J500 Media and the Environment


How many carbon offsets does it take to buy 5 planets? by jseverin
January 21, 2008, 10:05 pm
Filed under: Society + Media

With so much attention on global climate change these days, I’ve gotten in the habit of measuring environmental impact in terms of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, especially carbon dioxide (CO2). Carbon calculators, such as the one found on the website for “An Inconvenient Truth”, help us measure our personal contributions to global climate change. While these calculators give us a nice number to work with, I find it difficult to visualize my impact by calculating GHG emissions. What does it really mean if I contribute 6.95 tons of CO2 to the atmosphere every year? And can’t I just buy a carbon offset to make it all go away?

A campaign in Australia has made the concept a little easier to visualize by representing emissions with black balloons. Their advertisements show balloons inflating and floating away from home appliances and light fixtures, noting that the average home creates over 200,000 balloons full of GHGs every year. This doesn’t quite work for me either, as one of my middle school teachers taught me long ago that releasing balloons wasn’t good for the environment. After all, they eventually float back down and end up littering a park in the Rockies or choking some unfortunate sea bird off the coast of Florida.

Balloons aside, carbon calculators tend to focus more on personal transportation and home energy use and less on everything else we do in our daily lives. Sure we are producing more GHGs than we need to, but as consumers we are also using up valuable resources and discarding them as waste. And even though the trash I put out on Wednesday mornings is about a forth of what my neighbor sets out, I know that I’m using and wasting more than my share. The ecological footprint quiz helps put that in perspective in a way that makes sense. We have one planet, and I need almost 5. No amount of carbon offsets in the world can make up that difference.

By the way, there is another calculator on American Public Media’s website that is based on the ecological footprint quiz . It provides some useful statistics and tips along the way to explain more specifically the impacts our individual actions. I think this is just as important because gives me a starting point to work on whittling down and getting closer to that 1 planet footprint that I have in reality. Plus you get to pick an avatar and watch your planets add up as you answer questions – so it makes getting the bad news about over consumption at least a little more fun. And you don’t have to feel guilty about where all those little black balloons are going to end up.

– Jeff

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2 Comments so far
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Excellent. I find carbon calculators incomplete for the very reasons you mentioned. They are a decent starting point, but the ecological footprint is a little more expansive.
You strike upon two very important points that we’ll address this semester:
1) What do we do with the knowledge we disseminate and/or accrue (ie how can we shrink our footprint)?
and
2) How can images help us better understand these issues? (I am thinking of the avatar and planet count.)

Simran Sethi

Comment by j500

On the subject of using images, I actually met with some climate scientists yesterday to discuss a presentation on global climate change. It contained great graphs depicting temperature increases, CO2 in the atmosphere, and all the science behind this issue. We’ve all seen graphs like this in Al Gore’s slide show and they are very convincing to the scientific mind. But for me – and I think for a lot of people – those are just numbers. Images like this one of a shrinking glacier from the NASA website or this one of a tsunami refugee camp make those numbers mean something on a more personal level. Artists – whether working in film, paint, found objects, or other media – have a huge role to play in helping us understand what is happening to our planet and visualizing what could happen in the future.

This excerpt from an Oct 1970 article in Art Education (Vol. 23, No. 7. pp. 54) sums it up nicely:

Let the scientist work on the level of developing the precise, technical understanding of what is happening. This is not the arena of the artist, nor is it the arena in which the problem will be solved. The real problem is an ethical one. It has to do with morality and emotions. It will not be solved by restrictive laws or by improved technology but by the awakening in individuals of a personal awareness, sensitivity and appreciation for the problems facing mankind – exactly those attributes the artist is most capable of communicating.

I am certainly not saying that the science isn’t important, it just must be accompanied by elements that create a more personal connection to the problem.

– Jeff

Comment by jseverin




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