Last month I was at a barbecue on a beach here in Haiti, and my friends had brought along a kind of charcoal they’d bought here that is made from rice stalks, rather than from trees. It’s a brilliant idea, especially since Haiti is one of the most thoroughly deforested countries on Earth, and the widespread use of wood-based charcoal for cooking is one of the main obstacles to reforestation. Moreover, those rice stalks were going to be discarded otherwise. Win-win for the environment!
But later I started to wonder: If the more environmentally-friendly version of charcoal works just as well as the deforestation-causing one (note: it does), why not use it everywhere, even in places like, say, the US or Australia, where there are still lots of trees left, but barbecuing is massively popular, and the only alternative to wood-based charcoal is gas?
And this is but one example: there are plenty of other ingenious environmental projects being pursued in “developing countries” that would be good ideas in the “developed countries” as well but will probably never see the light of day there. It’s not as if wealthy Westerners don’t know about these ingenious environmental interventions; oftentimes they are the ones funding them and promoting them, driving all over the developing world in SUVs emblazoned with their agency’s name in order to help “scale up” these environment-saving projects.
Here is what troubles me about all this: when someone talks about “Sustainable Development,” it almost never refers to course-correction in those countries whose economies, use of natural resources, and average lifestyles are the most environmentally unsustainable (ie, the rich ones). Instead “sustainable development” generally means rich and middle class people from rich countries helping poor people to be better at caring for the environment than the rich countries themselves are.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But it is a bit dispiriting. I’ll explain…
First of all, I have no interest in the standard rant about the hypocrisy of Al Gore-types who fly around the world in private jets, warning about the dangers of climate damage. That point has been done to death.
But this one is tangentially-related: One of the principal ways that jet-setters with comically oversized carbon footprints who nevertheless like to talk about caring for the environment can justify this seeming dissonance is buying carbon offset credits. These ALMOST ALWAYS consist of, at worst, giving money to protect the environment from poor people or, at best, training poor people to not wreck the environment. Again, it might seem clever to make a joke about the person with the private jet giving money to teach someone who’s never even driven a car not to be a menace to the environment, but that one has been made already, I promise you.
Moreover, picking on the jet-setters serves to distract attention from the rest of us environmentally-conscious Westerners whose carbon footprints are, perhaps, modest compared to Al Gore’s, but massive compared to, say the average African farmer, on whose environmental practices many well-meaning Western environmentalists are absolutely fixated.
The cynical view is that carbon offset credits — as well as gap year projects planting trees in Zambia, ‘voluntourism’ to help with turtle conservation in Belize, lavish fundraisers to save the Amazon, etc. — are a sort of penance, a way for the guilt-ridden to placate their environmental conscience.
This interpretation is not without merit, but I cannot help but wonder if the better explanation is a bit more wistful and, indeed, dispiriting: Perhaps so many concerned environmentalists have taken a look at their own lifestyles (and those of their neighbours) and determined that they are so hopelessly and irredeemably unsustainable that, rather than be the change they want to see in the world, their best hope is to try to convince those who still have the option to follow a different path.