Guilt has been a big emotion for me this year, which is unfortunate, because it’s not exactly one of the pleasant ones. I feel like guilt is playing on the minds of young people a lot, especially when it comes to the planet (that’s right, I am still banging on about climate change). Isn’t that the point of all the conversations about how cattle farming is destroying the Amazon and how each transatlantic flight melts a sizeable patch of ice? Sure, it’s also to educate people about the impact certain actions have on the planet, but the thing that really gets people feeling bad about burgers and a return flight to Barcelona? It’s guilt. And shame. Two of the bad feelings.
Why is this the case, for me, at least? I think it’s because, while I do learn new specific facts about various environmental issues, I know that eating meat is… ‘bad.’ I know it’s bad for the planet, I know it’s bad for the animals, but, like most of the world, these facts didn’t resonate for a long time, for whatever reason. I’ve written already about how badly I think we navigate the tensions around individuals and climate change, because everyone feeling guilty is not great for our collective psyche, especially when pretty much all of us do something that is guilt-worthy under the spectre of impending environmental doom. But given that I wholeheartedly think climate change is real and probably the defining issue of our lives, I want to put my money where my mouth is – not because I now think that loving travel or occasionally eating a few sausages is somehow a heinous act, but mainly to try to stave off the massive feelings of guilt I experience every time I do something that is contrary to the things I believe to be true and important.
People are now doing all sorts of things out of green guilt: drinking milk made from various nuts and seeds, going vegan, boycotting Amazon, refusing to fly, not having children, buying metal straws, buying solid toothpaste, carrying fucking bamboo cutlery everywhere, and more. Now, tampons and pads get given the green side-eye for their disposable, single-use properties and it’s only menstrual cups that are acceptable. Everyone needs a keep cup. If you see a bee struggling, you should feed it sugar water until it’s strong enough to fly away again. No more clothes or makeup made unethically, even if it costs a bomb to buy a single pair of ethically made jeans, an option that is far out of reach for most of the world’s population. The list goes on.
I feel this guilt a lot. It does encourage me to make changes and to give up or reduce the things I love but begrudgingly admit are part of the machinery warming up our world, which, I’m sure many would say, is a good thing. This is the future, it’s going to be expensive and inconvenient, get used to it. But as much as I think the individual actions debate does have a place in the climate change conversation, I am a strong believer in emphasising just how crucial it is for governments and corporations to get on board too (mainly because, deep down, I don’t think anxious Westerners fervently drinking almond milk is going to do anything to deal with a problem of this scale). This means that some individuals – the kind with influence over oil companies or nations – do need to decide to enact structural change. And honestly? I do sometimes wonder how oil CEOs sleep at night.
I know, I know. The answer is dollar signs and the reality that many people just don’t care. This always falls a little flat for me, though, because I have lived an incredibly privileged life and I often think that it’s because of that privilege that I feel like it’s my job to be sensitive to my impact on a world that has given me so much. For the most part, the more privileged you are, the bigger your carbon footprint. For our most privileged and most powerful to give the fewest fucks about the climate crisis is an abject disaster. It’s one thing to know you’re doing something harmful but to decide to do it anyway (which is the same trade-off I make every time I book a long haul flight). It’s another thing entirely to not feel the guilt at all.
I presume it comes down to money. When you are raking in millions each year, it’s easy to be unconcerned with the problems of tomorrow, especially if you’re confident that you can buy your way out. But again, if you’re a major oil exec, you’re going to be rich for the rest of your life no matter what. After a few years of earning multimillion dollar paychecks, that money will no longer be spent or meaningfully change your quality of life. It will be invested somewhere and then maintained for generations. Another year of profits means nothing to you personally. You could never earn another dollar and still stay in the 0.001%. It can’t truly be about the money (though I suppose it could be about greed).
I wonder if it’s about purpose, but again, as climate change becomes more of a pressing concern, I don’t see how major players in the oil and gas sectors can delude themselves that they are doing something positive for the world (however, I do work in finance, and I know that it’s a lot more complicated than that, so maybe I should be more understanding). At the point where you have enough money to live an unimaginably luxurious life for the rest of your days, and you know that the burning of fossil fuels will cause untold climatic chaos, why not just… stop? Why not decide to leave a legacy that will be remembered triumphantly? If things really do turn out as badly as the scientists suggest, then anyone who spent the Earth’s last good years directly profiting from fossil fuel combustion will be remembered as a climate criminal. Maybe people just don’t care about that, a feeling I can’t relate to, especially when I am surrounded by ordinary people filling themselves with guilt over cheating on their veganism while oil barons fly around on their private jets without a care in the world.
I feel the same way about the billionaires who rightfully took some flack for donating hundreds of millions to the Notre Dame restoration but not offering any serious funds to combat poverty, a lack of clean water or easily preventable diseases. Why not be the hero, when it would be so easy? Why not hire someone to use what is actually a small portion of your fortune to solve world issues? You can have your cake and eat it too. An oil exec now, who has amassed millions from this polluting industry, could stand up, denounce fossil fuels, do their best to make some systemic changes in the sector and then quietly bow out to live the rest of their lives in quiet luxury. It would be easy. But instead, the wheels keep on turning. Not to sound melodramatic, but how do these people sleep at night? Do they never feel the weight of their own privilege bearing down on them? Do they never wonder if their role in harming millions of people is worth a second thought?
I don’t understand it. I know so many people who feel guilt, all the time, for tiny actions with limited consequences. I feel guilty about using Amazon Prime, occasionally eating meat and taking a load of flights each year. How is it then that the few people in the world who are the helm of our most polluting companies and governments continue to do nothing? Either they don’t feel the guilt, which is… kind of terrible, or they do, and have decided to carry on as before, regardless of the consequences. I don’t know which is worse, but neither sounds like it’s about to get us the structural change that we need.