There’s been a good deal of noise about the so-called ‘return to normal’ that awaits us when we eventually turn the corner on pandemic surges (a corner that looks pretty different depending on where and who you are). And since I first started penning this missive, the Omicron (variant of concern) has reared its head, changing our trajectory yet again, prolonging that return. “Normal” flashes like a neon sign in the distance; a mirage barely visible on the horizon line. What that “ normal” might possibly entail however, is a welcome conversation if we can hang onto some sense of urgency. But the conversation about it needs to be paired with meaningful action. And I mean this on a personal level as well as a socio-political one.
I took my first air flight in almost 2 years last month (in a window of loosened travel restrictions) and, as many have already commented, this return to a pre-pandemic mode of travel was both jarring and exhilarating. I felt giddy as the plane landed at my destination, and I actually teared up at the prospect of reuniting with both people and place. I also felt tinges of guilt: to be able to travel when so many cannot; to watch my carbon footprint double in size in one short hour. A profound sadness settled in at the edges of my excitement. I want to travel again, but, like so many, I am also deeply concerned about the consequences.
Recently, quite a few people I admire have publicly eschewed air travel as a symbolic and impactful gesture to help save our planet. Greta Thunberg and Timothy Morton are just two examples. Greta Thunberg has inspired a generation to follow suit. I applaud them! With the lingering bad aftertaste of COP26’s watered-down commitments, the sacrifice and action of individuals feel especially poignant right now. Where our nations and corporations fail, we individuals must continue to demand a higher standard, by setting examples and doing all that we can. I know in my heart we simply can’t go back to pre-pandemic levels of travel. But if we do travel, one idea circulating is the notion of carbon offsetting.
I so want to love this. I want this to be the answer. Take a flight and donate to an alternative energy fund or help replant a forest in Costa Rica. By doing so, perhaps we can offset or counterbalance the impacts of that flight and walk away guilt-free. But isn't this just another way to sweep our complicity under the rug in a heap of false equivalencies? Duncan Clark summarizes some of the pros and cons well in the Rough Guide to Green Living, adapted here for The Guardian).
The David Suzuki Foundation recommends avoiding air travel if at all possible. It is better not to fly, but if you must, then consider carbon offsetting. And there are many carbon footprint calculators and offsetting guidelines that will help you measure your carbon per ton based on your lifestyle. (David Suzuki Foundation recommends The Gold Standard as a good guideline.)
But the mere fact that a search for carbon offsetting also brings up ads sponsored by various companies responsible for massive emissions should be cautionary.
Can we truly offset climate change by resuming business as usual with a philanthropic counterbalance? Or is the offset needed here really a bigger one? One that goes much deeper into the muck of it all. Maybe what we need to offset is the idea of “normal” altogether. As we have seen it is absolutely possible to halt business as usual, when the need is there. So why not proactively? We need to muster a collective desire for change. The cost will be much higher if we do not.