For those of us who care deeply about the health and welfare of the planet, so many of the decisions we make daily are complicated. We can end up feeling guilty when we choose convenience over conservation.
Unfortunately, that green guilt (also known as eco anxiety) doesn’t actually do the planet any good. Here’s how to release eco guilt while still keeping your priorities.
No one ever criticized a smoker into quitting smoking. So why should you beat yourself up for forgetting your reusable grocery bags or grabbing lunch at a place that uses styrofoam containers?
Mike Schur’s delightful show The Good Place confronts the complexity of these decisions by keeping a tally of humans’ impact on earth throughout their lifetime. This point system determines whether or not you get into the good place or the bad place when you die.
The main characters discover that no one has gotten into the good place in the last 500 years. The reason was rooted in the unintended consequences behind so many of our decisions.
Kristen Bell’s character, Eleanor, explains to the judge that there’s a really good fried chicken place, but if you eat there it means you hate gay people.
Chidi, a moral philosophy professor played by William Jackson Harper, believes he ended up in the bad place because he knew almond milk wasn’t sourced in an eco-friendly way, but he chose to buy it anyway. His character is often paralyzed by indecision as he constantly weighs the moral implications of his choices.
The show is an entertaining and thought-provoking look at just how complicated our choices have become. And it’s a great example of green guilt.
What is Green Guilt or Eco Anxiety?
Eco guilt is the “feeling you get when you could have done something for the environment, but consciously made the decision not to,” according to Urban Dictionary. It can be so serious that some people report feelings of crushing paralysis, where there are so many problems to deal with, they seemingly can’t move or make a decision.
Everyone has a smart phone. Smart phone batteries use cobalt. Cobalt is mined by workers (sometimes children) in dangerous conditions for barely a living wage. These people are exploited and often become sick from breathing toxic mineral dust.
Our obsession with having the latest device with all the newest features leaves us struggling to deal with the e-waste crisis.
But are we giving up our phones? Nope. And what about those human rights issues? Some of us are completely ignorant. Some of us choose to ignore it. Some of us feel a profound sense of guilt that leaves us powerless and forlorn.
That may sound extreme, but it’s real for many people. While we can take steps to keep the environment clean and raise our kids to respect nature, we also need tools to let ourselves off the hook.
Christine Escobar’s story is yet another example.
Examples of Eco-Anxiety
Hello, my name is Christine, and I use paper towels.
While I get by perfectly fine without them, when my mother comes to visit, she’ll often bring me a roll or two as a kind gesture to help ease my responsibility of cleaning up after my family of four. While I don’t use paper towels for every job, they’re put to use at our busiest times.
Even though my family and I reside in a small 2 bedroom apartment, just returned to driving (a small Honda Fit) after 3 car-free years, drink filtered tap water, shop thrift, buy organic food, grow our own vegetables in the summer, recycle, and bring our own bags to the grocery, I still feel the dreaded shame whenever I reach for a roll of paper towels and kid myself into trying to mop up a spill with a single sheet.
Many of my friends feel the same. They own chickens, use rags for all messes, don’t drive, breastfeed, eat mostly vegetarian, cloth diaper, bake their own bread, make their own almond milk and nut butters. And yet, they still feel terrible that they can’t do more for the environment.
When those friends and I get together, our conversations invariably sound like this:
“So, I was thinking of buying organic grass fed beef, but I keep wondering, if it comes from a farm in Indiana and has to travel all the way here to Illinois, wouldn’t it be better for the environment if we just ate less meat? Or bought it down at the farmer’s market when the farmer is already in town in the summer instead of having it individually delivered by a truck that’s going to spew more pollution making that extra trip to deliver it to us?”
“I really want to try cloth diapering, but I’m concerned about the amount of water I have to use to flush the diaper contents first before maybe having to put them in a pail to soak, not to mention the amount of water used to wash them.
But if I go with a service that washes their diapers in bulk, how can I be sure their method conserves more water and who knows what chemicals they may be using to get them clean, so maybe I should just go with those biodegradable disposables, but then they have to be flushed too and who’s to know how long they take to actually biodegrade and is that in a commercial composting operation or home compost pile?”
So, if you’ve felt the same rising sense of panic, this article is your permission to kindly get over your green guilt.
