How to Be a Guilty Environmentalist

Becoming an environmentally conscientious person is a slippery slope of guilt and anxiety: each time I have taken a step towards trimming my carbon footprint I find that it never seems to be enough. When turning off lights and recycling cans was no longer enough I switched to vegetarianism, and once there I next had to start worrying about how much I fly. Now I am ashamed even just thinking about my food miles and water footprint, and I feel a pang of guilt every time I buy exotic fruit. And for each minor victory I am faced with the prospect of just how much more I could be doing, and just how staggeringly small my positive contribution is. A central issue that we seem to struggle with in the fight against climate change is the divide between personal and system-wide causation and responsibility. In 2004 the average American’s carbon footprint was 19.84 tons of CO2 equivalent[1]. By global standards this is a hefty amount, nearly 5 times greater than the world average of 4.25 tons. But these figures are almost meaningless when compared to emissions from the power plants that supply us with electricity. America’s dirtiest coal plant, Plant Scherer in Georgia, emitted 27.2 million tones of CO2 in 2007[2]—one plant alone, and only a moderate sized plant at that, with a generating capacity of 880MW. In the face of such figures, it can be hard to see how our individual actions are important. This is particularly the case since not all of the electricity produced (and any associated CO2 emissions) is destined for our electrical sockets, but rather a good proportion of it is wasted in inefficient transmission systems. So should we as individuals be concerned with reducing our footprint? Or should we just sit back and let regulation and market pressure force electricity production and other aspects of our carbon-intensive lives towards better solutions? The uncomfortable reality is that those 60g of CO2 that are saved when I gnaw on celery instead of a hearty steak are still important, even if the contribution is so small it hardly makes a difference. One way of overcoming apathy in the face of the enormous difference between individual vs. collective responsibility is to use a moral argument. James Garvey’s short and hard-hitting book, The Ethics of Climate Change provides powerful alternatives to more traditional approaches that try to make us live more sustainably. Rather than attempting to scare us into action—polar bears and so forth—Garvey demonstrates that we have a moral mandate to stop behaving in ways that we know will harm other people and organisms, regardless of how (in)effective our individual actions are. While efficiency-seeking energy companies and target-setting governments are more likely to respond to economics and politics, it is through appeal to our sense of morals that we as individuals can be influenced to change. Shifts in societal moral norms are already being seen, albeit on a limited scale, through the rise of green certification and grassroots sustainability movements. The good news is that since both top-down and bottom-up changes will be needed to make society more sustainable, this is a fundamental component of a better future. The bad news is that we will never, and indeed should never, be able to eat a steak or take a weekend mini-break to the Caribbean without feeling guilty that we are doing something deeply immoral. It’s a slippery slope towards sustainable eco-guilt, and the only way forward is down.