It’s clear that carbon offsetting can theoretically reduce carbon
dioxide emissions. But the list of problems — even technical
problems — with carbon offsetting is long, and the history of
carbon offset projects is, at least as I understand it, beset with
failures, in fact quite tragic. As I understand it, the relationship
between planting trees and absorbing carbon dioxide is complicated
and doesn’t even always give a positive correlation; monoculture
plantation forests are beset with problems; indigenous populations
may oppose or suffer from the nearby neocolonial corporate project
according to the well-known pattern. Other carbon offset projects
have their own problems. Most suffer massive uncertainties in the
calculation of absorbed carbon. The timescale of carbon absorption
may be long, beyond the urgent need for atmospheric carbon dioxide

Then there’s the problem — as all point out — that it does
nothing to reduce emissions at their source. Doesn’t even create an
incentive to reduce emissions — the incentive is moral, that your
conscience will be appeased after buying an indulgence. One may also
use that conscience to reduce emissions through lower consumption or
whatever — or, feeling complacent and relaxed and comfortable, do
nothing or even consume more. Either seems plausible.

What bothers me most about carbon offsetting, though, is the
emotional aspect: it is another example of the commodification of
guilt and absolution. Here I’m referring to the case of the
individual consumer; which seems quite different from the
considerations attending corporate involvement. Clearly the whole
thing can be done without any emotional attachment, simply as a
rational transaction, but seems there is usually an emotional
involvement in the transaction. In this sense it’s just like child
sponsorship: feel bad about third world poverty? Pay some money and
see one child eat a little bit more. Just like fair trade coffee:
feel bad about coffee plantation human rights abuses? Pay a few more
cents and pretend that the exploitation isn’t there because it has
been faintly mitigated. Just like all the emotional manipulation in
food packaging and advertising that seeks to convince us — at the
psychological level, usually without evidence, by image and
association — that it has been produced under humane, equitable,
non-exploitative conditions, occasionally truthfully, usually

All of these schemes may mitigate the problem to a minimal extent.
All of them may be a more responsible expenditure of money than most
alternatives. Any of them might, in fact, be the most practicable
socially beneficial choice many of us have available. They might all
be perfectly reasonable, worthwhile, noble projects. They are quite
possibly the best, easiest to achieve, immediate projects that can
be undertaken in the present circumstances — but that doesn’t mean
that we should ignore their flaws. All of them capitalise on the
guilt of rich westerners. None of them addresses the underlying
cause of the problem. None of them offers the least prospect of
solving it.

All of these schemes are consumerist and materialist. We gain
absolution by \emph{paying money}, not addressing the problem
ourselves, not partaking in the solution, not being active, not
connecting with others, not changing social norms, not changing
society. In fact they encourage passivity: pay the money, let the
designated corporation take care of the problem, and hope for the
best. It may be better than the shrug of futility — the usual
philosophical accompaniment to consumerism, useful for obedience,
order, social control, and minimising the threat of social change
— but not by much.

By virtue of being market-based solutions, they undermine non-market
efforts to address the problem. They reinforce the idea that we
don’t have to do anything; the market will solve the problem.
Unfortunately the shifts in demand are so minimal, and so
manipulated, that the idea of them precipitating the enormous
structural changes required for the transition to a sustainable
economy is preposterous. And a capitalist economy is committed to
overconsumption and maximal growth as a matter of institutional
necessity — which is rational only on the assumption that the
planet is infinite in extent. However, enormous transitions are not
impossible, even in a capitalist economy, with social investment and
action — one only needs to recall, for instance, the massive state
investment in developing new technologies such as nuclear weapons or
space travel, or how a capitalist economy can perform a virtually
immediate structural about-face in time of war. One just needs the
political will; the contemporary state has been so captured by
corporate interests, however, that we find the idea outlandish.

