Guilt and Individual Choices

This evening many people in the UK will have watched the David Attenborough documentary on climate change. Many will – hopefully – be shocked into awareness of just how dire our predicament is, others will still not quite take on board the reality – it is not that we have around 11 years to find ways to make things a bit better, we have 11 years to make drastic changes to the way we live, our economic and social systems, our priorities and communities, in order to survive as a species. And it will be survival; it won’t be ‘business as usual’ on a smaller scale than now, it won’t be a global capitalist system obsessed with growth and development but with sustainable solutions and powered by renewables instead of fossil fuels – we need to completely change the way we live and work in order to adapt to the growing climate and ecological crisis we are in in. It is system change or human extinction. This is the stark choice we are faced with.

Many who are waking up to the emergency we are in, or even just those who have a growing sense that ‘all is not as it should be’ when it comes to the environment, seem to feel an increasingly desperate determination to do more in their daily lives to reduce their carbon footprint and the amount of plastic they are using – carrying a reusable coffee cup around, buying less new clothes, choosing locally-grown organic foods, buying biodegradable cotton buds, turning off lights and not leaving devices on standby, driving less, recycling more. I have attempted to incorporate significant changes in the way I live for many years, for my own health and that of the planet, and have at times found it overwhelming, confusing, and, often, expensive. It is so hard to know what to do, which choices are better for the planet, whether it is better to buy organic tomatoes in a tetra-pak or non-organic ones in a tin, whether it is worth the extra expense of buying a bamboo toothbrush given how much plastic packaging our food comes in, whether organic produce packed in plastic is better than loose items that are non-organic, whether there is any point paying extra to buy shampoo in a recycled bottle when it is likely it will end up in the sea in Indonesia once I recycle it anyway.

Sometimes I find these choices paralysing. And other times I find the way I want to live so far removed from the way I am able to live that I just want to give up completely. I want the system to change so that we have more free time, more community, more love and connection with nature and each other, but I am also caught up in the same system that is killing us – lacking in time, lacking in money, too tired or busy to see my friends, forced to do and consume things I know are bad for the environment and unhealthy because the alternatives are too time-consuming and expensive. I would love to give up my car, buy all local foods and cook everything from scratch to reduce packaging waste, stop buying my daughter new clothes, and all the other things that would make a difference, but I am constrained by time and money and energy , and I have to enable my daughter and myself to live in this system and not be excluded, laughed at and judged. I feel like every day I make tough choices and compromises and I berate myself for not doing better – for sometimes buying soups in plastic containers instead of making my own, for getting my shopping delivered and therefore buying fruits and vegetables in loads of plastic instead of loose from the not-s0-local greengrocers, for buying my daughter a new top from H&M to wear when she goes out with her new friends, for buying ethical make-up and skin care products online that then arrive wrapped in excessive amounts of packaging, the list goes on.

I also battle every day with PTSD and dissociation, I am a solo parent, and I work full time in a demanding job. The pressures of daily life in the face of these three intersecting challenges are all-consuming at times, and I find living in our current patriarchal-capitalist system overwhelming and saddening. I find trips to the supermarket and town triggering when I am bombarded with choice and the extremity of our consumption-obsessed culture, as well as animal exploitation everywhere. I get tired out from spending my evenings after work taking my daughter to swimming training and I feel dissociated and overwhelmed after busy days and weeks where I have been interacting with lots of people at work, making meals, shopping, cooking, providing emotional support for my daughter. All of this leaves me depleted and struggling to live differently in a system that does not allow us space to breathe. And it leaves me needing to make choices that protect my emotional and mental health – driving to isolated places where I can get some much needed space from relational triggers, buying things that make my life easier, regular baths to ground and stabilise me. All these things feel necessary to survive living within our current system, but I know they are not helping the crisis we have found ourselves in.

More and more though, it is becoming hugely obvious that individual choices and actions cannot save us. In fact only 40% of the changes needed to avert climate and ecological catastrophe can be made by individuals – the rest need to come from government and corporations. We cannot recycle our way out of the plastic pollution crisis that is threatening biodiversity and poisoning the planet. And we cannot solve the crisis of global capitalism by choosing to consume differently, by buying tonnes of ‘ethical’ and ‘green’ and ‘recycled’ products that are transported hundreds of miles and will still end up in landfill in a few years time. In the face of the 4.65 trillion dollar fossil fuel industry we are powerless as individual consumers. And let’s not forget when we talk about the fossil fuel industry we are not just talking about energy consumption but the intricately linked and ever-growing plastic industry which is suffocating our planet – Coca Cola produce 200,000 plastic bottles every minute, Nestle produce 1.7m tonnes of plastic packaging annually, Unilever 610,000 tonnes, the list goes on. In the face of that the change needed seems insurmountable, and of course it is for individuals – we need the system to change, then individual changes will follow.

I know I will continue to choose and live differently, as best as I can, while living within this toxic system and trying to make the most of the time we have left. As I wrote in my previous post it is important to me that I lead by example as far as possible, and show another way of life, not based on mass consumption and exploitation of the earth, is possible. I am vegan and I don’t fly and I buy as little as possible. Not flying is a big deal in my career and will have profound implications for my ‘future’ career, and yet I know that this and being vegan are the only individual lifestyle choices that make a difference and it is important for me to stand by these choices (I am also vegan because I refuse to play a part in the exploitation of non-human animals, so even if this did nothing to reduce my carbon footprint it is still the way of life I would choose). And I will continue to try my hardest to recycle and make ethical and ‘green’ choices, but I am trying to release some of the guilt and pressure I feel for not always being ‘good enough’ because it is a ploy of neoliberal capitalism to put the responsibility for change firmly on the shoulders of individuals rather than governments and corporations. And I am trying to release some of the guilt and pressure I feel around my habits because it sometimes takes me away from my daughter and, if the predictions about what is ahead for us are accurate, I want to enjoy being with her and being able to keep her safe and happy as much as I possibly can while I still can, rather than spending my time beating myself up for being just another person struggling in this system created by humans but that is out of our control.