What's eco-guilt and how can you manage it?

We can't all be like Greta Thunberg, but we can try our best

It's common for people to feel a sense of eco-guilt in this day and age. Getty Images
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

It doesn’t matter where you live or how environmentally conscious you are, eco-guilt can strike anyone.

The Urban Dictionary (that bastion of vocabulary) describes eco-guilt as: “The feeling you get when you could have done something for the environment, but consciously made the decision not to.”

Living in Dubai, I get it all the time. I could turn my air-conditioning off far more than I do. I could recycle more. I could compost my fruit and vegetable scraps. I could replace the real grass in our garden with tiles or even a faux lawn. I need to stop forgetting my reusable shopping bags!

I could go on – and I do, in my head, with endless running subconscious commentary on my carbon footprint and how I could, I should, be doing better.

Experiencing eco-guilt means you are aware of your choices. This is the first step in your journey towards making a difference
Puja Karani, partnerships manager at The Goodness Company

How do I manage it? Not particularly well, but mostly I have to remind myself that I'm doing my best. That if I forget the tote bag this time and take a plastic one instead (or end up buying another one for my collection of hundreds, which does rather defeat the point), then I can reuse it and do better next time.

While some might find this emotion motivational, sparking a passion in them to do more for the environment, others may start to feel a sense of paralysis, as they consider themselves a bad person for not already doing so.

I fall into both camps, switching between wannabe eco-warrior and apathy, and I have no doubt that I'm not alone on this.

Puja Karani, partnerships manager at UAE sustainability-focused everyday essentials brand The Goodness Company, says she’s prone to eco-guilt, too, despite her planet-saving job.

Even Greta Thunberg knows having no carbon footprint is impossible in 2022. AFP

“In today’s fast-paced and demanding world, we are all experience eco guilt at some point in our lives,” she tells The National. “From using disposables to purchasing high street fashion, and to the food choices I make sometimes, I do experience this guilt.”

To manage this, Karani has reviewed what’s within her control and how she can realistically make a difference. “I set goals for myself and my household that are achievable. We started with educating people at home to reduce the use of single-use plastic. Carrying reusable bags, avoiding the use of plastic straws and plates, and, when possible, refusing to take bags with our new shopping.”

Other small changes we can make at home include swapping toiletries for eco-friendly alternatives, for example, or eating less meat, buying produce from local vendors and choosing secondhand clothes and furniture.

Karani’s now teaching her children about how to reduce their own impact on the planet.

“Experiencing eco-guilt means you are aware of your choices,” says Karani. “This is the first step in your journey towards making a difference. Start by setting small, realistic goals initially for yourself and then extending these to your homes and workplaces.”

Nada El Barshoumi, the brains behind blog One Arab Vegan, also feels it. "Although I try to be forgiving towards myself, I definitely feel eco-guilt from time to time, especially around recycling," she admits. "I do my best to recycle as much as I can, but it’s not always possible 100 per cent of the time."

It's easy to be struck by a sense of apathy when you remember the planet will only be saved if those in charge act. "Although individual contribution is paramount, what we really need is institutional support and policymaking to help make real progress on environmental issues," says El Barshoumi.

But we can, in the meantime, at least increase demand for sustainable products in our local areas, ask brands and businesses to do better and generally make noise about what we will no longer stand for among governments and communities.

"My guilt around recycling may prompt me into making more conscious choices, for example, but what we ultimately need is for governments and institutions to help create and mobilise a better infrastructure for recycling," says El Barshoumi.

Karani, meanwhile, specifically calls out e-commerce businesses for the waste they contribute. “They are one of my biggest eco-guilt contributors. I would highly advise them to look at alternatives to the plastic packaging materials they are using or use recycled packaging where possible.”

The fact is, no one’s perfect, not even Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, who in 2019 sailed across the Atlantic to make the point that it’s near impossible for people to live sustainably today without world leaders taking charge and creating new policies.

Whether or not you forgot to turn off your AC off overnight will make little difference in the grand scheme of things. All we can do is try our best.

It's as El Barshoumi puts it: "We should always aspire towards progress, no matter how incremental it is, and not perfection."

Updated: January 19, 2022, 6:10 AM