If correctly interpreted, the common objections against environmental (and maybe other types of) offsetting are not valid critiques of offsetting, but instead more generally of our consumerist lifestyle. Rather than bad, offsetting is the very least to do, given that we anyway don’t abstain from spending money on inessential things while millions starve and the future of humanity is in peril.
When you talk or read about offsetting – CO2 emissions, animal welfare, maybe something else – you find – among those not simply indifferent – two types of reactions. Many find it a great way to improve one’s net impact on the world, to consume more sustainably. Others deem the idea largely unethical, essentially a cheap way – especially for the rich – to continue polluting and abusing, while silencing one’s conscience. Merely a modern sale of indulgences.
Let him who is without sin cast the first stone to the offsetter!
The anti-offsetters do have a point in the sense that a lifestyle involving unnecessary, (e.g.) seriously polluting actions that one offsets cannot be the moral high ground we should strive for. This is easy to see: My polluting action itself still causes unnecessary harm that I could avoid by giving up little. Keeping all my other actions – including the offsetting action – unchanged, this would seriously improve the world at little cost to me!
But while this shows that the offsetter could do (much) better, it does by no means mean that a person not offsetting is doing better. Not even a typical person that abstains from committing the serious pollution from the outset! Why? Because also (quasi) anybody not offsetting is from a consequentialist perspective equally guilty for inflicting excess net harm on the world, similarly to the offsetter (if not more). Consider the offsetter spending $1000 to fly on holidays and another $100 to offset his carbon emissions. When I’m simply spending my $1100 on morally seemingly more neutral action, say to improve my garden as I’m staying home, I’m behaving in an equally nihilistic way regarding my net contribution to the world. Even I could give up an unnecessary luxury, my gardening expenses, to instead contribute to the world: use $100 (or $1100!) to reduce CO2 emissions similarly to the ‘offsetting’ action, or maybe instead spend it on, e.g., poverty relief. I’m equally guilty for not contributing nearly enough that our world in peril could ask from me. I’m leading a rich person’s life, ignoring how easily I could improve the world overall if only I was willing up to give up own consumption for the betterment of the planet by donating serious shares – not a few dollars – of my income to the good and urgent causes. This is nothing but exactly the same moral flaw as the one we can reproach to the offsetter.
This point, by the way, does not apply to you if you’re giving away not just 10% or so of your income, but instead such a high share so that what remains in your pocket allows you to just about cover your basic expenses (but will not allow you to keep up with the standard consumerist Joneses next door). So let him who is without sin here cast the first stone to the offsetter!
Rich man’s world
The second major objection to offsetting is related to the feeling of unease about the rich being able to pay away their sins and hence pollute more than the poor, without bad conscience. Here again, the feeling is understandable, but it again turns out to express more a problem with how the world works generally than really an offsetting-specific issue. Wealth may be very unfairly distributed – to some degree the inequality may be an inevitable consequence of the need to preserve economic incentives keeping self-interested people motivated to work, but to some degree it may be the result of deplorable market conditions – and this means that, indeed, rich can pollute and/or offset much more than ordinary or poor people.
But in the same vain, the rich can afford to buy much more watches, houses, speeding fines, tax advice, simply quite anything… And while for all of these categories, the ease by which rich may be able to afford these relative to the poor, may be seen as unfair – after all, this is in what the possible unfairness of the distribution consists –, we acknowledge that these things ought to be charged a market price (our world becomes very difficult to govern if we systematically deviate from this principle). To except pollution from this system seems not only arbitrary and pointless, it also has bad consequences: The rich can pollute excessively even more easily if they’re not advised to at least also pay for offsetting their consumption’s negative impact. Offsetting implies at least a little bit of restraint in material consumption, whilst hoping for them to simply not consume their own wealth would just seem naive.
A final word is in order. One may rightly be afraid that the warm glow accompanying an offsetting of a few actions appeases people, and gives them a wrong feeling that after all, they’re ethical consumers, meaning they do not think more deeply about the broader consequences of their typical ‘western’ or consumerist lifestyle. After all, people tend to offset only individual categories of harm (e.g. CO2) on a limited fraction of their actions (e.g. holidays), while ignoring that they may leave equally bad or worse harms uncovered, and that they could actually use their purchasing power for much better causes (donations to poor or long-term societal improvements) than for their leisure and pleasure. And humans are notoriously biased by the few good actions they do, to feel good about themselves and not search deeper. Nevertheless, getting people to offset more and more of their harm is probably the best one can do and avoiding it most likely means we stop people from doing even just a minimum. After all, if we can be sure about one thing then it is this: The ingenuity of the human subconsciousness in finding cheap ways to feel good and anyways not worry too much about one’s consumption, means avoiding offsetting is unlikely to make humans think very deeply about how to morally improve their lives as dramatically as would so urgently be needed.
The actions we tend to offset, at least if not trivial in cost, do tend to represent a luxury, and in a world in peril and full of poverty, such luxuries must indeed be questioned. But as long as we are anyway nowhere close to seriously constrain our consumption overall, the alternative to offsetting is simply to consume – and plausible damage – even more. Offsetting key damages to the environment, to food-animals, or to whatever parts of our world, simply means alleviating our impact on the world at least a little bit, let’s not unnecessarily block this limited first step in the right direction.
Update 30 Nov 2016: A more lengthy discussion is found here: http://www.rationalreflection.net/can-we-offset-immorality/. I agree with that blog article that socially unaccepted & virtue-ethically problematic, say thus really ‘immoral’, practices may not be properly undone by compensation. However, for whatever one is doing, nothing seems to speak against the compensation itself: Trivially, it may often be better to forgo the bad act from the outset, but when – for whatever reason – this harming action isn’t avoided, that it be offset as good as possible seems to be the least one could hope for.