Being “Good” Is a Contradictory State. (Updated)

August 26th, 2006  |  Published in etc  |  2 Comments

I dropped Tom Foremski into the aggregator several weeks ago, and most of the time he seems o.k., but this kind of puzzled me:

San Francisco Chronicle has an article on, created to calculate the carbon/pollution emissions of those going to the annual Burning Man arts and culture festival 2hours out of Reno, Nevada.

Add up your car mileage to get there and back, plus electric generators and anything else, and you get a total in carbon/pollution emissions.

IMHO, is a cheap shot. It’s not as if Burning Man goers have a choice of vehicles to get there, there are no electric cars or other more fuel efficient ways of getting there. Same goes for most other activities that would be done anyway, anywhere else, and that don’t have easily available green alternatives.

Go read the about page, particularly the philosophy section (emph mine):

CoolingMan can itself be thought of as a community climatic art work exploring:

  • Extension of Gift Economy: Because CoolingMan more than offsets GHG emissions, participants are ‘cooling it forward’ for others, extending the Black Rock City gift economy to the ‘real’ world.

  • Physical Transformation of Spiritual Energies: CoolingMan’s GHG reductions represent a unique transformation of the positive energy and intention generated by Burning Man into actual physical form.

  • Transmission of Playa Concepts: Burning Man concepts have changed many everyday lives. Growth in CoolingMan participation will provide one quantitative measure of the rate of such transmission.

Then try to figure out how Foremski gets a line like “Cooling Man is a cheap shot to point to the carbon-release of activities that make Burning Man happen–without recognizing the positive effects on the environment that this community creates through their daily practice of awareness.”

It seems self-evident that if the Burning Man folk are as eco-aware as Foremski represents (and I’m willing to stipulate that they are), then they’re a natural group to introduce to the idea of purchasing carbon offsets.

Coolingman would be a “cheap shot” if it took the form of a column by some yahoo in a rag devoted to making people think concern about the environment is stupid claiming that anyone who goes to Burning Man and espouses a concern for the environment is a hypocrite because he has to drive to get there.

Coolingman is a respectful, natural idea to put in front of the target audience, which is surely smart enough to realize that we live in a world of contradictions that often involves mulling over ideas like “I’m sick to death of what our society is doing to the environment” while we commute to work in anything besides a bike made of recycled soda cans or solar-powered golf cart; or that causes us to identify ourselves as nature lovers, then drive two hours in a truck to get at the nature, which will not benefit from our collective appreciation, which takes the form of trampling it, occasionally burning it down by accident and stinking it up with our state park outhouses.

I’d say that it’s an inability to acknowledge contradiction, and perhaps the occasional thimble or bucket of hypocrisy we indulge as a result, that makes people stop even trying to do anything right.

And that’s why something like coolingman is good. It allows people to do a thing that’s not so good (burn a bunch of fossil fuel to go somewhere, polluting the air there and back) and work out a way to mitigate that “bad” thing. It even does so with a fairly gentle tone that beats the hell out of the scolding people so often have to endure from single-issue activists.

Update: I don’t think Tom was being a dick when he pulled a few of his punches and updated the post I’m responding to, but for anyone who cares enough to look at the source and wonder if my cutting and pasting skills have somehow, you know, deteriorated, all I can say is, “they haven’t.” NetNewsWire does me the courtesy of annotating entries that have been changed, which has offered me a unique look into the progression of Tom’s thinking on this issue.

So anyhow, the quotes don’t match, the tone’s a little different, the formerly declarative headline has been adorned with a question mark, and the comments Tom made in response to this post have been worked into the post I linked.

I kind of resent the undocumented change, but I guess we all have to learn.

For the record: I change things on this site for spelling, grammar and the occasional rearranging of words to enhance the clarity of the idea I was expressing at the time. I don’t change ideas. I have periodically pulled posts outright because I second-guessed myself and decided it’d be best to get an uncharitable sentiment off the record.

So if I say “The Matrix sequels sucked monkeyballs mightily,” which is an adequate but imperfect expression of the sentiment, there are two possible outcomes, editorially speaking:

  1. The sentence will be changed to “The Matrix sequels mightily sucked monkeyballs,” or maybe “The Matrix sequels sucked the pus out of infected monkeyballs.” The sentiment remains … it’s just been amplified or rearranged a little.

  2. The entire post will be pulled out of deference to monkeyballs, which wouldn’t be bad things to suck compared to sitting through the Matrix sequels again, even if engorged with pus. Pulled, that is, unless a real monkeyball fan caught it before it went down and wrote a post about my aggressive and unpleasant stance toward monkeyball sucking. At that point, I’d be honor bound to keep the post up and take my licks. Not like, you know, Dave Winer.

I wouldn’t, however, ever change the sentence to read “Watching the Matrix sequels was like sucking the cream out of a cruller … they were that sweet and satisfying.” That’d be cheating.


  1. Tom Foremski says:

    August 26th, 2006 at 5:31 pm (#)

    I have two problems with Cooling Man: it assumes that buying offsets makes things right; and there is a subtext in Cooling Man that plays to the critics of Burning Man, the ones who have never been there but know all about it… I’m sure you’ve come across them :-)

  2. mph says:

    August 26th, 2006 at 6:28 pm (#)

    Well, in the world of offsets, it looks like it does \”make things right,\” to the extent it comes ahead on its unit of measurement. But nowhere in the site do I see any claim that offsets will make everything alright.

    I don\’t think anyone who advocates offsets thinks they\’ll make everything alright. But you have to start somewhere, right? Or are we to remain mired in a sort of environmental Zeno\’s paradox, never taking a single step forward because no step we take will span the entire gap between where we are and where we want to be?

    Should we also renounce high-efficiency cars because they won\’t solve the problem of oil dependency? Abandon the EPA because there are still superfund sites? Not have Yellowstone National Park because it poses some environmental paradoxes?

    And what\’s this subtext? I see nothing but respectful, glowing language for the gathering.

    I\’ve never met a Burning Man critic who hasn\’t been there, so I\’ll confess that I\’m not particularly attuned to whatever subtexts might be involved from those parties. The worst I\’ve ever heard said of it comes from returning burners themselves.

    I really just think you overreacted, Tom. Or else came across the site in the context of someone who does think Burning Man sucks and framed its link in the context of coolingman being some sort of poke in the eye.

    Maybe if gl. or Sven, honest-to-god been-to-Burning-Man peeps, happen through, they can render some sort of verdict.

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