Slightly Off Center: Lumps of Coal

January 1, 2008

Dennis Hinkamp

Sizing up your carbon footprint.
by Dennis Hinkamp
What was the biggest lump of coal for Christmas? You. Yes, you. Just like the aliens in science fiction movies have been saying all along, we are curious carbon-based life forms. Now in a movement seemingly inspired by the unlikely collaboration of environmental activists and the Catholic Church, you have an opportunity to calculate exactly how guilty you should feel about it.

Guilt is not a tactic exclusive to the Catholic Church; it just has had more years to perfect it. I attended 13 years of Catholic school and I even feel guilty about telling people this. Now, back to carbon.

Go to any of the dozens of "calculate your carbon footprint" websites such as the one on the on Al "Inconvenient Truth" Gore's and start confessing. You will be asked to spill your carbon-based sins just as if you were listing your shortcomings to Father McNulty back in fifth grade. The largest contributors to your carbon shoe size are travel, housing utilities and household size. Of course you are going to lie at least a little because, really, who can remember all their sins? When you are finished you will see how you stack up against the average sinner and be given the option of carbon-offset penance in the form of paying for tree plantings or the construction of wind power towers.

This is why it is like confession; there is always a chance of redemption.

If you were a single long haul trucker or airline pilot, you would probably have to reforest Oregon. If you are a bike riding, polygamist patriarch living in a temperate climate, you might get by with a few extra trees in the backyard.

I understand carbon molecules and the need to address pollutants, but reducing everyone to a lump of coal is a little sketchy. The trouble with carbon footprint calculators is that they are no more a true picture of humanity than the economic indicators. The economic indicators such as the Gross National Product don't differentiate between spending money on beer or bananas, prostitutes or the United Way. Most economic indicators just count any exchange of money as a good thing.

Likewise when you start calculating your carbon crimes, it doesn't matter if you drive to deliver food to the poor or to a Wayne Newton concert in Las Vegas. Flying to visit sick relatives has the same negative impact as flying to Iowa one more time to support a doomed presidential campaign. In terms of carbon emissions, a flight is a flight. This is scientifically true, but stupid.

So, if you would like to summarize your personal carbon contributions, the best thing you can do for the environment, short of not existing, is doing nothing. Which brings me to the really inconvenient truth: There isn't really a shortage of natural resources; there is a surplus of people. I'm sure people have been saying this since people started crossing the oceans in search of developable real estate. But really, if you are now going to start tracking everyone's carbon footprint, why not use birth as ground zero?

This is going to make it tough on people who make a living giving motivational graduation speeches. We are stuck between the competing philosophies of "make your mark on the world" and "leave no trace."

Dennis Hinkamp would like to wish everyone a size 6 extra narrow carbon footprint in 2008.