Eco-Guilt in the Era of a Changing Climate
I have always been the token granola friend. The roommate who makes sure every light is turned off when we leave the house and frantically picks through the trash to fill the recycling bins. I thrift my clothes religiously. I stopped eating meat at age 12 when I finally came to the realization that my very existence on this planet is the precise cause of our devastating climate change. On the horns of a dilemma, I searched for loopholes.
Ads and sponsored content fill our social media feed on how to bear the extreme heat this summer and start preparing for the extreme cold this winter. Despite the record-breaking heat waves, I still feel frozen in fear. A tangible and seemingly concrete pit of guilt sits in my stomach. Guilt for every unnecessary item I have shipped across seas to my doorstep. Guilt for the extra drops of water I savor in my shower. Guilt for driving a gas car to class and not being able to afford an electric car. My therapist likes to call it eco-anxiety. A study from Yale shows that 70% of people are experiencing similar feelings of climate grief and despair.
I sit at my desk, sipping coffee from a half-dissolved, mushy paper straw. My phone pings: “8 million people displaced in Pakistan floods”. I am at a birthday dinner when my phone pings: “Severe droughts spark fear of water supply for the West” while I lose touch with the conversations around me. I am in class when my phone pings: “Devastating wildfires rip through Europe”. I see others glance down at their phones and attempt to pay attention to our lecture on marketing techniques while being told our world is going to end. Each and every news station pumps out new headlines about our fragility on Earth like their jobs depend on it (because they do). I turn off my push notifications to slow the steady stream, but if there’s one thing that does not have a Do Not Disturb switch, it’s my brain.
This leaves us with the burdening, time-ticking question drilling into our minds: Is this really our fault? The uncomfortable answer is yes—to a certain extent. Over 90% of scientists not only acknowledge climate change as a dire issue but a crisis that is human-caused. Despite this, companies continue to bank on pushing the responsibility to the consumer to preserve profit under the guise of sustainable operations.
Throughout my childhood, I was surrounded by environmentally friendly guidelines to Reduce, Reuse, Recycle! and Carpool to School! I followed them relentlessly, feeling the future of the world on my shoulders begging for help. But where are these signs for the fossil fuel typhoons? Or the 100 energy companies responsible for 71% of industrial emissions? Are they posted at every corner of their office buildings and oil rigs asking them to do their part?
This tension is not an easy thing to stomach. The changes necessary feel just out of reach while people bear the brunt first and hardest. Sustainable choices can be inconvenient and expensive, making them aversive even for the wealthy. On the frontline are low-income minority groups, such as the several indigenous populations on North American coastlines forced to flee their sacred lands with rising waters. It’s important to acknowledge that climate change is not just corporate-driven, but fundamentally human-driven. Mass trends of cheap and imported fast-fashion results in textile waste, microplastic pollution, and water allocation for production.
However, by placing the burden of the climate crisis on individual change, not only does it make these efforts seem hopeless, but adds to the narrative that climate change is inevitable and irreversible. While I was fortunate enough to disassemble that narrative in sustainability classes at my university, the majority of the population remains uneducated on society’s environmental impact. Sustainability should not be a topic of interest reserved for the educated elite. Changes must be simultaneously made at a micro and macro level in order to end climate injustice. That, I believe, starts with education. Sustainability should be treated as an interdisciplinary subject, one that is applicable in all fields of education, not just the underfunded geology department. While I believe that my university does a great job in promoting this, particularly through student-led organizations and enrollment in sustainability studies, there is still a long way to go before sustainability becomes engrained in syllabi across disciplines. Alongside, environmental education needs to be dispersed outside of college campuses throughout retail, restaurants, and other public spheres, notably governmental agencies. Ignorance is no longer a viable option.
Now we are left with the question: What can we do? We vote. We share the blame for overconsumption and overproduction with the institutions that were built to make those choices for us. We call attention to these corporations and demand change. We protest. We educate ourselves through coursework and scientific literature in and outside of schools. We stop falling for companies’ greenwashed marketing where the new policies purposely fail to mark significant change. And of course, we choose the eco-friendly shipping option when ordering that new textbook from Amazon Prime.
As for now, I will continue to tote around my reusable water bottle in my purse and opt for the paperless checkout while fighting the guilt of living in a changing climate. With time, I encourage myself and others to use that guilt as a driving force for the eco-revolution that we—and this planet—desperately need.