Morality and Markets: The Depth of our Carbon Footprints

footprints.JPGChange your lightbulbs, buy local food, keep your tires properly inflated: all of us in the green publishing space, both online and off, promote such actions as ways for all of us to live greener lives, and, more specifically, to cut our carbon footprints. “Low-hanging fruit” approaches to personal sustainability appeal to us because of their simplicity: we don’t have to make major changes in our lives to feel like we’re making a difference. As we attempt to reach beyond the “green” audience to people who are still “testing the waters,” and who are intimidated by the notion that “going green” means making major sacrifices, tips provide a valuable introduction to lowering one’s personal impact.

Still, the “simple actions” approach to sustainability also runs the risk of becoming simplistic, and even moralistic. Many of us are probably guilty of looking aghast at someone when we find out they don’t recycle, or buy their produce from the neighborhood farmers’ market. “It’s so simple,” we tell ourselves. We feel justified, then, in judging others, perhaps harshly, for the actions they don’t take.

In the latest issue of The New Yorker (published today), writer Michael Specter takes a look at the “simple” actions not only taken by individuals and families, but also promoted by the business world to consumers. British supermarket chain Tesco, for instance, has announced it will look for an easy method for identifying the carbon footprint of the products it sells. Walkers crisps (potato chips) already carry such a label. These are steps forward, no doubt, in providing information that consumers want. But, as Specter points out, there’s nothing simple about determining the carbon footprint of a product:

In order to develop the label for Walkers, researchers had to calculate the amount of energy required to plant seeds for the ingredients (sunflower oil and potatoes), as well as to make the fertilizers and pesticides used on those potatoes. Next, they factored in the energy required for diesel tractors to collect the potatoes, then the effects of chopping, cleaning, storing, and bagging them. The packaging and printing processes also emit carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, as does the petroleum used to deliver those crisps to stores. Finally, the research team assessed the impact of throwing the empty bag in the trash, collecting the garbage in a truck, driving to a landfill, and burying them. In the end, the researchersโ€”from the Carbon Trustโ€”found that seventy-five grams of greenhouse gases are expended in the production of every individual-size bag of potato chips.

Potato chips are relatively simple because the list of ingredients is short. Once we move into food products with more ingredients, the process becomes much more complex. Of course, all of this ignores the nutritional content, which can create a real conundrum for a concerned shopper: what if a product has a small carbon footprint, but is high in fat and sodium? On what measurement of “goodness” does a consumer rely then?

Specter’s point isn’t that shoppers shouldn’t feel good about buying products with a small footprint, but, rather, that the criteria by which we make such judgments are often oversimplified. Take “food miles,” for instance (a concept I’ve discussed): does closer to home always mean a smaller footprint? According to Specter, not if we consistently analyze the lifecycle of a product:

The environmental burden imposed by importing apples from New Zealand to Northern Europe or New York can be lower than if the apples were raised fifty miles away. โ€œIn New Zealand, they have more sunshine than in the U.K., which helps productivity,โ€ [agricultural researcher Terry] Williams explained. That means the yield of New Zealand apples far exceeds the yield of those grown in northern climates, so the energy required for farmers to grow the crop is correspondingly lower. It also helps that the electricity in New Zealand is mostly generated by renewable sources, none of which emit large amounts of COโ‚‚.

While this doesn’t take into account other benefits of locally-produced food (freshness, lack of preservatives, connections with the sources of our food), the carbon equation is much more complex than “food miles” would have us believe.

Williams further complicates his own argument by noting that, even as we strive to create more transparency about the impact of the products we buy, informed consumption is only one piece of the puzzle: “Personal choices, no matter how virtuous, cannot do enough. It will also take laws and money.” Both government and business have larger roles to play in determining how the costs of carbon emissions figure into the global social and economic picture. While tying a price to carbon emissions is critical, can the private sector do this on its own through institutions like the Chicago Carbon Exchange? Or are government-imposed ceilings on carbon emissions necessary? Doesn’t putting a price on carbon mean that it’s OK to pollute if you can afford to do so? And how does the developing world play into such strategies? Do we run the risk of creating a system of “climate colonialism,” where poor nations must develop along prescribed paths in order to balance the impact of Western-style development? Even if rich nations pay poorer ones to maintain forests and other “carbon sinks,” doesn’t this still amount to a mindset of “we know what’s best for you?”

