Year in (Somewhat Unsettling) Ideas 2008: Carbon Penance

The New York Times' annual list of ideas is out, but not all of their environmental ideas are good.

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Reading through the New York Times' annual Year in Ideas list, I was struck, as many others certainly were, by the idea of "Carbon Penance":

We all contribute to climate change, but none of us can individually be blamed for it. So we walk around with a free-floating sense of guilt that’s unlikely to be lifted by the purchase of wind-power credits or halogen bulbs. Annina Rüst, a Swiss-born artist-inventor, wanted to help relieve these anxieties by giving people a tangible reminder of their own energy use, as well as an outlet for the feelings of complicity, shame and powerlessness that surround the question of global warming.

So she built a translucent leg band that keeps track of your electricity consumption. When it detects, via a special power monitor, that electric current levels have exceeded a certain threshold, the wireless device slowly drives six stainless-steel thorns into the flesh of your leg.

“It’s therapy for environmental guilt,” says Rüst, who modeled her “personal techno-garter” on the spiked bands worn as a means of self-mortification by a monk in Dan Brown’s novel “The Da Vinci Code.” (Brown derived the idea from the bands worn by some celibate members of the conservative Catholic group Opus Dei.)

Rüst isn't the first to tie environmentalism to religion, of course. Many have alleged that environmentalists are neo-pagans (as if Christianity or any other religion is not compatible with environmentalism?), and sometimes, with the Edenic ideals of some participants of the green movement in mind, it's not too difficult to see how someone could jump to that conclusion. I, like other green bloggers, have used the phrase " eco-sins" as a rhetorical device to describe less-than-green practices, and when I use a plastic bag or styrofoam cup, I do feel a twinge of guilt (but before you go wild in the comments: this does not mean I practice environmentalism as a religion).

But just as the self-flagellating Catholic Opus Dei members are far from the mainstream, Rüst's invention does not mean that anyone who feels bad about consuming extra carbon should be driving spikes into his or her own leg. And I think that the environmentally-minded certainly don't appreciate Rüst making an extremist comparison now all too easy to sling at people who are trying to do good things for the planet, but occasionally feel bad about it when they slip up. The issue is not titled "Year in Good Ideas," after all. And besides - the device doesn't even seem to work as intended. When the spikes dug in, Rüst said she noticed that the device “doesn’t hurt that much.”

More on environmentalism as religion: Forgive Us Our Eco-Sins


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