Monday, April 23, 2007

Guilt is a Useless Emotion #2

One of the reasons I don’t blog much about the environment, is because I personally believe that guilt is capable of destroying the planet, or at least altering the surface of the planet beyond a point where it is hospitable for human life. Really. Guilt, as opposed to greed or laziness, is the cornerstone of public resistance to expert messages on climate change. And yet it is quite difficult to talk about this stuff without inspiring that dreaded emotion.

The most profound and easiest response to our guilt is denial. Denial can take many forms, sometimes the more absolute this is not happening as well as this change is not man-made through to this is someone else’s problem and nothing I can do will make a difference. Most of the people I talk to about climate change come up with a variation on one of these. But it is a defensive move, what they are really saying is, “Don’t talk to me about this. I don't want to feel bad about this. It is not my fault.”

And truthfully, it isn’t.

It is not your fault that climate change is happening! Were you present, powerful and in possession of all the facts, two hundred years ago when we started using fossil fuels in our technologies on a massive scale? I thought not. Therefore it is not your doing.

No living organism can exist without making some impact on the environment around it. Some things are pretty much condemned to causing harm to other things whenever their prosper; parasites as well as certain bacteria, viruses and fungi, for example. As someone born in the twentieth century, you were born into a world where we were already dependent on all sorts of unsustainable resources and practices. We were already using fossil fuels, which are by definition, a finite resource. Even if there is no climate change at all, this stuff will run out and before it does, there is likely to be a great deal more conflict and suffering over it.

Possible Outcomes for the Human Race according to our actions or inactions regarding Climate ChangeMeanwhile, unless the vast majority of scientists, who we regard as intelligent, good and conscientious on most other matters, have either made a horrible mistake or are attempting to purposely mislead us over a sustained period of time (in which case, we might as well start entertaining Creationism and Flat Earth Theory), this is also bringing about a dramatic change in our weather systems, one which is likely to become extremely dangerous to human life at some point – when and in what way remaining areas of genuine controversy.

You and I were born into a crisis situation, a crisis which people didn’t foresee and one that has only become glaringly obvious in the last few decades. It’s okay. Your conscience is clear. And indeed, if it all goes to pot, if the human species is overwhelmed by floods, hurricanes, famine and disease within tens or a few hundreds of years, it shan’t have been your fault either.

In fact, this isn’t about you and your conscience at all. To chose to act on Climate Change is a positive choice to make a meaningful contribution to everyone else around the world for many generations to come. Many of us who are alive today are not going to see many of the negative effects of Climate Change, not the real horrorshow stuff. But I believe we can fix this. We must.

On which subject, please listen to this years Reith Lectures with Prof. Jeffrey Sachs; this guy rocks, is optimistic about our ability to sort this mess out and won't make you feel guilty, I promise.


Sage said...

We're born into a crisis situation, but I feel personally responsible to stop making it any worse than it is. If I didn't feel any responsibility for continuing the crisis, then I really wouldn't care.

I think guilt can be motivating, but only if it comes from inside sparked by new information, and if there's a clear alternative accessable path to take to assauge the guilt. If I decide I'm responsible for a negative effect on the world, albeit quite tiny relatively speaking, it makes me change my practices. And if someone reminds me there's a better way to do something, like offering a recipe with all in-season ingredients, then I'll act on that.

But I wonder if people will choose to act on climate change if they don't feel any personal guilt for continuing to consume unnecessarily. I tend to think the rewards for maintaining behaviour are too great and the grand punishment is too far reaching for people to willingly alter behaviours out of the goodness of their hearts. They might say they'll change, then just free-ride on others' claims of goodness, and actually do nothing.

In Heat, Monbiot says we won't act until fuel is rationed to each person which should begin sooner rather than later. I tend to agree.

Anonymous said...

Guilt is only useful if it prods you into doing something positive. Otherwise, like certain (not all of them) rock stars pontificating, guilt is a substitute for doing something positive. "I'm feeling guilty about this, what more do you expect me to do?" kind of thing.

As far as I can see the main problem is that, whatever the developed world does, the rest, who are trying to catch up with our standards of living, are not going to give up the industrialisation and the fossil fuel usage it entails.

Moreover when the developed world realises quite how many practical sacrifices are needed, the goodwill will evaporate very quickly.

In a poll reported by the Independent, people in the UK were give a list of options for changing their behaviour/way of life to become greener, and asked to vote on which they would be prepared to adopt. The only measure that got more than 50% of the vote was Not Running The Tap Whilst Cleaning The Teeth; and that only got, I think, 73%.

Anonymous said...

