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Book Review: Confessions of an Eco-Sinner by Fred Pearce

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"What does chocolate taste like?" An unexpected question, and all the more poignant coming from a young boy whose father works on a West African cocoa plantation.

It's one of many revelations uncovered by Fred Pearce as he tracks the lifecycle of his belongings, from the shirt on his back to the coffee in his cup. But in mapping his carbon footprint, Pearce is also taking a snapshot of humanity – the good, the bad and the ugly.

Much of what he finds is grim. The prawns in his takeaway come from Bangladeshi farms, cultivated by poor villagers and controlled by gangsters. His t-shirt is made of cotton, the thirstiest of crops, which has sucked the life from Uzbekistan’s Aral Sea.

But Pearce also discovers some good news stories. In Kenya, farmers earn a decent living producing green beans for reputable traders. His contention that Britons should purchase vegetables from Kenya, not Kent, is controversial, but convincing:

"Can it really be right to try to make a tiny reduction in our own emissions by depriving Kenyan farmers of their livelihoods?"

Meanwhile, that little boy in Cameroon seems destined never to taste chocolate. If the cocoa farmers can’t make a living from their beans, they will have to slash and burn the forest and resort to soil-exhausting maize.

As for fair trade coffee, Pearce is all for it – as long as we realise that it's a misnomer. Just because coffee farmers get a slightly higher price than the market rate for their beans, that doesn’t make it fair. Until consumers of fair trade coffee are prepared to pay much more, says Pearce, they’ll continue getting ethics on the cheap.

The harsh realities make this book a difficult read, but Pearce’s clear, familiar style draws the reader in. And those surprises keep on coming

  • incineration may be more eco-friendly than recycling;
  • catalytic converters may clear the air in London, but cause acid rain in Siberia;
  • a cotton t-shirt’s jumbo carbon footprint arises not from producing or transporting it, but from washing it at high temperatures;
  • air freighting a California lettuce uses 120 times more energy than you get from eating it.

As well as examining his consumption, Pearce also takes a closer look at his waste bin. He’s conscientious about recycling, but finds the signs on the bins perplexing:

“Each tonne of paper recycled saves an average 15 trees,' says one. In what sense 'saves'? Do they know what actually happens to the paper I put in there?"

He finds offsetting equally confusing. Apart from the dizzyingly different ways of measurement, Pearce also makes the unsettling discovery that planting trees to offset emissions may actually be postponing rather than cancelling out the release of greenhouse gases.

Throughout, the author is as candid about his own eco-sins as those of others, including the admission that his globe-trotting research for this book generated a jaw-dropping 22.5 tonnes of carbon emissions.

But eco-living is full of contradictions. By highlighting the corruption, child labour, sweatshops and ecological carnage spawned by our infinite appetite for more stuff, Pearce might well have offset those emissions far more effectively than planting a thousand trees.

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