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Environmental Guilt

Image by Katherine Quinn

Finally the concept of living sustainably is becoming more mainstream and people are becoming increasingly aware of the environmental issues of our time. As we engage with mainstream media and social media we are seeing more ways to reduce our waste, grow our own food, create less carbon emissions, pollute the planet less and generally live more in harmony with the planet.

This is really heartening as the first step to making change is to be aware of the problem and then have the knowledge around what you can do help fix it. Knowing what effect your actions have on the planet enables you to make informed choices. But on the flip side, all this awareness can become a bit overwhelming, and for some it may feel like it’s hard to keep up.

Buy local, grow your own, make your own, waste not, say no to plastic, drive less, consume less—all these things are super important but it is hard to do the right thing all the time in all areas of your life. To do all these things requires a slow journey of small changes and we can’t do them all at once.

Sometimes the options aren’t there, or we are short on time or we meet resistance from those around us. Sometimes it feels like everything we are doing is wrong. This is where environmental guilt comes in—when you start feeling guilty about the impact your actions are having on the planet.

Feeling guilt shows you have a conscience and that you care about the planet. But we need to make sure that environmental guilt does not incapacitate us; that it doesn’t stop us from doing what we can, even if it is just one small step.

The Reality

I try to do the right thing when it comes to treading lightly on this earth. I grow a lot of my food, we use only rainwater at our property, we get power from the sun, I try to minimise my use of disposable plastics, and I try to buy second hand and support local producers. I’m conscious of the products I buy and what went into making them, where they came from and what impact they are having on the planet.

Despite having the best intentions and a wealth of knowledge, I actually find I am still falling behind in many areas of my life when it comes to living truly sustainably.

Sometimes I’m busy and haven’t got time to make everything from scratch. Sometimes life gets in the way of having a truly pumping self-sufficient vegie patch. I buy food that isn’t local when I am limited for choice, and pretty regularly I buy things that come in plastic packaging. I find it hard to avoid doing these things.

If I allow myself to, I can feel really guilty about these things. But feeling that way is not useful. Instead, what I need to do is change what I can, and accept the things I can’t change right now. I also have to remember to feel good about the things that I am doing.

Su Dennett and David Holmgren. Photo by Robyn Rosenfeldt


Being a parent can make it tricky to live up to your own high environmental standards. When your kids are little you can choose the food they eat and the clothes they wear. But once they get older, their sense of style and choices form on their own, influenced by you but also by those around them (and this can be in stark contrast to what you believe and think they should do).

What do you do when your kids desperately want that which you don’t approve of? Do you ban them from buying clothes from shops that aren’t perfectly sustainable and never let them eat food that isn’t local, seasonal and plastic free, potentially running the risk of making them resent the point you are trying to uphold? Or do you give a little?

I think the answer is compromise. We can encourage our children to make the right choices by giving them the information and sharing our journey with them, but at the end of the day, they will want to make their own choices about things.

Also act as a good role model. They may reject your ways now, but many come back to it once they have left home, seen the real world and then realise what you were doing was pretty good after all!

Beware Of Social Media

It’s very easy to check your Facebook and Instagram feeds and start feeling depressed as you see all the amazing food that someone has grown while your own measly crop is languishing in the garden. Or look at the 50 jars of processed passata that is going to give that family bottled tomatoes over winter, while you are buying it from the shop.

Remember what people post on social media are mostly the successes and positives that they want to share and show off. I know I do the same thing. I post the beautiful carrots as I pull them, I show the jar of kraut I have just bottled. I don’t show the products I bought in a packet because I could find no alternative, nor do I post pictures of my household rubbish bin, the contents of which doesn’t fit neatly into a jar after one year.

Is There Ever Enough?

What about those people who seem to be doing it all? Do these people feel guilt? Do they feel like they should be doing better? Sure they do. Whatever level you are at, there is always more to do.

David Holmgren, co-originator of the permaculture movement, and his partner Su Dennett live a model permaculture life on their property Melliodora. Most of what they consume is either produced themselves or sourced from within their local community where they know who has made it and what has gone into producing it.

Although there is so much that they are doing right, there are still things that they would rather not be doing, but some of it is necessary to do the good work they do, such as driving. ‘I don’t want to drive, but we do still drive, mostly for talks and courses,’ says Su. ‘But we don’t fly at least. I occasionally do [feel guilt] but I see it as not useful. If you focus on that, you are throwing away the opportunity to model a good life, and a good life is not based on guilt.’

Meg Ulman and Patrick Jones from Artist as Family are also great role models for how to live lightly on this earth. They experience what they call ‘creative environmental guilt’. ‘That is productive guilt,’ say Meg and Patrick. ‘We recognise guilt symptoms, excavate what lies behind them and work together to act on responses to change the behaviours that the guilt stems from.’

Meg and Patrick’s advice to others is to feel the guilt but do not be swallowed by it. ‘Use guilt as your educator,’ they say. ‘If you do not take action you will be stuck in a place of anxiety and desperation. If you do act, you will feel empowered and more positive about the future.’

Patrick (left) and Meg (second from the right) from Artist as Family with students from their permaculture living course at their home Tree Elbow. Photo by Thomas Dorleans

One Small Step

If there is something you feel consistently guilty about, look at what you can do to change it, even if it’s just one small step. If it’s the amount of plastic you’re consuming, don’t try and get rid of all of it at once. Start by picking one regular product you buy that’s plastic and find an alternative. It might be swapping plastic clothes pegs for the stainless steel variety, or plastic toothbrushes for bamboo. This one positive action will empower you to then make another.

Recognise Limitations

Work out what is doable and do it. If it isn’t doable right now, make the changes you can and accept those you can’t, working towards doing better in the future. Sometimes when we work hard in one area of our lives we have to compromise in other areas.

Acknowledge Your Successes

We need to look at what we are doing well and acknowledge that. Think back to the choices you were making a year ago, two years ago, or even ten. Celebrate those changes you’ve been able to make that have now become part of your routine and you barely think of.

So guilt is good in the sense that it is a sign that we are wanting to do better; that we are looking outside of ourselves and aspiring for greater things. But we must use this guilt in a positive way to encourage us to make change and accept our limitations if we can’t make the change right now.


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