How to Get Over Your Green Guilt
In my idea of the perfect green world, strawberries are fresh from the farmers’ market all year long, Big Food and Big Pharma implode, and Lego meets their plastic-reducing initiatives. Oh, and we always make it to the dryer on time to hang up the clothes, and never press the energy-hogging “restart” button
That world doesn’t currently exist, and the truth is… we have to be ok with that.
Convenience is going to take the driver’s seat when we’re in a mad rush or we’ve had a crazy, stressful day. The last thing we need at that point is to beat ourselves up over throwing a yogurt cup in the park’s trash can because you couldn’t take it home to recycle it.
This is where we’re convinced you’ll live longer if you let yourself off the hook for these things. As with most of life, it’s all about balance.
1. Try the 80/20 Rule
Writing for a health food blog 15 years ago, I found the word Flexitarian. It’s a term that relates to food, but I’ve found the theory itself works well with just about everything in life. You could also call it the 80/20 rule.
A flexitarian is basically a vegetarian who occasionally bends the rules. A mostly plant-based diet of vegetables, grains, and fruits is balanced with occasional protein like fish, chicken, lean meat, or dairy. They’ll eat these meats if they’re organic, free range, or minimally processed.
The 80/20 rule has given us a ton of grace in our homes. For example 80% healthy foods should crowd out the 20% of sweets or fast food.
You can play with the ratio to figure out what works with your life, but here are some ways the 80/20 rule can keep you both healthy and sane:
- Organic vs conventional foods
- Reuse or repurpose vs buy new
- Walking, biking, public transportation vs driving
- Exercise days vs lazy days
- Reusable gift wrap or fabric gift bags vs wrapping paper or paper gift bags
- Reading vs screen time
- Buying locally vs buying items made elsewhere
- Healthy, whole foods vs packaged or takeout foods
- Eco or DIY cleaning products vs Drano for that shower drain clog
You might find that these rules – or the freedom to bend them – will keep you from going from green to brown when life gets crazy-busy.
2. Pare Down Your Options
Jen Pleasants is a mom of three living in San Francisco and author of Bag Green Guilt, a guide to dealing with eco guilt. Pleasants says she could have stopped having kids at one child, since “there are already enough people on the planet” but her husband didn’t share her worries.
“He convinced me that through our guidance, our children would help make the world a better place, so I gave in,” she explains.
Pleasants writes that Americans can be downright “spoiled” with all the choices we have of what type of water to drink, (bottled, tap or filtered), and how in poorer nations, the reality is finding any clean drinking water at all.
I asked Pleasants if our green guilt stems from the myriad choices we wade through daily.
“That can be overwhelming and a source of stress especially when choosing between conventional products and eco products,” she says. “I feel bad when I go the traditional route either because of price or convenience, when I know in my heart that was not the right choice by the earth.”
3. Harness Your Eco Guilt for Good
Shawna Coronado is a green lifestyle expert living in Warrenville, IL. She believes harboring some guilt is good for us psychologically and can be a great motivator, if it’s the right kind.
“Everyone has some sort of guilt,” she explains.” Some people have the guilt but don’t tap into it, some people use it to do better and do more with their lives. I want that green guilt, so I can use my common sense.”
Coronado says we can reduce the ill effects of green guilt by not holding ourselves up to an impossible standard.
“There is no way in modern day society that you can be 100 percent green,” she says. She recalls her struggle to wean herself off paper towels. It took four months to accomplish the goal and grow accustomed to using cloth rags.
“I know that sounds so simple, but for me, it was a big deal,” Coronado recalls. “We went out and got a bunch of wash rags and we fold them in half and leave them stacked in the kitchen. I used paper towels for everything. I started this practice a little bit everyday, initially it was torture, I didn’t like it, I didn’t feel that it was sanitary. That was my first battle, that it was sanitary. It was easier to throw them away than deal with it in a responsible way. Well it is easier to throw it away, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t work involved somewhere.”
“Cultural imprinting” may be needed to break the cycle of hoarding and endless dissatisfaction falsely remedied with increased spending creating greater debt and anxiety.
“We can break that habit.” Coronado explains. “If you look at life during World War I and World War II, our grandparents learned to live with less. They reused. Everything from a coffee can to a nail was saved. If we can get more and more people on our cultural bandwagon, then that’s awesome.”
Have any tips for letting go of eco guilt? Share in the comments so others might be inspired.