Climate Change Guilt

By this point, many of us have spent years of our lives feeling guilty. We know we buy too much and waste too much. We don’t always eat organic. We drive cars and fly in airplanes even when it’s not strictly necessary. Sometimes we leave the lights on because it’s winter, and it’s dark, and it just feels nice. We’ve learned to think of these lapses as direct contributions to climate change, sinful pleasures that more conscientious people forswore long ago.

It’s entirely possible that some of climate change denial is rooted in an adverse reaction to this very guilt. People who refute the effects of rising emissions are reluctant to believe in something that will instill shame for their most quotidian actions. They can’t bear to accept that every time they let the tap run while brushing their teeth they’re adding to the force of our inexorable doom.

Who can blame them?

In his 2009 article “Forget Shorter Showers,” writer and environmental activist Derrick Jensen posed these questions:

“Would any sane person think dumpster diving would have stopped Hitler, or that composting would have ended slavery or brought about the eight-hour workday, or that chopping wood and carrying water would have gotten people out of Tsarist prisons, or that dancing naked around a fire would have helped put in place the Voting Rights Act of 1957 or the Civil Rights Act of 1964? Then why now, with all the world at stake, do so many people retreat into these entirely personal ‘solutions?’”1

Jensen’s point is to equate the argument behind our constant, personalized guilt about climate change to the old saying, “Finish your dinner – children are starving in [some far-off country].” We knew it then and we know it now: whether or not we eat all that broccoli, there is no way a starving child will benefit from it.

But understanding that disconnect doesn’t stop us from trying to take on a problem the size of humanity at the scale of our individual, day-to-day actions. And here is something we perhaps should feel a little guilty about: for many of us, myself included, it’s easier to imagine that we’re making a dent in the world’s problems by biking to work than it is to join together as a united movement, confront the powers-that-be, and create change at the only level where it will make a difference. As Naomi Klein put it in a 2015 commencement address to the College of the Atlantic,

“The hard truth is that the answer to the question ‘What can I, as an individual, do to stop climate change?’ is: nothing. You can’t do anything. In fact, the very idea that we—as atomized individuals, even lots of atomized individuals—could play a significant part in stabilizing the planet’s climate system, or changing the global economy, is objectively nuts.”2

By pretending that we can stop climate change through our own tiny good intentions, we may be shirking a harder, scarier, far more imperative task.

I have to admit I can’t quite fathom the “massive and organized global movement” Klein envisions as an alternative to individual simple-living. But maybe the path to that kind of revolution can start as small as the path to a net-zero house or a greywater-fed garden. Instead of taking shorter showers, maybe we should be focusing on something just as easy but much more far-reaching: taking every opportunity to talk about climate change.

Dan Kahan, a Yale Law School professor and member of the Cultural Cognition Project, conducts studies to identify what motivates people to believe or disbelieve in climate change. Kahan found what many social scientists have found before: that most people are primarily motivated to agree with their friends, with the people they trust, and with the prevailing opinions of their social or political groups.3 Does everyone you know already believe in climate change? Then perhaps it’s time to start talking to people you don’t know.

Kahan is careful to stress that the mission of the average believer should not be to educate others about climate change. The scientific community has learned the hard way that throwing facts at the public doesn’t win any converts. What’s needed is more subtle: the creation, through sustained social pressure, of a cultural mindset that acknowledges climate change as a political (not just a scientific) issue, and one that requires action.

Developing such a culture certainly seems like a daunting task. But maybe if we free ourselves from the burden of our own misguided guilt, we’ll at last have the will to confront our neighbors. The less energy we expend in feeling bad about our cars and heating bills, the more we’ll have to think about and talk about and make voting decisions based on climate change, and the more chance we’ll have of swaying those with real power toward policies that will make a measurable difference in the composition of the atmosphere and the future of the planet.

  1. Jensen, D. 2009. Forget shorter showers. Orion Magazine.
  2. Klein, N. 2015. Climate change is a crisis we can only solve together. Commencement Address, College of the Atlantic. The Nation.
  3. Kahan, D.M. The tragedy of the risk-perception commons: culture conflict, rationality conflict, and climate change. Cultural Cognition Project Working Paper No. 89.

One thought on “Climate Change Guilt

  1. I see the point you are making. But then there is the popular belief that if everyone, or a large majority of people, that do make those small changes, it can make a difference in the long run. So that if each individual does feel a little guilty about running their car when they are not supposed to and then maybe they realize they can change that. Maybe they will walk or ride their bike instead. Hopefully, they end up changing their behavior! Then maybe that small change in behavior sparks these other movements you talked about, ie. talk to your neighbors about climate change, and vote for politicians that support change. Then, if all of these individuals are making a change, politicians will see this and gear their campaign to reflect the actions of the people (taking action on climate change). It is also possible that I am trying to see the good in people and politicians in the hopes that people will begin to make smarter decisions that will help our climate in the long run. Even if people see these as small changes.

    Liked by 1 person

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