on the spreadsheets. I don't have the time or the data–which is no excuse not to make modest efforts to reduce waste and limit my own footprint.

      • Fortunately Geoff, last year a Canadian writer of whom you may be dimly aware noted this issue about the complexity of determining the lowest carbon inputs vs. other lower inputs, and came up with a suggestion that your best answer is to buy the cheapest food you can:
        http://network.nationalpost.com/np/blogs/fullcomm

        • A conclusion I came to on my own. But it's nice when an eccentric columnist from an old fashioned moribund newspaper backs you up.

    • So true. The problem with spreadsheets is garbage in, garbage out.
      I wish I had paid more attention to what was being said in the history of economic thought course I followed several decades ago. I might have come to understand how Marx's labour theory of value could explain why hamburger meat was cheaper to buy than steak…!
      In a similar vein, if electric hand drying has positive health benefits, how does one explain studies that seem to indicate that drying hands with the warm air dryer increased the total number of bacteria on one's finger pads and palms, while with drying hand with a paper total, the total number of bacteria was reduced on average.

  13. Thanks! – Great article.

  14. I always kind of thought the Labour Theory of Value and the accompanying stuff on the distortion of markets was ol' Karl's only good idea. Which is probably why the fanatical Marxists mostly ignored it — it actually requires a small amount of understanding.

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