Daily Archives: July 2, 2007

‘The Persian Gulf of ethanol’

Maclean’s magazine’s Washington correspondent Luiza Ch. Savage, in Iowa to report on the presidential candidates’ sucking up to early-primary voters, succinctly explains why the U.S. government is in love with corn-based ethanol.

Carnival of the Green No. 84

Bean Sprouts is hosting the green-blog roundup this week, and kindly picked up last week’s post on the trouble governments have dealing with institutions smaller than themselves.

Celebrations without the celebrating

FireworksHere on the evening of July 2, approaching the midpoint between the July 1 fireworksfest in Canada and the July 4 fireworksfest in the United States, this TreeHugger post has me thinking. Lloyd Alter writes briefly that fireworks are wasteful and polluting, burning heavy metals to make pretty colours and dumping burned gunpowder in the waterways over which they’re usually set off. “[P]erhaps its time to put this tradition to bed,” he writes.

Perhaps, but I wouldn’t invest much time in trying to tuck it in.

I’m reminded of this little tempest from the spring, over whether Prince Charles is a hypocrite for flying places to make personal appearances rather than giving speeches and accepting awards by videoconference. If Charles didn’t physically go places, he wouldn’t be fulfilling one of the functions of his office (the same would be true of a president or prime minister who didn’t tour his or her country and go on regular visits abroad). If environmental consciousness is all that matters, we’ll abolish the office of Prince of Wales, not ask the fellow who holds it to not fulfill its functions.

One of the ways we humans celebrate, whether it’s the harvest or the birth of Jesus or the anniversaries of the foundings of our countries, is by revelling in our prosperity — by conspicuously enjoying our good fortune and the fruits of our various labours — and by doing it together.

You can nickel-and-dime the heck out of Canada Day or Independence Day or Guy Fawkes Day (just think of the carbon dioxide emitted by all those barbecues!), but the unavoidable truth is that the greenest way to celebrate any of those occasions, or a dozen others, is to not. Stay home. Don’t invite friends and family over, or go see them (call, if you must). Don’t make a lot of food. Don’t set off fireworks or pop crackers or distribute candy that had to be trucked to your city specially. That’s what you do when environmental consciousness is at the very top of your priority list. None of these traditions is necessary, strictly speaking. No tradition is. They’re all skippable.

But if we abandon them all as superfluous, what do we have left?

A car is a car without a hydrocarbon-burning engine. A home is a home without an artificially preserved, water-sucking lawn around it — and in many places, a home is a home without being a detached single-family dwelling at all. A meal is a meal without out-of-season veggies imported from across the globe. A fluorescent lightbulb is a lightbulb, and a run-of-the-river hydro power plant delivers the same kind of electricity to run it as a coal plant does.

For most people it is not, however, the Fourth of July without rockets glaring red and bombs bursting in air. We’d surrender something fundamental to the celebration if we gave up the fireworks entirely, and for marginal gain. Take transit instead of driving, keep the fireworks from landing on endangered species in sensitive wetlands, yes — but a once-a-year tradition of fireworks is worth the consequences.

Pointless made-up activities like the wretchedly wasteful Live Earth concerts, meanwhile, I think we could all just as easily do without.

(Photo credit: “Fireworks 01,” Flickr/SMN)

Paper offsets

Here’s an example of environmentalism-as-show-offy activity: this outfit called Eco-Libris will sell you paper offsets for the books you buy. For $1, they’ll arrange to have someone plant a tree on your behalf; they suggest buying a tree for each book you own.

They sent me this flattering e-mail asking me to feature them on my site, and I thought I’d oblige.

Reading a lot is part of my job. I have a lot of books, and I’ve divested myself of plenty more when I’ve moved house a couple of times in the last five years. But even so, all told, I’d guesstimate I’ve taken down maybe 10 trees in my entire book-reading career. Call it 20, just to be on the safe side. (Newspapers are a different story, although newsprint is highly recyclable and anyway newspaper offsets aren’t what Eco-Libris is selling.) There’s no way you make a profit selling $20 worth of offsets to somebody like me, though — you have to take it up a notch, and invite people to buy a $1 whole-tree offset for every single book they buy, which would take my paper bill into the thousands of dollars.

How do you disengage the cost of paper offsets from the amount of paper prospective customers actually own? By offering something a bit different from a promise to replace the paper consumed by one book. To buy a whole tree to balance off the paper in one book, I need it to make me feel green, to believe I’m doing something super-good for the planet, and it’s even better if you give me a way to show off that I’m doing so.

That opportunity to show off comes in the form of a sticker. From Eco-Libris’s Blogspot blog:

As the ex-libris was an elegant way to show the identity of the book owner and her (or his) appreciation of the book, we hope to see Eco-Libris stickers become the new way book owners present their identity, saying: hey, i love this book, but i also care about the environment. i am trying to live more sustainably. That’s who i am!

Eco-Libris appears to me to be mostly a marketing organization: their key function is to convince you that books are environmentally harmful and that you need to do something about it. You give them money, they give some of the money to actual tree-planters, and you get mailed a sticker to put in a book or wear on your face or otherwise place wherever you think it’ll do the most good:

The Eco-Libris sticker, which is made from recycled paper, is designed for you to put on the cover of the books you balance out, to show your commitment to sustainability and responsible use of natural resources. We hope you show off these books and inspire your family, friends and colleagues to take responsibility for their books as well.

Presumably by making a secure online purchase from Eco-Libris’s extremely convenient website.

For an extra warm green feeling, Eco-Libris’s “planting partners” work in deforested parts of Africa and Central America. Mind you, there most of the tree-cutting is to clear land for agriculture — not particularly to feed the North American and European publishing industry’s hunger for wood pulp. Albeit some of the stuff does end up on the market, but that’s not why the trees get cut down.

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization’s astonishingly detailed statistics database reveals that Latin America and the Caribbean, where two of Eco-Libris’s three planting partners work, exported about 7.7 million tonnes of pulp for paper in 2005 (having produced about 17 million tonnes). Meanwhile, Canada produced about 25 million tonnes and the United States 53 million tonnes, most of it for domestic consumption. If we’re really trying to offset the paper used in books, it’s not Malawi and Guatemala where the work needs to get done.

“There are two motives for reading a book: one, that you can enjoy it; the other, that you can boast about it,” the company quotes Bertrand Russell in one of many loosely book-related lines across the tops of the pages on its website. Boasting is definitely key here, for all concerned.

In the end, I’m certainly not saying not to buy in. More trees in deforested placed? Good thing. Stickers advertising care for the environment? Can’t really be bad. But for my taste and wallet, there’s too much room between the intrinsic value of what Eco-Libris sells and the price it’s asking.