I credit environmentalism for many of the wonderful things in my life – it’s the reason why I became vegetarian, adopted a more minimalist mindset and made a bunch of awesome, eco-conscious friends. It taught me how to appreciate the amazing life I have access to, and made me become more aware of how my actions affected the world.
But there was something less wonderful that came about with my new understanding, and that was environmental guilt. It would strike me in the most random of places – at the café, whenever I bought my coffee in a paper cup; at the supermarket, when I picked up a bottle of coke; or at home, if I happened to see any food that I had to throw out. Where there had once been blissful ignorance, now lurked my guilty conscience.
In a way this was a good thing – it meant that I’d hopped off the consumerism hype train, and was now taking full responsibility for my actions. After all, with all the climate change the world is facing, we need more people to do that, right?
I wasn’t the poster child for eco-friendly living – I wasn’t vegan, or zero-waste, and I didn’t host major climate protests.
Yet environmental guilt also made me feel exasperated and sad. I questioned whether my mistakes made me a terrible person, because despite my best efforts – despite eating plant-based meals, and volunteering, and being conscious with my purchases – I still came to the same disheartening conclusion: I wasn’t (and would likely never be) the perfect environmentalist. I wasn’t the poster child for eco-friendly living – I wasn’t vegan, or zero-waste, and I didn’t host major climate protests. I was just an ordinary girl trying her best; I worked to maintain my green habits, whilst also running the rest of my life.
This was when I ran into an issue – I wasn’t just trying to excel at eco-friendly living; I was also trying to be a good student, have a social life, get some exercise in, maintain a healthy diet… oh, and remember to call my mom at least twice a week. In short, I was trying to do it all. And (lo and behold) that meant that I couldn’t do it all perfectly all of the time.
Even when I did try my hardest, priorities would have to take place. I’d grab a ready-made dinner because I had been at the library until late. Or I’d eat out with friends and completely forget about whatever food I needed to use up at home, therefore letting it go bad. Eighty percent of the time, I still observed my eco-friendly principles. But it was those twenty percent of slip-ups that gnawed at me.
Why is it that with environmentalism, we all feel like either sinners or saints?
I couldn’t help but wonder if other people had experienced that same sense of pressure related to environmentalism. I raised the question with some of my more eco-conscious friends, and found out that many of them felt the same. Rosa, a friend of mine who studies Environmental Sciences at uni, said that she often felt guilty for “not doing enough” because she couldn’t single-handedly elicit climate policy change.
At TBYW, many of my team members also shared that they felt bad for making mistakes and compromising their green habits. “Last week I went on a trip to Spain and had to travel by plain,” our team coordinator, Izzie, said. “And I was like ‘Urghh, I feel so guilty about this!’”
A quick Google search showed me that my friends and I weren’t alone in our struggles. There were numerous articles, both academic and personal, dealing with the topic of environmental guilt. In fact, the phenomenon had become so popular that official terms like “green guilt” and “Environmental Guilt Syndrome” had been coined to describe it.
But why is it that with environmentalism, we all feel like either sinners or saints?
You used a plastic straw? That’s it, you’re an eco terrorist now.
Perhaps the answer to this question lies in the near- authoritarian tone that can sometimes surround environmental discourse. Especially online, we often hear people throwing the blame around, or read articles that leave us crippled with guilt. Such media often makes us feel like every error we make is fatal, like anything short of perfection is not enough.
You put some honey in your tea? You should be ashamed for not being vegan. You used a plastic straw? That’s it, you’re an eco terrorist now.
Such abusive environmentalism often justifies itself by referring to the dire state of the planet. “The Earth is dying,” they scream. “There’s no room for mistakes!”
our guilt won’t save the planet
Yes, the Earth is dying, but these people are forgetting a vital thing – mistakes happen, whether we like it or not. For most of us, perfect green living is an unfeasibly high bar – one that serves to demotivate us more than anything. Our lives and, yes – human imperfection – get in the way, and we don’t always manage to act in the most eco-friendly of ways.
However, lynching ourselves over that isn’t going to fix it; our guilt won’t save the planet. Of course, I’m not suggesting that we all become complacent, and never try to improve our harmful habits. I’m simply saying that eco-responsibility shouldn’t (and doesn’t have to!) equal feeling burdened with environmental guilt.
Perfectionism can elicit a sense of desperation that can makes us give up – what’s the point of persevering if we’re never going to be good enough? Having a guilty conscience paralizes us and prevents us from learning from our errors. By learning to accept our mistakes instead, we can see environmentally-friendly living as a learning curve – the longer we do it, the better we’ll become at it. We can understand that we’ll never be perfect, and that’s ok. If we keep putting in our best effort most of the time, the impact of our positive action will outweigh the damage done by our mistakes.
Another issue with environmental guilt is that it (over)burdens a few, whilst allowing many others to go unaccountable. “Individual changes make a difference, but we also shouldn’t forget to hold leaders and big companies accountable for their actions,” our TBYW general coordinator, Lara, said. “We shouldn’t get stuck in blaming ourselves and others for not doing enough – as we seen in the UN report, a mere 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global CO2 emissions.”
If we can deal away with our guilty consciences, we can instead focus our energy on the positives of environmentalism, and turn eco-friendly living into something we really enjoy.
Research shows that while guilt is effective in eliciting action from those who already care about an issue, it does little for the ones who don’t. This means that if we want more people to improve their habits, guilt-tripping them into environmentalism isn’t the way to go – something you already know if you’ve tried convincing your parents to have a meat-free day.
By keeping shame at the forefront of environmental discourse, we keep increasing the pressure on those who are already doing their best, whilst simultaneously not addressing (or potentially even scaring away!) any potential newcomers. Instead, we should strive to create a positive conversation where everyone feels welcomed to give eco-friendly living a shot.
Guilt is a terrible motivator to do anything, and environmentalism is no different. When we’re triggered by guilt, we act from a place of obligation – we’re doing things because we think that we have to, not because we want to. Consequently, we miss everything that’s so wonderful about green living – the comfort of cooking from scratch, the fun of exploring thrift shops and flea markets, the joy of finding like-minded eco-conscious individuals. If we can deal away with our guilty consciences, we can instead focus our energy on the positives of environmentalism, and turn eco-friendly living into something we really enjoy.
Leaving shame behind can be the best thing you do for your environmental journey. Without environmental guilt, you can focus on what’s truly good about green living, and enjoy the experience. On top of that, you will also be better able to look at your slip-ups with objectivity and compassion – in fact, you’ll probably be excited to learn from them and do better next time!