Eco-Guilt: The Never-Ending Quest To Become A ‘True Environmentalist’

Jimmy’s Story

So I want to start off by telling you a story. It’s about a boy called ‘Jimmy’, a pretty standard millennial, loving his millennial life. He’s just graduated from university and he’s got his life all planned out, I guess he’s probably going to go work in marketing or one of the 5 other professions millennials have.

He grew up on a farm and used to watch the birds from his window. He would forage for hedgerow fruits as he walked the dog around the local park. He voted for the green party in the last election and campaigned for more parks in his local city. He wouldn’t call himself an ‘environmentalist’ but he feels a connection to the living world.

It was a Sunday evening and Jimmy was passing time on the sofa. A BBC nature documentary came on, and for an hour or so he was happy as he watched a variety of weird looking fish dart about on the plasma screen. Then, just as he was about to turn over to watch Match of the Day, David Attenborough pops up and he doesn’t look impressed… fact, he looks pretty f****ing pissed off. The footage cuts to a whale trying to eat some kind of plastic container before flicking to a picture of a turtle trapped in a plastic tube, all this set to the most sombre violin music Jimmy had ever heard.

Jimmy started to have vivid flashbacks, that cola he drank earlier was in a plastic bottle, and the takeaway he’d just eaten was packaged in around 10 separate plastic cartons… many fish had he killed today without even realising?

That night Jimmy had some kind of dream/ nightmare where a dolphin or giant fish told him that he was a dick and that he needed to change. It was essentially a much shorter underwater version of a Christmas Carol.

When he woke up he couldn’t get it out of his mind and he decided from that point on he wanted to be what the kids were calling ‘an environmentalist’. No more aquatic genocide on Jimmy’s conscience from now on!

Over the next few weeks, Jimmy vowed not to use unnecessary plastic, but it was literally everywhere, how had he been blind to this for so long?

And that wasn’t all, ever since that weird fish dream, Jimmy now had a new internal monologue, he named “Eco-Guilt’ and it would pop up and speak whenever Jimmy was about to do something potentially damaging to the environment. Jimmy knew he had to listen to this voice, he didn’t want to be shamed as some kind of hypocrite, he wanted to be a true environmentalist.

Jimmy entered the Buy n Save and for the purpose of the plot, this shop had a meat counter right at the entrance. He spotted a great big juicy steak, perfect for the BBQ he had planned later that week. As his hand reached into the fridge to grab it Eco-Guilt interrupted.

Eco-Guilt: “Do you know how damaging beef production is for the environment”

Jimmy: “Well I don’t really like to think about it, I mean we’ve always eaten meat, it’s what makes us human”

Eco-Guilt: “No, way! These are factory-farmed cows, they feed them grain, which has to be grown on large amounts of land, then transported to the cows and fed to them, these cows also produce methane which is an even worse greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.”

Jimmy: “Ok how about this one? free range, grass-fed, perfect”

Eco-Guilt: “Ha, idiot! Where do I start? Firstly cows are big animals, they therefore require a large amount of grassland to rear, this has led to the destruction or alteration of habitats across the world. They also take much longer to reach the required size and so the impact is over many years rather than months with factory-farmed cows……best just move away from the beef”

Eco-Guilt wasn’t quite as damming in his verdict of the other meats but he said enough to put Jimmy off. He edged away from the meat aisle.

Jimmy headed to the fruit and vegetables. Safe territory. Or so he thought. For a start almost everything was wrapped in plastic, he knew that was bad, but luckily there were a few items loose so he reached out for an avocado.

Eco-Guilt: “Nope

Jimmy: “What could possibly be wrong with an avocado?”

Eco-Guilt: “Well these are from Mexico, increasing demand for them has led to massive amounts of deforestation, which decreases carbon sequestration and also has impacts on water retention and causes flooding. On top of that, you have the high use of agricultural chemicals and the large volumes of packaging needed to pack and ship them. Finally, people demand them when they are ripe and ready to eat and this means huge numbers go mouldy on the selves and all that environmental impact has been for nothing as they end up in the bin”

Resisting the urge to crush the avocado in his bare hands Jimmy places it back on the shelf and side steps towards the tomatoes.

