Indulgences

“We could live off of dumpsters if we have to
Sell our blood by the pint to make rent
This kind of dignity doesn’t come easy
But you’ll never find it for sale”
– Against Me!

One of the things that surprised me in Uganda was that there were no beggars. I expected Kampala, the capitol city of the seventeenth poorest country in the world, to have exponentially more panhandlers than New York, but it didn’t. In fact, I think I only ran into one during my entire time in Uganda, but the experience has stuck with me.

I was rushing around the busy downtown district, trying to patch one of the many leaks in the perpetually sinking ship that was our project. I practically stepped on him: a kid, no older than three or four, draped in a dirty oversized t-shirt, sitting square in the middle of the sidewalk. His hands were cupped and arms outstretched. It was such a clichéd image, except it was real: it could have been part of an appeal from a Christian Children’s Fund television commercial, except the backdrop was so incongruous. Businessmen and women wearing crisp suits and yammering into cell-phones were charging past on either side, washing around him by just enough to avoid stepping on him. The setting was Kampala at its most modern, but the kid was practically an archetype of the sort of African poverty that Western bleeding-hearts find so gut-wrenching.

Frantic and sleep-deprived as I was, I still felt like I had to do something. I reached into my wallet, pulled out a thousand shillings, plopped it into his hands, and hustled off. An hour later, I was coming back. The kid was still there. The bill was crumpled in his hands, and he was just staring at it. There were many things I could have done at that moment—taking my money back and using it to buy him some food would have been a good start—but I was in a hurry. I put him behind me and settled into the throng walking by. To this day, I can’t imagine why I thought one thousand shillings would be enough to buy myself a clear conscience.

That is not to say, though, that money cannot assuage guilt. I knew my twin flights home and to Thailand over this break were bad from an ecological point of view, but I didn’t realize how bad until I actually calculated it. With disconcerting precision—factoring in the type of ticket, layovers, and type of jet—I was able to determine the precise footprint of my trips: ten-thousand kilograms of carbon dioxide.  In forty hours of flight time, I am responsible for four times the amount reduced by an entire year of my being vegan, five times the sustainable yearly output for each person on the planet, and one-hundred times the average emissions of a sub-Sahran African.

I can do more than just quantify my guilt: I can put a price on it. I really hate the idea of carbon offsets. There is something painfully cavalier about it, the arrogance of believing we can continue to drive SUVs and build huge houses and think that, at the end, we can make our sins invisible with a credit-card transfer. But, acknowledging that I can’t undo my trips—and don’t really want to—sending some money towards reforestation in Brazil and clean energy in India seemed like the least-bad option left.  Indeed, for a few extra dollars, I could go above and beyond simply offsetting my flights, towards actually reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. I guess sometimes dignity can be bought.

I still feel bad about that kid, though.

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