Guilt-Laden Language in Conservation

Call it religious, call it effective (or ineffective), call it trite. The fact is, there is a lot of guilt-laden language in the conservation movement. Because this will help lay the foundation for future discussions, I wanted to present some examples here.

Guilt-free flying and guilt-free vacations are now possible with the emerging market for eco-lodges and carbon offsets:


Drive a hummer guilt-free with carbon credits:


Guilt-free tropical vacations:


Guilt-free fish:


Guilt-free intimates:


Guilt-free organic vodka:


There are also guilt-free SUVs in many different varieties.

And a whole website dedicated (and called) guilt free shopping.

Last year, Treehugger ran a piece on how Eco Guilt is the New Plague Among Enlightened Parents.

So guilt has arrived. It is one tool of many being employed on behalf of the planet. And we will look at when it might or might not work...

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Great piece & great blog! I've always been uneasy about the fusion of morality and environmentalism. On one hand it's a great motivator, but on the other it draws people into very simplistic mindsets. The hysteria over plastic bags in the UK is a great example - a huge amount of time and effort expended on a trivial environmental problem.

I look forward to the direction this series takes. As a non-traditional undergraduate student with a focus in Conservation I have become increasingly concerned on the social interface and the range of ethics involved in environmentalism. Will be intriguing to see how the use of emotional language and catalysts have been used and, more importantly, analyzed for effect.

Some of these 'guilt-free' products rely on offsets. Joe Rohm has taken to calling offsets 'rip-offsets' . Search his blog for the term, and you'll find many fine articles about offsets that don't work.

The wanton and deliberate confusion and distortion of environmental issues that relate to consumption of goods is a little irritating; the presentation of unscalable practices--like so-called 'carbon offsets' and organic farming--as legitimate solutions to problems particularly piques my ire.
Obviously one can develop or protect a vested commercial interest by 'simplifying' an environmental problem for the consumer. But the net result isn't really anything positive. That's the problem with guilt for the consumer. It doesn't matter if they are really changing their consumption, as long as they feel better.
[*Puts on asbestos suit and awaits pro-organic flames*]

By Nils Ross (not verified) on 24 Apr 2009 #permalink

My apologies, Jennifer, I misunderestimated you. Could it be that you're an interested non-partisan on the subject of guilt? Now that would be fun.

I'm not sure how I feel about guilt as a tool.

I do agree with Frank the SciencePunk (at #1) that guilt can be a great motivator.
But on the other hand, guilt-laden rhetoric can lead some people to not accept it and push back. try an make someone feel guilty and they're just as likely to instead get grumpy that you are trying to make them feel guilty. I know I get grumpy when someone (often my grandmother, and usually about me not being religious) tries to use guilt on me. In some cases trying to guilt someone can actually be counter-productive as they might then go out of their way to rub it in your face that they are not giving in to the guilt.

That said, a lot of the "guilt"--like that entire "guilt free shopping" site Jennifer linked to--is ultimately nothing but a marketing term. Much like many "green" products, "guilt-free" serves little more purpose than to make the consumer "feel good" about their consumption. I take it as no coincidence the term is also popular at certain restaurants to describe their "lighter" fare.

By Prillotashekta (not verified) on 24 Apr 2009 #permalink

Now I can hop on a guilt-free flight, drink some guilt-free vodka, indulge in some guilt-free chocolate before sleeping in my guilt-free hotel room!

I am not really sure what I was guilty of in the first place, but hey, I've never felt so exonerated!

But I must confess, I'm still waiting for that guilt-free sex to be invented!

"But on the other hand, guilt-laden rhetoric can lead some people to not accept it and push back."

Not only can it lead to people pushing back, but it can lead to some pretty disordered and ultimately counter-productive behavior wrt the subject they're feeling guilty about. And, of course, it helps attract the sort of authoritarian zealot more interested in advocating shame and self-denial than actual progress, which ultimately tarnishes the reputation of the movement as a whole in the mainstream view.

Guilt isn't without its uses, but on the whole it's a dicey mechanism to put much weight on.

By sacredwombat (not verified) on 27 Apr 2009 #permalink

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"And, of course, it helps attract the sort of authoritarian zealot more interested in advocating shame and self-denial than actual progress"

Rather smaller a problem than the push-back that the authoritarian right wing and religious give whenever they're faced with some cherished idea being in any, even minor way, wrong.

The Right Don't Do Wrong.

It's practically a mantra.