Jimmy: “Tomatoes, we grow those in Britain.”

Eco-Guilt: “It’s December you fool! These have been grown in a large greenhouse in Spain. You’ve got the land take of the greenhouses, the pesticides used, the transportation impact including fuel and refrigeration costs. Just pick up that Turnip, it’s still not ideal, but it’s the best your going to get here”

Slightly dejected but looking forward to his planet-saving dinner of…..a turnip. Jimmy leaves the Buy n Save and decides he’s going to grab a coffee.

Jimmy: “This company cares for the environment, their cups have stickers on that say they are recyclable and they have pictures of smiling people on the walls.”

Eco-Guilt: “Jimity Jimity Jim, any company that big can’t be good for the environment. They put the recycling badge on the cups but the cups aren’t recyclable, it’s the little cardboard sleeve that is the only recyclable part, the rest of the cup…into the landfill….forever! And as for the coffee, well that is grown far away, most likely on a plantation which has been created through extensive deforestation, 2.5 million acres of forest have been cleared in central America alone did you know.”

It’s a Saturday night and Jimmy isn’t going to let all this get him down. He’s heading out with the lads tonight for Big Steve’s birthday and it’s going to be fun! He decides he needs a nice new outfit for the evening so heads into the department store.

Jimmy: “These Jeans are nice, I think I’ll grab a pair”

Eco-Guilt:It takes 3000 litres of water to make just one pair of those jeans, and don’t you have like 10 pairs anyway”

Jimmy: “Yeah but these are well cheap, and my others have all faded even though I’ve not had them that long”

Eco-Guilt: “Don’t you get it, you buy cheap jeans, they don’t last long, you buy more cheap jeans, AND they’re made in Bangladesh, more transportation emissions”

Jimmy: “What about these bamboo socks, I hear they’re good for the environment, better than cotton”

Eco-Guilt: “Hmm maybe slightly better but bamboo is still only grown commercially in China and mostly as a mono-culture. There are also no restrictions on chemical fertiliser use on bamboo in China and the increased demand is leading to lots of forest clearance in habitats such as those used by the endangered panda.”

Jimmy: “I’ll just leave”

Jimmy headed back to his flat a bit disheartened but still well up for his night of getting pissed on the town for Big Steve’s birthday. He headed straight for the shower to freshen up.

Eco-Guilt: “What is that!”

Jimmy: “Shower gel”

Eco-Guilt: “Yes but it’s full of micro-beads, tiny plastic balls that go into the water system and head to the oceans where they will never decompose. Oh, and you’ve been in the shower for around 5 minutes now, your clean! Stop enjoying it and wasting water and get out princess”

Jimmy gets out, gets dressed into an ‘old’ pair of jeans and reaches for his phone to call a taxi.

Eco-Guilt:  “A taxi….. on your own!? So you can go out enjoying yourself! That car will have had to fill up with fuel, extracted deep within the earth, which is then converted into all manner of gases, carbon dioxide to add to the greenhouse effect and other pollutants such as carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, nitrous oxides. By taking that taxi you are effectively condemning a polar bear to its death.”

Jimmy decides to walk, it’s 5 miles and through a dangerous neighbourhood, but this is what environmentalists do right?

He arrives at the bar and heads straight to get a drink, it’s been an exhausting day.

Jimmy: “I need a glass of wine”

Eco-Guilt:  “Wine! Probably shipped in from South America or New Zealand, the transportation effects on our climate should be enough to put you off, let alone the land use, fertilisers, pesticides etc used in the growing just so you can ‘forget your troubles’”

Jimmy: “A beer?”

Eco-Guilt:  “Beer is just as bad, unlike wine you have to heat large amounts of water in the brewing process, this is most likely heated by burning gas, that’s more greenhouse gases. Then you’ve got the huge amount of grain needed to produce it and on top of that you’ve also got the environmental impact of growing the hops”

Jimmy: “I’ll just take a water please”

Eco-Guilt: “You’ll take a TAP water, oh and they use plastic cups here, don’t get me started on the impact of those, you best just ask if you can make a cup with your hands and drink from that, you don’t want another dead sea turtle on your conscience do you”

Jimmy is suddenly greeted by a big hand slapping him on the back, causing him to spill at least half of the tap water he has cupped in his hands. It’s Big Steve, he looks like he’s been drinking for about a week.