None of these questions are answered easily, but it’s critical that we engage with them as we step up to the challenges of climate change, water shortages, loss of biodiversity, and other environmental crises. Ecology is a study of complexity, and trying to deal with ecological issues in a simple manner is bound to come back and bite us (just think of all the hubbub over corn-based ethanol as a major weapon in the fight against climate change).

So, do we stop publishing the tips, and praising companies for green labeling strategies? No… again, I think these methods are useful for bringing others on board, at least in terms of their actions and purchasing choices. As we do these things, though, we have to make sure not to fall into simple thinking as we promote simple solutions. Tips, simple actions, and greener purchasing choices can engage and empower others, but we can’t lead either “green newbies” or ourselves to believe that they’ll provide the answers for the complex problems facing us, or that going green doesn’t require some recognition of the intricacy of our footprints.

  1. Bobby B.

    “Williams…:’Personal choices, no matter how virtuous, cannot do enough. It will also take laws and money.'”

    Ergo, the ideas of skewed taxation, wealth redistribution, forced submission, dictatorship, torture, murder, and all-out war are okay if these actions support the socialist belief of “doing it for the common good”.

    I watched Jonah Goldberg on “Booknotes” this past weekend and was blown away by the amount of history that typically gets ignored – or rewritten – by the educational establishment. This may be in part to the influence Dewey and Mann on public education. I will not go into the details here, but I will be purchasing his book “Liberal Facism” to learn more, especially to see how similar movements lead to the rise of Nazi Germany. Who knew the Germans supported green ideas, socialized medicine, nationalization of industry, etc.? I am also looking forward to learning more about the shadowy influence of socialism/marxism on American society. I use the word “Shadowy”, because even socialism’s most strident apologists know that you just can’t come out and declare your true intent. Consider the following prophetic statement of one American socialist:

    “The American people will never knowingly adopt socialism, but under the name of liberalism they will adopt every fragment of the socialist program until one day America will be a socialist nation without ever knowing how it happened.” โ€“ Norman Thomas, American socialist

    Did everyone forget that the Green Party had its roots in the Socialist Party?

  2. Chad Crawford

    Thanks for pointing out the complexity involved in the choices we make. I think “Green Options” is the perfect name for this network, as it demonstrates the collective effort of weighing different choices together as an online community. This effort will always require a lot of mental elbow grease as we work these things out. I’m glad to be a part of it.

  3. Timothy B. Hurst

    Good article, Jeff. Have you read Nordhaus & Shellenberger’s recent book? Although it wasn’t what I was expecting, they did a very good job of elaborating on the problems with moralizing environmentalism.

  4. Jeff McIntire-Strasburg

    Thanks for the comments, everyone…

    @Chad: you get it!

    @Tim: you know, I’ve never read their book. Read all of their essays, but the book’s still on my “want to read” list.

    @bobby: Wow! We’ve had many of these discussions, Bob, and I can usually see where you’re going (and know your beliefs), but this seems like quite a leap: from multiple players taking a role in fighting carbon emissions to socialism and Hitler?

  5. Bobby B.

    It may be “quite a leap” but the parallels are becoming undeniable. Goldberg did not have time to go into much depth about the Green Nazis because he was more focused on the redefining of the words “Liberal” and “Fascism”, which is the premise of his book. However, his brief comments were intriguing. I haven’t read all of these links but apparently there is more information out there.





    As with anything one googles, the list can be exhaustive. To continue, The History Channel recently ran a program about the religious aspects of Nazi Germany, which was truly fascinating. They blended Christianity with older European pagan religions, and rooted the whole thing in rampant nationalism. Coincidentally, Goldberg made another brief comment about how socialism and communism don’t fare to well when analyzed mathematically, scientifically or economically. He discussed how noteworthy socialists used this fact as the basis for injecting socialism into religion. It has to be accepted on faith. There’s the “faith” question again Jeff.


