Debunking climate guilt in time for the holidays!
Facts: Staying grounded is taking off; Feelings: debunking climate guilt; Action: a climate-friendly holiday
Hi friends, welcome to your last newsletter of 2021! Thank you for being on this journey together.
I launched We Can Fix It in January 2021 to provide free, actionable, evidence-based climate guidance, straight from your favorite climate scientist.
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I’m thrilled with how this community has grown. Thank you so much for being here, and for your support.
Here’s what’s shaking this month:
Facts: Staying Grounded Is Taking Off
Our new study finds: Staying on the ground is taking off!
Swedish media represented flying for holidays as luxurious starting in the 1950s, and as normalized and desirable for the hypermobile middle class since the 1990s.
But media coverage since 2016 has shifted towards challenging the idea of flying because of its sky-high climate pollution, and advocating taking responsibility for the climate cost of flying.
We analyzed media articles, advertisements, and images from popular Swedish magazines and newspapers, 1950-2019.
We identified three phases, illustrated in the photos below:
Aspirational Luxury, 1950s-1990s
Flying was depicted as an important and appreciated part of the holiday experience; the plane trip was seen as comfortable and luxurious (lol).
Hypermobility, 1990s- present
Holiday flying tended to be represented as a normal part of middle-class Swedish life, and as an escape from everyday pressures.
Staying on the ground, 2016-present
Starting in 2016, a flight-free movement in Sweden is actively contesting the idea of aviation as desirable. This led to media increasingly representing the importance of acting with urgency to tackle the climate crisis; living according to one’s values; taking moral responsibility for climate harm; and enjoying climate-friendly traveling, including finding adventure closer to home.
We traced how five themes evolved over time across these three phases. For example, in looking at the theme of the purpose of vacation, we found that the idea of a holiday as restorative has been consistent over time. But the way to achieve that purpose is shifting from flying to find sunshine, towards searching out experiences closer to home (like the local wine tasting and moose safaris in “Experience exotic Sweden”).
The shift in themes over time indicates the start of an important shift in culture, where what constitutes "the good life" is not defined by "what you consume" (travel experiences), or an identity derived from your travel consumption, but instead towards living one's values.
I think there’s way too much focus on climate guilt, and it’s mostly unhelpful.
But this is NOT another rant exhorting you:
Don’t fall for climate “purity tests”!
Climate change is not your fault, it’s all the fault of oil companies and governments!
Instead, I’m telling you to examine your climate guilt, because it’s either (a) unnecessary or (b) useful but misunderstood.
Guilt vs. shame
Let’s start with some definitions:
Guilt: feeling bad for doing something bad. Guilt can be “adaptive and helpful” because it holds our actions up to our values.
Guilting: trying to manipulate someone else’s behavior by making them feel bad about their actions. Familiar to Catholic school alums like me everywhere.
Shame: feeling bad because you believe you are bad, “unworthy of love and belonging,” as Brené Brown puts it. Shame is part of your identity. Sad face.
Shaming: causing someone to feel inadequate or worthless as a human being, especially in comparison to a social expectation. Not cool, man.
From guilt to moral responsibility
Of course, as a We Can Fix It reader, you already know that fossil fuel companies are spreading misinformation and greenwashing, while governments are failing to keep their Paris Agreement promises. Governments and companies absolutely need to be held to account! (See We Can Fix It Actions from February, March, May, July, and September 2021 for some ideas on how.)
But you also know that, to prevent catastrophic climate change, the rich need to get to work. If your carbon footprint is way above average for your country, then system change won’t be enough to stabilize the climate— you also have to curb your overconsumption.
I’d love to develop a more helpful and honest view of climate responsibility that holds governments and oil companies to account, and also gets people engaged from where they are in high-impact climate action.
An unintended consequence of calling exclusively for overhauling huge, abstract systems is that most people don’t see a path for how they can contribute from where they are right now— so they shut down and don’t do anything.
We need to think more deeply about climate responsibility, in ways that get those with the most power and historical emissions to rapidly reduce them, which is a key element of climate justice.
