The carbon cost of your cocaine

In the sixth edition of Do The Green Thing, the eco-warriors reveal the carbon footprint associated with every line of cocaine.

If you’ve found your way to the Do the Green Thing website today, there’s a few things you probably do. For example, you probably have a bicycle - or you really really want one. You probably recycle what you can, turn off lights when you leave a room and you almost certainly have a collection of well-designed tote bags shoved into a kitchen drawer.

And, if you’re a city dweller aged 18 to 45, you’ve probably blown all this good green behaviour to smithereens by snorting cocaine up your nose. 

And who can blame you? When used correctly, cocaine is a wonderful drug. It’s the ultimate ‘me’ booster, and we live in a society where the ‘me’ is suffering from shit jobs, shit landlords and shit politics. It gives the ‘me’ the confidence to talk eloquently (or at least think we are) about politics, culture or whatever, the conviction to hip thrust with the boldness of John Travolta and Jamie Lee Curtis in ‘Perfect’ (the link is worth it, promise), the prowess to go home with anyone and everyone (a direct result of the aforementioned hip thrusting) and the energy to stay up all night chewing the cud with Gregory from Accounts for no reason at all.

Of course cocaine has consequences. There are the nosebleeds, the depressing comedowns, the heart palpitations and psychosis that erodes the ‘me’ into no more than a paranoid and manic mess. There are the cocaine-related deaths - at their highest rates ever. There are dangers to the people who produce it: 164 000 people murdered by cartels between 2007 and 2014 in Mexico, and more than 47 000 people killed in the crossfire of Colombia’s drug war. 

The dangers cocaine presents to our health and the people who produce it are reasonably well-documented. Less well known is is the danger that cocaine presents to our planet.

Colombia - where three quarters of all coca plants come from - calls the drug trade ‘ecocide’ and they do so justifiably. 300 000 hectares of the Colombian rainforest are destroyed each year to clear land for coca plant production. Production often takes place in national parks, where one kilogram of coca base produces 600 kilograms of waste and 200 litres of contaminated water, threatening the health of the 17 million people who depend on the rivers that flow from this area, and the 200 endangered species of amphibians that live within it.

And then there’s the matter of getting the stuff out of South and Central America to dealers and users around the world. The most recent United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime report found that 537 000 tonnes of cocaine is produced every year, which has to be transported to its largest markets (North America, Europe and Oceania) by land, sea and air, creating carbon emissions all along the way.

If those figures seem hard to grasp, here are a couple that hit a bit closer to home: Four square metres of rainforest are destroyed for every gram of cocaine snorted in the UK. If we take that figure and apply it to the 30 tonnes of cocaine trafficked to our shores every year, we snort 120 square kilometres (roughly one fifth the size of New York City) of the rainforest up our noses annually.

Look, all this might change if drugs are legalised and a global trade agreement implements strict rules that would make cocaine’s production sustainable, or if bearded botanists figure out a way to make a local craft variety of the stuff. Until then, change has to come from us. It’s a bore, but someone’s got to do it.

So how do we address cocaine’s effect on the planet? Well, pleas from governments aren’t the answer. In 2006, the UK government teamed up with Colombia to launch the Shared Responsibility campaign to curb casual cocaine use, and at the end of 2015, the National Crime Agency relaunched #EveryLineCounts to bring the anti-cocaine effort to social media. Neither worked, obviously.

Abstinence won’t work either. We can’t expect everyone who gives half a damn about the planet to go ‘straight edge’ and we won’t achieve anything by taking on an overbearing and moralistic One Million Moms-esque approach.

Rather, we need to appeal to the power of choice. Specifically, we need to compare the green choices we all make during the week - like buying seasonal organic vegetables, signing petitions and eating less meat - to the not-very-green choices that we make at the weekend - like taking cocaine.

The first step (pardon the AA phraseology) is understanding the negative impact of cocaine on the planet (which, if you’ve been paying attention, then you already know). The second step is remembering that negative impact every time someone asks you to go in on a gram with them.

If after taking both these steps, you decide that line is worth it or that you’re going to forgo cocaine this weekend but you’ll indulge at your birthday party (because YOLO), then that’s your choice, as long as you accept that taking cocaine, or any drug, is a decision that brings with it an environmental consequence, much like leaving the heating on ALL THE TIME, buying gadgets you don’t need and driving when there’s public transport available. 

We can also question why we take cocaine and if there are other ways to achieve the same ends; to boost the ‘me’ in a way that is both planet and health friendly, like meditating, seeing friends, or, you know, alcohol.

After all, until we see where this news goes, there’s no better way to serve the ‘me’ than trying to save the only habitable planet we’ve got.

Charlie vs. The World

It’s easy to say that cocaine is bad for the planet. It’s harder to show exactly how damaging it is. But we’re not ones to be defeated. Working with an economist, we used reports, newspaper articles and the first season of Narcos to calculate the carbon cost of casual cocaine use. We put our findings into Charlie vs.The World, a handy coke-o-graphic that shows the planetary cost of a cheeky line (or more).

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Charlie vs The World