Green Guilt

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One of the underlying themes of my book is that unsustainability has arisen as an unintended consequences of our current cultural paradigm. For sustainability as flourishing to appear, the beliefs and norms that constitute that paradigm have to change. One of the critical beliefs to change is that of what it means to be human, from a picture of an individual as a consuming machine fulfilling a set of insatiable needs to a human whose existence is manifest by the satisfaction of a set of cares or concerns. One of the categories is care for the world which include most anything falling under the rubrics of environmentalism or greening. It has been a very hard sell to convert a technocratic, self protective response to unsustainability to one that comes from care. And where this is happening strange results are coming forth as described in the following articles.

It seems that acting out of one’s care for the world can trigger all sorts of adverse responses from family and friends who are not yet acting out of such concerns. People who tune in on family squabbles see a rise in breakdowns attributed to environmental activism and changes in behavior. Leslie Kaufman, writing in the NYTimes reports:

As awareness of environmental concerns has grown, therapists say they are seeing a rise in bickering between couples and family members over the extent to which they should change their lives to save the planet… In households across the country, green lines are being drawn between those who insist on wild salmon and those who buy farmed, those who calculate their carbon footprint and those who remain indifferent to greenhouse gases… “As the focus on climate increases in the public’s mind, it can’t help but be a part of people’s planning about the future,” said Thomas Joseph Doherty, a clinical psychologist in Portland, Ore., who has a practice that focuses on environmental issues. “It touches every part of how they live: what they eat, whether they want to fly, what kind of vacation they want.” . . While no study has documented how frequent these clashes have become, therapists agree that the green issue can quickly become poisonous because it is so morally charged. Friends or family members who are not devoted to the environmental cause can become irritated by life choices they view as ostentatiously self-denying or politically correct.

I certainly do not advocate more strife, but this finding indicates that new values are showing up in changed behavior patters, and that is good for the cause of sustainability. But it also shows the depth of the existing cultural norms and beliefs and the high bar for change to occur. The difference in values shows up in public places as well. Another article by Stephen T. Asma in the Chronicle Review tells an interesting story:

Not too long ago, at a party, a friend confessed in a group conversation that he didn’t really recycle. It was as if his casual comment had sucked the air out of the room—I think the CD player even skipped. He suddenly became a pariah. A heretic had been detected among the orthodox flock. During the indignant tongue-lashing that followed, people’s faces twisted with moral outrage.

The author attributes this outcry to the a form of guilt closely related to the guilt that comes from religion and the self awareness of not living according to God’s rules. I think he goes a bit too far, but given the importance of creating awareness of the need for values that are driven by the demands from the Earth rather than those from the heavens, anything that works is OK.

Instead of religious sins plaguing our conscience, we now have the transgressions of leaving the water running, leaving the lights on, failing to recycle, and using plastic grocery bags instead of paper. In addition, the righteous pleasures of being more orthodox than your neighbor (in this case being more green) can still be had—the new heresies include failure to compost, or refusal to go organic. Vitriol that used to be reserved for Satan can now be discharged against evil corporate chief executives and drivers of gas-guzzling vehicles. Apocalyptic fear-mongering previously took the shape of repent or burn in hell, but now it is recycle or burn in the ozone hole. In fact, it is interesting the way environmentalism takes on the apocalyptic aspects of the traditional religious narrative. The idea that the end is nigh is quite central to traditional Christianity—it is a jolting wake-up call to get on the righteous path. And we find many environmentalists in a similarly earnest panic about climate change and global warming. There are also high priests of the new religion, with Al Gore (“the Goracle”) playing an especially prophetic role.

We even find parallels in environmentalism of the most extreme, self-flagellating forms of religious guilt. Nietzsche claims that religion has fostered guilt to such neurotic levels that some people feel culpable and apologetic about their very existence. Compare this with extreme conservationists who want to sacrifice themselves for trees and whales. And teachers, like myself, will attest to significant numbers of their students who feel that their cats or whatever are equal to human beings. And not only are members of the next generation egalitarian about all life, but they often feel positively awful about the way that their species has corrupted and defiled the whole beautiful symphony of nature. The planet, they feel, would be better off without us. We are not worthy. In this extreme form, one does not seek to reduce one’s carbon footprint so much as eliminate one’s very being.

Pointing out these parallels is not meant to diminish the environmental cause. We should indeed do the things in our power, and within reason, to sustain the planet. But we have a tendency to become neurotic and overly anxious, especially when we are regularly told, via green marketing ploys, that each one of us is responsible for the survival of the planet. That’s a heavy guilt trip.

I see a huge difference however. We have no way to discover why God has sent us a message about the way to live and about the perils of straying from that path. We can, however, begin to understand the more mundane messages the Earth is sending through science and our observations of how things are going. Our understanding of the behavior of complex systems provides an apocalyptic possibility without the slightest tinge of religious content. Not listening to these messages is not a sin, but it is an ostrich-like posture in the eyes of those who have come to believe action is critical. If these folks are able to invoke shame or guilt or any similar emotion in others, then I would see this more as a signal that the others are getting that message deep-down.

That’s a good sign and doesn’t need a philosopher or references to Nietzsche to explain what is happening. Anyway, the same notion of complexity suggests that each one of use is indeed responsible for the survival of the planet. Edward Lorenz gave us the important idea that the future in chaotic, complex systems could be dependent on a single seemingly insignificant act, giving a popular paper in 1972 titled, “Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?” We don’t need to be driven by guilt; self-preservation and care will do.

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