Guilty Liberals

Do your best, but don’t burn out on shame

| Mar.-Apr. 2008

  • Guilt

    image by Jason Greenberg

  • Guilt

I was late. It was cold. I was lazy. It was snowing. So I drove the Subaru two blocks to pick up Sammy from his gymnastics lesson. Halfway there, it hit me like a tiny gold-plated ball-peen hammer: I should have walked.

Guilt. The conscience’s unbidden response to failures of will, it’s the emotion with which well-intentioned citizens most struggle. Especially these days, as the chasm between the “haves” and everyone else widens and everything from melting ice caps to parched croplands threaten an all but certain apocalypse—on our watch.

I still feel guilty about driving those two blocks. Should I? Come to think of it, shouldn’t I feel guilty pretty much all the time? I am a pampered white guy, after all, “struggling” to “make ends meet” in a world where at least half the human race lives on less than two dollars a day. Finally, as a writer and an activist, should I craft this essay to trigger guilt in my audience?

Probably, maybe, and definitely not seem to be the respective answers, according to the New Internationalist (Nov. 2007).



Exhibit A is a recent poll of Britons that indicates I’m not alone in my green guilt. More than half the people surveyed consider “unethical living” to be as socially unacceptable as drinking and driving, according to details released by Norwich Union, the U.K. life insurance company that conducted the survey. So what do they do about it? Lie. Nine out of ten surveyed admitted they fib about how green they are. Not what your shrink is likely to call a healthy coping mechanism.

Toss a little social stigma in with the guilt, and it’s not hard to understand the temptation to fudge a few details. A visibly ethical lifestyle is the new way of “keeping up with the Joneses,” say 70 percent of respondents. Since 90 percent say guilt compels them to live more ethically, it stands to reason that a chunk of them are actually doing it by recycling, turning down the heat, and so on.

Jeffery Biss
3/25/2008 12:00:00 AM

Lazy? How really difficult is it to be responsible? Like the Nike ads say, just do it. Start by becoming a vegetarian to end the brutality you cause other living, sentient beings. Do it for them and not yourself, it's not a sacrifice because their lives are not yours, they're theirs. Replace all incandescents one by one as they burn out and in a short period all your lighting is more efficient. Stop running the water while you shower as you lather up and immediately you are using less water. Eat slower and eat less at each meal and thus require less throughout your life and still enjoy. Do not create people who already don't exist and have no or no more kids. Buy the most efficient vehicle you can afford regardless of style. Leave resources for others. The reason people feel overwelmed, it seems, is that life is all about "me" rather than how "I" affect others. Change that priority to be how you affect others and you'll find that you will feel better and meet your desires simply because included in your desires will be to cause the least harm. Meeting that desire will no longer require "sacrifice" or feel guilt.