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How I Process Environmental Guilt and How To Move Forward, Positively

Understanding how to work through emotions related to climate change is important. Here's how I cope.

Written by
Rukayatu Tijani

Environmental Guilt is Real

Virtually every action we take contributes to our environment in some way.

From the tissue paper we buy in bulk, to the disposable diapers we grab when changing the bottoms of our bouncing bundles of joy, to the BPA-lined receipts we snag from our local supermarkets, our actions, when taken in the aggregate, leave quite the effect in the world around us.  

In fact, some have gone as far as to argue our everyday actions contribute to our environment in a way that may well be cataclysmic. 

Yet, despite the seemingly inevitable effect of our taking up space in this world, many people--myself included--wrestle with green or environmental guilt, tormented ever so slightly by the notion that we are not doing enough to save the planet we call home.

Environmental guilt--while a noble albatross we carry around our necks--if not productively addressed, has the great potential to lead to burnout and exhaustion (and perhaps even a touch of resentment).

So... how do we deal?

What is Environmental Guilt?

What is this feeling that plagues many of our sustainability-conscious companions?

According to fellow sustainability soldiers at Business New Daily, MGB Planet, and Tabitha Whiting at Medium, environmental guilt, simply put, is the feeling that you’re never doing enough to save the planet.

It is rooted in the idea that despite all efforts to love and take care of the world around us, we’re not recycling enough, composing enough, zero-wasting enough, or planting enough.

If it sounds familiar, it’s because environmental guilt, I’d argue, is a close cousin to imposter syndrome--the unshakable and often insatiable feeling that we, my friend, are not enough. And this feeling helps no one.  

My Own Experience With Environmental Guilt

With this “not enough” sentiment, I started my journey into sustainability.

Growing up in the projects of Brooklyn, recycling and being “green” took a back seat to simply surviving.  We hoarded plastic bags because we could not afford commercial garbage bags, ate from styrofoam containers because it was the medium through which fast-food restaurants sold our food, and ate with plastic spoons because we were not born with silver ones in our mouths.  But after my sojourn to California for grad school, I became a mason-jar toting, reusable water bottle-carrying member of the sustainability club. And I was excited!

I bought food in bulk to cut down on plastic consumption, composted the fruits I grabbed from the cafeteria, and even made my own non-toxic solution to clean up my desk after late-night studying.

But despite this, I knew I still contributed to the carbon emitted during every flight back home to New York; I still had styrofoam from the takeout I ordered during late-night binges; and I still had plastic bags stacked up under my kitchen sink. And my inability to stem the tide or entirely change my behavior was condemning, to say the least.

And the feeling exhausted me.

So finally, after much fear, guilt, and trepidation, I decided to engage the sustainability journey in a completely different way. 

1. I Gave Myself Grace

I had to realize I was one person in a world of billions, and that most of all, I was human.  

I extended myself the grace I so freely extended to others in similar situations.  

With this grace, I was able to continue on the path of sustainability.

2. I Embraced the 3 R's: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

We’ve all heard this famous adage.  

I returned back to this saying with the warmth one had for an old friend; simply taking small steps eased the guilt that plagued me mercilessly. 

For example, when I obtained a plastic bag from the supermarket, I simply reused it on my next trip. 

If I grabbed a disposable cup when purchasing my morning cup of joe, I used the same cup the next day when I returned (fun hack: Starbucks discounts your drinks when you grab refills!). 

When I obtained brown shopping bags, I used them to wrap packages sent to friends and family. 

These actions, I realized, also contributed to our environment positively by reducing commercial consumerism.

3. I Found Community

Don't Let Guilt Replace Grace

Friend, as with any other journey, sustainability is a meandering experience you can totally accomplish, but only if you simply take one step at a time. While you won’t always get it right, the world has a beautiful way of showing us amazing grace along each step of the way. 

Now go forth and thrive, sustainable soldier! You got this.