As it turns out, conscience is not something you can buy or sell —
doing either negates it completely. Equity, freedom, and fulfillment
have no monetary value. The very thought that one can discharge
one’s social responsibilities and make one’s life more meaningful by
paying money to a corporation in a market — regardless of its
intentions — is deeply troubling. That we often do not find it so,
says something about the society and culture in which we live. The
commodity of absolution seduces us, and we obligingly succumb.

* * *

As to the science and the technicalities, I can’t and won’t say

On the facts of global warming, there is no dispute. We may have
minor differences as to the relative potentials of different
approaches to the problem, but they are not particularly important.
Some may see difficulties and incompleteness in any market-based
approach, and point to historical examples of publicly-directed
shifts in the economy; some may wish to stick to the most immediate
possibilities in the here and now. But in terms of what different
approaches do what, these are scientific questions open to research
and inquiry; many have been investigated thoroughly and among those
apprised of the facts there seems little dispute. I am no expert
however, and don’t pretend to be one.

Carbon offset projects seem to have had some difficulties in
practice, historically. These however don’t seem unavoidable; they
seem probably surmountable, with enough effort. I am certainly not
apprised of the facts, but it seems that more recent examples have
fewer problems — though they are not without their own issues.
Again the problems don’t seem impossible, and it seems that
solutions will probably be found — the results of these projects
being helpful for ameliorating global warming.

Carbon offsetting may mitigate the problem. It may be a more
responsible approach than most alternatives. It might be the best,
most achievable and most immediate approach that can be undertaken
in present circumstances. I don’t know if that’s true — I’m no
expert, hence `may’! But I certainly hope it can achieve great
reductions in greenhouse gas levels. All agree that it works within
the system, so cannot change the system itself, and is at most a
partial solution — but all hope that it does achieve its goals.

* * *

But now let us move from the scientific realm of atmospheric physics
and climatology to the realm of philosophy and psychology: political
economy, marketing, consumerism, cultural theory. This means that
it’s no longer really a scientific discussion, but a philosophical
and political one. This also means that I can make sweeping
assertions without substantiating them. This makes it easier for a
non-expert in technical matters! But I turn to this side of affairs
not just because that’s all I can say, or because it is easy to make
such sweeping assertions, or because I want to offend people —
none of these is true.

Rather, I think it’s important to understand something about how
society works. The social context defines the approaches we take,
defines the questions we ask, defines what we think or don’t think
about, defines what is acceptable or not acceptable — it includes
prevailing social norms, cultural expectations, and underlying
assumptions. We must at least try to understand these things; and
particularly as many of them seem deeply inhumane, we must question
things from the foundations.

Carbon offsetting can well be seen as a sort of commodification of
guilt. It’s a thoroughly consumerist phenomenon; it’s a `throwaway’
solution letting someone else take care of the problem; it doesn’t
involve direct participation in the solution; and reduces it to a
market transaction, with consequent alienation, passivity and
apathy. By reinforcing a market mindset, it makes non-market
solutions less thinkable; they are much more practicable than we
think, in my view. It involves capitalising on our emotions and
guilt about western lifestyles. As far as I know, George Monbiot is
the leading popular proponent of this point of view.

This is nothing more than a fairly standard left-wing critique of
the market, applied to this particular case. (There are other
critiques and analyses possible, to be sure.) It has nothing to say
about what we should do in response. It’s just an attempt to
understand the failings of a capitalist economy, in the present
context. The point is that we should be armed with such an
understanding when we try to decide what to do. We may well accept
all this and still decide carbon offsetting is the best response —
as I understand the situation, I think it’s probably part of the
best response, in some form, despite the vehemence in the criticism.
There is no contradiction. We just don’t have to like some aspects
of the system we’re working in, we might have a better assessment of
where it fits into the big picture, and maybe we might try to change
it if we can.

It is certainly true, in its favour, that carbon offsetting raises
the profile of sustainability issues. Carbon offsetting can raise
the profile of sustainability issues simultaneously as it engenders
and reinforces alienation, apathy and reliance on the market. There
is no contradiction; they are countervailing tendencies. Maybe
raising the profile of the issues then results in popular pressure,
changes the prevailing culture, and helps to overcome the tendencies
to market reliance and inaction. I certainly hope so.

