All posts by Janet Newbury

Janet lives on Canada's Sunshine Coast, where she is currently completing her PhD in Child and Youth Care. Exploring alternatives to what she sees as the widespread individualization of social problems has enabled Janet to study within a broad range of subject areas such as: loss, substance use, research methodologies, the bureaucratization of human service practices, and social justice. Her work experiences are also varied, but she is particularly interested in community initiatives that focus on strengths and acknowledge the systemic nature of many social problems (rather than locating the onus for change within individuals who experience them). Because of her belief in the power of citizen engagement, she is involved in several exciting community initiatives, including the Powell River Diversity Initiative and the Sunshine Musicfest.

Resetting, not offsetting, for post growth futures

By Janet Newbury, Sharon Ede and Joshua Nelson

As members of the Post Growth Institute, we have been having some animated conversations regarding the topic of carbon offsetting (aka ‘carbon neutrality’).

On the one hand, we aim to be as transparent as possible about our successes and shortcomings when it comes to our own consumption patterns.  Some individuals and organizations are using the calculation and offsetting of carbon usage as a way of doing that.

On the other hand, we see offsetting as deeply nested within the growth model.  As such, not only do some of us believe the popularity of offsetting will not bring us closer to post growth realities – there seems to be plenty of evidence so far that it will in fact move us farther from them.

Before getting into the details, how about a few stories?

Image credit: kumaravel

Once upon a time …

  1. … there was a guy who was becoming increasingly conscious of his impact on the world that sustains him.  He began to think more deeply about the things he does that damage the delicate balances required for that world to thrive.  He started riding his bike to work.  He chose to holiday closer to home.  He enjoyed growing and preparing local food.  One day, his friend invited him to go on a back-country adventure in a 4×4.  He thought about it, and asked some very deliberate questions about how much fuel might be consumed on such a trip.  He decided to look into ways to offset it, so that he could enjoy the 4×4 trip, knowing he was simultaneously contributing to a good cause.
  2. … there was a vending company that  supplied schools all across the country with sugar- and chemical-laden beverages that come in single use containers.  This company decided to become ‘carbon neutral’ as an innovative way to market itself.  Brilliant!  From that point forward, all of the delivery trucks could proudly display signs that this was a ‘socially responsible’ company.  Business flourished, and all the kids in all the schools still got their sugary drinks.
  3. … there was a transport company, one of the largest in the land, which wanted to be a good role model for other ‘corporate citizens’.  Along came BP’s Global Choice fuel emissions offsetting scheme, and the opportunity just seemed perfect.  Once the transport company signed up for the challenge, its managing director publicly exclaimed: “The more kilometers we travel, the more we help Australia’s environment.”

What does offsetting actually do?

The most common understanding of the answer to this question goes something like this: By purchasing carbon credits, we are investing in activities (such as the planting of trees or adding of renewable energy instead of carbon-energy) which restore the balance of the ecosystem by facilitating the reintegration of the carbon that has been used in the burning of fossil fuels or by removing carbon-emitting that would have be placed without the offset.  So, for instance, if I take a flight (which burns fossil fuels) I can buy carbon credits (which contribute to the planting of trees) to negate the damage that otherwise would have taken place because of my flight.

However, that’s not actually how it works.

We are, in fact, dealing with two carbon pools: the active carbon pool (which moves among forests, atmosphere, and oceans, and rarely increases or decreases), and the fossil carbon pool (which is locked away in coal, oil, and gas deposits – until extracted, that is).  When fossil fuels are used, carbon is being irreversibly shifted from the fossil to the active carbon pool.

Trees don’t store carbon in the lock-tight manner of the fossil carbon pool: forest fires, timber harvesting, disease, decay, and other processes keep this carbon active. And planting trees is not a benign activity either – not at this rate.  The demand that is now emerging for large-scale tree plantations is being resisted by many who are most effected by the trend.  Indigenous peoples and other communities that rely on forests in areas where these plantations are being developed are facing loss of land, and increased violence and disputes.

Similarly, the ocean, which also acts as carbon sink, can only absorb so much before its ability to keep absorbing increasing amounts of CO2 diminishes. Offset or not, the use of fossil fuels permanently adds otherwise inert carbon into the active pool. To further complicate the issue, the warming-climate fuelled melting of permafrost and release of previously locked up carbon will release yet more significant amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, creating a vicious circle.

Add to this fact the likelihood, as demonstrated in the three stories above, that carbon offsetting may actually increase the consumption of fossil fuels, and it becomes clear that rather than being a solution, offsetting is a potential contributor to climate change as well. Take, for example, the fact that several large airlines are now making claims of carbon neutrality, and promoting themselves on that basis. Our carbon emissions continue to raise with increasing speed, regardless of efforts in offsetting.

It is often the communities that are most reliant on the land which are the first to experience the devastating effects of climate change. If these communities suffer from the loss of land that comes with tree plantations used for offsetting and from the emissions that come with the still increasing levels of consumption of fossil fuels, then that means these communities are doubly impacted (while others profit from it, often none the wiser to the reality).