As you know, i write about the environment quite a lot, and am trying (as much as my meagre budget allows) to put into place measures to help me to live a greener life.. But the reasons i'm doing this have very little, if anything, to do with guilt. I actually read this with astonishment that people feel this way (mostly because, as you pointed out, way back when the problem was actually *started* a) human kind didn't know this would result and b) i wasn't even born)!! I have no doubt that they do feel this way though - actually, it makes a great deal of sense.

Most of my reasons for making these changes lie in more positive reasons: wanting a better life, wanting more spare money, wanting to be healthier, both mentally and physically. I will admit though, that unlike many people, i've actually seen the benefits in living this kind of lifestyle close up - my grandparents were the original greenies in many many ways, and they're very much my inspiration.

a thought provoking blog: thank you.

Anonymous said...

When I worked at Whole Foods (Fresh and Wild to you) and asked people whether they wanted their groceries bagged in paper or plastic, often people would say, "Oh, give me plastic. Save a tree."

And I would reply, "But what about the dinosaurs? Why doesn't anyone ever think about the poor dinosaurs?"

And then, sometimes, we would get into a discussion about how the best bag for the environment is the bag you bring yourself and reuse until it falls apart, at which point you either compost or recycle it. But I digress.

Yes, there's a difference between feeling guilty over things you didn't do and feeling responsible for your own part in the present and future. I'm very much in favor of the latter. It's what makes me fight with my boyfriend when he wants to drive instead of walk into town (less than one mile from where we live), and it's what makes me feel guilty when I've planned my day so badly that I have to, say, drive to the bank (four blocks from my house) in order to make a cash deposit before it closes and thus before some automatically scheduled overnight withdrawal bounces. The guilt, hand in hand with its lover shame, makes me strive to plan my days a little better in the future. I'm 44 years old, for goodness' sake, old enough to be acting like a responsible adult who gives a crap about someone other than herself. And that's what caring for the environment to the extent each of us is capable, really doing the very best we can on the hope that it's not pointless after all, is really all about, don't you think?

Guilt really is pointless, except where it leads to the development of a code of personal responsibility. Not drama, not self-aggrandizement, just figuring out what the very best is that we each can do and doing it as often as we honestly can.

That said, I have to take a little walk into town before it gets too late. ;)

Anonymous said...

As I see it the biggest thing we, in the "developed" world can do is buy less stuff - buy second hand (or freecycle , Gumtree . Yes, I know I'm a bore about freecycle ;-)) as much as possible. I mean how much of what most of us have do we actually need or even want?

What about jobs? Well, in many cases (again, in the "developed" world) if we buy less stuff, we need less money. So we can stop working ourselves into the ground, spend more time with family/friends/hobbies (may be even grow your own veg, make presents - a positive double whammy), and there'd be jobs for those who haven't them.

I, personally, found it heartbreaking when, at the time of the Ipswich murders, a spokeswoman for (I think) the Prostitute Collective said something like "They will have to go on the streets tonight, many of these women have young children and Christmas is coming up". What kind of system is it where you have to sell your body so that your child can have the latest X-box?

Guilt wise - I'm sorry, but if you fly to Saudi Arabia (from the UK) for a 30min business meeting (and reguarly do similar trips) or go on weekends to Roma "cos it's so cheap it would be rude not to", then you do have to take your share of responsibilty.

As for not being alive when the affects are felt: twice I've heard that Norwich will be flooded by 2020 (though, admittedly, can't find the original source(ha!) for this). And, yes oil will probably run out in about 15 years time anyway, but shouldn't we try to eek it out for a little longer while we work out how we're going to eat? since it takes 10+ units of energy (mostly oil - fertilizers etc are made from oil) to produce one unit of food energy).

The Goldfish said...

I do find this very interesting.

To me, as someone with a tremendous, near-pathological capacity for guilt, guilt about climate change is a bottomless pit. Thinking that way I have very easily wound up feeling guilty about my entire existence - and I mean that, sincerely, not just every journey I make, or every bath I have, my entire existence. I contribute nothing, I take a lot, even if I just sleep and eat and keep the house warm.

Really, I don't work, I never need to leave the house. I can live on raw food. I don't need to use a computer and I probably only need to wash for hygiene purposes every fortnight or so. I am smart, I am conscious that every little thing I eat or drink, every sheet of loo paper has its ecological price. And my whole lifestyle is an excess!

But if I didn't go out or use my computer, my life would be much more difficult to enjoy. Then again, perhaps my life itself is an excess! I'm not spending it very usefully!

