Guilty Planet

Welcome to Guilty Planet

“We are all parasites,” a friend recently remarked as our train moved past the graffiti covered walls of Berlin. “Anyone who does not understand this–or thinks that somehow the good that they do in this world outweighs the bad–is delusional.”

She is a scientist working for the UK Energy Saving Trust, which markets a low carbon lifestyle to the British public. She entertains very few romantic notions of environmentalism.

“I think if we really looked at the life cycle of human beings we would get some very surprising results,” she said. “I am pretty sure we need lazy people kept happy by the entertainment industry to offset the impact of the well-meaning Peace Corps types who fly here and there in the name of charity.”

She is probably right.

These are the kind of discussions I find myself in all the time. In fact, one of the reasons my time in the Galapagos Islands frustrated me was the ceaseless discussion of human impacts on the islands (an admittedly crucial debate) and the incessant reproach my conscience delivered for being there. So often, my guilt cast a dark shadow over the awe inspired by the wild.

When Darwin visited the Galapagos in 1835, I bet he never felt guilty about it.

Today, many of us perceive that our lifestyle affects the health of the planet. We were born into an era, an awareness, and an economic bracket that has ruled us guilty of original planetary sin–we recognize that we are parasites and the greatest nightmare to many of Planet Earth’s less vocal inhabitants.

Knowledge of this sort can make it depressing to be part of the human race. And this depression leads to guilt over what we and our ancestors have done. And we should feel guilty.

Under our watch, passenger pigeons stopped flocking, Javan tigers stopped skulking, Steller’s sea cows stopped swimming. Entire forests fell.

I am certain there is not a single person who would have preferred a world like this–one bereft of dodos, Yangtze River dolphins, and giant clams. A world where not even mountain tops or bees are safe.

The guilt we feel over having let this happen is upsetting but it is also a privilege. It points to the fact that we are aware of the limits of the planet, the wonders it holds, and we know what is at stake. It points, one would hope, to a possibility of doing something about it.

It is perhaps unsurprising then that there is a burgeoning set of tools to assuage this guilt and cash in on this privilege–tools like eco-labeling, carbon offsets, seafood wallet cards, and even the voluntary human extinction movement.

I see these tools as a manifestation of a large, planetary guilt-free diet. We are all thinking we can continue our patterns of consumption while treading less heavily on Planet Earth. But one must find contemptible–or at least suspicious–any diet that says you can eat the same amount and lose weight.

This blog is about that diet for the planet. It will explore the numerous campaigns targeting consumers that have been launched with good intentions of offsetting our biggest environmental and economic catastrophes. It will explore the psychology of conservation. It will seek reason amidst the irrational madness of destroying one’s only home.

Also, it will occasionally feature a piece of art from various associates who are willing to humor me, such as the fiendish and filthy Herman Beans, who provided the Guilty Planet banner. I look forward to the discussion…

Comments

  1. #1 Greg Laden
    April 22, 2009

    This looks like it is going to be a great blog!

  2. #2 Ed Yong
    April 22, 2009

    Congrats on striking out on your own, Jennifer v2.0. Loved the writing in this opener and looking forward to more.

  3. #3 Dave Munger
    April 22, 2009

    Welcome to your new digs, Jennifer. Looking forward to seeing your new site grow!

  4. #4 Erin
    April 22, 2009

    Testing 1 2 3

  5. #5 James Hrynyshyn
    April 22, 2009

    Excellent idea, going it alone. And it fills an important hole here at Sb.

  6. #6 Markk
    April 22, 2009

    Welcome this sounds useful! I’ll start off with a big disagreement.

    “I am certain there is not a single person who would have preferred a world like this–one bereft of dodos, Yangtze River dolphins, and giant clams. A world where not even mountain tops or bees are safe.”

    Compared to what? I’ll take this world and the killing of innumerable species compared to humans living and dying in a religious tyranny with less “ecological” impact. Or not having humans existing at all. This is like the old argument that it is ok for an asteroid to wipe out a bunch of species but it is bad for humans. That is human arrogance really. We are part of nature and we are the ones that get to decide what is “good” or “bad”. The DNA molecules and cells that make up all the life in the biosphere doesn’t care. It is us.

    I think the person that says that bad we do outweighs the good is the delusional one. That is religious thinking, like there is some higher power judging us. We have to judge ourselves in this case and assign the good and bad. Our decisions matter, and we have to assign value to things. I do subscribe to the land ethic, but I don’t believe that there is good or bad in nature other than the part of nature that is us.

    If we weren’t here there wouldn’t -be- good or bad. I value diverse ecologies woods and mountains and places I’ve never been. It makes me sad when they disappear for no good reason, but I don’t really feel guilty about it. I feel sad or angry. I might feel guilty if I do something personally, and that is why this sounds like an interesting blog, but I don’t see the world the same way. Diversity is wonderful isn’t it?

