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There’s an increasing amount of talk about ‘green shame’: the negative emotion you experience when you make choices that are not environmentally friendly. Wouldn’t it be sensible to stimulate this emotion so that make society can be made more sustainable? No, this would be a bad idea, one that is not only unacceptable, but also counterproductive and unjustified. Shame cannot be a solution to ecological problems. In order to use green shame in constructive way, we must take it as the starting point for a social debate, instead of a goal.
Is it a good thing that people should be ashamed for getting on a plane, eating meat, driving a car, or other kinds of unsustainable behavior? And if so, should such green shame be encouraged? Of course you can say that it is a good thing if people start to behave in a more environmentally conscious way, even if that is out of shame. Every little bit helps. However, encouraging green shame is downright unacceptable.
It is evident that shame leads to better behavior. In fact, Sigmund Freud saw shame as the basis of civilization. According to him, children develop shame about certain bodily functions, such as urinating and defecating, which can be seen as the first and most important individual step in the process of internalizing cultural norms. The experience of shame ensures that the moral codes that prevail in a particular social context are obeyed.
Shame not only contributes to the realization that there is a moral code that belongs to a community, it also contributes to the creation of a self that is separate from the broader social context ̶ a self with secrets, a self that seeks isolation to secretly deal with his or her shameless body features. It can be said that this self-awareness is a fundamental prerequisite for both the sense of individuality and commonality.
This suggests that you could use shame to encourage desirable behavior. But this would be a very instrumental view that conflicts with fundamental democratic conditions. To reveal this, you could go back in time and have a look at the hygienist movements of the nineteenth century. At that time, doctors, wealthy benefactors and city planners tried to educate the masses, mainly by teaching them how to handle their stools. Sewage systems were put in place, which had an unparalleled disciplinary effect on the poor. The mob had to be civilized. They no longer had to live lawlessly, that is to say, not just take a crap somewhere in a cesspit or on a bucket, but on a toilet.
The development of sewage systems is also interesting for another reason, because it also is the origin of the modern government bureaucracy. The government was given the task to clean up the population’s poo. This gave rise to the population a systemic collective in which central government was given the responsibility to take care of that population.
Since then we have come a long way. Not only in terms of hygiene and governmental activities, but also in terms of how much discipline we allow the state to impose. Today it is morally unacceptable for the state to claim that a large part of the population lives in an embarrassing way and that is a good thing. Society has become egalitarian and democratic: there are no groups any longer that tell other groups how to live, not even when it comes to sustainable behavior.
In short, shame makes people live up to societal norms and helps them see themselves as individuals and as part of a moral community. But the imposition of shame implies that certain groups are not seen as individuals or as full members of a community.
Not only is it unacceptable to require people to be ashamed of their unsustainable practices and decisions, it is also counterproductive. Sustainability policies are increasingly characterized by ‘moral tribalism’, creating diametrically opposed positions within society. Such tribalism does not lead to change, but to a trench fight in which each side becomes more and more convinced of the rightness its own position and the wrongness of the position of the other. The imposition of shame ̶ something you see in many debates on the social media – only leads to greater resistance to ̶environmental measures.
Moreover, it is unjustified to make people ashamed of their individual contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. This contribution is much more than simply aggregating choices made by individuals, it is a systemic effect: economic and social forces compelling individuals to make certain choices.
It’s not just about shared norms, but also about the alternatives you have as an individual. If you travel by train within Europe, you are on the road much longer than by plane at much higher expenses. Meat substitutes are unaffordable for people with a lower income and not always that tasty to start with. New energy systems such as wind turbines and heat pumps are expensive, ugly and often less efficient than traditional energy systems.
To blame individuals for making wrong choices ultimately boils down to a neoliberal reproache, that only bestows accountability on individuals. That is so much easier than developing and implementing collective measures. Good policies, clear agreements between governments and the business community, sanctions and subsidies, and so on, they all take effort. It takes knowledge and persistence, the will to make painful decisions. Issues that politicians and decision-makers would rather not venture into. But shifting the blame for the ecological crises to the individual citizen is a disastrous weakness ̶ something we must oppose wholeheartedly.
But we don’t have to be embarrassed about green shame. Instead we have to put this shame to good use. After all, shame is an emotion and emotions encourage action. Where we can choose to hide unavoidable actions such as defecating and urinating, green shame compels us to adjust our consumption patterns to the new norms.
The question is not whether these new norms should apply to each individual, but the question that must be asked is whether the emergence of these norms makes it necessary to introduce collective measures. In short, green shame should not be the goal of a societal debate, but its starting point: this debate should be intended to stimulate discussions about which economic system and which policies are desirable, taking into account the different norms, preferences and interests that prevail in society.
The challenge is that a moral revolution is not imposed by the government, but facilitated by it. Neither governments nor civil society actors should condemn certain activities that have hitherto been completely normal, such as flying or driving, as shameful. But governments should be urged to develop and promote alternative options to unsustainable practices. The train should be turned into a viable alternative for air travel, public transport or the bicycle should become viable alternatives to cars. Meat tax instead of cheap and a discount for healthy and organic food. Don’t push on energy decisions, but make them a topic of discussion. If a situation in which choices can be made that are genuinely individual instead of systemic, the correct norms can be pursued in an acceptable manner.
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