Carbon footprint of my global justice soul

Climate has changed us already – we are not the same people anymore, “we learn to enjoy spending time, not wasting it”.

Masses of seaweed are cleared away along the French coastline at Saint Michel-en-Greve, Northern Brittany
The Erika disaster in 1999 had spilled 20,000 tonnes of oil into the sea and contaminated 400km of coastline [Reuters]

Can I assess the carbon footprint of my soul? Of my global justice soul? I wondered as I walked out of the ferry which had just sailed me from Marseille in France to Tunis, the capital city of Tunisia. I’m here for the World Social Forum, taking place in the Arab world for the first time – from March 26 to 30. 

I had chosen to sail across the Mediterranean Sea rather than fly to avoid massive CO2 emissions. Around 3 percent of the world’s total carbon emissions come from plane. It is not much. But they are increasing rapidly. And electric planes will not take you from Honk Kong to Sao Paulo tomorrow. To fight climate change, we need to give up on planes as much as we can. 

As I set foot on La Goulette pavement, Tunis’ harbour, I heard engines warming up and cars starting up. I turned back and saw SUVs rushing out of the boat: 1, 2, 5, 10… I stopped counting. Very big, very polluting vehicles, built to run over fennecs and scorpions in the sand, to mess the desert up for fun – almost the perfect opposite of an environment-friendly behaviour. And yet, we had shared the same ferry. What is the value of my own carbon curtailment if the same ship is used to carry carbon freaks? 

Danielle Casanova ship (named after a hero of French resistance to the Nazis, not the legendary womaniser) needs heavy fuel to move ahead. It is made from crude oil wastes. Unfortunately for me and my soul’s carbon footprint, it releases more CO2 than kerosene, used in planes’ engines. It also releases sulfur dioxide, another greenhouse gas, and produces another very nasty buddy, Nox, which pollutes the atmosphere. Brittany’s coasts and fishermen keep a vivid memory of the Erika oil spill in 1999. The damaged ship had spilled 20,000 tonnes of heavy oil into the sea that had contaminated 400km of coastline. 

The vision of heavy, pitch-black smokes snaking out of my boat’s chimneys as we departed haunts my mind. Did I make the wrong choice? Was I to enter CO2 purgatory? 

Another calculation saved my soul – at least for the time being: the number of people on board. About 500 passengers and 100 crew. You will never find so many people on a plane. Per capita, the ship carbon footprint is still better than a regular flight between France and Tunisia, especially off season. 

Good for me. But it brings me back to where I started: the SUV dilemma. Among the numerous passengers on board, some are great producers of global warming. I shared my concerns with Olivier, a computer engineer, who also travelled on the ship. “For me, being on this boat is a symbolic act of resistance against the culture of speed,” he said. “It’s so nice and quiet, we could have started the forum on the boat,” smiled a free-software activist, Thierry. 

So nice and quiet. He’s right. Imagine spending 22 hours without appointments, phone calls, grocery to do, kids to fetch at school. Just talking, reading, eating a bit and sleeping. And watching the infinite sea and its changing colours: sometimes grey, dark as hell at night, almost white in the sun. 

When we finally started to see La Goulette’s piers from the sea, the wind fell, sun rays pierced through clouds and warmed us up. It was like a kiss from the Mediterranean Sea on our stressed out urban bodies. It felt delicious. 

For the first time in a very long time, I was in slow motion – relaxed and happy. Attention focused on the trip, the excitement of travelling – perfectly available to new faces and landscapes. 

Walking away from the boat and cutting through the police line at Tunis’ port authority building, I looked around. There were several of us on this plane boycott: some with bicycles, others with cases full of books and journals to hand out. 

Climate has changed us already. We are not the same people anymore. We learn to enjoy spending time, not wasting it. It took us 22 hours to cross the sea, our tickets were more expensive, and we were not welcomed by a special committee handing out Sim cards and flyers for the forum. But we’re happy about it. 

Happy and so sad because we know that at the same time, people from Tunisia, Algeria and Africa tried to sail to Italy or Spain hoping for a better future. Their travelling conditions were dreadful. Each year, men and women die on the Mediterranean Sea trying to reach European coasts. The carbon footprint is not enough to satisfy my global justice soul. 

At night, I dream of a new Europe, where everyone could fly over the sea carried by balloons, like in Dario Fo’s novel, L’apocalisse rimandata. Undocumented migrants could enter my country as I can so softly and sweetly come to theirs. 

Jade Lindgaard is a journalist at Mediapart, France’s investigative news website. She published a book on Bernard-Henri Levy – The Impostor, Verso, 2012 – and is currently writing a new book on ecology and why we hate it so much.