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Claudia Wearne

September 9, 2022

How to pivot off eco wins, not drown in eco guilt

 “Nothing useful ever comes from guilt”

this is probably the single most valuable piece of advice my mother-in-law ever gave me.  Love laden with guilt is useless, guilt-laden excitement strips fun of fun, and behavior laden with guilt often makes us want to turn the other way.  

What is eco-guilt? 

Last year some clever people included in their research, a definition of eco-guilt as “a negative affective state or feeling that occurs when people perceive they have failed to meet personal or social standards for environmentally friendly behaviour” (Mallet, Harrison, Melchiori, 2021).  Essentially, feeling awful for failing in your desire to heal our planet. I don’t know about you, but this sounds like something I have experienced, not just once or twice, but often – maybe every week.  

Eco-guilt examples

You know that moment when you buy paper cotton buds instead of plastic ones; or when, at a restaurant, you decline the straw you would really like to have used to mash the lemon through the ice in your drink? In these instances, I have a sense of victory about my little eco-win.  However, my mini-victory is often short-lived, because as soon as I pull into the service station next door and fill my car with fossil-fuel I feel like an eco-failure. Eco-guilt sets in.  Somehow, when I unpack my groceries at home my paper cotton buds no longer feel victorious at all. I can feel the eco-guilt dripping off me, and I want to shake it off and focus on something other than ‘sustainability’. In other words, hide from my failure to help heal our planet. 

The trap of justification

This thinking is not helpful though.  My cotton-bud and straw choices were wins, and as much as a tank of petrol is not, it shouldn’t take away the value of each and every win – no matter how small. 

Another article written by clever people explained that:

“individuals may also avoid or reduce eco-guilt by creating justifications for their anti-environmental behaviour or by psychologically minimizing the severity of the environmental crisis” (Mallet and Swim, 2004).

Essentially, denial. Yet another thing I can relate to; and a process that I have seen more people than I can count fall into.

Over the last few years it has become almost impossible to minimize the gravity of the environmental crisis we face.  However, humans are experts at creating justifications.  The thing is, justification doesn’t always do away with guilt.

So what does this mean for me? 

It’s been reported that “affective and emotional processes” (Harth, 2021) affect our motivation towards or away from climate change actions. 

“Personal relevance increases affective responses, and in turn, climate change action” (Harth, 2021). 

This is an interesting thought, and it helps explain some of my eco-guilt situation. My cotton-bud choice motivated me to decline the plastic straw an hour later – the latter being a choice based on positive emotion.  But all that was undone by the full tank of petrol sloshing in my car’s tank when I pulled into my garage.  That moment killed my motivation.  So, what did I need to boost myself back into a positive mindset? 

Eco-intentions matter – use them

Because good intentions include positive emotional processes, I came to the conclusion that my eco-intentions were the very things I should focus on. Not so much what I have and have not done – or worse, the awful things I am doing.  I’ve never measured my eco-intentions and I’m interested in researching if such a scientific model might exist. In the interim, it’s up to me to subjectively, and honestly measure my eco-intentions and desire to make eco-friendly changes. Perhaps equally important is acknowledging the value of being aware of learning how many other eco-wins I can learn to implement. 

How to start pivoting off eco-wins and eco-intentions 

My personal process had to start somewhere. Part of life when running a home is looking at one’s garbage fairly often.  Plastic, paper and glass recycling are obvious things to do – most of us have some understanding of what this means.  Every week my garbage provides eco-wins, I need to remember that. 

But focusing on my garbage and doing a bit of reading helped me to realize just how hectic the impact of food matter is in landfill.  A compost heap is a clear answer to helping solve this nasty issue – if you have the space.  I don’t.  My garden is the size of a postage stamp.  I do love it though.  So, I stored this garbage dilemma in my mind and decided to be on the lookout for something that might help. 

An example of an eco-intention becoming an eco-win

Online shopping at my favourite eco-friendly store presented me with the Bokashi system.  Magic! A couple of buckets and a little bag of what looked like saw-dust (actually, microorganism rich bran) has begun the process of creating amazing liquid fertilizer for my garden out of what would have been toxic in a landfill.  This is a proper win!  It’s a win every time I eat bananas, brinjals or whatever I might fancy. The win extends further than my household, because this nifty process produces more fertilizer than I can use.  So now I gift it to my garden enthusiast family and friends. 

What you gain from pivoting off eco-wins and eco-intentions?

Despite my fuel tank, every bottle of my fertilizer is a real contribution to sustainability. It makes me feel good, and it makes every person I share my fertilizer with feel good too.  My friends also want to help our planet, and because of me they don’t have to buy the chemical stuff at the hardware store anymore. And, the Bokashi concept is gaining traction with others. Not just one win. Many wins.  They all count. I now view this clever statement in a very positive way: “Personal relevance increases affective responses, and in turn, climate change action” (Harth, 2021).

I guess my point is: limit being motivated to do what’s sustainably right by trying to rectify what you’re doing wrong. There are strong arguments that eco-guilt is a strong motivator. However, I believe that a healthier way to motivate ourselves to help our planet is by giving credit to our good eco-intentions.  It is a better motivation to start doing things in ways our earth appreciates. 

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