  7. #7 Arjay
    April 22, 2009

    Like your style and looking forward to digesting your nutritious, guilt-free offerings!

    Guilty Darwin? Yes, but wrestling with cultural conscience rather than carbon footprint, having blown into the Galapagos on wind power….

  8. #8 Ask the doctor
    April 22, 2009

    This is really a well laid out website. I like how you have presented the information in full detail. Keep up the great work and please stop by my site sometime. The url is http://healthy-nutrition-facts.blogspot.com

  9. #9 Keith B
    April 22, 2009

    Sounds intriguing. Here’s one waiting to see what’ll follow.

  10. #10 Ian
    April 22, 2009

    Great name for a blog. Good blogs. I love the image of you, too in the pic. I don’t know if you chose it specifically for a purpose, but it really seems to fit the attitude of the blog! Good luck. Keep ‘em coming.

  11. #11 Ethan Siegel
    April 22, 2009

    Welcome to Guilty Planet, indeed!

    Your first sentence reminded me of one of my favorite documentaries: The Corporation, wherein a former CEO of Shell Oil speaks to the owners of the company and declares, “We are plunderers of the Earth.”

    Heavy stuff, but also a sign that everyone can recognize what we’re doing to our world. And once that happens, we can start taking steps to fix it. I wish you luck, and I’ll be checking in to look for the best steps!

  12. #12 Daryl McCullough
    April 22, 2009

    Hi, Jennifer.

    I find it hard not to be pessimistic about the future of the planet. My big worry is that going green (consuming less, polluting less) will be woefully inadequate to make a difference. Suppose that we all cut back on our use of resources, so that the average person consumes and pollutes 50% less. That sounds great, but if the population of the planet doubles, we’ll be back where we started.

    Even if the population remains constant, we have to consider that currently 1 billion (or more) people live at the subsistence level. Hopefully, their lives will improve with time, so that eventually they can approach western levels of prosperity. But if they do, that will mean doubling or tripling their per-person consumption of resources, and will mean doubling or tripling their levels of pollution and environmental destruction.

    Is there a path to the future that results in better lives for the world’s poor and also better protection of the world’s environment? Frankly, I don’t know. I believe that we could have both prosperity and healthy ecosystems if we could reduce future populations to 1/10 today’s populations. But how is it possible to get there from here?

  13. #13 ABradford
    April 22, 2009

    A fitting read for Earth Day. I like the blog already and look forward to reading more from you.

  14. #14 Art
    April 22, 2009

    One of the reasons I sometimes work construction is that they, when things are going well, have a very visceral and muscular, Bob The Builder – ‘Yes we can’, attitude. The idea, expressed by a contractor friend, that ‘we can build and we can knock down what we build. We can correct any mistakes and start over if needed’.

    Working on residential construction I have seen owners come into an almost complete house and decide a room was too small or a door was in the wrong place. One guy decided the roof was too ‘busy’ and wanted two gables removed. The general contractor didn’t even flinch. he calmly filled out a change order and got on the phone to the contractors who would need to make it happen. No problem. Just a matter of time and money.

    As unrelated as this may seem you have to remember that in five billion years, plus or minus, the sun is going to expand and the earth will be baked to a cinder. There may be microbes that survive several miles underground but everyone and everything else dies. A few hundred billion years after that another galaxy is due to run into ours and, assuming we aren’t sucked into a star or black hole, we may end up getting thrown into empty intergalactic space to drift.

    This isn’t a Don’t-Worry-Be-Happy ending based on supernaturalism or Daddy in the sky. It is a, IMHO, a fairly realistic estimate of how things go. In the end any species incapable of jumping to another galaxy, or being carried there, ends up dead. Microbe to mega fauna end up at the same place. With the universe doing what it does unconcerned.

    We feel guilty because we can, having evolved the capability. Same reason a dog licks his balls. I think that we should limit our impact and the burden on our surroundings. Most of these problems come down to population. But either way, conscientious caretakers and protectors of the environment, or wastrels who leave a path of destruction it really doesn’t matter and the universe certainly has no opinion.

    The real question is not what is good for the environment and the other species. Rather it is a question of how humans want to live. Do we hold our egos high and spend our days fighting over ever scarcer resources while trying not to step in our own waste? Or do we accept some limitations on our numbers and lifestyle and see how harmoniously we can live within the larger system?

    In five billion years it won’t matter. Guilt has nothing to do with it. What matters is the choice of how do we want to spend our time during those billions of years? After that there is no guilt or regret for what we did to other species.

  15. #15 Michael Finn
    April 22, 2009

    A mythical lost Eden, the doctrine of original sin, the moral value of guilt, redemption only possible through sacrifice … religion seems to have found a home on ScienceBlogs at last.

