Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Wrestling With Eco-Guilt

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.


paddalumpakins said...

Good God! Now I can't help but wonder if you work at "Jockey" or some other place known for the stupidity of their employees.

Hungry Hyaena said...

I don't know what "Jockey" is, but I am pretty fucking dumb. ;)

Mikhail Capone said...

Who said taking the high road was easy?

I think that any person that is lucid and aware of the consequences of its action has some guilt managing to do. The reason why it's harder than it should be is because we often don't take into account the GOOD things that we do (which including the influence that we have on other people).

As for your jeans, if you keep them as long as you kept your previous ones, at least they won't be wasted.

paddalumpakins said...

Oh, it's an underwear label.

Hungry Hyaena said...


I still have the old jeans! No way will I let them go until I can a) find some other use for them (some old clothes have turned into cleaning rags or sculptural accesories) or b) find an appropriate Salvation Army type "store" that actually accepts really old clothing.


Wow...I vaguely knew about Jockey brand underwear, but naive young lad that I am, I didn't realize they actually had stores.

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Sara Max said...

I encountered a similar problem the other day when going out to dinner with
a friend. I tend to experience "animal-guilt" quite frequently, and some eco-guilt as well. However, I made a deal with myself to concentrate mainly on the first or I don't think I could manage my day-to-day existence.

Anyway, back to the dinner -- we walked into a restaurant after a long day of apartment-hunting. The first thing I notice on the menu is fois-gras. My stomach sinks. My dinner is basically ruined from the get-go. How can I patronize an establishment that supports a horribly cruel, not to mention completely unnecessary (fois-gras being an unhealthy luxury item) food?

My friend notices my drop in mood and inquires. She sighs exaggeratedly, we leave. We get in a huge fight later on. She asks me why I can't separate my emotions and day-to-day interactions from my personal cause? She claims that I must have underlying psychological issues that make me feel this way. I think, "how can I separate my day-to-day actions from this cause? i'm constantly confronted by evidence of humanity's overbearing selfishness, their self-righteousness in claiming that their luxury needs are more important than the basic needs of animals and the environment?" but....then there's my social life. and my happiness. I'm not much good to anyone when I'm miserable. Considering I'm just beginning to pick up the pieces of my life, can I afford to risk it again for something greater than myself?
I'm completely torn. Excess and evil are everywhere. But my friend told me I was starting to sound like a whiny PETA person with a big sign. I really don't want to be one of those people.
But how do I turn off my emotions? Is there a way to separate our cause from our emotional well-being? I have a sinking feeling that this convenient "separation" is what allows many of us (such as the woman at your office) to ignore widespread problems. But it also allows us to exist peacefully. But is a peaceful existence really worthwhile anymore? I don't know.

Hungry Hyaena said...

I fear you are correct. My own concerns are the source of some frustration among friends, though they label me a whiny "freegan" or "tree hugger" rather than a "PETA person with a big sign."

But you shouldn't worry about turning off the concern (whether the result of emotion, reason or a combination of the two). The "separation" you describe is all too easy and we must rail against it. Even putting aside animal rights or environmentalism, one notices a widening divide between the comfort zone most industrialized citizens create for themselves and the often ugly truths which contribute to their good standing. Issues of poverty, declining education, racial intolerance, religious persecution and any number of other serious cultural stains are ignored so that a majority can maintain peace of mind. As they say, the only thing separating man from animal is our human capacity for denail. We're all guilty of it; it's just a question of how much one wants to layer on the denial.

I include this quote from William Gass below, taken from his article, "A Forest of Bamboo: The Trouble With Nietzsche."

"One stands in awe before the need of man to be deceived. When there are no satisfactory reasons for some heart-held conviction, and when it persists in spite of every philosophical complaint and scientific exposure - when, in short, argument is futile - one must look...among folly's causes for the most vulgar, easily grasped, immediately proftable, and sanitized factors. Popular beliefs of every kind are held in a haven of unexamined premises and unacknowledged consequences. These beliefs are symptoms, not systems; they are ignorantly and narrowly held; they become treasured parts of the believer's sense of self; they are talismans to calm fears and promise hope; they tell believers they must be humble because their beliefs make them superior, and that all men are equal except the ones they are asked to shoot; they unite us as nothing else wll and reassure the mind, because there really cannot be millions of such virtuous and faithful people identically mad and mistaken."

Though Gass's comments describe the twin tribes of nationalism and religious fundamentalism, his remarks apply to your situation as well. I wish you all the best, Sara.

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