Why You Shouldn’t Feel Guilty About Your Carbon Footprint

Climate change isn’t your fault, and you won’t solve it.

Danny Schleien
Oct 14, 2020 · 6 min read

Reduce, reuse, recycle.

Particularly in America, there’s a curious cultural veneration of the individual as the main agent of influence and change rather than the community. This is of course rooted in our history, or at least the whitewashed history we’re taught in school and then subconsciously carry in our conceptions of the world.

We defeated a tyrannical monarchy as a big underdog. Then, we fulfilled our Manifest Destiny and conquered the West, bulldozing our way across the mountains and prairies toward the ocean.

I’m simplifying here, but the point is, centuries of deeply embedded cultural norms reflect themselves in how we talk about the biggest problems we face, including climate change.

When you talk to a politically conservative individual about environmentalism, their first instinct is often to deflect blame by insisting that if no one is going 100% green in every single aspect of their lives, it’s both hypocritical to whine about climate change and pointless to worry because it will never be solved.

This mentality partially explains why in America, climate change is often communicated as a problem best solved through individual sacrifice. On a small scale, you’re told to get LED lamps, turn off the water while you brush your teeth, and turn the lights off when you leave a room. At a larger scale, you’re told to eat less meat, carpool, and fly less.

Each of those actions is planet-friendly. Not one of them will save the planet.

We cannot tackle a global issue with piecemeal solutions. It’s also unfair to ask people, particularly those of lower socioeconomic status or who are otherwise marginalized or disaffected, to make such sacrifices.

Doing so entails blaming the victim rather than the perpetrator.

Let me be clear: I’m not suggesting you should pollute, foul, and litter the planet scot-free. You should try to be conscious of the impacts of your choices on the planet and reduce your footprint.

You should not, however, feel guilty about living your life without constantly prioritizing the most planet-friendly choices.

You can feel guilty about your ecological footprint. You should not feel guilty that eight billion people are collectively destabilizing the planet.

You’re one of eight billion. Let that sink in.

Humans have known for centuries how fragile and sensitive this planet is and how deleterious our impact can be on the planet. We have had solutions for decades to just about every single environmental problem you could ever think of.

As just one example, the first electric vehicle was invented in 1881. That was 139 years ago; Hitler, FDR, de Gaulle, Hirohito, and Mussolini weren’t even born yet. Edison invented the light bulb the year prior. Einstein was two years old.

If the same amount of ingenuity, innovation, subsidies, and overall support had been applied to electric vehicle technology over that time frame as was applied to fossil fuels, we’d be having a very different conversation today.

In sum, we have lacked the collective will to be better stewards and guardians of the planet. That burden doesn’t fall on you; it falls mainly on the governments who serve you and the companies who undergird your way of life.

You should be mad at them. Direct any modicum of self-guilt toward the true perpetrators of this ecological emergency.

Climate change is a systemic problem, and it requires systemic solutions, plain and simple.

You might be thinking “well, what if everyone eats less meat and carpools and flies less?” In essence, if every individual does their part to be more climate conscious, can’t we solve this crisis once and for all?

Practically speaking, that’s a fairy tale. Again, it’s unfair to burden disadvantaged people when they are in fact the victims of this crisis. It’s also highly unrealistic to count on most people to think long-term and global. Cognitive biases have played a large role in the perpetuation of the climate crisis, and they will continue to inhibit collective action.

Finally, it’s misplaced to prioritize individuals as the most critical agents of change.

I’ll say it again: this is a systemic issue. And I’ll give you one stat that should stop you in your tracks.

You know how much money is thrown at fossil fuels in the form of subsidies worldwide? $5.2 trillion per year.

Trillion with a T. Talk about systemic.

I couldn’t help myself; here’s another stat: 100 companies are responsible for 71% of greenhouse gas emissions since 1988. All of them are either state-run (mostly nationalized oil and gas companies like Russia’s Gazprom or Saudi Arabia’s Aramco) or state-supported (every fossil fuel company is fueled by governments throwing massive subsidies their way).

Modern civilization depends on fossil fuels and is stacked against any other form of energy. I might be crazy, but it’s maybe not that wise to ‘sacrifice’ $5.2 trillion every year to subsidize the substances that could lead to the demise of our civilization.

Instead of wallowing in despair and feeling guilty about your personal contribution to environmental degradation, leverage the legitimate distress you feel about the state of the world — climate change, COVID-19, systemic racism, and any of the other huge problems under the sun — to use your voice in whatever way you feel comfortable.

For me, that’s through my writing. You can do something to make a positive change. You don’t have to be a superhero and you don’t need to put the whole world on your shoulders. These days, you’ve probably got enough on your plate.

It’s not that hard, however, to type words on a screen. It’s perhaps a bit harder to talk to friends and family about climate change, but that’s precisely the best way to change people’s minds about climate change given the preexisting levels of trust.

You can do a lot of things to help the planet, whether they’re specifically climate-related or not.

There is one easy thing you can do as an individual that will have a comparatively massive impact on the planet.

You’ve heard people say it before, and you’ll hear it again and again.

Vote.

I don’t need to tell you who to vote for if you care about the planet.

But since many of the people reading this piece are likely young people in America who historically avoid casting their ballots and exercising their sacred right to vote, I’ll keep tooting my little horn to ask them to vote.

If you whine about systemic problems requiring systemic solutions that almost inevitably will have a legislative element, you better vote.

If you don’t, you should feel guilty (even though your government might try to suppress your vote any which way it can). If you bring your reusable tote to Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, eliminate single-use plastics from your life, use eco-friendly transportation, and ask others in your sphere to do the same but you don’t vote, you’re a hypocrite, plain and simple.

And if you vote for someone who you know doesn’t care about protecting and restoring the planet, you should feel really guilty.

So don’t feel too guilty about using a plastic straw, eating red meat, or driving a gas-guzzling car.

Feel ashamed that the systems sustaining modern civilization may bring us down. And grab the opportunity to remedy that by the horns; anyone can make a difference.

If a young girl in Sweden can start a global movement holding a poster on the steps of a government building, you can do something too.

Every four years, the media deems the upcoming election the most important in American history. Usually, that’s hyperbole.

This year, everyone knows this is the most important election of our lives and in our history.

You have never had a more impactful opportunity to exercise the greatest power you have as an individual in America: to vote.

If you sit this one out without a legitimate reason, you should absolutely feel guilty.

We only have the stability of the planet on the line. No biggie.

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Danny Schleien

Written by

Writer, editor, explorer, lifelong learner. Social distancing expert since 1994, big fan of semicolons and Oxford commas. Think green.

Climate Conscious

Building a collective vision for a better tomorrow

Danny Schleien

Written by

Writer, editor, explorer, lifelong learner. Social distancing expert since 1994, big fan of semicolons and Oxford commas. Think green.

Climate Conscious

Building a collective vision for a better tomorrow

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