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Monday, April 23, 2007

This week at Go on an energy diet.

For Earth Day, Jon Luoma offers some steps you can take to address global warming.

In the news, Don Skinner reports on the impact of the Virginia Tech shootings on the UU congregation in Blacksburg. Jane Greer reports that UUA shareholder activism persuaded the Starwood hotel company to improve its environmental reporting practices. And Sonja Cohen rounds up another full week of Unitarian Universalists in the media.

Appeal: Please take a moment today to call your Congressional representatives about the new periodicals postage rate hike that will unfairly hit small magazines. There's a very brief window for public comment on this surprise change in the postal regulations, which may boost postage costs as high as 25 percent on many smaller magazines while giving lower costs to media giants like Time Warner — which, coincidentally, recommended the new rate structure. Read more about the campaign by independent publishers to challenge the new rates.

Copyright © 2007 by Philocrites | Posted 23 April 2007 at 7:12 AM

Previous: Urgent: Postal rate hike will harm small magazines.
Next: This week at JLA's 'fascist' prophecy.




Dudley Jones:

April 24, 2007 11:55 AM | Permalink for this comment

Global warming question for UU policy geeks:
Do I recall that some decades ago UU GA made an official denominational pronouncement condemning nuclear power? Is it still in force?
ps I thought the basic tone of the article was remarkably upbeat, considering some of the things people are forecasting as possible global warming results.


April 25, 2007 02:04 PM | Permalink for this comment

A 1981 General Resolution, "Alternate Sources and Conservation of Energy," mentions "the dangers implicit in the use of nuclear energy." But the resolution you're thinking of is a 1976 General Resolution on "Nuclear Power."

Are UUA resolutions "still in force"? Yes, in the sense that the UUA is institutionally bound to consider them as expressing the will of the General Assembly. It seems, however, that great latitude exists in interpreting just how binding a particular statement is in any contemporary situation. The UUA's Public Witness staff, for example, sets its own, more focused advocacy agenda using "grounding, fit, and opportunity" as the deciding factors.


April 25, 2007 05:18 PM | Permalink for this comment

I am confused about the justice of "carbon offsets". The principle seems to be that rich people are exempt from normal moral constraints if they pay a small fee. The UUA appears to be reviving the Medieval doctrine of Indulgences.

In the Middle Ages the Church held, as I understand it, that some people, saints for example, had actually expiated more sin than they had committed. This surplus expiation was the property of the Church, the so-called Thesaurus Meritorum. Chuch agents could sell this spritual merit for cash. In practice, the purchaser of the Indulgence got a handsome certificate proclaiming their virtue.

Modern UUA doctrine appears analogous. Some people are environmentally virtuous, building windmills say. They can sell this virtue to brokers who, after applying various mark-ups (the UUA takes 7%) resell it to rich people with guilt feelings about their lifestyle. As in Tetzel's time, the purchaser gets a handsome certificate proclaiming their virtue. Al Gore, for example, in his latest book announces that all guilt associated with his lifestyle has been transferred to Native Americans.

Again, as in Tetzel's time, expiation is ridiculously cheap. The UUA advertises global warming expiation for only $4.58/month. Since many people are trying to sell expiation, the competition keeps prices low.

From a scientific point of view, this can't possibly work. There is no way global carbon emissions can be significantly reduced without reducing the emissions of rich Americans. Native Americans can't do it. They don't emit enough.

Politically, it is a disaster. People look at Al Gore's $30,000 a year utility bill and think he is a hypocrite. Imagine if Gandhi had led boycotts of English textiles while wearing Saville Row suits and explaining that he had purchased "boycott offsets"

But it is the religious part I really fail to understand. Suppose other churches did it. Suppose the Pope said, "We have been greatly concerned by priest's molestation of children. To solve this problem we have found some people who are considering molesting children and paid them not to do it. As a result of the purchase of these "molestation offsets" we can now proudly proclaim the Church to be "Child Molestation Neutral"." Would we buy that? How does that differ from the UUA's position?

I am not trying to be snide. I am genuinely confused as are several other people at our church. The Luoma article just says that people who question the justice of morality offsets aren't "truly committed." That's not an argument, just a personal slur.

I hope that UUworld will address this issue in more detail in an upcoming issue. For now, if I wanted to argue, as the Onion put it, that UUism was "a religion that won't disrupt your lifestyle", I would cite the doctrine of morality offsets as exhibit A.

Pat McLaughlin:

April 25, 2007 05:41 PM | Permalink for this comment

Carbon offsets aren't an issue of justice in the way that uuwonk seems to be thinking. They're an issue of achieving a net carbon zero objective.

Reel the question back.

