WE ARE ALL GUILTY.
This is the full version of a short opinion piece I wrote for the Climate Collective. If you are content in blissfully ignoring your environmental wrongdoings or are offended by strong language, please read no further.
Image: sat on the shores on Phelps Lake, contemplating the view of the Grand Teton mountain range. Taken in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. GoPro Hero 4, 2017.
When it comes to climate change and sustainability, so many and so often are the shaming fingers pointed that people are cauterised to them. They mostly seem to fall on deaf ears now - shame has become part of the furniture.
But there is no escaping that guilt. Not for any of us. No one is innocent. Even those that point the fingers often do so in frustration at their own trespasses. Take just a second to stop trundling on mindlessly, and look back at what you have wrought in your life. What trails and footprints have you left behind? Will the wind wipe them clean before you die, or will they fester there for much longer?
So you heard about the global warming stuff and plastic microbeads and the baby orang-utans in Bali or wherever, and you were guilttripped into doing a little something about it. You switch off your energy-saving lightbulbs in the kitchen when you go to bed and you did a couple of meat-free Mondays and you bought a Prius instead of a Jeep.
And it makes you feel better, doesn’t it, to be that little bit less guilty? Maybe even now you start pointing the finger at someone else because they’re worse than you, and that helps you stop feeling guilty almost completely. You preach and believe you’re a good person because you’re doing something, and the smug oozes into your brain like sweet treacle.
Sorry mate, I really hate to burst your bubble, but nothing you’ve done is going to cut it yet. You need to realise that half-arsed minute actions, while your Tesco-every-little-fucking-helps mentality is fine and dandy, it’s like dousing yourself with cheap flowery deodorant to cover up the stink of dogshit wafting up from your shoes. Wake up and see the bigger picture – you voted with your dollars to buy a car where you could have ridden a bike, you dropped one steak where you could have dropped meat for life, and you switched out the TV standby light before going to bed warm and cosy in your semi-detached heated to 25 celsius in winter when it’s minus five outside. It’s not fucking good enough.
Me? Damn right, I’m guilty too. Years of meat, thousands of pointless plastic shopping bags, the coffee cup lids that you use for five minutes before you chuck them out, and enough airmiles to punch my own personal hole in the ozone layer with kerosene fumes. I’ve done it all, before I knew what it meant, while I was finding out, and still far too much now, and it makes me a little bit sick. But feeling guilty doesn’t fix the problem.
So what do you do? You could fall to your knees on the dirt you were raised on, raise your hands up into the polluted air that you breathe, and call out to the Earth that birthed you: “Forgive me, mother, for I have sinned.”
She will not answer you. She will not strike you down with a bolt of lighting. But her wrath will come and be felt by your descendants over a thousand years if you do not change your ways.
We might shy away from guilt, obsess over it, or channel it to others, but these are all exercises in futility. The only innocent ones are our children, and the animals that still live alongside us. It is up to all of us, every single one, to accept that we have made mistakes, impose sanctions on our own misconduct, and to fix the damage we have wrought. You can live hedonistically now, perhaps safe in the thought that there is no eternal punishment in the afterlife. But if you want security and happiness, not in the next life but in this one, you will stand up and move.
If you decide to have kids, when they’re old enough to understand what is happening to this world, sit them down and be frank. Explain it to them straight as can be, and don’t skimp on who’s responsible. Say, “I’m sorry, kiddo, I fucked up. But I’m doing my best to fix it, I promise. “ And if you want them to smile at your memory, you’ll make good on that. If you want a secure future, you will push to change the system. If you want your grandchildren not to spit your name under their breath into the bare dirt and ashes your generation has left them, you will work on your legacy.
Image: a sea of green - the landscape seen from the ruins of the Mayan city of Calakmul. Taken on a conservation research expedition investigating the effects of climate change on local wildlife in Calakmul Mayan Biosphere Reserve. Mexico, 2017.