The stock market is down, unemployment is up, and the political class is falling all over over itself trying to take action (or, at least create the appearance of taking action). Looking for some calm in this economic storm? Two words: carbon offsets.
That’s right: according to the Washington Post‘s David A. Fahrenthold, there’s “a bull market in environmental guilt.” Fahrenthold’s tone, and those of several bloggers whom have linked to his article, suggests something nefarious is happening with the sale of offsets.
I don’t agree with that, but I didn’t sit down today to defend offsets from detractors. I think there’s a much more interesting question raised in this article: the sustainability of a “green economy” that’s focused primarily on, well, environmentalists… or, at least those who share our larger set of values. Fahrenthold notes:
…people in this business are worried that the guilt boom is about to bust. Most of their customers — usually college-educated and making more than $50,000 a year — have not been hit hard by the weakening economy. Yet.
“People still come to the site, but where you used to get people signing up [for offsets] every day, now you’d be lucky to get a few people a week,” said Fred Weiss, a small-time offset seller based in Ann Arbor, Mich., who sends customers stickers that say, “Carbon Neutral Vehicle.” Apparently that isn’t as important now.
“Who cares about the environment? Am I going to have a house next week?” he imagined would-be customers saying.
As an environmentalist, it’s tempting to respond to Weiss’ rhetorical questions with something along the lines of “But you should care about the environment because…” — fill in the rest for yourself. More and more, I think that first impulse is probably the wrong one. Rather than focusing on the first question, we should think hard about the second one… and worry if we can’t come up with an answer.
Where Does the Environment Meet the Kitchen Table?
Fahrenholt’s article brought me back to questions I’ve been bouncing around for some time now: is “green fatigue” setting in? Is that related to current economic troubles? Are we environmentalists still preaching to the choir even as the choir has expanded? For that matter, why are we preaching at all? Doesn’t that concept imply (rightly or wrongly) that our main focus is on creating more “believers?”
Think about offsets for a minute. Who’s going to buy them? People like you and me: people who believe that climate change is a genuine, impending threat that must be tackled (and, yes, I’m not addressing larger, institutional buyers here… different issues there). If you don’t hold those beliefs, though, you’re likely going to view offsets as a scam, or at least a waste of money. How do you or I respond? “Well, see, here’s how offsets work, and why they’re a good thing…”
How well does that work? If you’re dealing with someone who’s really not interested in climate change and related phenomena, probably not very well. In response, we’re probably tempted to write that person off in some fashion: a “denier,” an idiot… pick your pejorative.
What have we accomplished in that scenario? Nothing.
I don’t think that’s good enough. I don’t think writing off people who hold different values sets works very well for us (or for any movement). Furthermore, I wonder if we need to reprioritize “spreading the word” in the midst of the current economic troubles. Will our message resonate with those concerned about losing their homes, jobs, and savings? Perhaps it’s time for us to start discussing solutions to these kinds of concerns…
The good news is that we’ve got ideas on this front. Now it’s time to start thinking about we communicate those ideas.
Over the next few months, I plan to start addressing the notion of building bridges: bridges to somewhere. Bridges between the green movement and those who don’t like or trust us very much. Bridges between those of us who see economic opportunity in sustainable development, and those who think that environmental concern is a luxury unrelated to their current needs and desires. Bridges to environmentally responsible behavior that meets a variety of needs and values.
To get those bridges built, and have others meet us in the middle of them, we’ve got to start looking at what’s on the other side, and what lies in between. What do we have in common with people who don’t share our passion for the environment and sustainability? What can we bring to them? Perhaps more importantly, what can we learn from them?
I doubt we’ll get many of them to buy carbon offsets. But I do think our shared economic stress could provide a golden opportunity for discussing efficiency, conservation, and, yes, sustainability. I think there’s genuine overlap with concepts such as faith, family, patriotism, self-reliance, and security. It’s easy to write folks off who don’t share our values and beliefs… I don’t know that we can afford to do so anymore.