The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish
May 31, 2011

Guilt and a Green Conscience

Bothered by My Green Conscience book coverA week or so ago, I asked you to leave a comment about one thing you feel guilty about — an ecoconfession — to enter a surprise giveaway. The prize is a copy of Franke James’s illustrated book, Bothered by My Green Conscience: How an SUV-driving, imported-strawberry-eating urban dweller can go green.icon

But I asked the question about guilt for another reason. A while back, reading through ancient posts from a long-ago blog I used to keep, I came across a piece I wrote called, simply, “Guilt.” It’s heavy duty. It was written during a pretty bleak time in my life, a time long before plastic-free living and eco-activism. A time when I didn’t know where I was going and couldn’t manage to do much to figure it out.

Here are a few excerpts. You can read the entire post here, but be warned that it’s not pretty and some bits might even make you angry.

I’m depressed. Me and half the country. But I work only 3 days a week and make enough money to enjoy the remaining 4 days of free time. So how can I be depressed? Because, like in that song that was all over the radio a few months ago, “I’m a hazard to myself.” I don’t know what to do when I’m alone. I think, what do most people do? Shop? Watch TV? Play games? Kill time. Yeah, I kill a lot of time. And pay the price in big-time guilt. I’m loaded with it these days.


In modest amounts, guilt can be a useful substance. You can trade it for things you’d ordinarily have to pass up. A slice of chocolate cake, for example, or an hour of watching American Idol on TV. Sleeping late. Playing computer games. These things are generally affordable: I seem to be able to manage the level of guilt they require without overextending myself, going into debt.


But guilt, like coins, is heavy. You can’t swim across a river with thousands of dollars of coins in your pockets. You might have used them to buy a boat, but it’s too late if you’re already drowning. Similarly, guilt can build up to levels that are no longer useful. At that point, the pressure from guilt weighing upon guilt begins to convert it into a different substance altogether: depression.

When you’re depressed, you no longer care about the things that earlier might have been worth a little guilt. Food doesn’t taste good. Most forms of entertainment aren’t fun anymore. And the idea of doing something meaningful is ludicrous because suddenly you realize that NOTHING matters. The world wouldn’t change much without you in it.


So here I am: guilty and depressed, wanting desperately for something to matter and knowing that ultimately nothing does. What do I do?


Guilt, while maligned by most psychotherapists these days, is uniquely human and therefore, probably a quality that has contributed to our evolution as a species. The things we avoid out of guilt are generally the things that would do us in. But a little guilt goes a long way. If I ever manage to squeeze out from under the weight of all this depression, I’ve got to find a way to transform the remaining guilt, which I believe (tonight anyway) is inevitable, into something if not meaningful, at least a little useful.

To be continued. I hope.

I spent a lot of time back then feeling useless and guilty, feeling like I was wasting my life and not knowing what to do instead. What I wonder now is whether that guilt I felt then pushed me towards my work now as an environmental activist blogger or if I would have gotten here faster without all that wallowing and depression and self-flagellation. There’s no way to know for sure.

In her book, author and artist Franke James describes waking up to her own environmental impact and how her guilty conscience led her to some pretty huge life changes. She and her husband go car-free and turn their driveway into a park: the opposite of paving paradise. But was it really guilt that drove her? Or something else?

What do you think about the role of guilt and conscience in our lives? I’ve insisted on this blog that guilt is unnecessary and in fact detrimental to our goals because it’s all about blame rather than solutions. It creates the illusion that we are separate from the rest of the world, wrong, at fault. The feelings can subdue us into inaction. But can guilt also catalyze rather than paralyze? Can a little of it be just the spark some of us need to get off our duffs and do something meaningful?

Franke cites the example of how shame has been used to get people to scoop up after their pets. She asks, “If people can be convinced to pick up dog shit, who knows what social change is possible?”

Bothered By My Green Conscience

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Oh, and by the way, the winner of the book is peaJayFish. Congratulations.

Disclosure: If you use the Barnes & Noble link in this post to buy Bothered by my Green Conscience, My Plastic-free Life earns a small commission. But try to borrow, find it used, or buy it locally from an independent book seller before going the online route. For an explanation, read my full advertising/review policy here.

Leave a Reply

24 Comments on "Guilt and a Green Conscience"

Notify of

Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
4 years 4 months ago

As many other commenters have suggested, it feels a little like a semantics game to think about the relative worth of guilt (in all its motivating and demotivationg guises).

Guilt, I am well-acquainted with. Though I can’t say it drives me to action as much as what I think of as conscience. To me, guilt feels like the left-overs when I don’t do what’s worthwhile (listen to your conscience).

