Friday, 12 September 2008

A carboniferous era

A modern phrase that troubles me greatly is the ubiquitous “carbon footprint.” I hear it everywhere and often on the lips of people who can’t actually define what it means. I booked an air ticket to Sydney for later this month and the airline offered to offset my carbon – for a fee of course. I was much too busy working out how to avoid the plethora of other fees that the airline piles on top of their quoted “cheap airfare” to look at how they actually proposed to do this.

Perhaps one reason that I so like Verlyn Klinkenborg’s is that he shares much of my doubt. A few months ago he neatly defined carbon footprints as “the measurable totality of your environmental impact, or, to put it more simply, what your way of life actually costs the planet.” Thanks are due to him too for his phrase "carboniferous era."

He and I are in agreement that understanding the impact of your personal consumption on the environment is vital, but we also share unease at the glibness with which this phrase trip off people’s tongues. Part of it, Klinkenborg explains is that “the phrase sounds conscientious. You feel as though you’re reducing global warming by saying it.” People seem to use it as an excuse to continue a lifestyle of consumption while assuaging guilt by throwing more money at it. Klinkenborg argues that two things that humans do “most instinctively are manipulate language and create markets, and those two instincts converge when it comes to carbon footprints.” And that is the main source of my unease -- that people are profiting from sounding green without necessarily doing anything that directly benefits the environment.

So why I am pondering carbon footprints, or rather, why more so than usual? The last few days, the air has been heavy with woodsmoke. Our neighbour has been burning off cleared scrub from his gully and the westerly wind has been blowing it straight in our front windows. I was thinking about how it must have been when settlers were first clearing this land. The valley must have been constantly full of smoke, perhaps for years at a time as they painstakingly chopped down trees, dragged away stumps and burnt the remainder to obtain land clear enough for farming. Most were small-cropping and dairy farming so the land needed to be pretty clear and flat. An immense amount of physical energy went into simply getting ready to farm. Did this change the local climate? It certainly changed the physical environment. Marburg and environs went in a very few years from deep forest and thick scrub to pastures and fields dotted with houses.

The irony in this case is that our neighbour is an award-winning environmentalist who is clearing land in order to revegetate it. Talking to him recently, he spoke about how people laud the amazing ability of trees to store carbon while they don’t consider the size of the carbon footprint created by planting trees. There’s a large bulldozer burning diesel for days as it clears the land, there’s the carbon released from the burning of cleared branches and trees. More carbon is released when the land is deep ripped to allow for planting. There’s carbon released from using a tractor and a petrol-driven tree planter. Has anyone compared the amount of carbon released compared to the amount stored? I wonder. The end result though is positive: soil protection, prevention of erosion, creation of wildlife habitats, preservation of native flora, aesthetics plus carbon storage.

A further irony is the effort required today to return land to some semblance of its original. Those migrants who so painfully clearly the land would never have imagined similar efforts going into replanting forests. And I wonder what they would think about it?

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