This little essay has been a long time coming. Years ago, when staying in a hotel, I read a little statement that asked me to choose. I could help the environment by hanging my towel up after use or, if I wanted a fresh one, I should put the towel in the bath. I think there were also some words about the nasty effects on the environment of the chemicals used to clean the towels.
I didn’t need the advice, since my Scots ancestry as well as my upbringing have made me a recycler, a hoarder of re-usable bits. I hang the towel up anyway. This was long before I got interested in ‘climate change’, and what bugged me was the absence of any offer: you hang the towel up and we’ll give 50 cents or whatever to the local clean-up campaign, or even knock it off your bill. As I read it, I would save the hotel some money, and I would feel good about that.
In time the towel proposition became almost standard in hotels. When we went to the opera a week or so ago we were met in the hotel by its card, which told us that it was the hotel’s ‘pleasure to change your linens and towels every day…. Meeting your needs is our highest priority and serving our environment is a distinction in which we can all take pride. Together we can reduce chlorine and detergent use and save millions of litres of water’. It wasn’t quite clear to me how the hotel would be assisting in this goal, when we were ‘together’. The hotel would respond to my decision, and not wash the towels, that is, do nothing.
From memory, the next example was courtesy of Qantas, which told me that I could offset the greenhouse gas emissions of my flight by paying a little more to plant some trees. The extra cost for doing so was tiny, and I wondered how my contribution could plant even one tree. Apparently very few Qantas passengers elect to offset their emissions, but if you go to the Qantas website you’ll see that this is now a fully worked-out plan.
As it happens, there is considerable debate about whether or not planting trees is ultimately any use, since storing carbon in trees is only a temporary measure: trees eventually die or burn, and then the carbon dioxide returns slowly to the atmosphere. I’m in favour of planting trees in Australia anyway, because they improve micro-climates and retain moisture in the soil. There are quite a few volunteer organisations that will plant trees for you for a donation, and my guess is that they do more good than airlines.
Driving to Melbourne recently we encountered a Greenfreight semitrailer (painted green), and another from Visy, whose side proclaimed ‘VISY Packaging and Recycling for a better world’. Look up both and you’ll find companies that are deeply into reducing greenhouse gas emissions, recycling and sustainability. Tahbilk, a vineyard from which we buy wine (especially its marvellous Marsanne, a white wine which ages so beautifully — no, I’m not being paid for this ad.) is now proudly announcing that for the 2012 calendar year Tahbilk Estate has achieved its goal of a ‘zero net emissions’ outcome. I don’t know what that means, nor how they know, but no doubt there are wine-buyers who feel better about it. Plainly the company does.
It’s everywhere, and I think that the outcome is by and large a good thing. Recycling seems to me a prudent thing to do anyway, and caring for the soil is in our collective interest. But the notion that by doing so we are reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and that our efforts will help save the planet, is pretty silly. Climate Commissioner Flannery, Australian of the Year and warner of bad things to come, has finally agreed that even if the carbon tax works, its effects would not be noticed in the atmosphere for a thousand years (I think I’ve got that right).
So why do we do it? I think it’s guilt — guilt for being well off when others in the world are miserably poor, guilt for being told incessantly that we are somehow responsible for the rest of the world, guilt at the notion (wrong, in my view) that ‘climate change’ is our fault. Companies that are plainly doing things that might be associated with the cause of our guilt, like airline companies, feel the need to assuage it.
And every time we see a Greenfreight truck we are reminded that Green is Good. It doesn’t pay off in megabucks, either for companies or for the Greens in politics, because we still want to live the lives we are used to. But it hits us from time to time in the conscience, and we do something to make us feel better. ‘Feel good’ is what this is finally all about.