  16. #16 Qwerty
    April 22, 2009

    I enjoy PBS programming, but I often avoid the shows that illustrate how we’ve mucked up this planet and or its non-human inhabitants. I too feel guilty at times. Especially when I am driving to work. I often think Joni Mitchell said it best in her song “Big Yellow Taxi” which has the line “They’ve paved paradise and put up a parking lot with a big hotel, a boutique, and a swinging hot spot.” We are the they in that line.

  17. #17 AVSN
    April 22, 2009

    Love the blog so far, looking forward to it being a regular read. (Credit where its due, was refered here by Pharyngula).

    IMO, I don’t have to feel guilt to be aware of the limits of the planet, the wonders it holds, or know what is at stake. Perhaps that guilt is a motovator for you, great. I think I’ll keep my energy for more useful things.

  18. #18 Crudely Wrott
    April 22, 2009

    Welcome! Nice to meetcha.

    We are all parasites.

    Well, yes. In a way. The same way that we are all food. Ahh, equality.

    E Pluribus Unum

  19. #19 Blake Stacey
    April 22, 2009

    Good luck in the new digs!

  20. #20 ThirtyFiveUp
    April 22, 2009

    Not guilty, that other dude did it.

    Hello to you and have lots of fun.

  21. #21 Silva
    April 22, 2009

    Hello. This looks like it’s going to be a great blog. I look forward to reading and commiserating. I’m an eternal optimist, thinking there surely must be one more, one more, one more thing I can be doing better for the sake of the planet; but it’s too late to be a blind optimist anymore. And I’m tired of bringing up the losses I notice in the environment around me and being regarded as a doomsayer. Ugly things are happening and I want people to talk about them.

    I don’t take the term ‘guilt’ as literally, or perhaps as simplistically, as some of the above commenters. They must be thinking of that old Catholic guilt or Jewish guilt; that kind of thing. I don’t know why they have such a hard time understanding what you mean.

    Guys, think of guilt as the opposite of apathy. I know, it’s the strangest thing to look at a pond full of dead frogs and feel bad without religion coming into the picture… and I use that particular example because I’m about to go out and monitor a pond that used to have frogs in it. I’m hoping they’re just late.

    Anyway, Jennifer, good luck! Write lots!

  22. #22 Vaibhav
    April 22, 2009

    why should we feel guilty about being parasites? We know that we dont have a special place in this universe. so why cant we accept what we are. if its only the guilt of endangering the planet which drives us into being ‘good’ to the planet then its time that we should think it over again.

  23. #23 eddie
    April 22, 2009

    Hi Jennifer,

    Welcome to the top half of the SciBlogs blog list. One of the things I’m guilty about is not reading more blogs down the list. I admit that I read less of PalMD;’s work on WhiteCoatUnderground than I used to on Denialism. Not to mention the many other blog sites I spend too little time on. I did enjoy your writings on fish and coral and look forward to more.

    As for the parasites thing. I prefer to think of us as symbiotes. It’s not that we need to stop living off the world around us. It’s that we need to come to an arrangement whereby both prosper.

  24. #24 Laneman
    April 22, 2009

    Greetings Jennifer! Good luck on the new blog.

    As for art. I recommend Ray Troll over at
    http://www.trollart.com/

    Fish Worship. Is it Wrong?

  25. #25 Jadehawk
    April 22, 2009

    looking forward to reading the blog!

    I’m rather pessimistic myself about whether we’ll manage not to turn this planet into a dead trash heap a la WALL-E. I suspect (assuming we don’t drive ourselves into extinction) that in the far future, Earth (and the fact that we turned it uninhabitable) will be one of those things it will be uncivilized to mention in polite company.

  26. #26 Jadehawk
    April 22, 2009

    I should add that I find this “the universe doesn’t care” thing a really odd argument to make. the universe also doesn’t care whether we rape, torture, murder or otherwise abuse our fellow humans, but that doesn’t say anything at all about the importance of Human Rights. Why should that be a valid argument in regard to environmental protection?

  27. #27 Azkyroth
    April 23, 2009

    I don’t take the term ‘guilt’ as literally, or perhaps as simplistically, as some of the above commenters. They must be thinking of that old Catholic guilt or Jewish guilt; that kind of thing. I don’t know why they have such a hard time understanding what you mean.

    Guys, think of guilt as the opposite of apathy. I know, it’s the strangest thing to look at a pond full of dead frogs and feel bad without religion coming into the picture… and I use that particular example because I’m about to go out and monitor a pond that used to have frogs in it. I’m hoping they’re just late.

    I would suggest that there are useful, less-loaded words that mean “the opposite of apathy” and would be less likely to be misunderstood. I suspect the emotional impact of the word was the reason it was chosen, but if this many people need it explained what was meant by it, I’m not sure it’s having the desired effect.

    At any rate, this is a useful and welcome perspective added to the environmental discussion, and I second the favorable comments about the appropriateness of the demeanor you display in the blog picture.