Honestly, this is not the way. The ultimate challenge humanity faces is not whether or not it can cut back, but whether it can find difference ways of going about things.

It isn't any sacrifice to sort the recyclables from the non-recyclables, it isn't any sacrifice to share the bath water, to put on an extra layer, to combine trips out, to put a brick, to use ecoballs and mooncups and bicarbonate of soda and stuff like that.

And really, it isn't that much of a sacrifice to buy less stuff, as Vic says. We really do have a culture in which retail is a hobby, a leisure pursuit. And that can't be good for us on many levels.

I like to see this as a creative process. Not "Do I really really need to do this thing?" but "Is there a way of doing this without nearly so much impact on the environment?"

seahorse said...

Oh Goldfish, there was a time not so long ago when I had concentration and was able to enjoy your erudite words. Alas, there is a hopefully temporary technical hitch with my brain, but just to let you know I am at least flickering by, even if I can't get very far into your posts at present.

fluttertongue said...

I am a kindred spirit in terms of the guilt - to the extent that simply going to the loo leads to all sorts of dilemmas. My sister explained to me (in the context of school pupils) that there are those that externalise their responsibility: everything is the result of other people's actions ie, the dog ate my homework; and those that internalise to the extent that everything that happens to them is of their own doing, somewhere down the line. It's the latter that acheives more. Personally, however, I think acheivement leaves a lot to be desired. A more satisfying goal all round would be to live in one's habitat as harmoniously as possible. Imagine dying knowing that you'd personally acheived great things but at the expense of a whole future generation.
It shouldn't be guilt that forces us to act, but the ending of this ridiculous self-denial that seems to pervade modern life, that there is no alternative. It's not our fault currently but it may soon be.

Anonymous said...

The simple fact is that we all consume in one way or another, from the moment we start breathing.

And all too often, well-meant endeavours to be green end up rebounding. When our local Councils decided to recycle glass, tin, paper etc, it initially resulted in people making special trips by car to the recycling banks, which were often situated out-of-town where you wouldn't normally go anyway.

I gather that on or about August 14 2089 we are going to be engulfed by a pile of unrecyclable disposable nappies unless everyone reverts to terries.

I remember terries from my childhood. They still have to be manufactured from cotton (that does not grow in the UK); they have to be soaked in water which is not recyclable unless you are very, very unchoosy; they have to be disinfected with Milton or some such, and believe me there is nothing green about the manufacture of disinfectants; they have to be dried, which in the UK is likely to involve artificial heat at least some of the year.

I'm not saying, don't be green. I'm saying, there is nothing in life that is free. Everything has to be traded-off against something else. And what we need is some sensible advice and/or information, not media- or politician-led, on alternatives.

The Goldfish said...

Actually - and I'm sure you'll be fascinated by this information - there is another compromise with the terries.

As I have understood it, the underwear my nephew wears is something called a Weenee Pouch Pant. It is a pair of shaped pants, into which he fixes a little lining. The lining can be biodegradable or washable, but that's a lot less to wash and he doesn't need to change his nappy every time.

But then you wash the nappy normally; since the lining has protected them from the worst of anything that needed disinfecting. And yeah, there is the drying, but I gave him some dryer-balls, which reduce the time (and energy) by about a third.

Best of both worlds, really.

As with so much, it is, as Fluttertongue says, a matter of realising that there are alternatives. And yes, we are always consuming, everything costs. Vic has just had solar panels fitted and was telling me about how many years it'll take to compensate for the carbon emissions created in their manufacture.

However, this is the point about guilt; if you feel guilty about your consumption, then only completly naivety is ever going to cure of it. If you see it as a project to reduce your impact on the environment and encourage others (and governments) to take steps to do likewise...

Anonymous said...

People of my generation and class are probably the most tuned-in to recycling and making-do of those alive today.

Not only was my family poor, my parents grew up during World War II when there was very little to buy even if you had the money, because of rationing.

And they had been conditioned by their parents who grew up during the Great Depression.

So, nothing new there. I am probably the greenest person in the village. But can I blame those who, presented with the opportunity to become consumers for the first time in their lives - own a car, say, take a foreign holiday, buy new clothes instead of hand-me-downs or homemade - grab that opportunity with both hands?

It ill beseems those who have lacked for nothing all their lives to start preaching restraint either to the Third World or to their own native poor.

Especially when doing it from the electronically-festooned stage of a gig they've just flown to in one of their several jets, accompanied by assorted freeloaders.

Anonymous said...

It's about balance, you know, about realizing the limits of your own power as well as your own responsibility.

