Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Is Guilt Good For You?

Recently, Crunchy Chicken posted about an article in the New York Times about guilty eco-nuts: those that were doing their best to go green, yet still felt guilty about their transgressions.

Crunchy argued that guilt was unproductive, and that when we feel guilty, we should examine our guilt. Are we committing "eco-sins" out of laziness? Are we just making excuses? Or are our reasons for committing said eco-sin really valid? If they are, Crunchy argues that we should let the guilt go.

When I first read this, it sounded like a very reasonable argument. What is the point of guilt anyway?

And then I started thinking about it ...

I remembered this article in The Washington Post (hat tip Charles) about how going green in one area often makes people feel that they have the moral license to go un-green in other areas. It's like eco-nut off-setting: if you're really diligent about composting, then it's okay to waste food. If you drive a hybrid, it's okay to drive instead of walk. Sometimes the off-setting isn't even that related: for instance, bringing your own plastic bags might be used to offset driving an SUV.

So it's not surprising that researchers are finding a rebound effect when it comes to energy efficient appliances. It goes something like this: Zev buys energy efficient appliances, Zev ends up saving money on his electricity bill, so Zev decides to use his savings to buy a new HDTV.

The end result is that our efforts to "go green" may be having next to no effect.

Which brings us back to guilt.

Maybe guilt isn't so bad after all. Maybe that constant nagging guilt I feel: when I use a paper cup (minor guilt) or when I fly in an airplane (major guilt) is actually more productive than I thought. Maybe that guilt is reminding me that there really are no eco-nut off-sets. That composting does not give me allowance to waste food. Nor does taking public transit to work give me allowance to fly.

I still might waste food. Or fly. But I feel guilty about it. I realize that every action matters. That one "good" action does not just balance out a "bad one." That I have no moral license.

So maybe guilt isn't so bad for you after all.

What do you think?


Vegetable Garden Cook said...

I'd say I'm in the middle of those two opposing arguments. Some guilt is good for me, helping guide my decisions. But sometimes it gets out of control, and drives me nuts that I can't always do the best thing or that I don't know what the best option is. That's when I have to let go and realize that the guilt is damaging.

Anonymous said...

Torn... I have come to the conclusion that one cannot "hang oneself on the cross of climate change" and maintain any semblance of sanity. At the same time, I know that we all need to make massive changes in order for our species to survive.

At the moment I'm feeling guilty for using the drier yesterday to do the bedding... it's just that with the days getting shorter, it's nearly impossible for it all to line dry in time to put it back on the bed for the night. I suppose I could have found a way if I had tried harder...

Lee said...

I try not to feel guilty for anything these days. It really isn't productive.

For instance, my parents are buying my husband and me a treat trip up to Auckland for a few days for my birthday. We'll be flying. They'll be here visiting from Australia, and will look after the kids.

It's a short trip, and I'm not even going to feel the slightest bit guilty. Why should I? I have autism to deal with, no family to lean on here in New Zealand, and the last time my husband and I got more than one night alone was before my son was born - six years ago.

To say we deserve and need it is an understatement.

If I even start to feel guilty, I'll look at the next person who buys meat in the supermarket, knowing we don't. Or look at the next SUV driving along. Or look at the next person buying cage eggs.

And I won't feel guilty at all.

Marino said...

I think guilt is good. Feeling good means you have morals, without it I suppose you on your way to becoming sociopathic. This may be a bit of an EXTREME view on things.

cbb said...

Guilt is only productive if it keeps you from committing a negative act.

If all you do is feel guilty and keep on doing whatever it is, then it gets you nowhere.

Anonymous said...

Not guilt but all round feeling of "I could try harder". Positive instead of negative, a self motivated challenge.