Climate sinners

by Luis Fernández-Carril

Guilt (Issue II/2019)

I confess. I have always felt guilty. I come from a religious family and was brought up with the idea of original sin. I was told that we are all born with the sin of Adam and Eve, who disobeyed and were expelled from paradise. We all share that sin; we were born with the same guilt.

I also grew up hearing that sometime later, the Messiah came to save us all from our sins and to die to redeem us from them. The Messiah died for me and for all sinners. When I saw all those church images of a bloody, suffering figure, who, in full purity and innocence, died to erase my sins, I always felt responsible for the death of the most innocent person.

As a teenager I went to the church less often. At some point I stopped caring what God thought about my misdeeds. As I grew up, I began to hear other kind of stories: I heard of the increasing devastation of the environment. I also heard about the hole in the ozone layer and climate change.

“I will unplug things more,” urged a Chevron advert, calling on me with suggestive messages for individual action: I will use less energy, and then, of course, I think it is my responsibility to reduce my water consumption and my energy expenditure. I calculate my ecological footprint and discover that I need more than 1.6 planets to meet my needs. I ask for my lemonade without a straw, I bathe in 5 minutes with cold water and I recycle, although these activities are statistically insignificant compared to emissions from countries and corporations, but what else can I do? I also followed the frog as the advertising campaign told me to do and drank the Coca-Cola with the polar bear special edition to show Arctic loss awareness, somehow thinking I act on climate change by buying my way out of guilt and responsibility, but it feels worthless.

Meanwhile nothing happened. The air and water got dirtier. The weight on my shoulders grew. During the Kyoto Protocol process, years ago, I heard how certain developed countries had the responsibility of leading climatic efforts for their “historical emissions”, but now, years later, with the Paris Agreement I hear from my television set that “all countries must act and have commitments”. I hear that there is a principle of common but differentiated responsibilities, but also that we all have a shared burden to face the problem. It is our fault.

Later, this global environmental crisis as a whole, was given a name: the Anthropocene, the age of man. The term was coined to explain the level of devastation that human beings have caused until reaching the geological level. Us, human beings have caused this catastrophe. I do not feel the blame for the devastation of the Borneo or Amazon jungle, but I hear that human beings caused this and more. I am a human being, so I must have caused this. Mea culpa.

I feel suspicious when these same governments and institutions who didn’t act for decades, now call on us to welcome resilience to climate change as an opportunity and not as a condemnation. Somehow, I feel this blurs their responsibility for their inaction and places the burden on the people, but I must be mistaken. My fault.
So, as with the religion of my family where it is common to confess my guilt to atone for it, I confess to you my guilt for all this responsibility that I did not fulfill. I confess and that should exempt me from guilt. And then, nothing happens. The world is still in the same state. Confessing this guilt does not seem to change the situation. I cannot atone for my climate blame with confession of my guilt. And then I realize that the word guilt does not work for me or for any individual but makes politicians and corporations giggle. So, after many years, I now acknowledge my guilt does nothing to change the situation.

Fortunately, in the face of my guilt and frustration at the lack of action we have caused and the time I have lost, I recently heard a girl, one Greta Thunberg, speak out first. She was followed by groups of students who are concerned about climate change but are not burdened with guilt. They do not say that we are responsible. They do not talk about how it is our fault. They skip school to protest the inaction of governments. They protest with placards reading things like “You’re burning our future” or “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for”.

For individuals to act, they need self-efficacy, to feel empowered, to think there is something relevant and efficient they can do, creating agency, breaking the smoke curtain created by governments, institutions and corporations. Agency thus transforms into individual responsibility and citizen duty to act and denounce this discursive manipulation. In this way, instead of guilt, it is time to probe the accountability and liability of the governments and corporations who didn’t act.

While Theresa May, the Belgian government and other politicians say these students are losing valuable time and they should stay in school or study and to later become scientists to attack the climate change problem, Greta replies that “If you still say that we are wasting valuable lesson time, then let me remind you that our political leaders have wasted decades through denial and inaction (…)” Non nostra culpa. We don’t feel guilty anymore.

transcribed by Kai Schnier

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