When booking a flight from Amsterdam to London earlier today I got suddenly presented with an offer to repent and receive absolution:
I have watched Al Gore’s movie and sat through his keynote in Oxford last year. I think I can honestly say that I do care about the environment, although it is also certainly true that I am no carbon fundamentalist. While it would be too much to say that environmental concerns constantly press on my mind and shape my decisions, I am reasonably aware of them and, whenever there is a choice that doesn’t require inordinate sacrifices, also try to act accordingly. Which is something that can probably be said about most of the people of my age and social group in Europe.
I am also aware that living the life that I live and doing the things I do is bound to have SOME impact on the environment and that it will largely boil down to small things, such as having my apartment warm at winter, driving my car across the country to visit my friends or… flying from Amsterdam to London. The latter, as it turns out, generates about 47kg worth of CO2 emissions and while it is certainly true that if I did decide to walk to London instead, THIS 47kg would STILL be emitted, but alright, I am part of the problem as jointly all the air travellers in the world are indeed responsible for the CO2 emissions of the airline industry. However, this is not my point.
This little line called ‘Carbon offsetting’ immediately reminded me of an old and time-honoured medieval practice of selling indulgences.
It was during the early High Middle ages when what had so far been a binary concept of the otherworld, consisting of Heaven and Hell, slowly became ternary, with the addition of Purgatory. It was simply an inevitable fact of everyday life that leading a truly virtuous life akin to that of saints was out of the reach for vast majority of the people, and as heaven was originally reserved only for saints, all the rest were going to spend an eternity in hell. Obviously, this was not a sustainable worldview. At the same time it was very much in the interest of the church (and I suppose it still is) that most of the people would see themselves as sinners. Enter the purgatory – a place of temporary punishment and purification, after which a person is fit to join the God and saints in heaven. Now it was only those who committed the seven mortal sins who were condemned to hell – all the rest of the sins (so-called venial sins) were possible to be erased in purgatory. Compared with the eternal torment of hell, the temporary and somewhat more lenient purgatory was certainly a big improvement, but it was still no picnic.
The High Middle Ages saw something that could be called a ‘commodification of penance’. At first it became possible to commute penances to less demanding works, such as prayers, alms or fasts, and then on to payments of fixed amounts of money and this in turn slowly evolved to an understanding that it is possible to ‘buy oneself out’ of the time (or at least shorten it considerably) to be done in purgatory. This practice developed into a whole new industry by Late Middle Ages and became one of the main points of contention that sparked the Protestant Reformation of the early 16th century. Indulgences were distributed and sold not only by the holy church but by armies of professional “pardoners” and were bought by masses of people looking to relieve their small and not-so-small sins of everyday life. This view of ‘balancing out’ sins has made it to our current English language, where the word “indulge” still carries that connotation of guilty pleasure:
verb [ intrans. ] (indulge in)
allow oneself to enjoy the pleasure of : we indulged in some hot fudge sundaes.
So, indulgence was something that allowed people to go on about their lives, doing the things they were doing – but to transform the public guilt into a private one. Of course, it would be nice to lead a completely virtous life, but hey, we’re no saints.
Coming back to the present – what actually struck me about this EasyJet indulgence is how small the amount was. It is about one tenth of the €8.35 surcharge that I got hit with by using my MasterCard to pay for the ticket – and the accompanying ‘offsetting’. In our time of globalisation and competition there is apparently a lively market for such carbon-indulgences. EasyJet offered me one at €0.91 (and going to great lengths in explaining that this in no way profits them). Quick search on the Internet turned up with a site called ClimateCare that allows me to offset my sin of flying from Amsterdam to Stansted for mere £0.43. However, the cost is so low that it really doesn’t matter, I can pay €1 if that will allow me to fly with a clear conscience.
And so it is that this €0.91 will allow me to indulge my trip to London. Without it, it simply wouldn’t be perfect.