Brad Stone has a clever satirical take on carbon offsets over on Newsweek, riffing off the recent partnership of Ford and TerraPass.

I think this is a wonderful idea — do good while doing bad — and I urge other businesses to join Ford in this fledgling, guilt-credits marketplace. It just might help us cope with the unreasonable stigma now associated with the proud American tradition known as conspicuous consumption.

For example, the fast-food giants might roll out an initiative called Flatter Tummies. For every bacon double cheeseburger they sell, the restaurant chains could allow customers to make a small donation toward the gastric-bypass surgery center of their choice.

With "Smarter Stitches," clothing manufacturers could help us compensate for the exploitation of low-wage textile workers in Asia. Every time you buy a new pair of sneakers, the footwear company in question would allow you to send an appreciative gift to an overseas textile worker — perhaps a stuffed animal or the book "Goodnight Moon," translated into the appropriate language.

Ha ha, right?

But here’s the thing:

I actually think those are good ideas. They’d never happen, but I’d certainly support them if they did.

The question here is about guilt. Stone’s premise is that by allowing us to get rid of the guilt we already have, carbon offsets (and the like) would allow us to engage in "bad" activities with a free conscience.

I’m not sure that’s quite how it works. I don’t think most Americans have much guilt over driving gas guzzlers, or eating fast food, or buying slave-labor sneakers. It’s not that they’ve assessed those activities and found them virtuous; it’s just that they don’t think about it. Perhaps in some vague way they know that such activities are negative, but such abstract malaise is easily ignored.

As much as any substantive difference they make — which largely remains to be seen — carbon offsets simply serve to remind people: driving produces pollution. It makes the invisible visible, as the saying goes.

To the extent the same could be done for eating fast food, or buying slave-made crap at Wal-Mart, or spraying herbicides on suburban lawns, or what have you, I’m all for it. I believe Americans are ultimately good-hearted, and if the unpleasant consequences of their choices are made more immediate to them, they’ll change their behavior.

What do you think?