Guilt is the first step toward becoming a planetary steward
In his preface to Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman stated that “Past and present and future are not disjoined but joined.” As usual, the great humanist got it spot on: how we act now is directly related to what came before and what the world will look like tomorrow.
Take a glance at a history book and one thing immediately becomes clear: a metaphysical thread links today’s society to the one five hundred years prior. By extension, that thread must also connect us to whatever form civilisation will take five hundred years from now. In other words, if we, as a species, follow destructive behavioural patterns, we’re not only doing a disservice to the people who came before us, but we’re condemning people who don’t even exist yet. This also implies, however, that the future is far from set. We can change its course if we wish.
I spent much of my twenties living life like I was the only character that mattered in the story. The closest I came to losing all self-awareness and self-respect was a two-year period earning the big bucks at a car company renowned for pulling the wool over the eyes of its customers in all things carbon emissions. I splashed thousands on domestic, international and intercontinental flights, became swept up in the consumer tornado, bought wardrobes full of clothes and led an entirely disposable lifestyle with no regard for anything but satiating my own desires.
It took me a long time to wake up from that torpor (starting to write properly helped). In actual fact, I only genuinely grasped how selfish my behaviour had been once I started researching my dystopian cli-fi* novel, By the Feet of Men, back in 2016. Finding out about the sheer wastefulness of the fast fashion industry was a depressing moment.
Another was when I bought a piece of forest in Spain and realised that the amount of carbon saved for an entire year wasn’t even enough to offset a return flight from Berlin to Amsterdam. Everywhere I turned, I realised I could be doing more, consuming less and viewing my personal actions as part of that wider civilisation-spanning narrative I was talking about.
For a while, I hoped that writing a novel about the climate crisis would, at least in part, assuage my guilt at having lived the life of some kind of consumerist Bacchus.
It didn’t work; I still feel guilty. Perhaps spending every day for three years envisioning a future world ravaged by global heating will do that for you.
But in the meantime I’ve come to realise that this guilt is the ideal platform from which to pursue positive change.
A case in point: I hammered out an entire novel (and went through the misery of selling it) purely because I felt bad. Overkill, yes, but it was a positive response to that gnawing fear in the pit of my stomach. It has also meant that (mostly) giving up flying, turning my back on the fashion industry, buying only local produce, and so on have been a breeze by comparison. Instead of doing, I just…don’t.
An absence of guilt, by contrast, leads to continued negative action, and negative action reverberates along the spine of human existence. I have heard many people express the opinion that it is simply not worth trying to change our habits. After all, what can one person do? But the thing is, as Whitman pointed out: we’re not just one person.
We’re all people. Yesterday, today and tomorrow. There’s a huge responsibility that comes with that, and it isn’t one we should be able to brush off by spouting a few defeatist sentiments.
It is not as though anybody is asking us to burn all our possessions, adopt an ascetic lifestyle and never smile again; we’re simply being asked to think, to feel, to empathise and to act. Many of the changes we can make are myriad and, as said before, require little effort. Yes, there are some who believe that our impact as individuals is negligible at best and that it should be down to the corporations and politics to resolve the crisis, but the fact is that corporations and politicians listen to us; they have to, or they wouldn’t survive. If, for example, we stop jetting off to places for the weekend in protest at the massive amounts of carbon such flights release into the atmosphere, airlines will be forced to seek out alternative, cleaner technologies if they are to survive and thrive once again.
Politicians, meanwhile, enjoy jumping on whatever is popular that week — if we keep green initiatives and behaviour at the top of our collective agenda, they’ll stick with it, too.
We have to understand that we are just a thread in the middle of a tapestry, and that tapestry is not yet complete. Feeling guilty about the state of the world may not be anyone’s idea of a good time, but it is a sure-fire way to galvanise people into alleviating that guilt.
Now is the time to open up and acknowledge our collective shame, stop making excuses, overcome our knee-jerk reactions, and push back against inertia.
Ultimately, we’ve been put in charge of the ship for the briefest of windows. While we’re at the wheel, it’s our responsibility to steer it away from danger.
Written by: Grant Price
*Short for Climate Fiction
About Grant Price
Grant Price is the author of By the Feet of Men, which is due to be published by Cosmic Egg Books on 1 September 2019.
More of his work can be found on his website: www.grantrhysprice.com.
Here is a 9-minute interview with Grant from the 2019 We Don’t Have Time Climate Conference. The program was a live broadcast on Earth Day, April 22. In the second video, Grant partakes in a panel discussion that very day. Having travelled to the set in Stockholm Sweden by train from Berlin, Germany Grant walked the talk and minimized the greenhouse gas emissions by aproximately 99 per cent compared to if he’d gone by airplane.
Facts about We Don’t Have Time
We Don’t Have Time is the world’s largest social network for climate action. Together we are the solution to the climate crisis. But we are running out of time. Join us: www.wedonthavetime.org