Buying Indulgences, or Being the Change You Seek?

Here’s either a clever fundraising device or a scam.  Likewise, here’s either a fine example of thinking globally and acting locally or a fundamental misunderstanding of how to make social change.

As yesterday’s Wall Street Journal reported (under the heading "Eco-charity"), certain Websites offer you the opportunity to offset the environmental costs you’re inflicting on the world by sending an amount equivalent to those costs to–well, my goodness, to the Websites themselves!  But never fear: the Web hosts (including Carbonfund.org, Offsetters.com and My-Climate.com) then pass the money along to environmental causes.

This raises a few questions, such as:

  • Are these people for real?  My-Climate.com is a project of Sustainable Travel International, a nonprofit underwritten by the travel industry which also encourages travelers to direct philanthropy to places they visit and supports eco-tourism; so in their case, it’s "Take nothing but pictures and try not to leave a carbon footprint."  Offsetters.com is a Canadian NGO that claims to be "harnessing the power of the market to integrate climate change considerations into the day-to-day decisions of Canadians" but which operates at a double remove from actual environmental work: it passes 80% of your donations along to something called ClimateCare, which in turn passes along the money (or some fraction thereof) to operating NGOs around the world.  At Carbonfund.org, at least you can pick the eco-projects to which your donations are applied; but wouldn’t be more effective to eliminate the middle man and give the money directly to the agency building energy-efficient affordable housing or the consortium providing low-emission cooking fuel in the developing world?  No doubt it’s worth something to have Websites do research and unearth these virtuous activities–but is it worth reducing by a fifth, or a quarter, the financial support available for the activities themselves?
  • What do they mean, "offset"?  I understand the concept as it applies to businesses required to conform to EPA regulations: environmentally sensitive companies profit by selling off their excess emission rights, while dirty businesses use those purchased rights to offset their excess emissions.  But even if individuals could similarly purchase the right to hasten global warming, there’s no reason to think these three Websites have it available for sale.  Who died and gave them ownership of the world’s environment?

Of course the Websites don’t claim any such ownership.  As Carbonfund.org says,

The most important thing that all of us can do to deal with climate change is to use less energy.  Here at Carbonfund.org, our motto is “Reduce what you can, offset what you can’t.” Our mission is to educate people about steps they can take to reduce energy use.

But there’s the rub.  What’s termed "offsetting" is actually a practice of selling indulgences: "Oh, don’t worry about your SUV, you’ve paid for it by a gift to charity."  Where poverty is the problem, money is the solution; but where attitudes and behavior are the problem, should we really be suggesting that money is still the solution–that people can simply pay NOT to change their attitudes or behavior?  If we adapted this idea to the civil rights movement, the outcome might be something like, "The average white person costs black people $99 a year worth of suffering.  For an annual donation of $99, you can go right on with your Klan meetings."

And yet…clever fundraising devices don’t grow on trees.  If this really raises people’s awareness of responsibility for the environmental choices they make, and can be coupled with encouragement to alter behavior, it may actually be the change we seek.

Thoughts?

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