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Don't Recycle? Green Guilt? Join the Club

Guilt over less-than-green living is epidemic


don't recycle environmental guilt

"You don't recycle? Bad boy! No tofu!"

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Earlier this year, I moved from a big, drafty farmhouse into a small 1-bedroom apartment. Good for my carbon footprint, you might think, and a responsible green-living thing to do. Well, you would be horribly, tragically wrong.

Moving, I've discovered, is a veritable Chernobyl of environmental wreckage. Countless trips in a gas-guzzling truck. Hazardous waste that somehow never makes it to the local haz-mat center. And, perhaps lamest of all, in the middle of running hundreds of stress-filled errands, I just don't recycle.

Yes, you read that right. The author of a green-living website has now confessed that all those recyclable magazines I swore I would read someday got dumped into the garbage with everything else. I probably threw some dead AAA batteries in there, too, along with a few plastic water bottles and a little nuclear waste.

Confessing my Environmental Guilt

Just kidding about the nuclear waste. But everything else is true. Of course, in a world where CEOs routinely laugh off disasters like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, my environmental lapses are more peccadilloes than cardinal sins. And I can always rationalize them by saying, "Well, they only have haz-mat recycling on odd days, and it's a 10-mile drive out there..."

But still, I have environmental guilt, and not just when I don't recycle or buy organic arugula. And apparently, I'm not alone. About 29 percent of Americans, according to a recent survey, suffer from pangs of guilt because they don't recycle regularly, drive a big fat truck, or can't afford organic food.

Call2Recycle, an organization that supports electronics recycling, released the survey early in 2012. They also found that 84 percent have recycled in the past year -- a pretty good percentage -- while 68 percent turned out lights and/or unplugged rechargers, and 53 percent purchased green products.

What's Behind Environmental Guilt?

According to Cathy Ladman, "All religions are the same: Religion is basically guilt, with different holidays." A brilliant quip, and true whether your religion is Orthodox Judaism, Zoroastrianism or Green Living.

But why? Is there something, anything, useful about eco-guilt? I've always believed that guilt is little more than violence for the weak -- when you can't pummel someone with your fists, you can always beat them up with guilt.

Plus, guilt is self-perpetuating. Though the nuns are no longer looking, your mind can still hear their shrill, admonishing voices and feel the crack of the ruler against your knuckles, even decades after graduating from Catholic school. (Take it from someone who's still a recovering Catholic.) It's as if the human brain has evolved with receptors for guilt, much like it has receptors for opioid painkillers and other drugs.

Even dogs, I've noticed, have guilt, and will cower and whimper when faced with the error of their shoe-chewing ways. As a last resort, I suppose guilt is useful if it keeps people from murdering one another, dumping toxic waste in a river, or buying a Hummer. But, I must assert, there has to be a better way.

Is Environmentalism a Religion?

In a provocative essay from the Chronicle of Higher Education, Stephen T. Asma -- an author and professor of philosophy at Columbia College Chicago -- writes thoughtfully about the role that guilt and other religious flotsam play in our environmental behavior:

Instead of religious sins plaguing our conscience, we now have the transgressions of leaving the water running, leaving the lights on, failing to recycle, and using plastic grocery bags instead of paper. In addition, the righteous pleasures of being more orthodox than your neighbor (in this case being more green) can still be had -- the new heresies include failure to compost, or refusal to go organic. Vitriol that used to be reserved for Satan can now be discharged against evil corporate chief executives and drivers of gas-guzzling vehicles. Apocalyptic fear-mongering previously took the shape of repent or burn in hell, but now it is recycle or burn in the ozone hole. In fact, it is interesting the way environmentalism takes on the apocalyptic aspects of the traditional religious narrative. The idea that the end is nigh is quite central to traditional Christianity -- it is a jolting wake-up call to get on the righteous path. And we find many environmentalists in a similarly earnest panic about climate change and global warming.

What's Your Environmental Confession?

Now it's your turn: What's your dirty little environmental secret? Maybe you don't recycle when you're walking through the mall with a plastic water bottle. Maybe you drove to that mall in a 1971 Chrysler Imperial (bitchin' ride, by the way). Or maybe it's that stockpile of nuclear weapons you keep in the garage.

Whatever it is, share your environmental guilt through the link below. After all, as my old-school Catholic nuns told me, confession is good for the soul.

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