This argument may seem to have more to do with the marketing of
carbon offset products, than about the carbon offset projects
themselves. That is true. It’s not just marketing though — it has
to do with the entire system in which the industry operates and
interacts with consumers, the prevailing culture and norms among
those consumers, the general social context. Of course any
discussion of this sort of thing is necessarily imprecise. And it is
also very general. Carbon offsetting may be likened to recycling as
another consumer-friendly approach to improving the environment —
and when recycling involves monetary transactions, much of the same
criticisms apply. (Not all of them, I think: if you still have to
take your cans to the recycling station to get your refund, you are
at least participating in the solution. Not so with paying money
towards some faraway project.) Also with hybrid cars, buying
organic, and so on. Similar analyses can apply to all of these,
though the issues are different in each case. I have no idea if any
is better or worse than any other; and suspect they are not really
comparable. None of them is bad; all of them are probably part of a
solution, perhaps part of a best solution. They are not ineffectual.
But sadly, human affairs being as complicated as they are, there
will probably never be a proposal that is unambiguously and
unanimously regarded as perfect.

There are likely to be differences in the motivations of individuals
and corporations engaging in carbon offsetting.
Offsetting-as-guilt-commodification applies more to the individual
consumer than corporate entities. The corporation is not a real
human being, and is not a moral agent. The people within it may have
noble intentions, may feel guilty, may want to improve their green
credentials for marketing purposes, may be acting out of narrow
self-interest, enlightened self-interest, institutional realpolitik
or high-minded altruism. The corporation, in the end, or when the
going gets tough, will of course throw all considerations other than
profitability out the window. Corporations, being larger entities,
may be much closer to the offsetting projects they sponsor than
individuals, who necessarily have less ability to monitor such
faraway projects to which they contribute proportionately less.
Individuals are more alienated and less powerful. Individuals don’t
have the marketing or profitability pressures of corporations, don’t
need to engage in greenwash — they are more likely to be motivated
by purely moral considerations. And they will most likely feel
better about themselves, having paid money to offsetting projects.
It is in this sense that offsetting is absolution — if you want,
like going to confession. (No need to confess your particular sins,
however! “Dear father, I bought an energy-inefficient refrigerator
and turned my air conditioner on when it wasn’t really that hot.”)
Medieval bishops would allow you to feel better about your sins by
paying money. Fair-trade coffee allows you to feel better about
third-world exploitation by paying money. Carbon offsetting allows
you to feel better about your carbon footprint by paying money.
Obviously there are differences in the reasons why you feel bad —
religious sin is more specific and, at least in the sinner’s mind,
immoral; having a large carbon footprint is much more faraway,
indistinct and of less clear immorality. But I think something like
this must be an obvious part of the psychology of all such
transactions. It can be viewed as absolution. As other things as
well, but insight can be gained from this perspective, I think.

* * *

Now, what I have called guilt here, one might also call noble
altruism. And these are different emotions! And of course we all
very much admire noble altruism! And personally at least, my
philosophy is very much against ethics based primarily on sin, guilt
and absolution. I could have said `commodification of altruism’
rather than `commodification of guilt’ — it may seem like I am
denigrating altruism when it is put into practice, calling it guilt
and calling it commodified. But that is not my intention at all —
calling it `commodification of guilt’ seems to convey (at least to
myself!) what I mean better. When altruism is commodified it may
well become like guilt anyway.

To clarify, let us take a detour into ethics.

There are some conservative capitalist types who argue that altruism
doesn’t exist, that all altruism is really a response to guilt, and
that doing something apparently benefiting others is actually
selfish, done to appease one’s guilt. In calling carbon offsetting a
commodification of guilt it may seem I have subtly been applying
this reasoning. Very much not! I think this argument is meaningless;
and to the extent it’s meaningful I think it’s wrong. It’s
meaningless because it’s basically a matter of definition. And to
the extent it’s not a matter of definition, to say that all
conscientious action is performed on pain of guilt is misleading and
contradicts experience. We do things for others not because we are
thinking narcissistically of how good or bad we will feel otherwise,
but we just think it’s the right thing to do — it’s what our
conscience says. The thought process is not that convoluted. Other
perspectives certainly exist, minds may differ, books can be written
about it, but that’s the gist of how I see it, a simple matter.