    I guess the question that devoted greens need to ask themselves is, “Can a larger more invasive and possibly violent entity twist my desires for a greener world into an oppressive, tyrannical social order?” The question was answered in the positive about 70 years ago.

  6. Jeff McIntire-Strasburg

    I’ll need to take a few minutes to read the links you’ve provided, Bob, but a few points come to mind:

    -Based on the argument you’ve raised (“environmentalism” was practiced in Nazi Germany, which is a strike against environmentalism), couldn’t I say the same thing about Christianity based on the information you’ve provided? Doesn’t that, according to your own logic, mean that Christianity must be totalitarian in nature if the Nazis incorporated it into their belief system?

    -Couldn’t your last question be applied to any belief system?

    -Finally, isn’t you argument that green=socialism undermined by the private efforts mentioned in the New Yorker article (which seems to have gotten lost in this discussion)? It’s hard to get much more “free market” than the Chicago Carbon Exchange, for instance… and much of that article deals with harnessing market forces to deal with carbon emissions. Does any government involvement automatically make an effort “socialistic?” How does Tesco (or Wal-Mart, for that matter) responding to consumer demand equal socialism? For that matter, weren’t our efforts to fight the Nazis in WWII also socialistic in nature? Weren’t businesses essentially “nationalized” to join the war effort? Isn’t a draft “socialistic” (since you’re using it as a synonym for “totalistarian”). Or was that a rallying of various elements of society to a common cause?

    This argument could go on and on, but I think it’s ultimately a distraction from the article itself and my post… the leap I mentioned involves cherry-picking one line from my post (which was one sentence in ten-page article), and using it as evidence that there’s something “shadowy” going on here. A sweeping generalization about historical parallels doesn’t prove anything… we can go back and forth all day doing that. You’ve got to ignore an awful lot of evidence to the contrary to make the claim that all green efforts are socialistic in nature… and I know you’re better than that.

  7. Bobby B.

    I probably was cherry picking, but not necessarily reading between the lines. I think that all faith based belief systems have the potential for being co-opted for evil. You and I both know that many on the left (esp. educators) like to decry the evils of the Christian religion and offer the dark periods of the crusades, the inquisition, the reconquista, the Salem witch trials, etc. as evidence. They do this and generally ignore the hundreds of millions killed for the common good in their favorite socialist/communist countries, which can be argued as anti-religious movements.

    Regarding the socialization of certain entities to fight the Nazi’s, Goldberg had a few comments about that too. Technically, FDR broke several laws and capitalistic codes when ushering in the New Deal, the draft, the social security system, the tax withholdings scheme, etc. Woodrow Wilson gets most of the political credit for giving socialism its foothold in America whereas FDR, LBJ, etc. just added programs to it.

    Now, I personally do not believe that all greens are card carrying Marxists/socialists/communists or whatever. However, I would presume that – like journalists – greens tend to overwhelmingly align themselves with the democratic party, which has aligned itself with the socialist agenda (they just call it liberal).

    One last point regarding the nationalization of industry for the common good. Goldberg made it a point to speak on the belief system of business. He said that businesses favor capitalism when competition offers benefits to them, however, they favor nationalism when they become the biggest player in a given industry and can guarantee high profits through political alliances. The term he used was “opportunistic”. I think we are currently seeing a perfect example of opportunism in business as it attempts to project the image of being eco-conscious to a gullible public and undereducated ruling class.

  8. Tobiah

    The environmental situation that you are addressing needs to be simplified if we are really going to make the changes necessary to save this incredible planet from continual environmental destruction. Some honest honesty would have us admit that our present economic system and it’s accompanying technolgy is unsustainable at its very best.
    The solution is simply to reinvent our society and our economy. What would meeting human needs look like if we were to do it sustainably. There really is an answer to this question. The very technolgy that we need to meet our basic needs within and around our homes has been invented and is available e.g. solar electric and wind power systems. Each household that makes the choice for an Ultra Green home is no longer dependant on the present unsustainable system at least for basic needs. Our dependance on it is what is keeping it going. Our dependance on our own sustainable/renewable system in our homes is what will
    lead to real change and true sustainability. Please no more bandaids. This situation is a crisis – it demands serious surgery.

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