A very pale shade of green

The BBC brings us a short article about carbon footprints by environmental author-consultant Mike Berners-Lee, who brings the rewarding news that “we can actually afford to chill out about certain carbon footprints, which aren’t as bad as many of us might think.”

I am always interested in lectures and tirades predicated on various kinds of environmental “footprint”. It seems to me that this concept and near-relatives like “food miles” are the modern analogue of the Marxian labour theory of value—the latest in a series of attempts to divorce the notion of “value” from brute considerations of exchange, and to anchor it metaphysically in some other quantity. In environmentalism, as in Marxism, this exercise appears to end by dividing the extremists and the hard men from the accommodators or “realists”, who don’t wish to frighten either the horses or the bourgeoisie and who are always ready to let some economic practicalities into the discussion through a back door.

Berners-Lee, who has a new book out, obviously belongs to the latter category. Witness item two on his top-ten list of things we don’t need to feel guilty about:

Using electric hand driers beats reusable towels because it avoids laundry and comes in at three to 20g CO2e per go. …The footprint pays its way by reducing the burden on health services—fewer germs usually mean less illness.

The footprint “pays its way” by reducing illness? Which medium are we using to make this “payment” again? This sounds suspiciously like concern for mere human welfare at the expense of the planet, comrades.

Roughly speaking, humans emit carbon because of certain things they like to do; in descending order of general environmental harmfulness, these would include 1) travel, 2) productive work, 3) leisure, and 4) respiration. It seems to me that a burden of infection imposed by the abolition of hand dryers would reduce (2) and might well prevent a certain measurable amount of (4). It is not as though Berners-Lee is unaware that we living mammals are all exhaling carbon even in the quietest moments—see his item number eight:

Getting cremated is likely to be less than a 10,000th of your life’s carbon footprint, at 80kg CO2e. On this one occasion you can treat yourself to whatever form of disposal you prefer, safe in the knowledge that you have already done the most carbon-friendly thing possible.

Having embraced economic opportunity costs when it comes to a little thing like hand dryers, Berners-Lee ignores them altogether when it comes to one of the few individual decisions in our lives, one with an indisputably pretty huge “footprint”, that cannot in fact make a damn bit of purely selfish difference to us or give us an experience of pleasure or convenience. This attitude is shocking to me if only for the offence it presents to my Presbyterian frugality genome. Yes, in dying, you and I will have done “the most carbon-friendly thing possible”. But we are all going to die one way or another; why should we consider, given the whole premise of “footprints”, that this gives us license to go about it in an environmentally destructive manner?

And what a curious mixture of politeness and harshness: yes, your death is altogether good for the planet, and you should be aware of this every hour between now and then, as you tot up the “costs” of every picnic, pie, and pencil; but by all means feel free to muck up the atmosphere once you’ve shoved off, carbon-blower.

Berners-Lee also veers into arbitrariness, I think, when he informs us that “adding milk at least doubles the footprint of a cup of tea,” but that “if this helps to make your life feel worth living, you can enjoy it without guilt.” The same thing could easily be said of a Ducati Monster 1100. Surely we should feel precisely as much guilt as the excess emissions, added up over a lifetime, warrant. Nobody needs hot tea at all, let alone to have it with milk. Nobody, that is, except the English. (Nobody but an Englishman would talk of tea as a spiritually indispensable bulwark against despair.)

A hundred years ago tea was a representation of imperialism, just as much as it might be, today, of capitalist wastefulness in the husbanding of BTUs. The Berners-Lees of that day would have said much the same thing that today’s model does now: “If that cuppa helps to make your life feel worth living, go ahead and enjoy it without bothering your head about tea plantations and Opium Wars.”

All this would be of purely idle interest, except to those of us who tend to see environmentalism as a scheme for sending everyone pre-emptively to purgatory and then, à la Berners-Lee, getting rich off the sale of indulgences. What strikes me is that as time goes by we can expect the earnest, radical environmentalists to direct ever greater quantities of their energy against namby-pamby greenwashers; I can’t help wondering whether a working knowledge of the history of the European left from 1928-39 will prove unexpectedly rewarding in the coming decades.

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