Complicity and Climate Change: Travel Offsets as a First Step

By Benjamin Swift

In a capitalist system predicated on the commodification of environmental resources and designed to maximize transnational capitalist class profits, for most people, simply existing entails a state of complicity. The mere act of being a consumer — even a conscious one — in a capitalist milieu involves interacting with, and thus supporting, systems of human and environmental exploitation. If channeled productively, however, privilege — and the complicity it entails — can be leveraged to push back against environmental degradation.

When living within a capitalist context, everyone must to an extent be complicit in the perpetuation of a system that engenders environmental degradation. Not everyone, however, is complicit to the same extent. Based on one’s positionality and the privileges that one enjoys, different individuals are complicit to different degrees in the injustices prevalent today. As a person of privilege, I am personally more complicit in this system than, for instance, a subsistence farmer. As a result of the privileges I enjoy, I have traveled extensively. For instance, at the end of my first year at Colorado College, I had the opportunity to travel to China. That experience rendered me complicit in a variety of manners. Simply flying more than 13,000 miles from Denver to Shanghai and back generated about 3.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions, which is approximately equal to the carbon emissions of the average Mexican citizen in the entire year of 2016, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. While perhaps low-income Mexican citizens are complicit in a neoliberal economy in that they do not have any other option but to purchase mass-produced clothing manufactured through a system that exploits people and the environment, their personal level of responsibility is far less than that of someone with more purchasing power. On a large scale, it is clear that those most privileged in society are most responsible for climate change: just 12% of Americans take two-thirds of all flights, according to the International Council on Clean Transportation. Because those of us with more privilege are both more culpable for perpetuating the social and environmental issues currently faced, and have a greater degree of freedom to change our behavior or engage in resistance, it is precisely those of us with privilege who have not only an ability, but a responsibility, to mitigate our personal environmental and social habits.

Changes in personal behaviors are often difficult, and, alone, insufficient in the fight against climate change. Nevertheless, in a world where the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has predicted a climate crisis as early as 2040 assuming business as usual, to begin enacting the changes necessary to stave off the worst of climate change, we need all hands on deck in order to fight it from every angle. The flight to China in 2018 that generated almost four tons of carbon emissions was avoidable — I could have chosen to stay on campus. But most of us (myself included) aren’t willing or able to dramatically change our travel habits. Fortunately, investing in travel offsets is a concrete step to reduce the environmental impacts of one’s air and ground travel. 

Carbon offsets are credits purchased in order to counteract the environmental impact of an activity that generates greenhouse gases. The funds generated from carbon offsets may go toward building new renewable energy infrastructure or may prevent greenhouse gases from getting into the atmosphere in the first place, whether by capturing it at its source or by growing plants and forests that use atmospheric carbon for photosynthesis. While offsets can be controversial because of their social impacts, with some projects displacing indigenous people and growing forests in their stead, local projects can avoid such problems. Additionally, while carbon offsets should be a last resort, as directly reducing one’s emissions is more impactful than offsetting them, offsets represent a tangible step one can take in the meantime. 

If you would like to offset your air or ground travel, or even the greenhouse gas impacts of daily life, a variety of options exist. Organizations such as Terrapass allow people to offset every component of their daily life, from their eating habits to travel. Last year, the CC Office of Sustainability also released a travel offset calculator, which allows anyone to input point-to-point travel information and then invest in offsetting that trip. According to the Office of Sustainability website, offsets purchased through their calculator go to CC’s carbon offset fund, funding “landfill gas destruction projects in Colorado, Utah, and Oklahoma, which prevent greenhouse gases from entering the atmosphere and contributing to climate change.” Because CC’s offsets are landfill-based and relatively local, you can be confident that investing in your travel does not contribute to the social injustices inherent to some offset funds.

While offsetting your carbon footprint doesn’t absolve you of your responsibility to proactively fight climate change, it is an easy first step. I offset my flight to Shanghai and back for $32 — not bad for a 13,000-mile flight. As someone with the privilege to travel as I do, it’s my responsibility to do so. It’s yours too. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *