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.

24 comments
Sweet Pea
Sweet Pea

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 green enough, it kills the urge to try. It's one reason why I feel like there's a delicate balance between educating and shaming. I'd rather be shown a better way of doing something than shamed for the thing I've done. I try to bring this to my interactions with others.

Janet Botes
Janet Botes

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 or train, and why I usually opt for not traveling by air. Often people are very interested in what you've got to say, surprised at how much airplanes contribute to greenhouse gasses, and usually are keen to try the bus or train on their next trip. As an example. :-)

Janet Botes
Janet Botes

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 supposed to work on today. I feel guilty that I haven't gone for a walk or jog this morning. I could easily feel guilty for not spending a bit more time with my husband this morning or for not packing his lunch. But where would it get me? Then I'm using my thoughts and the POWER of these thoughts to focus on what I SHOULD have done or what I SHOULD be doing, rather than doing something that 'matters', like writing, painting, working, gardening, volunteering... I think guilt has it's place as a little voice that tells you that you're not really doing what you WANT to really do - whether out of procrastination, laziness or a misperception. But I also think that it often tends to take up too much of our thoughts and energy, pulling us down and - like you said - leads us into inaction. With regards to guilt guiding or motivating us into action, into trying to making a difference and guide through example - I would rather not call it 'guilt' but being in touch with what is worth doing. When you're in touch with what you really want - and I really do think that we all WANT happiness, harmony and sustainability - then guilt just nudges you back onto the right path when you get distracted. And depression follows when you ignore that nudge long enough. Wow, that was quite a mouthful, now - hope you understand and make sense of what I've expressed! Blessings, and keep up the great work!!

sui
sui

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"' http://www.sciencemag.org/content/162/3859/1243.full ^ I concur.

Amber
Amber

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 make people change their habits.

Eve Stavros
Eve Stavros

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 good about what I'm doing now to further my efforts, rather than feeling bad/guilty about where I went wrong.

Jennifer
Jennifer

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 over things you've already done, but rather to focus on doing a better job in the future. I can't change the number of disposable plastic bottles I've used and thrown away or recycled now, but I can make sure I don't use any more. A little guilt is good for making me think more critically about my decisions, but crippling guilt just leads to apathy and depression.

Rosa
Rosa

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.

Maeve
Maeve

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.

Clif
Clif

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 rights movement. Yes, I feel guilty for that but it drives me to do good today. A friend said to me, speaking of the Palestinians, "but there are so many wrongs in the world" to which I responded that she should take her pick of the wrongs and get busy on one of them. The alternative to action as a result of guilt is paralysis. Of the alternatives, clearly action is better! That you wrote what you did in the past and are now doing what you do shows the value of guilt for you. We, here in America, are on average far far better off than people elsewhere. We SHOULD feel guilty when we do nothing while so many suffer for all that they try to change things. We live in a time of bitching and moaning, cynicism and indignation with blame placed everywhere. The very first thing anyone should do is look at him/herself and ask what more could be expected. Guilt is a healthy part of that.

Sarah
Sarah

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 community and feeling like you're not going it alone. People now expect me to get up at staff meetings and talk about the compost or recycling, etc. I'm certainly a work in progress, but I feel good about the fact that I'm working on it.

Tracey
Tracey

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

Danielle
Danielle

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" ;)

Martha
Martha

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.

Sam
Sam

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 and then they too, will feel guilty… but I’ve found that guilt is not a way to make any sort of lasting change. How many people feel guilty and yet continue doing whatever it is that causes guilt? I can name many people from my own life. You just feel the emotion (bad) and that apparently is enough for many instead of actually changing course. I guess I could feel guilty about things, but instead I just embrace whatever it is that would make anyone else guilty. For example, I too spend hours (HOURS) playing computer games (apparently, I really like to line up little colored balls in a row and watch them disappear). I don’t consider that time wasted, I think a lot while playing and I’ve had a lot of insight into many things while playing: why my parents were the way they were, why so and so said that, etc. Many of my environmental actions are not motivated by guilt, but rather a desire to do my best to leave the planet better than I found it. And I think it is our duty to be good stewards. Plus, I just like challenging myself. I find it very fun. I don’t know anything about conscience either. I feel as human beings we have a higher intelligence and we can reason and observe and think – just putting those faculties to good use alone will make us all “environmentalists” But most of the time, we just choose (and it is a choice) to ignore our basic human values and embrace our more animal instincts.

Sam
Sam

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 feel guilty... but I've not found that guilt is a way to make any sort of lasting change. How many people feel guilty and yet continue doing whatever it is that causes guilt? I can name many people from my own life. I guess I could feel guilty about things, but instead I just embrace whatever it is that would make anyone else guilty. For example, I too spend hours (HOURS) playing computer games (apparently, I really like to line up little colored balls in a row and watch them disappear). I don't consider that time wasted, I think a lot while playing and I've had a lot of insight into many things while playing: why my parents were the way they were, why so and so said that, etc. Many of my environmental actions are not motivated by guilt, but rather a desire to do my best to leave the planet better than I found it. And I think it is our duty to be good stewards. Plus, I just like challenging myself. I find it very fun. I don't know anything about conscience either. I feel as human beings we have a higher intelligence and we can reason and observe and think - just putting those faculties to good use alone will make us all "environmentalists" But most of the time, we just choose (and it is a choice) to ignore our basic human values and embrace our more animal instincts.

Pheas
Pheas

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.

sui
sui

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 from a person who used to be dominated by guilt. It was terrible to be depressed. Maybe it's different for other people, but... that's my two cents.

EcoCatLady
EcoCatLady

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 other issue outside of my personal life. It's just so much easier to access the emotions in relation to this sort of thing than it is to explore the dark shadows of my innermost feelings. But I keep working at it, because when it comes right down to it, the only thing we really have is our feelings. And when I am able to reach beyond all of the noise and get in touch with that genuine part of myself, I find that all of the dispair and confusion melts away and what I'm left with are the real feelings - which are so much less threatening once I stop running away from them. And at that point everything else seems to just fall in place naturally. I tend to believe that our main problem as a species is our refusal to accept our true selves. I know that sounds sort of touchy feely crazy, but that's my take on it.

Nicole
Nicole

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 I need them and haven't found a better and equally convenient solution so I don't let the guilt completely cripple me. It is still movitating me to find a good solution locally. A little guilt resulting from knowledge and a moral compass is a good thing I think. As long as it doesn't make the experience of trying to do the right thing a stressful or painful one. We all do what we can and we all have our limits.

Jen Henderson
Jen Henderson

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 (including less plastic), but there's so much to do. I guess I do find hope that there are like-minded people who feel compelled to improve the ecosystem in their own way. I only hope that these thousands of small actions continue to add up to one fundamental and global shift in how we treat the planet. Thanks for the thoughtful post! Jen

celia
celia

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.