It was the year 1095.

The Moslem Seljuk Turks were threatening the Christian Byzantine Empire, whose capital was Constantinople, modern-day Istanbul. They were also threatening Christian communities throughout Anatolia (modern-day Turkey) and the ease of passage for pilgrims to the Holy Land – modern-day Israel and surrounding area.

At the Council of Clermont, Pope Urban the Second urged action. Preferably armed action, to secure pilgrims’ safety and wrest control of the Holy Places, such as Jerusalem, from the “Infidels”.

What followed were two centuries of bloodshed and massacre.

While there were undoubtedly many people in Western Europe who were caught up in the religious fervour of the time, others needed more convincing to join this, the First and later, subsequent Crusades.

People in these times were often deeply religious, with the fear of hell, fire and brimstone being deeply ingrained. These beliefs could easily be manipulated. Such was the case.

In what is known as a Papal Indulgence, the Church offered relief of sins to believers if they joined the Crusade. Back then, this was a big deal. Not only were past transgressions forgiven, but a nod nod, wink wink was given to what would happen on Crusade. No changes in behaviour required.

The brutality of the Crusaders knew no bounds, with Jewish, Maronite Christian, and Muslim communities feeling the effects of their cruelty. The culmination was the siege and taking of Jerusalem, with the subsequent massacre of most of its population.

The Crusades are not something that modern-day Western Europe can look back at and feel any pride in.

We jump forward almost a thousand years. Rather than Papal Indulgences for crusaders, let us look at a modern-day indulgence. We call these indulgences carbon offsets.

Carbon offsets work like this.

In these days of human-induced climate change, we might call taking a non-essential overseas trip involving flying halfway around the world a sin. From a looking after the planet’s point of view, it is not the greatest thing to be doing for sure.

However, an indulgence is available!

We call these modern indulgences carbon offsets. No doubt you are familiar with them, but they work a bit like this if you are not.

Your sin of flying (accompanied by the associated guilt) and being responsible for more carbon being dumped in the atmosphere is magically taken away by you paying a few extra dollars when you buy your ticket. These extra few dollars are then used to fund some tree planting effort somewhere.

You can now take that flight and feel guilt-free—no change in habits required on your part. In fact, if you fly more, and keep buying those offsets, then even more trees are going to get planted! Wow, what a deal! You could almost believe flying was good for the environment.

If taking away some guilt is called for, then carbon offsetting seems a great scheme on an individual basis, and it is certainly better than doing nothing.

However, as in the indulgences of the Crusades, carbon offsetting requires no changes in behaviour on your part.

What is highly problematic is that now whole countries are involved in carbon offsets. In New Zealand, this presently means the billion tree campaign. The trees being planted are most often fast-growing exotics that, while certainly soaking up some CO2, also damage local communities, water cycles and environments, and contribute little to biodiversity.

Does carbon offsetting require a change of habits by the rest of us? Nope, we are still busy kicking the can down the road, not facing up to the desperate need for fundamental change in how we live if we are to avoid the effects of runaway climate upheaval.

As the crusaders’ sins were assuaged, so our present indulgence of carbon offsetting allows us to assuage our guilt while still carrying on our unsustainable lifestyles as per usual.

Brian Megaw

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