Now, one of the problems with an exclusive focus on sin, guilt and
absolution is precisely that it forces self-examination to the
exclusion of the outside world. Of course self-examination is useful
and necessary, but we don’t want to overdo it! When we take such a
philosophy, and ask how we have done wrong, we make an accounting of
our benefits and debits to others, and act based on our
self-assessment. It seems like a much better approach if one can
orient oneself, philosophically and dispositionally, outwards —
and then act according to what we see. We train ourselves to act
according to the outside world, instinctively. One must live one’s
inner life outside oneself for life to be meaningful, I say. The
relevant point here is: an ethics of sin and guilt and absolution is
the natural accompaniment to an accounting approach to ethics.

So, when we come to the state of the world, and we come to our
participation in it, we come to the carbon emissions generated as a
result of our actions. And our conscience says recoils at the
catastrophe of the present. It says — we have to do something
about this! And our noble altruism looks for ways to help. There are
many ways we might come up with, some more open than others, some
easier than others. Some involve helping directly, whether planting
trees or reducing consumption or other possibilities. Some involve
taking up a career in the environmental field. And some involve
paying money to carbon offset schemes.

Well, the first two options involve active participation,
involvement, altruism — extremely noble, directed not at others in
particular, but the whole world, not just humanity, not just the
present generation. The third doesn’t carry the same noble tinge, at
least to my mind: no participation, alienation, monetary
transaction, some faraway project, pay money, problem goes away, out
of sight, don’t have to think about it any more, that’s it. As all
point out, it’s better than nothing, and it may well be accompanied
by more searching analyses of the problem, and commitments to do
more. But when we take this road, we now: calculate the amount of
emissions; convert it to dollars; and pay it off. What did we pay
off? It’s not really the carbon emissions, if it’s a voluntary
transaction. It had something to do with social responsibility or
conscience or altruism. But it doesn’t sound right to say we paid
off our altruism, or our responsibility, or conscience. These are
not things you can pay off. On the other hand it makes sense, to me
at least, to say we paid off our guilt. We had to account — we
liquefied our altruism. It appears that the currency of altruism is
guilt. Altruism is not a commodity, but guilt is. Guilt can be
absolved, but altruism cannot be indulged — altruism is better
than that. The commodification of altruism is guilt, in this sense
— and hence the whole enterprise can be viewed as a commodification
of guilt.

* * *

A depressing critique of an industry that offers one of the best
hopes for mitigating global warming? Perhaps. But there is no
contradiction between consciousness of the flaws of a project and
wholehearted participation in it — if it is judged to be the least
bad alternative. It is often the case in contemporary human affairs
that all the alternatives are bad — and we are forced to elect
from the corrupt, choose from the useless, argue between different
versions of certain disaster, and lurch interminably from one crisis
to another. The blessed tranquility of life in the Elysian fields is
not for our age, however much we yearn for it — and it is only
achievable with struggle today.

Wherever they are, we will certainly not get there without
scrupulous honesty, without rigorous examination of different
alternatives, and without an ability to offer advice and criticism
where necessary — even to our friends and allies. But the critique
here is political-economic, psychological, ethical and cultural, not
technical; it is relatively marginal to the critical goal of
mitigating global warming. These are our friends after all! But
however marginal, it is not marginal to the system as a whole; and
such a critique will continue relentlessly as long as selfish
interests continue to drive economic affairs, as long as economic
wealth and power is vested in private tyrannies, as long as
productive capital is placed at the whim of private owners, as long
as the bulk of the population must rent itself out on pain of
starvation and humiliation, and as long as the global consequences
of this state of affairs continue to rend the world.

Carbon Offsetting and the Commodification of Guilt
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