Big Steve: “Grrrreat to see ya Jimbo, I need to talk to you. You know John is getting married next year? Well, he’s asked me to be best man! I’m thinking Vegas baby! You in?”

Eco-Guilt: “Trans-Atlantic Air travel? I don’t think so Jimmy. Huge amounts of CO2 production not to mention the water vapour and other gases they emit which also has a huge impact on the greenhouse effect”

Jimmy: “I’ll think about it Steve”

Jimmy decides to leave the party and trudges home, he gets out his phone to message his girlfriend and pass the time on the long walk.

Eco-Guilt: “You should probably get rid of that smartphone too. You’ve got the impacts at the manufacturing stage, excavation of metals, the energy required to put it all together. And because we now all want the latest model; since the first smartphone came out, just 10 years ago, over 7 billion have been created, many of which now just sit in a landfill. And now they are all connected to the internet all the time that is more emissions to power the servers, and your lucky if the battery lasts a day requiring more electricity to charge it. As for that giiiiiirlfriend, your probably best ending that now. You’ll only go and end up having children one day and don’t get me started on the environmental impact of having children!”

Jimmy eventually got home 4 hours later as he no longer had any GPS.

Jimmy: “I’m starving, that turnip I had for dinner didn’t really fill me up. I’m going to have some ramen noodles, I’ll just boil a kettle”

Eco-Guilt: “Those noodles contain palm oil, do you know how many 1000s of acres of rainforest have been chopped down for palm oil plantations…….I’ll tell you, shit loads!”

One week later……

We have reached a point as a species where virtually anything we do can be seen to be having a negative impact on the natural world in some way. With over 7 billion people on the planet, only ¼ of the earth is now free from human impact. If you think about anything hard enough Eco-Guilt will chirp in with some kind of negative impact, you might end up like Jimmy, in a dark cave.

So what is the point of this article I hear you ask? Well mainly I wanted to draw some funny stick men, but also I know many people (including myself) experience various levels of ‘Eco-Guilt’ and I think it’s an interesting point of discussion.

People often say something along the lines of:

I know I should do this…. but I just don’t”.

They feel that guilt but it rarely leads to lasting action. In reality, Jimmy was a lot more likely to have silenced that nagging voice in his head and carried on as normal. Woooo Vegas!

But why does it rarely lead to any lasting behavioural change? Does individual change even matter? And is it ‘all or nothing’ to be considered an environmentalist?

Most young people have grown up with smartphones, the ability to travel the world by plane, fast food everywhere, plastic EVERYWHERE, everything is so cheap and can be delivered to you in under a day.  But awareness of the problems these behaviours cause is higher than it has ever been.

So why don’t we just stop?

Why is it so hard to change your lifestyle?

There are many studies out there to show that increased awareness and expression of approval towards sustainable behaviours does not necessarily make people behave in sustainable ways.

Many of the concepts of environmental change are very abstract. Changes that will affect people outside of our own lifetime are hard for the brain to interpret as a threat worth paying attention to. This is why certain environmental campaigns are able to gain more traction; if you know that using plastic could directly harm wildlife in the oceans then that has more of a personal connection. In comparison, if you know that getting out of the shower quicker or having the heating on a lower setting may lead to sea level rise at the end of the century it just doesn’t have the same effect on behaviour.

Changing lifestyle habits is difficult. For a start, they are just that, habits. Habits are deeply stored in the basal ganglia, a part of the brain where information is stored that can be accessed quickly. It is the reason why you can tie a shoe without thinking about it or can eventually drive a car without plotting every tiny thing you do. Changing habits is hard and requires us to access a deeper more calculated thought process. Any resistance that enters the process makes it even more difficult.

