How To Overcome Environmental Guilt (In A Productive Way)

Photo: Javier Pardina

With the barrage of information out there about how to live a more eco-friendly existence—Recycle! Compost! Ditch the straw! Say no to plastic bags!—trying to be green all day every day can get overwhelming. Little slip-ups are bound to happen, whether you cave and pick up coffee in a to-go cup on your way to the office or accidentally throw away a bottle you meant to reuse. The point is progress, not perfection, and how you react in these situations is telling. Do you shrug it off, vow to do better next time, or just beat yourself up?

If you fall into the latter camp, you're experiencing a little something called environmental guilt.

What is environmental guilt?

This phrase speaks to those moments when you know you should be doing more to help the planet, or you feel like you'll never be able to do enough. It can arise when you're wasting food, letting the sink run for too long, or trashing something that could be recycled. According to some estimates, around a third of Americans feel it on a consistent basis.

One person who is intimately familiar with environmental guilt is Paige Wolf, author of Spit That Out! The Overly Informed Parent’s Guide to Raising Children in the Age of Environmental Guilt, a handbook for busy moms who are looking to make easy and effective green changes at home. "Eco-anxiety and green guilt are common by-products from the pressure to be green as well as the crushing burden of visible climate change, increasing pollution, and a general lack of safety regulations. Each choice is filled with anxiety, and every decision is a gateway to worry," she tells mbg, noting that mothers who want to set a good example for their kids are particularly susceptible to the feeling.

When guilt is actually good.

Susan Clayton, a psychologist who has done extensive research on the human response to climate change, sees a certain utility in this type of guilt: It reminds us that there's more work to be done. "The purpose of guilt is to signal us when we are not living up to community or personal standards, and to motivate improvement," she says. "Guilt can be a very useful motivator, since it makes us feel bad about our actions, but it doesn’t necessarily make us feel bad about ourselves as people—as shame would. Thus, guilt simultaneously tells us we’re not doing the right thing and points to the way to correct the problem: by doing more."

Wendy Graham of green website Moral Fibres, echoes the idea that guilt can be constructive when used as a tool for action. For example, let's say you can't find ethically made clothes that meet your standards, so you buy a cheap shirt from a large chain. Instead of feeling discouraged and resigning to a life of fast fashion, you can take a minute to write to retailers asking them to be more transparent about who makes their clothes. Or, if you feel guilty about needing a car to get anywhere in your neighborhood, you can use that to lobby your local government asking for better bike paths and public transport options.

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How to use it in a productive way.

The next time you find yourself feeling environmental guilt, Clayton recommends taking a minute to assess where the sentiment is coming from and how legitimate it is. "Make sure your standards are reasonable," she advises. "We shouldn’t feel individually responsible for addressing problems caused by everyone, and in my view we shouldn’t feel we have to move to a lifestyle that is radically out of step with the rest of society. For example, in the U.S. today most of us have to drive, though we can probably drive less." From there, you can move forward and do something while remembering you don't have to do everything.

"Accepting the things that you can't do for now is a productive way to overcome eco-guilt," adds Graham. "Going 100 percent zero waste might not be practical just now if you don't have access to shops in your area that sell bulk produce free of packaging. Rather than letting that stop you from trying, you can concentrate on the things that you can do, like saying no to plastic straws and single-use coffee cups."

You can also use your guilt as an indicator of how others around you feel. If something is difficult for you to manage as an eco-conscious person, chances are it's hard for others, too. So why not try to change it from the ground up? "Work to enact political change that will make a difference on a larger scale," says Wolf. "Vote for candidates with strong environmental initiatives. Write letters and send emails, from complaints about your school district’s lack of recycling to petitions to the federal government. Get things off your chest and use your voice to feel empowered."

"Lead by example. We can’t control the world around us, but we can control what we do in our own space. Just because you can’t do everything doesn’t mean you should do nothing!"

Start by making this tweak to your next shower, asking these questions of your coffee supplier, and printing out this recycling FAQ. And if you do slip up, use it as motivation and not a deterrent.

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