We must also pay attention to the phenomenon that has become known as Jevon’s Paradox: History has shown us that with each technological advance that improves efficiency, consumptions rates have actually increased, not decreased, over time.  From wood, to coal, to fossil fuels, this has proven to be the case.  So for us to suddenly believe that a technological fix such as carbon offsetting will solve the issue of consumption (carbon or otherwise) once and for all, we may be naively turning a blind eye to a fairly predictable truth about ourselves.  And as the stories above indicate, increased consumption on the basis of offsetting is certainly not out of the realm of possibility.

The familiar language – and practices – of reduction

Of course, we don’t need much imagination to think outside the box of offsetting.  Rather than asking how we can offset what we consume, we can go back to the tried and true practices of reducing our consumption and emissions, and eliminating what we can.

On a systemic level there are some really easy wins if there is the will to pursue them.  For example, what if we no longer permitted or facilitated boomerang trade: the exporting and importing of like goods?

Imagine if this were not longer happening:

  • 5,000 tons of toilet paper exported from the UK to Germany, but then the UK imports over 4,000 tons back again from Germany
  • 22,000 tons of potatoes imported from Egypt to UK and then the UK exports 27,000 tons back to Egypt
  • 4,400 tons of ice cream gets exported from the UK to Italy, and 4,200 tons is then imported back
  • 116 tons of ‘sweet biscuits, waffles and wafers, gingerbread and the like’ goes into the UK, rumbling past 106 tons headed in the opposite direction

And what about altering the food production and distribution processes that contribute to the hideous waste of food that is an accepted feature of globalisation?  Or doing away with the rise in disposable plastic products in the name of efficiency and convenience?

These shifts do not require complicated systems of design and distribution, or new technologies yet to be discovered.  They simply require political will which is at the moment directed elsewhere, because of our collective obsession with growth and the belief that it is worth the damages caused by these and other practices.

On a personal level, we can also make deliberate choices about what carbon usage is responsible, and what we might be better off doing without.  Sounds easy, right?

It’s not.

This means, of course, that we can’t appease our guilt by offsetting on Sunday morning and consuming again for the rest of the week.  It means we will all face charges of hypocrisy while we fumble towards more gentle ways of living.  And it means being gentle with ourselves and each other as well, knowing that we live in the very conditions we are striving to transcend, and we are all going about it imperfectly.

But with that in mind, it means we can start from wherever we are.  We don’t need a mathematical formula in order to participate in this collective transition.  We just need to try, share our mistakes and successes, and support one another along the way.

This is a cross-post from the Post Growth Institute Blog.

Child poverty in context: more than one way forward

Global Citizens

In times of unprecedented globalisation and immediate access to international news, events around the globe have become a significant aspect of daily reality for most of us. We often find the destructive acts of nature, economic recessions, and ongoing conflicts that we witness making their way into dinnertime conversation, but little else. However, for some (citizens, institutions, and governments), these events fuel efforts towards poverty alleviation.

In Canada, we have CIDA, the Canadian International Development Agency, to support those who struggle elsewhere, and our Australian and American counterparts have AusAID and USAID, respectively.  The mission of CIDA is to” lead Canada’s international effort to help people living in poverty”, and according to its website, CIDA does this through its aid effectiveness agenda which focuses efforts along three theme priorities, namely: “increasing food security, securing the future of children and youth, and stimulating sustainable economic growth.”  Likewise, AusAID and USAID also prioritise poverty alleviation, and economic growth is also among the primary commitments of these organisations.

Poverty Close to Home

Of course there is poverty within Canada as well; in fact according to a recent book called Child Poverty in Canada by Patrizia Albanese, we remain “among the least successful at addressing child poverty among modern, industrialized nations” (p. xiv).  Even though we committed in 1989 to eliminate child poverty nationally, rates actually increased in the ensuing decade, and it wasn’t until 2007 that they finally dropped to the 12% they had been in 1989.  While we celebrated this ‘success’ in 2007, Albanese reminds us that 18 years prior it had been “cause for alarm and shame” (p. 107).

Perhaps taking a look at how we address poverty at home can shed some light on our international initiatives, and their prospects.  If we can learn what took place during those years in which child poverty increased in Canada – the same years during which economic growth also increased – we may rethink our approach to international aid in relation to poverty alleviation.

Beyond Causal Explanations of Poverty

Albanese is careful not to simplify such a complex social issue as poverty.  She dedicates a great deal of time and attention to family, neighbourhood, and community factors, and attends to matters of gender inequity, racism, disability, age, and geographic and language barriers (which are all indeed significant in complex ways).  However, she reminds us that focusing our attention in these areas can lead us to “forget the wider social, political (public policy), and economic factors that help to create and maintain the low-income status quo” (p. 56).