Add to this the influence of peers and family. You might like to think we have evolved to a point as a species where we are nothing like our animal ancestors, but you’d be wrong, many of our behaviours are still very primitive. We still behave in a very tribal way, it is ingrained in us to conform to the group, if the group (whether that be family or friends) loves to eat meat all the time then the idea of becoming a vegetarian is daunting to our primitive brain and the possibility of being excluded from the tribe is too risky.

A combination of the difficulty of habit change, the influence of peer groups and an increasing disconnect from the natural world mean that actually changing any behaviours permanently is very difficult.


Picking your battles and finding happiness

Some more ‘traditional’ environmentalists would argue that because we are on the edge of destruction then we must all make huge ‘sacrifices’ for the greater good. But we have to face the truth that most people will only trade their lifestyles in exchange for a (what they perceive to be) better one. So if a lifestyle that involves eating no meat or one that involves having cold showers is not seen as better for the individual it can be hard to influence simply by saying “it’s the right thing to do”. This is why getting people to eat more fruit for health reasons often works better than getting them to eat more fruit for environmental reasons (depending on how their values align). Many environmentalists can’t comprehend why others can’t see what they can, but that is because there are a whole host of influences at play, values, incomes, peers etc.

But! Weirdly, we underestimate how much others care. Of 89 countries surveyed, only Rwanda placed self-interest above compassion when talking about personal values, and only 26% of people in the UK expressed higher values of self-interest than compassion. And weirder still 77% of people in the UK underestimated the compassion of others(1).

Is it the way the message is being delivered? Is it too negative? (This article isn’t really about influencing others, it’s about personal change, the influencing others topic is HUGE, and for another time)

But can individual actions make a difference? Well yes, they can, especially if you are in a position in a peer or family group where you can potentially influence others through those actions. And it has also been argued that the more ‘extreme’ lifestyle changes such as diet change, cutting back on overseas travel or ditching the car have been shown to have more influence too.  Subtle lifestyle changes (of course) are not a bad thing, but changing light bulb types is unlikely to get noticed by peer groups, a more extreme change is likely to have a bigger influence.

But I’m not saying everyone reading this has to go vegan and never fly again. Most of the time I am (shockingly) in favour of balancing happiness and impact and that is kind of the point of Jimmy’s story. Yes, he’s done his bit for the planet, but he feels like crap at the end, that’s not sustainable for everyone, we have to be realistic (cue the shouts of ‘it’s too late for realism we’re all doomed!’). Recently some activists with a more extreme viewpoint took a point raised in this paper that people should feel guilty about having children……but these are decisions that must be made on a personal level, I’m not going to start telling people not to have children!

For some, it may be a case of figuring out what really brings them happiness, does eating meat make you REALLY happy or is it just convenient? If it does make you happy does it make you as happy as the natural world and wildlife? Is it a bit of both? In that case, cut down on the amount you eat, start being more aware of where your other food is from and try and buy local and in season, I guarantee that will make you much better than most people. If you want to change your behaviours but find it hard, don’t feel disheartened because it is hard, for exactly the reasons I described above, either accept the difficulty and push through or start with smaller actions and build up to the bigger changes. After all, if we are talking about influencing by our own actions nobody is going to pay attention to a melancholy vegan who talks about how much they miss meat.

A person’s impact can also not simply be limited to what they STOP doing but should also account for what they START doing. Are you someone that is taking direct action in other ways? That is better than sitting muttering under your breath about how the natural world is about to collapse. If you come up with a product that changes the way 1000s of people behave (which benefits the environment) then that is far better than washing your clothes at a lower temperature and sitting around smelling nice but doing nothing.

Maybe I’m wrong, I’m thinking out loud, I’m sure many will think Jimmy had it almost spot on! It’s a thought-provoking time for those who are more environmentally aware and that Eco-Guilt isn’t going away, but that might not be a bad thing if it nudges us in the right direction. Just remember, people, care more than you think, and if you want to improve the state of the planet there is no harm in changing 1 habit at a time, 1 person at a time, drip by drip.


Rob Wreglesworth

Rob is the head writer at Innovate Eco sharing knowledge and passion cultivated over 10 years working in the Environmental Sector. He is on a mission to build a community of people that are passionate about solving environmental problems.

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