  28. #28 Chris O'Neill
    April 23, 2009

    religion seems to have found a home on ScienceBlogs at last

    Of course the irony is that some existing religions are part of the problem because they promote population growth.

  29. #29 Wo
    April 23, 2009

    I cannot get your feed. The RSS feed URL does not work.

  30. #30 Cat Dorey
    April 23, 2009

    Fantastic. I’ve a great admirer of the work that your team does and the passion with which you tell the stories of trouble in our oceans and the visions you have of a brighter future. I look forward to reading your stories and ideas about our fine Blue Planet and it’s interesting human inhabitants…

  31. #31 James Wheaton
    April 23, 2009

    “I am certain there is not a single person who would have preferred a world like this–one bereft of dodos, Yangtze River dolphins, and giant clams.”

    Neat! A new blog right down my alley. Jennifer – I can think of many people who are perfectly happy with the world as it is today. Glen Beck and Rush Limbaugh come to mind, and the millions of lemming-Americans who bow at their feet. Never the less, I look forward to tuning in.

  32. #32 djlactin
    April 23, 2009

    “parasites”? well, yeah! SciFi author Terry Bisson noted: “[We're] made of meat” and Carl Sagan put it we are “parasitic or hyperparasitic on photosynthetic primary producers” (or something similar… shoot me if i’ve got the quote wrong). Point: to exist, we must consume materials which we did not make. No matter what we (or any other non-chemosynthetic organism) do (or don’t) we are parasites. It’s called a food web. Stop being a parasite and you stop existing (Breathairians notwithstanding). No organism lacks an ecological footprint.

    And, oh yeah, you CAN eat the same amount of food and lose weight: all you have to do is exercise more!

  33. #33 outeast
    April 23, 2009

    Looks a brilliant new blog – I’ve found your writing really powerful in the past, and this looks a great new focus too. Standing ovation from over here.

    A bit worried about the kinds of comments you’re attracting already, though.

  34. #34 Milan
    April 23, 2009

    Voluntary extinction is a bit far to go, but perhaps we should be rethinking abstinence and the possibility of population control in the rich world.

  35. #35 The Fell
    April 23, 2009

    Will Science Blogs allow you to have a black background? Oh, and lots of old, gothic fonts, too.

  36. #36 Tracy
    April 23, 2009

    A bit worried about the kinds of comments you’re attracting already, though.

    Yeah, $DEITY forbid anyone disagree with anyone about anything.

    (eyeroll)

  37. We shouldn’t feel ashamed for what our ancestors did, as we had no influence on them. Moreover thanks to them we are what we are. Our role is to work ot how to change all their fouls into positives or, at least, neutralise them. First step is made as we realised their mistake and are conscious of huge responsibility that is put on us. Just keep up!

  38. #38 David
    April 23, 2009

    Great first entry!! I think I will be glad to say that I was here from the beginning. I am one of those people who likes to remind all his friends that nearly every problem that humanity as a whole encounters is a symptom of TMP, Too Many People. However, I do agree with an earlier poster who reminds us that every species is going the same way eventually , so we should see environmentalism not as “saving the earth” but as a struggle to define ourselves in a way that we would like to be defined. We could destroy everything but microbes and biodiversity on par with what we have right now would evolve again. The struggle for the environment is not a fight for nature, but a fight for ourselves. My opinion anyways. Good luck with the blog, I hope it stays to this standard.

  39. #39 Zuska
    April 23, 2009

    Jennifer, I’m glad to see this new blog. You are doing a great job right from the start. I don’t know whether to thank you or not for that link to the voluntary human extinction movement though…it just reinforced a lot of my most morbid fears about the future. Even though it’s such an oddly cheerful site! Well, I’ll be looking to you for some positive thoughts and actions on dealing with the guilt of being a parasite. It weighs heavy on me these days.

  40. #40 Mark J
    May 4, 2009

    Nice start- already generating some lofty dialogue, like whether guilt is a religious thing and wehther we are apart of nature or apart from it. Guilt, of couse, happens in the brain, which last time I looked, is an organ that evolved along with our appendices. Religious or not, it has its place in our nature.

    Some people profess to feel more guilt than others, and I suspect that is true. People are like that. Some can distinguish among thousands of wines, and some know how to tell how many threads per inch on a screw just by looking.

    So when someone says they don’t feel guilty about what people are doing to the habitat that has nurtured us for millions of years, I don’t think, “well you should” I just wonder what it would be like to feel something different than I do. With this blog, I get a chance. Thanks

  41. #41 pembe maske
    September 9, 2011

    So when someone says they don’t feel guilty about what people are doing to the habitat that has nurtured us for millions of years, I don’t think, “well you should” I just wonder what it would be like to feel something different than I do. With this blog, I get a chance. Thanks

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