Tuesday, September 04, 2007


Welcome to a Brave New World: Is carbon-offsetting just eco-enslavement?

If you thought that the era of British bigwigs keeping Indians as personal servants came to an end with the fall of the Raj in 1947, then you must have had a rude awakening last week.

In a feature about carbon offsetting in The Times (London), it was revealed that the leader of the UK Conservative Party, David Cameron, offsets his carbon emissions by effectively keeping brown people in a state of bondage. Whenever he takes a flight to some foreign destination, Cameron donates to a carbon-offsetting company that encourages people in the developing world to ditch modern methods of farming in favour of using their more eco-friendly manpower to plough the land. So Cameron can fly around the world with a guilt-free conscience on the basis that, thousands of miles away, Indian villagers, bent over double, are working by hand rather than using machines that emit carbon.

Welcome to the era of eco-enslavement.

The details of this carbon-offsetting scheme are disturbing. Cameron offsets his flights by donating to
Climate Care. The latest wheeze of this carbon-offsetting company is to provide ‘treadle pumps’ to poor rural families in India so that they can get water on to their land without having to use polluting diesel power. Made from bamboo, plastic and steel, the treadle pumps work like ‘step machines in a gym’, according to some reports, where poor family members step on the pedals for hours in order to draw up groundwater which is used to irrigate farmland. These pumps were abolished in British prisons a century ago. It seems that what was considered an unacceptable form of punishment for British criminals in the past is looked upon as a positive eco-alternative to machinery for Indian peasants today.

What might once have been referred to as ‘back-breaking labour’ is now spun as ‘human energy’. According to Climate Care, the use of labour-intensive treadle pumps, rather than labour-saving diesel-powered pumps, saves 0.65 tonnes of carbon a year per farming family. And well-off Westerners - including Cameron, and Prince Charles, Land Rover and the Cooperative Bank, who are also clients of Climate Care - can purchase this saved carbon in order to continue living the high life without becoming consumed by eco-guilt. They effectively salve their moral consciences by paying poor people to live the harsh simple life on their behalf.

Climate Care celebrates the fact that it encourages the Indian poor to use their own bodies rather than machines to irrigate the land. Its website declares: ‘Sometimes the best source of renewable energy is the human body itself. With some lateral thinking, and some simple materials, energy solutions can often be found which replace fossil fuels with muscle-power.’ To show that muscle power is preferable to machine power, the Climate Care website features a cartoon illustration of smiling naked villagers pedalling on a treadle pump next to a small house that has an energy-efficient light bulb and a stove made from ‘local materials at minimal cost’. Climate Care points out that even children can use treadle pumps: ‘One person - man, woman or even child - can operate the pump by manipulating his/her body weight on two treadles and by holding a bamboo or wooden frame for support.’

Feeling guilty about your two-week break in Barbados, when you flew thousands of miles and lived it up with cocktails on sunlit beaches? Well, offset that guilt by sponsoring eco-friendly child labour in the developing world! Let an eight-year-old peasant pedal away your eco-remorse…

The whole piece (and there is much more to it) is a worthwhile read.

I'm starting to think the entire environmental movement is becoming nothing more than the not-so-disguised imperialism of the 21st century.


Tom said...

I might point out that the poor villagers wouldn't need to buy diesel for a pedal-powered pump. And "eco-friendly" doesn't always equate to back-breaking labor. And poor Indian villages don't equate to turn-of-the-century British prisons.

Still, this may not be such a good idea...

Tully said...

Nice cheap & simple tech that they can afford that's helpful? Great! Years ago in Third World places I helped people build pumps made out of old tires to draw water, because they simply could not afford powered pumps.

But using cheap & simple tech to replace more efficient methods that CAN be afforded? STUPID. The number one way to reduce environmental degradation and reduce population growth is to increase wealth, not keep people impoverished. The poor do not have the luxury to be eco-friendly--survival comes first.

"Eco-colonialism" is a more fitting term. As the article goes on to note: "Carbon-offsetting also shines a light on the dangerously anti-development sentiment in environmentalism. As the British journalist Ross Clark has argued, the success of carbon-offsetting relies on the continuing failure of Third World communities to develop."

No fooling.

Anonymous said...

Assuming you were serious,... Where is the outrage from all these farmers that feel they are becoming enslaved by treadle pumps (TPs)?

You ignore so many basic facts in the 3rd world. For starters, people there are poor. To suggest that TPs are enslaving them is ludicrous. The cost of high-tech fixes is often beyond their means. Not sustainable. Simple, low-tech solutions have an amazing capacity to improve their livelihoods now. The local, sustainable movement is simply about helping farmers farm, without totally replacing their lifestyle. I do not believe it is possible to take 1 billion plus impoverished people, and transform them overnight into US-style consumers. But if we can, through small, low-tech, low cost solutions, help them eek out a better living off the land than they could otherwise do, it's an improvement. What have you done to help improve the lives of rural 3rd world farmers?

Have you considered total cost of ownership analysis on TP vs diesel pumps? The initial cost, fuel, and maintenance of diesel's are many times higher than TPs, and TPs are much simpler to maintain and repair. How easy would it be for a rural farmer in India or Africa to overhaul his diesel engine in 5 or 10 years? Compare this to the simplicity of replacing a rubber gasket in a TP.

Women and children enslaved? Are you forgetting that in many 3rd world settings, women and children already walk considerable distances to access water, firewood, and everything else. We're not pulling people out of corner offices in New York City, and enslaving them to work TPs. They're already poor, already working their bodies to eek out a living. TPs just make it easier. By the way, how much do those urbanites in NYC pay each month to work on the stairmaster at their local health club?

Finally, remember that many big pro-"development" fixes have disastrous consequences for the people on the land. For far too long, the developed world has granted or loaned huge dollars for massive projects. Hydroelectric and irrigation reservoirs that drive untold thousands off fertile lands. It's too easy to think that all "development" should replicate the Aswan dam. You have a massive project, massive funding, and you can show the world that you're making giant leaps in the name of progress and development. But the ecological and human consequences that accompany big development are sometimes disasterous. What if we could improve more lives, and do so less disruptively, with a million grants of $1000 each, rather than a single $1,000,000,000 project?

...or were you just trolling?

The Iconic Midwesterner said...

The point of the original piece, if you go back and read it, was the replacement of small scale diesel pumps with human powered pumps specifically for carbon savings and not as an alternative to some ill-conceived multi-million dollar dam (or whatever else one can think of.)

As Tully says above, simple tech used in cases where other options are impractical based upon monetary limitation is one thing. Keeping labor saving devices from third world countries in an attempt to assuage Western "carbon guilt" is ridiculous...and probably racist in effect if not intent.