We love the Earth. Who doesn't? So it stands to reason that we should be shoulder to shoulder with any organization that calls itself Friends of the Earth. Alas, it's not so simple.  

FOE, the organization's unfortunate acronym, puts out an annual "Report Card" that grades the major cruise lines on their environmental rectitude.

We think that's a noble goal, but we've quarreled before with the way FOE carries out this mission. Today we quarrel again, because FOE continues to rely on arbitrary criteria and a grading system that many consumers may find confusing rather than enlightening.

On the matter of air pollution, for example, the latest report card flunks 10 of 16 cruise lines. Three lines got a D. There were no A's.

Educators will tell you that when everybody fails, you may have set the bar too high, and we believe that is precisely the problem. FOE explains that its grade in this category principally reflects whether or not the ship plugs into shore power rather than relying on its engines to provide electricity while in port.  

As most travel professionals know, plugging into shore power is not yet a standard practice. Only six U.S. ports have the necessary infrastructure, and the major cruise ports in Florida, the Gulf Coast and New York are not among them (though Brooklyn is nearly wired).  

That is why dozens of ships in the North American fleet received an F grade in this category.

Is that a fair system?

We don't think so. We don't think it's fair to cruise lines or consumers, many of whom won't probe behind the prominent F to discover what's going on.

Careful readers of the report card will note that the category concerning air pollution is described as "Air Pollution Reduction." In point of fact, it doesn't measure cruise line conformity with any scientific or legal pollution standard, which would be a valuable service to consumers, agents and port communities.

Rather, the grade merely reflects cruise line conformity with FOE's aspiration that they reduce their emissions using one particular technique. Other categories are similarly skewed to FOE's peculiar standards. For sewage treatment, for example, ships can only get one of two grades: A if they meet FOE's highest standards, or F if they do not.     

This is a good working definition of "arbitrary." It's also a handy way to make an entire industry look bad.

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