I'm Greener Than You Are

Posted on March 19, 2009, a guest post by Shannon Curry

I'm Greener Than You Are: The Perils Of Feeling Not Good Enough Because You're Not Green Enough

Last fall I went on a trip to Hawaii. I’d always wanted to go there and it was pretty much everything I had hoped for: sun, ocean, beach, beautiful vistas, great food, great people and all around pure indulgence. When I got back I was chatting about the trip with a friend who is one of Calgary’s most active activists. Slowly my happiness with the trip turned a bit sour, and I realized I was feeling guilty for emitting all those CO2 molecules during my many flights (seven in total there, between islands and back). I wasn't there for business purposes, or to plant trees or save turtles; it was just a vacation for my own pleasure and benefit. Green guilt loomed large.

Then I remembered the concept of carbon offsetting. When you carbon-offset you pay an organization to do good environmental deeds in your name that will absorb an equivalent amount of carbon as you've emitted though flying or other activities. Businesses have glommed onto this idea like mud on an SUV, trading carbon credits like kids with baseball cards. Maybe I could pay someone to plant trees in the Amazon or put up windmills in Holland to offset the damage I’d done. A little research reveals that I can’t clear my conscience this easily due to the challenges and problems of carbon offsetting. To some, like the minds behind CheatNeutral, it’s like cheating on your partner and then making up for it by donating money to a loyal couple in a committed relationship.

I have another friend, a writer and environmentalist, who turned down an all-expense paid weekend trip to Mexico to cover a green event for a magazine. She couldn’t justify traveling there and emitting a few thousand tonnes of CO2 molecules for just one weekend. I remember thinking: What would I have done? Would I have gone on that trip? Probably. Am I a poser environmentalist? I felt that green guilt seeping in again.

If you think that’s uncomfortable, imagine hanging out with the guru of green: David Suzuki. Your first instinct might be to kneel down and kiss his ring to ask for absolution. As it turns out, there’s no need to grovel. In a funny interview with Calgarian Jordan Kawchuk, Suzuki says “I think it’s very important that we not be so judgmental…we all live with inconsistencies. We’re not going to be perfect little environmentalists…and we have to accept that.”

I think a little guilt can be a good thing. It’s a moral compass that helps us realize when we’ve strayed off the path, so that next time we remember to bring our cloth grocery bags, or we drive less and use transit more.  As environmental problems grow more and more serious little jabs of green guilt can turn into full-fledged eco-anxiety. Sarah Edwards, an ecopsychologist who co-directs the Pine Mountain Institute in Southern California, teaches therapists and counselors how to help clients with eco-anxiety.

Together with psychologist Linda Buzzell, she’s written an article called “The Waking Up Syndrome” for HopeDance magazine describing the stages people go through as they wake up to the seriousness of environmental problems. The first stage is denial; followed by semi-consciousness; the moment of realization; a point of no return; and then despair, guilt, hopelessness, powerlessness.   Thankfully, it doesn’t end there. The last stage is acceptance, empowerment and action.  Edwards and Buzzell say that once we accept our “general powerlessness” and see what we can do “our curiosity and creativity kick in and we can begin following our natural instincts to find what is both feasible and rewarding to safeguard ourselves, our families, our communities and the planet.”

In other words, there’s no point in getting stuck in guilt and panic, though it’s a natural response to a world gone crazy. Just relax and do what you can to go green.  If the ecopsychologists are right, you’ll be happier and saner for it.