The guilted age

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You’re killing the earth.

You’re burning our home.

You’re destroying humanity’s future.

I first internalized this guilt in fifth grade, when some ladies from a company that made cardboard milk cartons visited my class. They showed off the amazing functionality of these milk vesicles, weaving fantastic tales of a future where water, soda and other plastically bottled beverages were cartoned.

My 10-year-old brain was starting to understand the wonders of environmentalism and was pumped to reduce waste for a greener future! But then, the conversation took a turn. The ladies began to hammer home why this sort of action was crucial. They presented a PowerPoint full of horrifying images, highlighting the Great Pacific garbage patch — a mass of plastic and trash floating in the Pacific Ocean that’s twice the size of Texas. 

They blamed us. This is where your plastic milk jug goes, they said. This is where your straw goes. You are directly contributing to this problem. You are the problem. 

My teacher eventually rushed those ladies out of the room, leaving thirty 10-year-olds in a confused, frightened silence. The next day, the principal sent an email of apology to the entire school about the direction the conversation turned, promising that no similar group would be allowed to present to us kids again. 

This fear mongering experience set an entire community against environmentalism. Children were exposed to the raw, terrifying facts of the issue. The scale was too much — we wanted nothing to do with the garbage patch, climate change or environmentalism at all. Our teachers and parents felt the same. They were afraid to induce that same fear in us, and so they opted to omit all environmental education. 

In my single semester of competing in high school debate, I learned that nothing is more important in making a point than your rhetoric. When you’re trying to convince someone to believe you, how you frame an issue can matter more than the issue itself. What are you trying to make your audience feel? What’s going to motivate them to follow you?

Environmental rhetoric has often centered around guilt. Feel guilty about eating that hamburger, since cows generate insane amounts of methane. Feel guilty about using that disposable coffee cup and plastic straw, since they aren’t recyclable and will sit in landfills for hundreds and hundreds of years. 

No one wants to feel guilty about how they live their life, especially if the alternative involves changing themselves. This sort of eco-preaching makes the environment a political issue. It drives partisanship. Hardcore environmentalists look down on average citizens from their high horses (or other zero-emission vehicles). They personalize environmental impacts, using them as weapons against the general public. Do you want to avoid this guilt, they ask? Do you want to be a less crappy person? Better become a vegan.

A similar effect can be seen in mainstream politics (I guess they didn’t debate in high school). Extreme environmental rhetoric can be problematic. Bernie Sanders often uses phrases like “planetary crisis” and “the single biggest national security threat to America.” These emotional appeals can bring people to the understanding that the environment does need protection, but it doesn’t provide them any direct urgency to help the Earth. Instead, they feel a general sense of terror at the impending doom of the planet and guilt at their inability to do anything about it.

Thankfully, my scarring garbage patch experience was overridden by a life-changing trip to Yosemite National Park a few years later. My group leader brought us on a long, winding hike through a forest. Finally, we arrived at a small clearing. My group leader asked us to close our eyes. She wanted us to “lean into the life.”

I sighed (the epitome of an exasperated tween), but closed my eyes.

I felt the sun on my face, heard the sounds of birds, bugs and leaves rustling, and the smell and feel of the crisp air changed — it exuded life. When I opened my eyes, I finally saw the trees painting the landscape with reds, yellows and oranges, the soil with its carpet of twigs and sparkling stones holding millions of microorganisms. I could feel life thrumming around me.

I’ve been chasing that feeling ever since. The way that my group leader described the planet, in terms of protecting this breathtaking natural beauty, shifted how I viewed environmentalism. It added a layer to my understanding of our planet. Yes, it’s important that we know the true implications of being wasteful. But now I could do more than understand — I cared!

I cared because I was surrounded by nature. I could see the full potential of Mother Earth, what gorgeous things she could create. My group leader told us that other people would not get the opportunity to connect to our environment as we had if these natural spaces didn’t exist. Would I be able to bring my grandchildren to Yosemite one day to show them this park that evoked these new emotions in me?

I was inspired, revved up, my environmentalist engine thrumming. Every person should have access to that feeling. The most effective argument that environmentalists can make to protect our Earth is the Earth itself. Not to sound too much like a crunchy hippie, but honestly have you ever hugged a tree, had a picnic in a green park or smelled the air outside early in the morning when it feels cleanest? 

Providing access to natural environments hammers home the point that our Earth needs protection more than any guilt-tripping PowerPoint. Since not every family has the resources for trips to national parks, our children need to be taken outside during their early education. Developing an appreciation for the outdoors helps people understand why the environment needs protecting, and then they can begin to care about the planet. Each and everyone one of us that walks the face of the Earth has a connection to it — it just needs to be nurtured.

Katherine Shok writes the Wednesday column on environmental politics and justice. Contact her at [email protected].