September 25, 2007

Indulging Modern Indulgences

Carbon credits have an interesting partner in history. I see a close link between the growing practice of buying "carbon credits" and the curious practice of buying indulgences as sold by the Roman Catholic church in the early 1500's.

An indulgence, in Roman Catholic theology, is the granting of full or partial pardon of temporal punishment for sins that have already been confessed and forgiven. In layman's terms, the idea is this: you will be punished later for your sins, but you will be punished a little bit less if you are granted an indulgence (my apologies to practicing Catholics if this oversimplifies the matter). Indulgences are typically granted for acts of piety, such as devoting oneself to prayer or reading the scriptures with great reverence.

The granting of indulgences eventually became corrupted and indulgences eventually became commodities that could be bought. Pope Leo X, for example, sought to rebuild St Peter's Basilica by aggressively marketing the granting of indulgences in exchange for alms-giving. This abuse of the doctrine of indulgences soon became one of many contentious issues that led Martin Luther to develop his famed 95 theses.

So, through a corrupted granting of indulgences, people could atone for their sins by fronting a little bit of cash. Carbon credits, as I will demonstrate, encourage people to atone for their environmental sins in the same manner.

Let's look at an example of how carbon credits operate. Average Joe begins shopping for a new vehicle. He's environmentally conscious, and begins looking at the Earth-friendly cars that have the best gas mileage. If he only needed a car to get to work and back, no problem; but he needs something to take all of his kids (and their friends) to soccer practice during the week, and to haul all of the home-improvement supplies (most notably, plywood) for his weekend projects. So, the 1960's space capsule on wheels just doesn't cut it. He needs -- gasp! -- an SUV to do what he needs to do. However, owning an SUV makes Joe feel incredibly guilty. How can he justify owning an SUV when he knows how much damage he would be doing to the environment? Enter the carbon credit.

Carbon credits are presented as a way for Joe to offset his "carbon footprint" (that's the guilt that he feels over the carbon emissions his SUV puts out). When Joe buys carbon credits, his money goes to, let's say, Johnny Appleseed. Johnny now can go out and plant new trees with that carbon money and, in theory, those new trees will suck all of Joe's unpleasant additional carbon right out of the air. Carbon in, carbon out. A perfect balance!

The problem with this approach is that it maintains the status-quo at best. Rather than making it better, it merely keeps it from getting worse. If Joe truly cares about his impact on the environment, then he should adjust his own behavior rather than paying somebody else to pick up the slack. Rather than driving to the grocery store 5 days a week, his family could keep a list and shop only on Wednesday nights. He could ride his bike to work on nicer days. He could turn his thermostat down a couple of degrees and start wearing more sweaters. But if he is buying carbon credits, he has no further motivation to do any of those things. In his mind, he's "covered", environmentally speaking.

What would be the effect if we brought this philosophy to other realms? Would "diversity credits" allow bigots to continue to spew racial epithets and discriminate against minorities as long as they made generous donations to the United Negro College Fund? Would wicked little children be allowed to torture stray cats so long as they offset it by donating their allowances to the humane society? Perhaps if drunk drivers were to buy "Blood-Alcohol-Content Credits", they...well, you get the idea.

Carbon credits do nothing to resolve the problem they claim to resolve. If anything, they trivialize it! Environmental policy, as with any problem, is best addressed with action at the individual level -- not money.

Also at Babblermouth:
Financial Freedom Series 2 -- The Value of Values
3 Things: Time Management For Scatterbrains

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