Climate responsibility applies to countries, companies, and individuals, as I wrote for Carbon Brief:
We who have driven the most warming must drive the transformation to stop it. At the national level, this puts special responsibility on the US and Europe, where about 12% of the global population have spewed half the world’s fossil pollution. At the company level, it’s the 100 companies behind 71% of industrial greenhouse gas emissions. At the individual level, the super-rich “polluter elite” are clear offenders, but we can’t ignore those of us in the global richest 10%, earning $38,000 and up, who account for about half of household carbon pollution.
“Flight shaming” is not a thing
International media often mis-labels the flight-free movement that I study in Sweden as the “flight shame movement” or even the “flight shaming movement”. This creates the false perception that the movement is actively trying to point the finger at others.
But research by Nina Wormbs and Maria Wolrath Söderberg shows the opposite. Their study of nearly 700 people who had actually stopped flying (not just opined about it on social media) found that they did so because of a combination of knowledge and following their conscience, supported by role models and supportive communities. Shame did not motivate their actions; rather, they reported a sense of agency and responsibility.
This sense of agency and responsibility aligns with what we found in our new study, where people are questioning the previously accepted norm that frequent flying is necessary, good, or high status. I think changes in high-impact climate behaviors like staying on the ground are better understood as part of a cultural shift through role modeling, as Seth Wynes recently told Sammy Roth in the LA Times:
“If you picture a world where our culture shifts quickly and we actually tackle climate change, and manage to amazingly do this rapid decarbonization and achieve 1.5 degrees — in that vision of the world, do you see celebrities and major league sports and other elites and role models just continuing in their status quo [of frequent flying]?” he asked. “That’s really unlikely. And so I would see it as being a meaningful part of a cultural shift that would need to take place.”
Action: A Holiday With Climate Love
Here’s a depressing fact: we spend six times more on Christmas shopping than the entire annual budget for climate and environment. And that’s in my beloved green paradise (ahem), Sweden!
Meanwhile, only 13% of Americans have donated money to a climate organization, and only 6% volunteer their time for one, according to Yale surveys.
In this season of reflecting, gratitude, and giving, how about creating new holiday traditions in line with what really matters? Here are some ideas:
Reflect on what matters
Take some time to reflect (journal, discuss with loved ones): What do the holidays mean to you? What traditions and memories do you want to honor? Which ones just add stress and stuff?
Simplify the holidays
Check out the Simplify the Holidays campaign about “giving back with more fun and less stuff!” They have a guide for talking with family about building meaningful, earth-friendly traditions; tips for simpler entertaining like cookie swaps; social media shareables; and ideas for gifts of food, charity donations, and quality time.
It’s a joy to share photos and updates of family at the holidays. But have you reflected on what values you’re sharing with your photos and letter? Often these letters exalt carbon-intensive activities, with photos of the family flown in to an exotic setting. We know this role modeling helps reinforce a culture of high consumption and carbon lock-in.
What would a climate-friendly holiday card look like?
I was recently inspired by a holiday card from Wendy, who shared how her family hikes through forests dying of drought and wildfire saddened and worried her, and also sparked her to take action. She started a Giving Circle to raise support for an environmental charity, and her letter includes tips and links from friends about the climate actions they’re taking, and asking them to share these in their holiday cards.
Fix stuff as a gift, or together
As journalist Whitney Bauck points out, “the most sustainable sneakers are the ones you already own.”
Start a climate book club for 2022
I LOVE my two book clubs (one climate, one not). It’s a wonderful way to spend time with friends, talk through big things, and help figure out how you can help.
Of course I agree with holiday gift guides from mindbodygreen and Bloomberg Green, who recommend giving and discussing MY book, Under the Sky We Make. (Check out the handy discussion guide, and I can Zoom in to your book club!)
Climate books I loved in 2021 for reading inspo (check out the archive for reviews):
All We Can Save, Ayana Elizabeth Johnson & Katharine Wilkinson (Jan 2021)
The Loneliest Polar Bear, by Kale Williams (March 2021)
Ministry for the Future, by Kim Stanley Robinson (Apr 2021)
A Children’s Bible, by Lydia Millet (Sept 2021)
Parting Thoughts and Tidbits
I spoke with Ryan Katz-Rosene on the EcoPolitics Podcast about what it means to be an eco-citizen, and wrote for Decanter why wine lovers need to become climate activists.
Have a restorative holiday, and see you in January!