Environmental Guilt: The Consequence of Knowing

by Ray Grigg

Recent revelations about humanity’s environmental behaviour have been disquieting. The perspective provided by history has exposed us as “universal killers of the natural world”, a phrase used by Jonathan Franzen in his New Yorker magazine article, Carbon Capture.

This damning judgment seems irrefutable — a scientific fact rather than a misanthropic opinion. We have altered ecologies and eradicated species wherever we have gone. And now, with more than 7 billion of us, we are literally terrorizing the planet, causing such radical changes to every facet of the biosphere — climate, oceans, land, flora and fauna — that we are inducing Earth’s sixth major extinction event. This is a catastrophe so unusual, dramatic and pervasive that an entire geological era is being named after us. The Anthropocene is an opprobrium so censorious that it should leave us, in Franzen’s words, “haunted by the feeling that simply to be human is to be guilty.”

But guilt is a complicated matter, first because it requires self-awareness and, therefore, must be self-imposed. We cannot feel guilt until we first recognize, accept and internalize a sense of wrongdoing. And this requires a moral system external to the self with which we identify. A fox eating mice is doing what foxes do. It could only stop eating mice by becoming something other than a fox. A hawk killing songbirds has no need to feel guilt. Similarly, our early ancestors were hunters. This is who they were, so this is what they did. Had they stopped killing, they would have died. Their responsibility for the extinction of species carries no burden of guilt.

Moral complications only arise if our ancestors knew they were killing species to the point of extinction. But how would they know? Did they have comprehensive knowledge informing them of population densities, distributions and recovery rates? Probably not. If they were functioning like foxes and hawks, where is the justification for guilt? Or perhaps they should only feel guilt if the extinctions were impairing their food supply and thus their likelihood of survival. Is guilt eventually self-serving, the consequence of an ethical system that is only self-interested? What inherent quality is in any species — ourselves included — that justifies its continued existence? The long history of Earth is littered with more extinct species than are alive today. Why should living guarantee continued life?

Just asking such questions, however, moves us from biology’s elemental simplicity to a reflective consciousness and humanity’s moral awareness. By living in the present, as well as remembering a past and anticipating a future, we imbue our behaviour with a perspective and thus a deliberation that distinguishes us from the eternal now that seems to dominate the existence of most species. When we know, and we know that we know, then our sophistication gives us behavioural options and our world becomes an ethical place in which certain conduct is recognizable as infractions that warrant conscience and guilt.

When we didn’t know that our behaviour was warming the planet, killing species, acidifying the oceans, traumatizing ecosystems, unbalancing the biosphere and threatening the viability of our own civilization, then our endeavours could be excused. But knowledge creates awareness, imposes choices and reveals consequences.

We are now burdened with living in a world of ubiquitous knowledge, one that is making our lives informed, reflective, deliberate and responsible — conditions that negate the hunter’s excuse of inadvertence. Consequently, our knowing is destroying our innocence, revealing our failings and generating our guilt. We should notice.