Is it "just" that someone uses some amount of electricity? It either is, or isn't. Carbon offsets simply are an action taken to balance the carbon output that results from using that amount of electricity. It is just, ethical, responsible... to do so. It doesn't matter in that perspective whether you're using almost no electricity or a lot. The point is -- are you taking actions to ensure that you have no net carbon input into the environment?

It's not expiation. It's action. If those who can afford it act to zero out their net-carbon input, then all that remains is the far, far more modest input of those who can't afford to. The environment will be vastly better off.

The logic that one should cut back is a good one. But it's cut back as you can, how you can. Then where you can't, you seek to redress the carbon footprint with offsets.

The molestation analogy is grotesque.

Was lighting a fire, 5000 years ago, "molesting the environment"? Nonsense. Fires are a natural event, too. The problem is one of scale--almost anything humans do now has a carbon impact. Eating does.

We can't achieve the purist (puritanical) objective of releasing no carbon; certainly not with current technologies and society. What we can do is counterbalance things.

It's not perfect--but perfect isn't even imaginably in reach.


April 26, 2007 07:50 AM | Permalink for this comment

uuwonk, I have thought of carbon credits as a kind of investment strategy in alternative energy: It capitalizes zero-carbon industries. (Okay, except for when it doesn't — and, wouldn't you know, this article raises the personal atonement theme, too!)

I've tended to think of carbon credits as a business-class approach to a social issue, in contrast to several decades of bureaucratic or regulatory approaches. I'd compare them with socially-responsible investing (capitalist power!) and social venture (entrepreneurial, results-focused do-gooderism!).

Seriously, though: The idea with carbon offsets seems to be to find a way to steer capital into more environmentally benign forms of energy production. Eventually, if I understand it correctly, these green power providers can begin to compete directly. Carbon offsets aren't an alternative to regulatory changes, but since we're still living in a short-term, business-dominated, center-right society with a president who can't be bothered to take the environment seriously, we gotta start somewhere.

Expiate away!


April 26, 2007 06:32 PM | Permalink for this comment


Buying offsets does _not_ make you net carbon neutral. The carbon you release still goes up in the air and stays there. You just "make up for it" by contributing to some other, one hopes, worthy activity. The offsets don't make the carbon go away. If they did, my attitude would be different.


The best way to get the free market to find innovative ways to reduce carbon emissions is a carbon tax. This has been advocated for decades by virtually everyone who has looked at the issue (except oil company employees). Nevertheless, while high taxes on gasoline are in place in every other industrial country, not only do we not have them, we don't even have any well known politicians advocating them. In last week's Nation James Hanson lamented "this is the hard recommendation that no politician seems willing to stand up and say is necessary:" I think he is disappointed by Al Gore.

My guess is that the main reason the oil companies, air lines etc. are so in love with carbon offsets is that they distract the public from the carbon tax issue, not that the public needs much distraction.

I accept the point you both make that while offsets may be pretty lame, they are at least a small step in the right direction. I just get worn down by the sanctimony with which UU culture pushes them. Their advocates are definitely marketing atonement.

As a practical matter, I think it is better to give money to reputable environmental groups than to the cowboy capitalists of carbon offsets.

For a good discussion with a European perspective see

Church of Integrity:

April 29, 2007 04:16 AM | Permalink for this comment

Good catch with the postal thing. I find it outrageous. I hope we manage to push it back with our collective effort.


May 1, 2007 07:44 AM | Permalink for this comment

Ooh, more on carbon assets as indulgences, from the New York Times:

As long as the use of fossil fuels keeps climbing — which is happening relentlessly around the world — the emission of greenhouse gases will keep rising. The average American, by several estimates, generates more than 20 tons of carbon dioxide or related gases a year; the average resident of the planet about 4.5 tons.

At this rate, environmentalists say, buying someone else’s squelched emissions is all but insignificant.

“The worst of the carbon-offset programs resemble the Catholic Church’s sale of indulgences back before the Reformation,” said Denis Hayes, the president of the Bullitt Foundation, an environmental grant-making group. “Instead of reducing their carbon footprints, people take private jets and stretch limos, and then think they can buy an indulgence to forgive their sins.”

“This whole game is badly in need of a modern Martin Luther,” Mr. Hayes added.

Some environmental campaigners defend this marketplace as a legitimate, if imperfect, way to support an environmental ethic and political movement, even if the numbers don’t all add up.

“We can’t stop global warming with voluntary offsets, but they offer an option for individuals looking for a way to contribute to the solution in addition to reducing their own emissions and urging their elected representatives to support good policy,” said Daniel A. Lashof, the science director of the climate center at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

("Carbon-neutral is hip, but is it green?," Andrew C. Revkin, New York Times 4.29.07, reg req'd)

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