Guilty Green Consciences

I spend a lot of time thinking about all the ways in which I’m not doing enough to minimize my impact on the planet. I feel a lot of responsibility for what I and other humans have done to screw over our fellow earthlings. In moderate quantities, this guilt has been highly effective in pushing me to make better decisions. At the same time, too much guilt leads to depression, paralysis, and hopelessness.  Where’s the middle ground?

I remember reading a blog that advocated an 80/20 split to keep us sane: 80% of the time, we do right by our planet, buy organic and fair trade, bike, carpool, unplug appliances, line dry, etc. The remaining 20% of the time we cut ourselves some slack. I like this idea. Being green 100% of the time is probably not possible without returning to our origins as arboreal apes, and being overcome with guilt about not being perfect doesn’t seem especially productive.

I’ve been thinking about that 20%. I propose that it be further divided. 10% slack for forgetting, overlooking, or being ignorant of ways to be green. E.g. I went to a new natural foods store the other day unprepared for the forest of bulk bins it contained, and ended up using some plastic bags to get my bulk bin goodies home in. Next time I’ll be sure to take my own bags, but as it’s relatively rare that I have to resort to plastic, it’s not worth beating myself up over. The planet is not going to die because I used three plastic bags. Other things in this category: using the dryer for a few minutes when it becomes clear that my laundry isn’t going to dry on the line before nightfall, throwing kitchen scraps away instead of having the guts to vermicompost in my kitchen. Not ideal, but already in my consciousness and slowly improving.

And the remaining 10%? I declare that a true guilt-free zone. It goes to indulging in things that have a substantial impact on my emotional wellbeing and mental soundness,  even if they’re not particularly green. For me, this would be pottery (if you think dryers are energy intensive, you’ve never met the kiln), having a carnivorous pet (Brie!), traveling to my favorite place on Earth every few years (Durham).  For you, this might mean having a child, driving a truck you need for a job you love, or seeing your distant family on holidays.

There are plenty of ascetics, absolutists, and Puritans in the green movement. I’m here to insist that it’s OK to do some things, some times, simply because they’re deeply satisfying and add something to your life. There’s a significant difference between making occasional, deliberate exceptions and not realizing that they should be exceptions. Being a mostly responsible citizen of the planet shouldn’t involve giving up what you really love and need to be happy, and it shouldn’t involve feeling guilty about refusing to give it up. The only catch: what goes in your 10% should be a fully conscious and carefully considered decision.

Maybe I can get a new job as a voice of reason.

7 responses to this post.

  1. I love your 80/20 rule! Like you, I feel guilty when I’m not doing everything I can to take good care of our planet. But feeling guilty doesn’t make things better either. It just makes us feel bad. I think the key work is “try.” If we all just “try” to do our best to make a positive difference, the world will be a better place. Thanks so much for your thought-provoking post!

    Reply

  2. I like this rule! I agree with Renee, the key word is ‘try’.

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  3. Posted by Emily on 08/19/2010 at 20:02

    Thank you for reminding me of this. I also get hung up on worrying, fretting, and feeling guilty, depressed, and pessimistic about our dying Earth (aka, how we’re killing our Earth). I need frequent reminders that these emotions are nonproductive and therefore, a total waste of energy. I like the idea of using that energy instead for positive, helpful actions. The world can be such a downer these days and it seems that now than ever we need to support one another on our green endeavors.

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  4. I always tell myself 85%, 15% but I like how you’ve broken down the 20% into two categories! Great post… found your blog via Mia’s FB!

    Reply

  5. […] I spend a lot of time thinking about all the ways in which I’m not doing enough to minimize my impact on the planet. In moderate quantities, this guilt has been highly effective in pushing me to make better decisions. At the same time, too much guilt leads to depression, paralysis, and hopelessness. Where’s the middle ground? […]

    Reply

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