Newest Issue of Sustainability Now Newsletter!

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By Amy Crist
, for the Sustainability Committee

You’ve probably seen carbon neutrality claims on everything from clothes to food to vehicles. My running shoes are “carbon neutral.” The cow milk I buy is going “carbon positive.” Even BP will be “net zero by 2050 or sooner.” Yep, the petroleum giant, whose product—petroleum—necessarily, by the simple fact of combustion, produces carbon dioxide, will be net zero.

How could producing and consuming stuff, including hydrocarbon fuels, be neutral, or even beneficial for the environment? When you check out the websites of the companies making these claims, they usually present a list of improvements they are making to increase the sustainability of their business practices, the quality and effectiveness of which varies greatly. And that list almost always includes some form of carbon offsetting.

According to Merriam-Webster, a carbon offset is “an action or activity (such as the planting of trees or carbon sequestration) that compensates for the emission of carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.” It sounds like a reasonable solution. Sort of like, if you want to eat a little more without gaining weight you can exercise a little more. Calories in, calories out. Carbon out, carbon in.

In practice, offsetting is extremely problematic. One of the most egregious problems with offsetting is that there is little guarantee that the offsets actually sequester the amount of carbon they are supposed to offset, even with third party verification. When you add in the popular qualifying phrase “by 2030/2040/2050” the sustainability claims become even more questionable. Kind of like, I’ll start my diet in 30 years.

Planting trees is a familiar form of offsetting, and it sounds so good, so beautiful, so natural, so obvious. Everyone everywhere is planting trees, from Elon Musk to the Dave Matthews Band, millions, billions, trillions of trees, so much so that we are running out of room to plant enough trees to make up for all the carbon we produce. And it’s not just a matter of having enough room to plant the trees. Are we planting the right trees in the right places (think invasive species crowding out local biodiversity)? Not every ecosystem is even meant to support trees (think prairies and savannas). Are the trees surviving long enough to sequester a meaningful amount of carbon (think of that free wisp you once planted, forgot to water, and died in two weeks)? We now even have offsets to prevent trees from being cut down. That maybe sounds okay if we are talking about supporting an indigenous rainforest community being pressured to cut trees for logging or ranching. But what if the offsets are going to “save” the trees at a private hunt club in New Jersey? This and other offsetting travesties were highlighted on a recent episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. If you prefer a less rage-humorous approach, the Washington Post also has a recap of corporate offsetting and its inherent flaws.

This type of shallow environmental claim reminds me of a recent parental battle. I told my five-year-old daughter she needed to clean up the Barbies that were strewn all over the basement floor. She found it extremely unfair because her sister, who had also contributed to the mess, was off on a playdate. I begged, she got mad. Then she raised the stakes, stating, “If you keep trying to force me to clean up, I’m going to dump this.” “This” was a jar of tiny Barbie accessories. Now I was more worried about the future mess than the existing mess because those little things are really no fun to step on. I struck a deal because I was losing patience. I agreed to her demands - if you don’t dump the jar, you can have chocolate milk, then you can clean up the dolls when your sister is back.

Similar to our global environmental crisis, I needed to get a mess cleaned up, and instead of cleaning up the mess I ended up rewarding my daughter for not making a bigger mess because it wasn’t all her fault. Like a child with an ego-centric view of justice, corporations are concocting offset deals to keep their profits flowing, because their bottom line is what really matters to them.

A corporate CEO can’t present a sustainability plan centered on consuming less, even though that would be the most effective solution. They must keep selling more shoes, more milk, and more petroleum, so offsets are a way to buy a solution that sounds great on a website or product label but doesn’t really make the impact needed to combat climate change.

Fortunately, the cultural heritage sector is largely not-for-profit. Museums, libraries, universities, and archives do not need to align success with stock values, market shares, and quarterly sales figures, so they can lessen their environmental impact without resorting to offsets.

Let’s consider one of the most essential activities for many cultural institutions, and one that has the potential to generate significant carbon emissions - exhibitions. How does an institution measure the success of an exhibition? Number of visitors? Diversity of visitors? Relevance to a particular audience? Scholarly value? Innovation? Critical response? Community engagement? Revenue? Whatever the measure, success is not directly related to the amount of carbon emitted in the production of the exhibition. Therefore, institutions can be thoughtful about decisions concerning what to show and how to show it.

In the 2016 paper “Life Cycle Assessments of Loans and Exhibitions: Three Case Studies at the Museum Fine Arts, Boston,” authors Sarah Nunberg, Matthew J. Eckelman, and Pamela Hatchfield provide valuable information about the carbon emissions involved in loaning and exhibiting art. The information and methodology serve as a model for environmentally centered, proactive decision making. It is no surprise that international loans with multiple crates and accompanying couriers are very carbon intensive. A notable component of the analysis is including the expected number of viewings of the loaned art, which is then extrapolated to the amount of carbon emitted per viewing. What rich and meaningful data our field would have if we started analyzing our exhibitions in this way and sharing the data.

While consuming less is the most straightforward way to reduce emissions, we will not solve the climate crisis by preaching austerity, asceticism, and sacrifice in all cases all the time. We also can’t do what we’ve always done, pay for an offset, and then forget about it. Let’s acknowledge and understand the costs of our choices so we don’t needlessly consume, and when we do consume, we do it with intention and purpose.

Are you eager to change but not sure how? Do you need data to back up your proposals for change at your institution? Check out the Sustainability in Cultural Heritage Preservation & Conservation Resource Bank on Zotero. It is an ever-growing annotated bibliography of scholarly resources on sustainability issues in our field. You don’t even need a Zotero account, just click the link!