What's guilt but a secondhand emotion?

Or, why we just don't need a fickle motivator that frequently backfires

My friend Indira felt guilty about bringing packaged food to a potluck. I felt guilty about my packaged offering as well. My husband felt guilty about a recent transatlantic work trip. Everyone feels guilty. Except Drake. Drake doesn’t feel guilty. Ever.

But so few of us are Drake. Those of us who are not Drake are racked, mired, consumed, and plagued with guilt when we buy something overpackaged, or do something less than planetarily perfect, because we didn’t have the time, money, or energy to weave it by hand out of organic, small-batch yarn.

A few weeks ago an article titled “I work in the environmental movement. I don’t care if you recycle” made the rounds. Here’s the key bit:

When people come to me and confess their green sins, as if I were some sort of eco-nun, I want to tell them they are carrying the guilt of the oil and gas industry’s crimes. That the weight of our sickly planet is too much for any one person to shoulder. And that that blame paves the road to apathy, which can really seal our doom.

It’s easy to say don’t feel guilty but DON’T FEEL GUILTY. Guilt and its introverted cousin shame seem to exist solely to make the people who are actually trying to do good stuff feel really bad when their work is imperfect. Meanwhile, the people who could use a bit of guilting don’t have the gene that makes them capable of such feeling. This is why shaming doesn’t work on Donald Trump.

From a behavioural science perspective, guilt is a fickle motivator that frequently backfires. No one wants to be around the Ellie Ecoqueen who makes them feel bad about the strawberries they just bought. If your kid subsists entirely on strawberries and won’t eat anything else, guess what? You’re going to buy strawberries out of season. And you won’t have much time for the people who try to shame you for doing as much.

Of course, I tell myself not to feel guilty all the time with limited success. I’ve bought my son the strawberries and then eaten myself up for it. Which is letting guilt win, twice. In a world that asks so much of individuals working to circumvent the system, being perfect would take all my time and more money that I have. So when I buy the strawberries I want my son to enjoy them, and I want to give myself a bit more fruity grace.

If we’re going to get systems and people to change, we have to propose a more beautiful story. In the case of my kids and strawberries, it’s asking them to really taste the delicious Ontario strawberries that we have for just a few beautiful weeks, and to compare them to the football-sized strawberries that come via California clamshell 365 days a year. Even just this little thing (and the zero-waste propaganda I throw at them on the daily) has made them change their fruit tune. They’re more open to the idea of a rhythm to what we eat, in season. And if kids love anything, it’s routine. What do you mean we’re not getting a pint of the first fresh Ontario strawberries at the farmer’s market and covering our entire bodies and clothes in sticky juice that will then attract dirt? That’s our thing!

The goal is to be good, most of the time. My friend and personal exercise queen Oonagh includes cheat days in her workout plans because you need a release valve. You won’t be successful if you force yourself to adhere to impossible goals. In other words, in-season fruit most of the time, and bit of slack when you need to buy a thing wrapped in a thing.


Recognizing your guilt and establishing what good, most of the time, looks like.

Do you feel guilty? Is it helpful? How do you stop it? LMK!


How I feel when I think about the enormity of the climate catastrophe:

“I get emo lethargic, like I wish I was an extra in The Crow with mussed hair, and not a person using Microsoft Outlook eating salad out of a glass container.”

MVP reader Jaime feels the same way, only like this:

“My version is wind-swept hair in any British period piece.”

And now I too will imagine myself a morose Jane Austen character whenever I feel these earthly blues. So much lovelier!

New platform, who dis?

I’m on Substack now! Why? I like the idea of an easy-to-upload blog, so you can dip into MVP.ist if you feel like it, when you feel like it. Climate stuff can be heavy, sosometimes you might not want to open the mail. But when you’re in the mood to read, it’s all there. Let me know your thoughts on this new platform! And whatever you do, keep talking!