Buying Our Way Out of Eco-Purgatory?

I hate to admit it, but I think carbon offsetting (see my previous post, “What Is Carbon Offsetting?”) is a little like buying a papal indulgence, a system used in the early days of the Roman Catholic Church.

An indulgence works thus: A person commits a sin, later repents of it, and if he or she does good work to atone for the misdeed, is granted an indulgence that helps save his or her soul from Purgatory—or worse.

I confess: I flew to Carmel, Calif., to visit the Carmel Mission.

I confess: I flew to Carmel, Calif., to visit the Carmel Mission.

Sometimes wealthy people could purchase indulgences instead of doing good deeds—a policy that funded some of Europe’s great cathedrals.

Here’s how I imagine the conversation at Our Lady of Environmental Transgressions:

Me: “Bless me, Father, for I flew to Guatemala for a yoga retreat, and yes, I am sorry that I contributed to global warming by burning a lot of fossil fuel.”

Eco-Priest: “Do you repent of this sin?”

Me: “I do. Except I had a really great time…”

Eco-Priest: “Then say a Hail Gaia and purchase your carbon offsets. Only through these acts of penitence—and by helping other people use less fossil fuel—will you maintain the ecological balance and atone for your eco-sin.”

Me: “Thank you, Father, for not condemning me to eternal labor in the Coal-Mine Pit of Hell.”

Eco-Priest: “I now pronounce you eco-absolved.”

Environmental Atonement

Yes, I exaggerate about the “eco-guilt,” yet it’s time for us all to take more responsibility for our personal impact on the environment. Frankly, most of us can’t build a solar system for an off-the-grid community—or often for our own houses—so carbon-offsetting is one way to personally approach the global warming issue.

Also, I don’t advocating completely eschewing travel, especially to other countries, because I believe cross-cultural understanding will help unite people around the world in a joint effort to preserve and protect natural places.

I’m interested in hearing how other people feel.

  • Do you suffer from eco-guilt?
  • Do you think carbon offsetting is a good way to address the problem of environmental destruction?
  • How about other suggestions for ways individuals to reduce their carbon footprint?

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

P.S. I just read a great piece on The Ecologist that discusses the ins and outs of carbon offset schemes. Read “Carbon Offsetting: Forgive My Carbon Sin?” by Jules Peck.