There is no escaping the dreaded and guilt inducing term ‘carbon footprint.’ Recently a study by Harvard physicist Alexander Wissner-Gross came out stating the carbon impact of Google searches and visiting websites – online energy. What Wissner-Gross has found is each time we visit a website approximately 0.02g of CO2 is emitted. This is useful information and it shows that everyday activities have more extensive environmental consequences than we assume. However, the emergence of the carbon offsetting and carbon positive industry, which is predicated on making the people feel better about their energy consumption, makes it difficult to not see the study – the the liberal guilt quashing answer – part of the problem.
Instead of getting people to rethink where their energy is coming from and who to use less of it, carbon offsetting presents a quick fix to the moral dilemma created by dependence on carbon based technologies and energies. It seems eerily like the 21st century version of selling indulgences, which was one of the practices of the Catholic Church that contributed to the Reformation, and seems to serve a similar moral function.
While it is great to think about how our daily activities contribute in small ways to environmental degradation, I fear the micro-managing of the carbon emissions of the western world will only cause the environmental movement to become less effective. When our every move is given a carbon rating it makes reforming social practices around energy consumption seem like a pipe dream. When that is coupled with making money off selling environmental indulgences in the form of carbon offsets and carbon credits instead of taking tangible action to curb carbon emissions, it is not hard to see which of the two options most people will embrace – the easier one, the one that only requires spending a little more money when taking a flight or using the internet. It is too bad really, because all the money spent on carbon offsetting by individuals and businesses looking to improve their environmental images could be better spent developing and implementing sustainable energy alternatives.
Why does this all come up here? Because the environmental movement of the 21st century faces even greater sources of social hesitance to embracing alternative ways of interacting with the earth than its 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s predecessors did. In comparison to what we face in the present, the issues the environmental movement targeted and tried to overcome in the mid to late 20th century seem so simple. Yet, as a social movement environmentalism had very limited success in changing society. The limited success is what intrigues me and drives my research so when new information about the cost of modern life and amenities comes out, like the carbon footprint of a website visited posted on NiCHE last week, it is enough to make me temporarily forget about the pressing deadlines of comp reading and exams to spend a day researching. And yes a good deal of that research relies on the internet and visiting more websites in a day than I care to calculate the carbon footprint for.