My first therapist told me, when I was just about your age, Goldfish, that I suffered from what she called "Tit to the World Syndrome." There was a very funny gesture that accompanied this pronouncement. To simulate it, grab one breast and hold it forth for the world to suckle. I about died laughing, as my therapist was a dignified, iron-haired woman in her fifties, and this gesture was unexpected.

Her point of course was that somehow I had gotten it in my head and heart that I not only had the responsibility to care for every life that encountered mine, but that I somehow seemed to feel that I had the power to protect absolutely everyone. The power and the responsibility to give everything to everyone all the time. She pointed out that this kind of power and responsibility were typically considered the province of gods, and that she felt certain that no one would ever expect anything god-like out of me because I appeared to her to be just a human being.

Apply this understanding to environmental guilt, to any guilt, but environmental guilt because that's what we're talking about here. Do you want to live in the 12th century? I don't. Yes, the ecosystem was in charge back then, diverse and healthy. But progress happened for a reason. I know there are people who wish it hadn't, but I for one am not up for sharing bathwater, for owning one set of clothes I wear every day and never wash, for having to make my own fabric, clothes, and herbal remedies from scratch, or for having to ride in horses and buggies if at all. I'm not up for personally working the rocky land with sticks and oxen, for being expected to bear children as a matter of course, for one in three women dying in childbirth or of childbirth-related causes, for children dying of preventable disease, or for men going off to war constantly because there is not enough viable industry to employ them.

However, I am up for turning the tap off while I brush my teeth, for only buying organically grown produce, for striving to buy food that has been locally produced even in winter, for not driving when I am capable of walking, for not buying new things I don't need or will forget I own a month later, and for planning my life to avoid wasting things I am going to consume, as Charles says, no matter what, because I'm alive and that's what living creatures do. We eat and we poop. We consume and we produce. One way or another.

Dear Goldfish, you who produce thought and love, do you really believe you don't earn your own life? I have worked in high-powered offices with people who went to terribly busy and important jobs outside their homes every single day, ten or more hours a day, and produced less. And consumed more, much more.

No one [sane] would argue that you have to live in darkness, stay off your computer, and share your bathwater in order to justify your existence. You don't have to justify your existence at all. It is important while we are existing to try to think of the impact our choices have on others, and to try and make choices which have the best or least impact, depending on what specific choice we're talking about, but no matter what, there is going to be an impact, and it isn't always going to be a showering of rose petals wherever you walk (or roll). And even so, some people are allergic. So you see, there will always be elements of your existence you cannot control, and no one is expecting you to try.

Like all the rest of us, you just have to try to do the best you can -- the best you really can, living in your (our) real world as your real self -- and enjoying it as much as possible.

Shutting up now. Cheers.

Anonymous said...

What helps me when I feel like I ought to live in a cave and eat beetles, is remembering that the smallest changes can, cumulatively, have the biggest effect. So turning the tap off when you're washing your teeth and lathering up, using the "if it's yellow, let it mellow" rule; Trying your thermostat at 19C, turning off lights and appliances etc.

I also grew up with no money: second/third/fourth hand/charity shop/home made clothes, holidays mostly in Cornwall with elderly friends of the family (did go to Guersney once). But, after reading Tuesdays with Morrie, I started to feel we've been emotionally manipulated into thinking we need stuff. Then I watched Robert Newman's A History of Oil (I think he mostly avoids guilt-tripping too). I realised I really don't need shiny brand new things. After all - how long are they brand new anyway?

Now, before I buy something I think:
Do I really need it?
If yes, when - can I wait to get it secondhand/borrow it?
If I just want it then I must wait until I can get it second hand (by which time I quite often don't want it after all!)

I meant to say previously, that I think this emotional trap is why a lot of people think it's not worth doing stuff. But, given that China's growth is largely due to making stuff for us and that African irrigation systems (paid for out of our charity) are used to grow food for us, we (obviously a "western world" generalisation here) have got a lot we can do.

I was concerned that our Solar Panels were just something to make us feel like we're doing something, but they pay back their environmental cost in about 5 years and are guaranteed for 20.

The Goldfish said...

Charles, totally with you about celebrity interest in this stuff. On the one hand, I am wholly cynical that folks which to do something useful with the influence they have, but it's fairly rare to see a situation where there isn't some glaring hypocrisy.

Sara, I love 'tit to the world' syndrome. I am tempted to do a post one of these days of "Favourite Comments I have received" and, together with saying such lovely things, that would be one of them. Thank you. ;-)

Vic, totally with you about buying stuff. We do have this thing in our culture whereby more and more we disconnect the stuff we buy from where it came from.