Stop throwing bricks at the drowning person

a.k.a Why is carbon footprint offsetting not enough?

I often find myself thinking about my impact on this ball of dirt and life, rotating and revolving in space. While the impact of a single person is marginal, it is nevertheless very important. We have heard this in many different forms and seen it at play in our history. Like Margaret Mead said:

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

This is not just some fancy aphorism, but has been proven to be true by many. The role of an individual can not be underplayed in mass movements.

Good intentions are the precursors for self reflection and push us to change. However good intentions themselves are not enough to make a positive impact. Good intentions without action is like looking at a drowning person and thinking about how it would be good to help them. However even when we do act on our good intentions we may not be very effective. This is akin to throwing a rock at the drowning person instead of a life vest. You tried to help them, even if it was useless or worse you knocked them on the head. But hey, the thought is what counts, right?

Helpful (Source)

Signals from the gut are the not the most trustworthy allies and tend to fail us especially when things are not very black and white. Yet when making decisions we don’t use data to see what works and how effective it is. For example if I want to buy a car I would want it to work and also be better than other cars available to me in my budget. This is just as true for me when I am trying to lower my impact on Earth. Should I be biking instead of driving? Should I be changing my consumption habits? My diet? Volunteer? Donate?

Doing Good Better

I was recently reading ‘Doing Good Better’, a book on using effective altruism to maximize our impact. The book is a great example of using data to make decisions that maximize net positive impact. The author William MacAskill, a vegetarian himself talks about cutting down on meat. He touches upon a lot of benefits like how actually eating less meat (or not eating meat at all) has a tangible impact on supply. While meat and dairy are not perfectly elastic, they do show a fair amount of elasticity. This means that every meal, each one of us eats truly impacts animal agriculture.

However one thing that struck me the most was about how he looks at offsetting of our carbon footprint. He considers the example of “Cool Earth”, a charity dedicated to preserving the rainforest. A few hundred dollars donated to Cool Earth, which helps preserve rainforests, can potentially offset your entire year’s carbon footprint. That means for a few extra dollars you can eat that steak three times a day and call yourself an environmentalist. It doesn’t matter if we spill oil on the seas, or mine ourselves senseless, a few extra dollars and your conscience is clean.

Reforestation and preserving our rainforest is something we must do and is critical for our Earth and for thousands of species. However it is not enough and most importantly it is not mutually exclusive to changes in our diet. We still need to change how we consume food before we eat the planet to death. That is one carcass we wont be able to eat.

Some things don’t have a carbon equivalence

Animal Agriculture brings with it a lot more problems than just carbon and nitrogen footprint. Things like animal cruelty, ocean dead zones, destruction of natural habitat, loss of species and stress on our resources. These problems can not be solved by planting more trees or by preventing deforestation. The only way to solve these problems is to reduce our meat and dairy consumption.

Source

70% of all biomass on Earth is livestock for consumption. Wild animals are just 2%. We grow more food to feed cattle than humans. We manufacture more antibiotics for cattle than humans. This strain on the environment can not be offset without reducing the actual consumption. Any number of trees will not prevent how much fertilizers and chemicals run into our streams and oceans.

Preventing deforestation is not enough

Brown is deforested land, red recently deforested land (Source)

Lets look at the biggest cause of rainforest being cut down. 80% of Amazonian rainforest are cut down to make way for animal agriculture. Not just in the Amazon, worldwide cattle farming is the biggest cause of deforestation. One way to prevent the rainforest from being chopped down is to enable local communities to preserve them. This is the approach taken by Cool Earth, along with a dozen other such charities. However if the demand for meat and dairy doesn’t go down, we are just shifting deforestation. There is a long way to go before we can buy all the land to prevent it from being chopped down.

What Cool Earth does is a bandage that we must apply while we cure the real problem. A tangible decrease in demand would actually need fewer of these forests to be chopped down. We can preserve our rainforests and at the same time change our food consumption to make the reforestation initiatives a lot more effective.

Moral Licensing

This may not apply to everyone, but it does seem to apply to most of us. Self-licensing or moral licensing has been used a lot as a case against a lot of environmental activities. Carbon footprint offsetting can be seen one of those slippery slopes that allow us to disassociate our actions from their consequences. Once we start believing that we can offset our habits we fall into the rabbit hole of ignorance and destruction. This leads to over consumption, wastage, and potentially increase in destructive habits.

This has happened often with “eco” products in the market. This is the trick used when buying Cage Free Eggs. The consumers believe they did their part in preventing cruelty, but a lot of research suggests most current systems are barely more humane than battery cages, and in many regards worse. Further this prevents us from actually lowering consumption. When rating the suffering of farm animals Norwood and Lusk found suffering of hens to be worse than death. On their scale those hens are better off dead.


This Earth is pretty beat up and drowning in a pool of man made mess. Let’s stop throwing rocks at it.