But shame… for me, shame is the more destructive power. It is the crippler of action. When I allow myself to feel like I just can’t do something right enough or… Read more »

Janet Botes
4 years 5 months ago

Oh, and I totally agree with Eve Stavros about finding a balance and by doing two “good” things for any one “bad” thing that you do. What I also often do, if I really HAVE to do or use something non-renewable, chemical or damaging to the earth, then I’ll try and educate or make aware the people with or around me how and why it is bad – as example, if I really have to fly and there is no practical other way of transport, then I’ll tell the people on the plane about my awesome previous travels via bus… Read more »

Janet Botes
4 years 5 months ago

Hey Beth.
Thanks for this post! Great to read!!

I think that a couple of years ago most of the people who’s doing things NOW that contribute towards the environmental movement or eco-activism felt like you did at that time. I remember a stage where talks around climate change was very negative and there was an attitude of we-are-doomed-no-matter-what. I was there too – I’ve felt depressed, frustrated and yes, I’ve felt a LOT of guilt.

It’s easy to feel guilty – about ANYTHING. I feel guilty for using time to type this post rather than working on the illustrations I’m… Read more »

4 years 5 months ago

P.S. Reading an article on environmental ethics right now…

‘Paul Goodman speaks from the modern point of view when he says: “No good has ever come from feeling guilty, neither intelligence, policy, nor compassion. The guilty do not pay attention to the object but only to themselves, and not even to their own interests, which might make sense, but to their anxieties”‘

^ I concur.

4 years 5 months ago

That dog shit quote is awesome.

4 years 5 months ago

I think that what is most effective in terms of spurring people to action is social pressure. Scooping dog poop is a good example of this. Once it becomes the expected norm that people will clean up after their pets, you face possible public censure for NOT doing it. It’s not so much guilt that’s motivating you, though. I would call it something different.

I’ve seen the same thing with reusable bags at the grocery store. Once it became EXPECTED, everyone started carrying their own bags.

I’m not sure that guilt is productive. But exerting a bit of social pressure can absolutely… Read more »

Eve Stavros
4 years 5 months ago

I agree with Jennifer, in that guilt can be used as a motivator, but in moderation. A little poke now and then keeps our conscience on track and helps us course-correct off negative behaviors. But allowing guilt to overwhelm just creates more negativity which can make any effort at self-improvement seem too burdensome. I’m trying to operate on a balance system, in which if I do something I know I shouldn’t (like take that nasty styrofoam tray!!!) I try to do two things to make up for it. This helps me focus on feeling… Read more »

4 years 5 months ago

I’m sure it doesn’t work the same for everyone, but guilt has proven to be an excellent motivator for me. Over the years, I’ve noticed a pattern in how I adopt greener actions. First I read or hear something that reveals just how un-green something I do is. Then I feel defensive about my old habit for a little while, anywhere between a week and a few months. Then I feel guilty, and then (and only then) I get off my butt and make the change.

I think the key might be to not spend too much time feeling guilty… Read more »

4 years 5 months ago

The problem with guilt is that people expiate it with minor actions “oh i got different lightbulbs” and then stop, because they don’t feel guilty anymore.

Peer pressure is different. People didn’t just stop letting their dogs shit everywhere because of guilt, they did it because OTHER people said nasty things to them about it, glared at them, and otherwise held them responsible for their dogs. People do a lot of things to fit in, not all of them motivated by guilt.

4 years 5 months ago

What about replacing the word ‘guilt’, with all its negative connotations, with ‘awareness’? Sitting with the awareness, not brushing it away as we might guilty feelings, because they are unpleasant. Once you’re aware of a harm you are doing, you can then choose to do something about it, or not. Awareness connects us to ourselves, each other and everything else in this planet. And when you feel connected you’re naturally, unconciously motivated to care, and right action follows. My 2 cents.

4 years 5 months ago

The antidote to guilt is action and for that reason alone it is a good thing. I saw a great quote a few days ago – “Apathy is the scourge of humanity”, and guilt can overcome apathy.

As you probably know, it is a big deal with me to try to do something to end the awful situation of the Palestinians. Part of the reason is that I was not around to do anything about the similarly awful dispossession of the American Indian. I was around but did almost nothing to act against the awful Vietnam war, ditto with the civil… Read more »

4 years 5 months ago

I don’t know whether I’ve felt more guilt, or hopelessness. I have such a long way to go, but one thing that has helped me in the past few years is becoming active at my school. I try to engage my students in conversations about different environmental issues (most recently about zero waste). When I see them get excited and talk about making changes in their families, it helps keep me motivated to keep changing my own habits. I don’t have a blog, but I think that sharing ideas goes a long way towards creating a… Read more »

4 years 5 months ago

I’ve adopted this idea:
Feel guilty about what you DO, then change it.
Never feel ashamed about who you ARE.

