ARCHIVE PIECE: The curse of eco-guilt



It seems to be an intrinsic element of human life that, no matter what happens, we must start feeling guilty about it shortly afterwards. Someone invented alcohol, we all had to feel guilty about drinking too much of it. Someone else invented religion to stop us murdering each other and keeping slaves, we had to feel guilty about moral failings and not doing enough to bring others into the fold. And so on it goes.

The latest phenomenon is “eco guilt”, which I’ve seen mentioned quite a bit lately. It hasn’t hit me just yet, I must say, but no doubt it will before too long. As a classically self-loathing bourgeois wimp, I’m always open to a little extra guilt to stop me getting too complacent about things.

I’ve read different definitions of eco guilt, but essentially it refers to the gnawing feeling that you could and should be doing more for the environment, but are too lazy or selfish or whatever to be bothered, and thus should hate yourself. The feeling is exacerbated by endless news reports of selfless heroes like Greta Thunberg, who basically give up their free time and worldly goods to fight the good fight on behalf of Nature.

You see Greta crossing the Atlantic in a large soup-can, paddling with her bare hands through shark-infested waters and eating nothing but dead albatrosses, and think: she’s doing all she can to save the planet. But what am I doing?

Well five minutes ago I was doing the washing up, and instead of cleaning and recycling an empty coleslaw tub – as I knew I should – I threw it in the bin because the mayonnaise makes the rest of the dishwater all oily and disgusting. Sorry, Mother Earth.

Now, this coleslaw tub situation is obviously an extreme example; indeed, I imagine Gaia would probably turn a blind eye to that one, given how mayonnaise really does leave a greasy smear around your washing up basin. Let’s face it, she’s probably done the same herself.

But there are many other times and occasions when we’re not prepared to do what’s right by the environment. Do we always separate all the recyclables from non-recyclables? Do we make sure to differentiate between hard plastic, which can be reused, and plastic wrapping, which can’t?

Be honest. When it’s late on a Monday night and you’re barrelling through the clean-up and you come across a can of cat-food: do you really clean that icky, stinky mess out and place the pristine can in the blue bin, or do you feck it into the black bag, destined for landfill?

Indeed, these domestic chores are, in a sense, small scale stuff. The real game-changers are things like travel and technology. And who among us is willing to give up their smartphone, telly and laptop, despite knowing that these devices are a massive drain on fossil fuels and rare earth minerals?

How many people forego air travel, despite the well-documented fact that flight devours energy resources at a frightening rate? We’re all fine to cycle and leave the car at home, if it suits us, and thus can feel all smug about doing our bit.

But what about taking a week to reach your holiday destination, by ship and train, rather than flying there? Not so many takers for that.

I don’t mean to sound cynical about climate activism. I think it’s fantastic that people are more mindful about ecology, and every bit of “clean” living, no matter how small, is worthwhile, as far as I’m concerned.

But if we really want to affect change – if we want to reverse global warming and save the planet, and ourselves, from calamity – we’ll probably need to do something a lot more radical, even drastic. And I’m just not sure that most people are willing to make the necessary sacrifices, whether financial or otherwise.

Also, life must go on, in the midst of all this putative change. It’s easy to lecture, say, farmers about their animals warming the globe.

Not so easy to simply switch to something more sustainable, just like that, when your own existence depends on making an income. And on the macro level, while we never put the economy top of a list of priorities, a functioning economy is what makes society possible in the first place.

So don’t feel too bad about not doing enough for Mama Nature. Ditch that eco guilt (making sure to place it in the proper bin for environmentally friendly disposal). All any of us can do is our best.

Don’t be too hard on yourself when, inevitably, you too are faced with that “saving the earth vs. repulsion at the thought of having to clean that coleslaw tub” conundrum. We’ve all been there.

As Kermit the Frog once beautifully sang, “It ain’t easy being green.” I say “once” because all frogs have now been driven to the brink of extinction by mankind’s rapacious overuse of natural resources. We’re some shower of muppets, in fairness.


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