Guilty Liberals

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image by Jason Greenberg

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.

So, you might ask: a healthy spoonful of guilt and a handful of “little green lies” in exchange for tons of garbage out of the waste stream or carbon out of the atmosphere? What’s the problem?

The problem, to borrow a term from the environmental movement, is sustainability. When people are motivated by guilt, argues New Internationalist writer Adam Ma’anit, they fail to make long-term change. Among activists, this takes the form of burnout.

Mary E. Gomes, a psychologist whose study of activist burnout is cited in Ma’anit’s piece, concluded that personal guilt is often the drug of choice that fuels activists’ long hours of rabble rousing. They feel guilty because they can’t solve the world’s problems, so they work harder, which makes them feel even more guilty . . . ad infinitum. “The self-righteousness of the self-flagellators can quickly lead to judgment of others,” Ma’anit writes. “As the French playwright Albert Camus wrote in The Fall: ‘The more I accuse myself, the more I have a right to judge you.’ “

Sound familiar? If you’ve ever been involved in movement politics, it should. If not, surf over to True Ostensibly, this is a website for greenies to assuage their guilt with public confessions of private sins. But you can’t hear the rending of garments for the drum of the browbeating. A typical example: “It’s so easy to be green. . . . People who think it’s too hard are just lazy.”

Perhaps it’s not fair to judge an entire movement on the strength of a few anonymous web postings. Still, it’s at least worth considering whether the green movement’s reputation of being smug and humorless is not, in fact, a vast right-wing conspiracy, but simply the accurate description of a group of people with a lousy relationship to their own guilt.

What’s really lacking in public discourse is a very real notion of forgiveness and humility. Merely by being born, the greenest among us consume resources and exhale carbon dioxide. We also have to work, eat, and sleep, which, depending on our individual circumstances, take various tolls on the world around us. And then there’s what we do or want to do for fun, to make life joyful–to some, the ultimate sin.

None of these realities should cause us to wallow in shame or shrug fatalistically. Instead, as in all things, we must be humble and firm in our resolve to do what we can. As Ma’anit concludes, quoting child development specialist Penelope Leach, “Guilt is the most destructive of all emotions. It mourns what has been while playing no part in what may be, now or in the future.”

Only by acknowledging our guilt, exonerating ourselves and others, and then stepping calmly into the future with the best of intentions can we hope to make an honest difference in the world.

Now, if you’ll forgive me, I have a gymnastics lesson to walk to.

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