Friday, July 13, 2012

Guilty vs guilt: the path to liberty is honesty

Do you feel guilty about the effect your actions are having on the planet? Are you in fact guilty of having mistreated the community of creation to which we all belong?

There are two meanings to the term "guilt" and its cognates. The first is objective guilt, the state of having committed an offence. The second is the subjective feeling of regret, remorse and unease over the perception of having done wrong. The two do not necessarily go together. It is quite possible to feel guilty (subjective) without actually having committed any wrongdoing (objective). Conversely, it is also possible to commit an offence and so bear objective guilt without any corresponding subjective feeling of guilt, due to some combination of ignorance, insensitivity, acculturation and denial.

An interesting new poll reports that when 17,000 people across 17 countries were surveyed regarding both their subjective feelings of eco-guilt and their objective ecological impact, there was a strong negative correlation between the two. Those doing most to mess the place up feel least angst about it. Those most ridden by guilty feelings are objectively least to blame.

I have argued previously that a Christian response to feelings of eco-guilt can avoid legalism and self-righteousness through a proper focus on the liberating good news of Jesus (and I also discussed eco-guilt in these three posts). Yet while we do not need to be paralysed in self-accusation (or distracted by self-righteous condemnation of others), some brutal honesty about our contribution to planetary failure is essential. The Christian response to feelings of guilt is neither wallowing nor suppression, but sober judgement concerning the cause of the guilt: am I objectively guilty? And if so, then there is but a single Christian response: repentance.

And so let us face up to the fact that if the average lifestyle of a citizen of the developed world were to be shared with the rest of the world, we would need something like three planets. Our consumption of finite resources, our apathy towards the origin and destination of our goods, our acquiescence in the face of a political and economic system that behaves like a tumour cell, our wilful blindness to the cumulative consequences of our quotidian choices, our unwillingness to look beyond the next pay-check or election cycle, our insensitivity to the present and future suffering and destruction required for our luxuries: let us be honest with ourselves. Where we remain ignorant, let us discover what is the case, what is the true cost of our "cheap" consumption. Only the truth will set us free: the messy, complex and sometimes brutal truth about ourselves; the surprising, simple and energising truth about God's abundant graciousness towards us in Christ.

“What must I do to win salvation?” Dimitri asks Starov in The Brothers Karamazov, to which Starov answers: “Above all else, never lie to yourself.”


byron smith said...

The survey was commissioned by the National Geographic Society and their (somewhat more detailed) report on the results is found here.

byron smith said...

Having now looked at and taken the Greendex calculator, I must say I'm distinctly unimpressed. Who writes these things? They claim it is a "scientifically derived sustainable consumption index of actual consumer behavior and material lifestyles". I say it strains out gnats and lets in camels. Purporting to make comparisons across nations with very different standards of living, it nonetheless assumes that you own (at a minimum) a fridge, TV and car (!) and penalises you for saying that you don't own (or intend to buy) energy-efficient versions of the latter two. Meanwhile, the single line on air-travel is too vague to distinguish between once a year one way flight from Sydney to Melbourne and a once a year round the world trip. There is nothing on income or level of consumption, nothing on electronic goods, nothing on investment patterns. Instead, there are vague aspirational questions about attitudes and priorities that are easy to give virtuous answers to since they will most likely merely measure aspiration.

And Q4(a)* makes no sense whatsoever, as it will miss someone who installed such a device ten years ago, or someone who doesn't have hot water at all!

*Though there is no (b) or (c).

John Roe said...

Byron, I think the point about the calculator is that it is only represents a subset of the full survey (which you can read about at They apparently used a statistical methodology (something like principal component analysis, to pick a small set of questions which give a good "predictor" of someone's response on the full survey. Such sets often look as though they are leaving important things out, but the point is that what they leave out is highly correlated - for most respondents - with what they include.

byron smith said...

Ah, thanks John. I missed that bit. That's very helpful. I was a little puzzled as to why NatGeo were using such a limited survey.

byron smith said...

Grist: Another poll shows that US citizens want action on climate.