4 years 5 months ago

My thought on guilt. Too much sucks (the life out of you). BUT… a little guilt is almost necessary to help create change. For example, all those years I looked at my trash wanting to change something stemmed from guilt. I never got (or get) depressed about it. Guilt because we were contributing to a problem that can easily be solved by changing the products we use. If I didn’t feel a twinge of guilt, what motivation would I have to want to change??

Maybe it should be coined “Motivational Guilt” ;)

4 years 5 months ago

I think I a little guilt is a good thing. Peer pressure to conform is what has saved us on many issues, such as making it socially unacceptable to smoke. Sometimes when a person doesn’t (or can’t) see reason or common sense, a little gentle, old fashioned social ostrazation (as in ostracize—I think I spelled it wrong) can work miracles. Problem is when we get buried by guilt and are not able to turn it into something productive.

4 years 5 months ago

loved the post, Beth.

4 years 5 months ago

I have to say, I really related to your old post on children. I still feel the same way and just don’t talk about it because apparently my desire to not reproduce makes others feel guilty…

I can’t really say I’ve experienced guilt…at least I haven’t experienced it enough to make an impression on me. I’m not boasting. I feel that guilt is a way to feel bad and not actually do anything about whatever is making you feel bad…you just feel the emotion so you can pretend that the problem has been resolved. Maybe you’ll talk about to your friends… Read more »

4 years 5 months ago

I have to say, I really related to your old post on children. I still feel the same way and just don’t talk about it because apparently my desire to not reproduce makes others feel guilty…

I can’t really say I’ve experienced guilt…at least haven’t experienced it enough to make an impression on me. I’m not boasting. I feel that guilt is a way to feel bad and not actually do anything about whatever is making you feel bad, you just feel the emotion so one feels that is a solution. Maybe you’ll talk about to your friends and then all… Read more »

4 years 5 months ago

For me, guilt works better as a pre-emptive deterrent than as a consequence. If doing something is going to make it hard for me to live with myself, I know not to do it.

4 years 5 months ago

I still feel that guilt is unnecessary. Using guilt as motivation is like reducing plastic waste just because you “SHOULD,” not because you want to and feel like you want to help the environment. It’s “should” vs. doing it because you truly believe in it, I think. Even if the guilt is a result of the belief that it’s beneficial… what is ever the point of feeling bad about something? To me, feeling bad just immobilizes people to not do anything, because they feel like they aren’t making/can’t make a difference anyway, so why should they even try.

This is coming… Read more »

4 years 5 months ago

I’ve often heard it said that guilt and depression are really just anger turned inward. That’s certainly true in my own life. I have a fair share of guilty feelings in terms of environmental stuff, but they are very closely aligned with my rage at the “greedy bastards” who profit from the status quo and use their considerable power to keep in intact.

But on some level I also know that all of this is really just an expression of emotions that are already inside of me, and which have absolutely nothing to do with politics or the environment or any… Read more »

4 years 5 months ago

I think a little guilt is healthy. The more aware I am about the effects of the choices I make the more often I feel guilty if I consider making poor choices. It’s not a lot of guilt, just enough to push me into making the right choice. I like to make smoothies in the morning and use frozen fruit. Buying frozen fruit is easier but I can easily freeze it myself too. I don’t need to buy frozen fruit so the guilt wins. I feel the same amount of guilt when buying tampons but… Read more »

Jen Henderson
4 years 5 months ago

Hi Beth,

I didn’t see your last post about ecoconfessions, but I was thinking along those same lines after I read a Huffington Post article by Jennifer Grayson about Ecoguilt last week. I guess it’s because I also feel guilty and sometimes depressed by my own contribution to waste and the world’s state of affairs in general. I do agree that guilt can be a great motivator: just last week I rid myself of about 1/3 of my kitchen detritus (to the Goodwill) so now I have less stuff and the stuff I do have is more of what I want… Read more »

4 years 5 months ago

Nice article. You have a beautiful writing style. Been there, felt that way. However much there is a benefit to guilt, or conscience, I for one am motivated more by delight than by guilt. What I love about nature, God’s creation, and my faith… that’s what drives my passion to address my plastic addiction, write, and appeal to others to support Charlie Moore and Algalita. That’s my catalyst. Thanks for another great piece.