Following yesterday's "Ecological Economics 101" post, I feel I should take a few paragraphs to paint a picture of my own pathology. Like many environmentalists - though I prefer the term conservationist, given my acceptance of management's role in stewardship - my "green" decisions allay some personal guilt. Such "guilt motivation" isn't always healthy, even if I do right by my choices.
Case in point, I still haven't forgiven myself a recent purchase of three pairs of jeans. Despite buying the pants during a sale - each pair cost just $25.00 - I worried about their origin and the environmental track record of their manufacturer, Levi's. Weeks after I folded the jeans into my canvas tote bags and walked out of the store, I continue to beat myself up...this despite the fact that I needed new pants.
But did I really need them? In the eyes of my upper middle-class, white-collar co-workers, I was wearing "stained, old" clothes and shoes that "had long ago seen their day." When I first wore the new jeans to work, they complimented me excessively. "See how much better you feel when you wear clean clothes that fit you?," one of them asked. Um...not really. My old pants were still wearable and the shoes still comfortable.
Is there a soundly ethical rationale that allows one to buy more than he or she needs? The answer, of course, is 'No.' But self-control can too easily transmute into anorexia. This begs the question, is a superior anorexic any more ethically entitled than a compulsive liquidator?
In my quest for sustainability, I often purchase "certified organic" food, paying a premium for this privilege. But some of these foods are not grown locally and the money I spend on organic products feeds the bloated economy no less than any other, less "sustainable" expenditure. To help alleviate my worrying, I remind myself that I no longer order delivery or eat at restaurants when dining alone, but is this enough? After all, I still go out to eat with friends and, though my principal motivation for doing so is the preservation of those relationships, should I feel any less guilty about doing so?
Similarly nagging thoughts are with me every morning when I pull my iPod, the most popular icon of conspicuous consumption, from my backpack. My consumerist tendencies, relatively inoffensive though they may be, are putting undue pressure on our already over-extended natural resources. I may be less culpable than most Americans, but very few (perhaps freegans?) can wash their hands of the situation with a clean conscience.
Yet most Americans ignore eco-guilt, thereby avoiding the potential complications of sustainable pursuits - they don't risk being ostracized by their peers or, worse, developing a martyr complex. But how can an educated individual disregard her environmental and social impact? As one co-worker put it when she learned I had purchased a Renewable Energy Certificate (REC) to mitigate the carbon emissions generated by my upcoming trip to Japan, "I really couldn't care less about CO2 emissions or the rain forests but I do care about my 401K, health insurance and vacation time." What a horrifyingly perfect example of "iCulture."
Certainly, self-interest is a vital part of being human, but social responsibility distinguishes us from most other species. My co-worker's statement is appalling, but nonetheless representative of the majority perspective. In such a climate (and economy) the risks of wrestling with eco-guilt, as I see it, are well worth it.