Dealing With “Eco-Guilt”

5 min
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We all want planet Earth to be a healthy, happy, and abundant home. In the current day, we’re all reminded, relentlessly, that we have a responsibility to go green, curb our consumption, and to drastically change the way we are living or face imminent, apocalyptic desolation. While environmental decay is indeed a highly concerning issue that we should be aware of ー and we should do something about it if we want to ensure that our planet remains habitable for the generations to come ー it’s also becoming increasingly common for people to feel terribly guilty for not living a life that’s 100% “green” or sustainable, even if they are genuinely trying their best to do so already. There’s even a term to describe it: “Eco-Guilt”. It’s the feeling that we’re each not doing enough to mitigate the environmental crisis we face. It’s a constant sense of failure to do more to turn the tide on issues like rising sea levels, dying bees, deforestation, and mass extinction. 

Research has found that a little bit of eco-guilt can be a good thing: studies have found that when experienced to a reasonable extent, it has been found to help make people more proactive in pursuing eco-friendly behavior. Alas, while many of us do have great intentions to do more to help the environment, research has also found that more often than not, a lot of people tend to be supportive of eco-friendly causes verbally and emotionally, without actually changing their behavior and lifestyle to match that. However, while a dash of this guilt can ignite a flame in inspiring better habits, there is a fine line to tread, where it can easily turn into something negative by inciting feelings of shame, worry, and deep regret, to a point where it could affect someone’s self-esteem or sense of self-worth. 

And as wonderful as it may sound (to some), we can’t all renounce the modern world and live off-grid in raw nature. For many people, going 100% green is just not feasible, whether that’s due to financial or economic reasons, time-related factors, or one’s traditional and cultural beliefs. As much as living an organic, waste-free, and fully sustainable lifestyle is the goal, not everyone has the privilege to make choices better-suited to sustainability, such as more environmentally-friendly (but in many cases, more expensive) purchases. So how do we carry on with our everyday lives in a way that doesn’t come with a crushing sense of responsibility for the state of the planet? It helps to break down some stats (along with your recycling!) and refresh your perspective.

Maintain A Healthy Perspective

Did you know that just 100 companies generate 71% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions? These are the gases that contribute to global warming, such as carbon dioxide (the main one) and methane. The climate crisis can only truly be solved when there has been a complete transformation in the production processes that emit them. While we can make a difference by choosing not to support companies who refuse to try and do better by making a concerted effort to reduce their harmful impact on the environment (by not purchasing their products and choosing better options when possible, for instance), the bulk of this responsibility still lies with governments and the corporations themselves, who have an ethical duty to adhere to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. It’s a similar story for single-use plastic, which is a direct threat to wildlife and human health: 20 companies are responsible for 50% of the world’s plastic waste. Meanwhile, 75% of global deforestation, which is a huge contributor to biodiversity loss, is driven by agriculture, with the main culprits being beef and palm oil production. Soy comes in third as it is used to feed cattle and other livestock reared for human consumption.

All this isn’t to say we should give up the cause: It’s wise to stay informed so we can make choices that could impact these parties' ability to grow, or keep on doing what they're doing the way they're doing it. However, it’s equally wise to keep some perspective about where to best direct our energy in this challenge一while our actions can help to make a difference, each person is still just one part of the bigger picture, and ultimately, a collective effort is needed. Feeling guilty about your individual ability (or lack thereof) to change that entire picture is a drain on your personal resources, and as any good eco-warrior will tell you, we ought to be conserving as much energy as possible.

Remember: What Constitutes a More Eco-Friendly Choice Isn’t Always Black and White

Speaking of energy, the book How Bad Are Bananas? by Mike Berners-Lee makes some very interesting, guilt-busting points about the complications and nuances of carbon footprints – something we all understand we need to be reducing. He says that a 1km journey on a pedal bike can have a higher carbon footprint than the same journey on an electric bike if the rider powered their cycle by eating a banana imported by plane from, say, Costa Rica. (Well, if you don't already live in Costa Rica, anyway. If so, you can replace that example with somewhere else far enough away from you to require a plane ride to get there. You get the idea.) Basically, there are countless different factors determining our individual carbon footprint, so it’s important to drop the binary of certain actions being “good” and “bad”, since this can feed into guilt and shame spirals. Instead, we need to look at things through a broader lens. Take, for example, questions that have arisen around plant-based diets: while choosing one would certainly be more planet-friendly and nutritiously-balanced than eating nothing but beef all day, these can also have their own issues. For instance, the importing of produce from other parts of the world, and the water consumption of producing some foods popularly used in vegan cuisine, like avocados and almond milk, has brought a lot of debate into the plant-based ethos.

Making More Planet-Minded Choices

If you’re not sure where to begin, mindfulness about what we eat is a good place to start. Aim for progress over perfection: A diet that focuses on local, sustainably-grown produce with less meat and dairy can better serve our collective welfare than feeling guilty every time we enjoy the occasional steak. Mike Berners-Lee also says that striving to reduce our individual carbon footprint in other ways is certainly constructive, and using a carbon footprint calculator is a good way to assess where changes can be made. But getting the world’s biggest corporations to transform their production models would have an even greater impact, so if you’re really trying to make a difference, activism in this space ー which can include “voting with your wallet”, or consumer power ー is just as, if not more, important as switching to oat milk for your coffee. Where we spend our money is one of the most impactful ways to get big business to sit up and notice一collectively, we have the potential to drive down demand for non-sustainable products. 

As our world keeps evolving ー and we gain greater knowledge and awareness of how our ever-changing lifestyles are impacting the environment ー keep in mind that we are all unlearning so much and can only do our best. This is a much bigger problem than any one of us can solve on our own, and caring about nature includes compassion for ourselves. All we can do is be mindful of our choices with the information we have at the time一and maybe cut down the beef, both with ourselves and on our dinner plates!


All of the content on our website is thoroughly researched to ensure that the information shared is evidence-based. For more information, please visit the academic journals and other resources that influenced this article: Household Plastic Waste Habits And Attitudes: A Pilot Study In The City Of Valencia; People Recycle More When They Know What Recyclable Waste Becomes; Eco-Guilt Motivates Eco-Friendly Behavior; Perceptions And Realities Of Recycling Vary Widely From Place To Place; The Behavioral Economics Of Recycling.

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