Green Guilt

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Recently while
I was brushing my teeth, my 6-year-old son scolded me for running
the water too long. He severely reprimanded me, and at the end of
his censure asked me, with real outrage, "Don’t you love the
earth?" And lately he has taken up the energy cause, scampering
virtuously around the house turning off lights, even while I’m using
them. He seems as stressed and anxious about the sins of environmentalism
as I was about masturbation in the days of my Roman Catholic childhood.

Not too long
ago, at a party, a friend confessed in a group conversation that
he didn’t really recycle. It was as if his casual comment had sucked
the air out of the room – I think the CD player even skipped.
He suddenly became a pariah. A heretic had been detected among the
orthodox flock. During the indignant tongue-lashing that followed,
people’s faces twisted with moral outrage.

Many people
who feel passionate about saving the planet justify their intense
feelings by pointing to the seriousness of the problem and the high
stakes involved. No doubt they are right about the seriousness.
There are indeed environmental challenges, and steps must be taken
to ameliorate them. But there is another way to understand the unique
passion surrounding our need to go green.

Friedrich Nietzsche
was the first to notice that religious emotions, like guilt and
indignation, are still with us, even if we’re not religious. He
claimed that we were living in a post-Christian world – the
church no longer dominates political and economic life – but
we, as a culture, are still dominated by Judeo-Christian values.
And those values are not obvious – they are not the Ten Commandments
or any particular doctrine, but a general moral outlook.

You can see
our veiled value system better if you contrast it with the one that
preceded Christianity. For the pagans, honor and pride were valued,
but for the Christians it is meekness and humility; for the pagans
it was public shame, for Christians, private guilt; for pagans there
was a celebration of hierarchy, with superior and inferior people,
but for Christians there is egalitarianism; and for pagans there
was more emphasis on justice, while for Christians there is emphasis
on mercy (turning the other cheek). Underneath all these values,
according to Nietzsche, is a kind of psychology – one dominated
by resentment and guilt.

Every culture
feels the call of conscience – the voice of internal self-criticism.
But Western Christian culture, according to Nietzsche and then Freud,
has conscience on steroids, so to speak. Our sense of guilt is comparatively
extreme, and, with our culture of original sin and fallen status,
we feel guilty about our very existence. In the belly of Western
culture is the feeling that we’re not worthy. Why is this feeling

All this internalized
self-loathing is the cost we pay for being civilized. In a very
well-organized society that protects the interests of many, we have
to refrain daily from our natural instincts. We have to repress
our own selfish, aggressive urges all the time, and we are so accustomed
to it as adults that we don’t always notice it. But if I was in
the habit of acting on my impulses, I would regularly kill people
in front of me at coffee shops who order elaborate whipped-cream
mocha concoctions. In fact, I wouldn’t bother to line up in a queue,
but would just storm the counter (as I regularly witnessed people
doing when I lived in China) and muscle people out of my way. But
there is a small wrestling match that happens inside my psyche that
keeps me from such natural aggression. And that’s just morning coffee
– think about how many times you’d like to strangle somebody
on public transportation.

When aggression
can’t go out, then it has to go inward. So we engage in a kind of
self-denial, or self-cruelty. Ultimately this self-cruelty is necessary
and good for society – I cannot unleash my murderous tendencies
on the whipped-cream-mocha-half-decaf latte drinkers. But my aggression
doesn’t disappear, it just gets beat down by my own discipline.
Subsequently, I feel bad about myself, and I’m supposed to. Magnify
all those internal daily struggles by a hundred and you begin to
see why Nietzsche thought we were always feeling a little guilty.
But historically speaking we didn’t really understand this complex
psychology – it was, and still is, invisible to us. We just
felt bad about ourselves, and slowly developed a theology that made
sense out of it. God is perfect and pristine and pure, and we are
sinful, unworthy maggots who defile the creation by our very presence.
According to Nietzsche, we have historically needed an ideal God
because we’ve needed to be cruel to ourselves, we’ve needed to feel
guilty. And we’ve needed to feel guilty because we have instincts
that cannot be discharged externally – we have to bottle them

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14, 2010

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