Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Pardon Me...Spare An Indulgence?

Last week, Organic Matter highlighted a few "carbon mitigation tools" previously unknown to me. For those unfamiliar with the concept of Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs), the PV USA Solar site provides an excellent introduction.

An arm of Renewable Ventures, LLC, a San Francisco based company which finances and operates renewable energy power plants, PV USA Solar offers a comprehensive list of RECs. Their website "allows you to calculate the amount of CO2 produced by your home, your business, your commute, or your travel, and then purchase renewable energy certificates to offset those emissions." Over the last year, similar programs have been adopted by foreign governments. Official air travel by United Kingdom civil servants, for example, is tracked by a government agency that calculates "the amount of globe-warming carbon dioxide emitted during each flight." The agency then "offsets a commensurate amount of CO2 by investing money in clean-energy projects in developing countries."

I'm not content to wait for the United States government to act on my behalf. In less than three weeks, I depart New York City for Japan. After months of price comparisons and phone calls to booking agencies, I secured a relatively inexpensive, round-trip flight on American Airlines. The total cost, including gas surcharges and all taxes, is $850.00. But wait. A quick visit to PV USA Solar informs me of the following.
"Your travel will generate an estimated 5713.6 pounds of CO2. By purchasing 7142.0 kilowatt-hours of Renewable Energy Certificates, you will offset an equivalent amount of pollution generated by California power plants. Your cost for these RECs will be $214.26."
$1,064.26 no longer seems like such a "steal," but I will rationalize the extra expense by reminding myself that, had I purchased the ticket a month or two earlier, I would have paid over $1,000.00 before the REC fee.

Still, $214.26 isn't peanuts. Why do I feel compelled to pay the surcharge? I could, of course, choose not to. I mean, RECs are really for more "settled" people, right?

Wrong. No matter what the cost, cosmopolitan individuals - "citizens of the world" - are obligated to buy RECs for any traveling they do. To be aware of a problem and still choose to ignore it is, simply put, selfish. Ignorance is inexpensive bliss, but buying the REC is a pro-active gesture; my absolution will result in funding for alternative energy development, something I can ultimately be proud of.

But hold on! Did I just write "absolution?"

At fourteen, I hadn't yet to hear the romance of history's song. As a result, much of what my Western Civ professor taught remained unlearned. I do, however, remember discussing Martin Luther, the 16th Century theologian. Luther stuck in my mind for two reasons. 1) His name is shared by a 20th Century American hero. 2) He led the crusade against the sale of indulgences, also known as the Protestant Reformation.

As defined by the Roman Catholic Church, an indulgence is "The remission of temporal punishment still due for a sin that has been sacramentally absolved." In other words, you can buy your way out of purgatory by paying the church a repentance fee.

It is one thing to sin and later claim to have repented, but medieval citizens felt obliged to demonstrate their sincerity via external actions. (After all, it isn't God that frightens most people, but the possibility of being held in contempt by your peers.) While these public displays began as charitable acts - helping to feed the poor, for example - mercantilism allowed the church to generate revenue by banking on guilt. Because a medieval peasant didn't always have time to pursue charitable acts, opting to atone for misdeeds by paying the local church representative was an attractive alternative.

But it wasn't long before Rome realized how lucrative indulgences were. Already the most powerful governing body in Europe, the Catholic church now stood to become the most wealthy. Martin Luther crusaded against such corruption, but he also worried that "his parishoners were beginning to rely upon indulgences for their salvation more than repentance and satisfaction."

The first time I read about RECs, I recalled Luther's watchdog mission. An REC, after all, is an indulgence. Indulgences became popular only once the Catholic church embraced mercantilism and RECs are becoming popular at a time when market-based environmentalism is on the rise.

Philosophically speaking, RECs might be considered equally problematic as medieval indulgences. Many a well-intentioned citizen will purchase TerraPass, for example, and feel they have "done their part" for the environment, stopping short of a real contribution. More troubling still is the flagellation granted by RECs; realizing that most Americans couldn't care less about offsetting emissions, those of us who do purchase them will act as martyrs for the cause and little good can come of such a complex.

Fortunately, those of us who buy RECs know how the money is being used - at least, each of us should be responsible enough to check out these groups before cutting a check - and the more conscientious among us will recognize RECs as but one responsibility among many.

Photo credit: Copyright © 1997-1998 Concordia Historical Institute


Mikhail Capone said...

Offsetting our carbon emissions is one of many way to help along positive changes, and I congratulate you for being so responsible and coherent in your decision. I know that it's very easy to talk about things and do nothing.

Personally, all my economies (which are msotly left over student loans that I don't need right now - a few thousand bucks) are invested in green mutual funds and it is the way that I feel I can best use my assets to produce a positive impact (along with my everyday actions and writings to newspapers, my blog and treehugger.com).

So once again, congrats to you, sir. If you ever travel to eastern Canada, drop me a line beforehand.

Jewbacca said...

verbal masturbation much??

Sara Max said...

I find it really admirable that you have taken on this one-man battle of refusing to leave a giant slime trail across the earth like every other human being....I just wonder, is it really possible to completely understand and control the way we affect our environment? How do we know exactly what to avoid and what to pursue? Could it turn out that something we never thought caused any harm actually is the most harmful of all?

Hungry Hyaena said...




More worthwhile, thought provoking commentary. Always a pleasure to have you reading.


Absolutely. In fact, there are many notable examples of good intentions making a further mess of things, whether considering the environment, the economy or international relations. It is impossible to "completely understand and control the environment" and it will remain so. The alternative to informed decision making, though, is a shrug and an overwhelmed apathy - I know such a reaction well; this was my modus operandi for many years.

I try to make choices based on "facts" from "both sides of the aisle," as the media like to say, reading almost as many articles generated by the anti-green camps as I do the treehuggers. I often disagree with the greens, but more often clash with the liquidating anti-greens. Some degree of contradiction, though, is inherent in any philosophy; even most fundamentalists are hypocrites.

I'm sure some of my choices will one day be revealed to be poor, but paying to offset fossil fuel consumption is not one of them.

chris@organicmatter said...

I'm honestly a little curious - is this Jewbacca fellow a personal acquiantance of yours having a little fun at your expense, or just some douche who likes to pester you?

Forgive me if the choices I provided were overly binary; fill in the shades of gray if they're necessary.

Hungry Hyaena said...


Jewbacca resides in the gray zone: a personal acquaintance having a little fun by being a douche.