Let me tell you a story.
When I was a kid, I was terrible at doing my homework. It’s not that I had any particular problem with most of the assignments (spelling and handwriting were issues, as I recall, but that is hardly unusual), it’s just that I could not make myself sit down and do the darned work. My assignments were chronically and consistently late or missing altogether.
Naturally, my parents and teachers were quite concerned. One teacher in particular took a lot of time with me, carefully explaining, over and over, how important properly completed homework is and how wrong I was for not showing up with any. She was never demeaning or cruel about it, and I believe she really was trying to help me, but I actually remember nothing whatever that she said, only that I felt awful when she said it.
She was clearly trying to impress upon me the magnitude of my transgression and I, being an obedient child, duly felt as horrible as I possibly could about not having my homework ready. Feeling horrible did not make my homework magically complete itself, however.
Of course, homework never completes itself, but at the time I did not have the time management skills I needed. I couldn’t do my homework, no matter how much I wanted to, without that key component. Completing a task on time is a learned skill, and I did learn it some years later.
I’m actually quite good at completing tasks on time, now.
So, what does all this have to do with climate change? Well, every so often, I encounter someone who reacts to environmental warnings approximately the same way I reacted to my eighth grade teacher—by feeling guilty, as if guilt alone were the objective.
More often than not, the guilty-feeling person goes on to blame the environmentalists for “making me feel guilty.” The environmentalists respond by apologizing, pulling back, and issuing comforting little pronouncements about how you, too, can save the world by switching your light bulbs and buying a Prius.
Folks, this is not how guilt works. It’s not what guilt is for.
Guilt is not just about feeling bad, a kind of internal punishment for some transgression. Instead, it is a motivating force, just like hunger or pain. The discomfort goes away when we stop our misbehavior and make amends for whatever harm we caused—or, when we satisfy ourselves that we haven’t actually done anything wrong.
Think of the guilty feeling as a warning light on your personal dashboard. The feeling occurs when we might have to fix something. There is no need to panic or to cover up the light with a bit of electrical tape, just check under the hood to see if anything is really wrong. Then go deal with it.
When you feel guilty, ask yourself the following questions:
- What do I feel guilty for doing?
- Did I really do it?
- Is the thing I did actually wrong? Why?
- If I really did something wrong, how do I change my behavior so as to not do it again?
- If I really did something wrong, how can I repair the harm I caused?
When I felt guilty as a child for not doing my homework, was I really at fault? No, I wasn’t. I was a child, I was doing the best I could, and responsibility for giving me the necessary skills still lay with adults.
When I feel guilty for using too much gas as an adult, am I at fault? Yes. Most of us are. Global warming is OUR FAULT, we, the grown-ups who buy things and vote and politely refrain from making other people feel guilty at dinner parties. Granted, some adults are more at fault than others, but that’s not really my point at the moment.
My point is that, collectively, we need to stop acting as though guilt were itself a form of punishment. Feeling bad is not the point—and feeling bad certainly doesn’t fix anything. Emotional pain cannot do homework, nor can it lower carbon emissions. The feeling simply raises a question—is there some area of my life where I need to do better?
The answer is yes.
Probably, the answer is yes for all of us. So, let’s stop trying to defend ourselves against our own inner warning lights, stop obsessing about feeling bad and blaming other people for making us face reality occasionally and do better.
Ways to Stop Anthropogenic Climate Change
- Vote for climate-sane candidates
- Support the campaigns of climate-sane candidates
- Reduce your personal fossil fuel use as much as possible
- Reduce your personal fossil fuel use more than you thought possible
- Confront climate denial, even from your friends
- Work to create climate-friendly policies at your place of business and in your community (e.g., organize a car-pool with your co-workers)
- Give up factory-farmed meat
- Eat locally grown and processed food whenever possible.
- If there aren’t any climate-sane candidates in your voting district, RUN FOR OFFICE
We can change the world: we’re doing it already. Now, let’s change it in a good way.