Guilt Is Good for Fixing the Climate

Rather than dismissing the use of guilt or shame, we should instead learn to understand how they work.

Young depressed male character sitting on the floor and holding their knees, a cartoon scribble above their head, mental health issues
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“I feel badly for Sami. All that guilt and shame he's dealing with must cause him quite the consternation (and potentially, a drinking problem.)”

I received this comment from a reader when I wrote about the fact our carbon emissions will kill people, but we should be careful who we blame. I confess: I was a little amused. While it’s true I spend a lot of time talking and writing about guilt and shame—and how they relate to the climate emergency—they don’t actually drive me to drink. (Although I am somewhat partial to beer from waste bread.) I also don’t spend all that much time dwelling on them or allowing them to control my life.

So why talk about them at all?

When I was writing my upcoming book last year, I interviewed Jennifer Jacquet—author of the book "Is Shame Necessary?"—about whether guilt and shame can be useful in generating meaningful social change. Her response was unequivocal: She told me that these emotions have gotten a bad rap. Rather than dismissing the use of guilt or shame, we should instead learn to understand how they work, and we should harness them as one part of a broader emotional toolbox: 

Guilt is the best way to regulate society and individual behavior because it’s the cheapest form of punishment. If you think about it from a game theory perspective, punishment is costly. You have to take some sort of risk, or pay for a state apparatus to do punishment. If you can get the individual to regulate their own behavior through what we would call a conscience, and if you can get them to internalize social norms, then that’s ideal. But anyone who’s a parent knows there are a lot of stages to actually achieving that. 

In other words, it would actually be quite helpful if more of us felt more guilty more of the time about the less-than-optimal choices we make. (This is especially true for people in positions of power.) The trouble, however, is not just how to generate new social norms where polluting behaviors are frowned on, but also how to do so without distracting us from what matters most.

Here’s what I mean: Guilt can be a useful prompt to action. When we see someone sleeping on the street, many of us with more material wealth feel guilty about the blessings in our lives. When we learn about societal ills like racism, those of us who have not been subjected to them often feel bad about that privilege. And those feelings of guilt can—and probably should—prompt us to do something about it. The trouble, however, is that guilt alone can lead us astray. And if we allow guilt to guide not just whether we act, but how we actually act, then it can cause us to focus on the wrong things. 

Ajah Hales wrote about this in relation to racism for the Christian publication Salve, using a fictional analogy about coming across a victim of assault, and realizing you never charged your phone or took that CPR course you’d been planning on:

Perhaps you would run to the nearest store or house and ask to use their phone. Maybe you would check to make sure the person is still breathing. Maybe you would check his/ her pockets for a phone. 
How much time would you spend pacing beside the person as they lay dying, berating yourself for not having your phone and never taking a CPR certification? Probably none, right? Because this is a life or death situation; it’s not about you, and your guilt is worthless in this scenario.

In other words, feeling bad about something that’s not right in the world—especially something that you are causing or benefit from—seems like a healthy response and an example of social regulation. But centering those bad feelings can cloud your judgment about where to be most effective. 

I presented this argument when I was a guest on Charlotte Talks, on NPR-affiliate station WFAE, as part of a panel discussion on climate anxiety. One of my fellow panelists was Susan Denny, a licensed clinical mental health counselor at Davidson College who sees lots of students struggling with the climate emergency. She was careful to add another caveat: Not only can guilt distract us from where we can be most effective. It can also, she argued, become so overwhelming that we choose to switch off or not engage with the problem at all. 

In many ways, this discussion is one part of a much broader challenge for the climate movement:

  • Should we use hope or fear to motivate action? 
  • Is it OK to shame people or organizations about their behaviors or decisions?
  • How angry should we be, and where should we direct that anger?

We can and must move beyond whether this or that emotion is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for our cause. The climate crisis is all-encompassing, and our responses are going to need to be all-encompassing too. The trick is not whether to harness a particular emotion, but rather what do I harness it for, and what will the likely outcome be?

So yes, I do occasionally feel guilty about eating my steaks and flying to see my mum. But no, that guilt has not yet driven me to despair. In fact, I quite enjoy my life in the midst of this terrifying planetary emergency. Although I do kind of feel bad about quite how much fun I am having.