It is to these factors that I will turn for the remainder of this discussion.  My reason for focusing on these economic and political factors is not because they are more important.  I am focusing here because I think we will find that in light of Albanese’s research, ‘economic growth’ as a ‘priority theme’ for international aid will cease to make sense.  Fortunately, Albanese does not leave us without alternatives.  Drawing from an array of international examples and from Quebec’s precedent-setting child-care initiatives, she demonstrates that there are much more hopeful, sustainable, and pragmatic possibilities already in play, thus demonstrating the potential of more egalitarian policies.

But first, a brief note: Why refer to child poverty, and not family poverty or poverty in general?  It is clear that children are not impoverished in isolation; their poverty is connected to the poverty of those who care for them.  On the one hand, this shift has been a strategic and successful move on the part of anti-poverty advocates; centering child poverty has helped to keep poverty on the agenda in a political climate that is more likely to blame individual adults for their own hardships.

At the same time, state policy discourses have drastically shifted from referencing family poverty to child poverty.  Perhaps not surprisingly, “the shift in discourse has de-gendering and individualising effects on family poverty” (p. 3), contributing to the view of poverty as a matter of ‘charity’ rather than a social justice issue.  This move towards charity is outlined in great detail by Shereen Ismael in her book Child poverty and the Canadian Welfare State: From Entitlement to Charity.  But I digress …

Poverty in Political Context

Both Albanese and Ismael track the ideological changes in Canadian governance in relation to child poverty rates.  As Ismael describes it, we have transitioned from a welfare state to our current residual state, which explicitly promotes an ethic of liberal individualism.  She links this transition with such developments as: extreme market capitalism, emphasis on child development (which individualises child poverty), and the downgrading from federal to provincial jurisdiction of matters of social policy.  All of these shifts have led to a current situation in which child poverty has been normalised and as a result, is not decreasing despite increasing national and provincial economic prosperity.  She notes that “in the welfare state, increases in federal expenditures precipitated declines in child poverty; under the residual state, increases in federal expenditures accompany increases in child poverty” (p. 59).

Albanese, although using slightly different language, observes similar shifts and notes that both Canada and the US are among the ‘less generous’ of the affluent nations.  Within societies such as ours which have adopted neo-liberal policies, there is an assumption that the state will step in if citizens are in dire need, but will otherwise leave individuals to make social welfare decisions themselves.  She notes that “the mixture of Canadian policies … assume and reflect the perspective that a main cause of poverty is the individual and his or her personal choices and actions” (p. 103).

What Else Can We Do?

It is not necessarily how much money governments spend, but how they spend it, reminds Albanese.  While economic prosperity is comparable between the EU and Canada, for instance, rates of child poverty are much lower in the EU than in Canada.  Furthermore, it has been during the periods of our most accelerated growth that the gap between rich and poor has grown the most in this country (with both the rich becoming richer and the poor becoming poorer). Thus, the argument that we need to grow economically (and help others do the same) in order to bring people out of poverty simply doesn’t follow.

Looking to Western Europe, however, we can see that there are realistic approaches to alleviating poverty, and that doing so means prioritising people, not markets.  According to Albanese, social democratic regimes – such as can be found among the EU – are more likely to

“support programs promoting the material, educational, emotional, and physical well-being of all its citizens – to prevent poverty … This is done through the implementation of generous parental or maternity leaves, paid health and family related leaves, employment supports, accessible child care programs, national housing strategies, etc.” (p. 104-105)

A significant component of social democratic state interventions is that they are more likely to provide universal measures (such as higher minimum wages, and those listed above), rather than targeting poor families.  Universal supports are far more effective in: a) preventing poverty from becoming an issue for families; and b) enabling them to ‘exit’ impoverished situations more readily.  Targeted programs, on the other hand, which focus resources only on those ‘in need’ often serve to trap families in situations of dependency because it is difficult for them to access (and sustain) supports unless they are destitute.

Intentional Engagement

In 2005, Canada, Australia, and the U.S were among the bottom third of 26 developed countries compared in terms of child poverty rates.  Given our dismal domestic track records when it comes to poverty, are we really in positions to provide recommendations and aid on an international level?

It could be argued that given our relative affluence and privilege, it is our responsibility to engage in matters of social justice, whether within our borders or beyond them – and I agree.  But is it ethical to be informing our interventions based on what we are doing domestically (but we know isn’t working)?  In this sense, how we engage with these matters is itself a matter of social justice.

For instance, rather than focusing on ‘economic growth’ in our international initiatives, might we instead consider Albanese’s observation that it is not simply how much is spent, but how governments distribute their resources that contributes to lower rates of child poverty?  The recommendations she makes, several of which are listed above, draw from many successes around the world, as well as recent ones in Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador.  Given that these are not the most affluent provinces in Canada (and that British Columbia, which is growing economically, has the highest rates of child poverty in Canada), perhaps we should take heed: poverty alleviation does not rest on economic growth.

Drawing from the vast body of evidence as to what is and is not effective regarding poverty alleviation, we can see that insisting on prioritising growth in efforts to alleviate poverty (at home or abroad) is not only misleading, it will continue to move us farther from our stated aims.


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