Climate Guilt

Every morning it’s the same thing. I pull back the shower curtain and turn on the tap, adjust the temperature, step in to the rush of hot water pouring over me and let out a heavy sigh. Tilting my head back under the shower, I enjoy a few brief moments of pleasure before the guilt kicks in. Transfixed as I watch the liquid swirling down the drain, images of women dressed in brightly patterned wraps walking miles to scrape rusty cans-full of dirty water from a mosquito-infested sink hole in some desolate 3rd world country flood my mind. How can I be washing my hair when so many people don’t even have clean water to drink? Just as I shake that thought away, my mind conjures up another image – me, in some not-so distant future, thirsty and dirty and fantasizing about taking a bath. I’m serious. What if we run out? These thoughts keep me up at night.

Do I turn off the shower? No. I steadfastly continue with my morning routine, guilt and all. I worry that my water use today will diminish my ability to quench my thirst in the future, but it is not enough of a catalyst to get me to stop my present behavior. Apparently I am not alone, and now I know why. It’s my brain!

I recently read an article, “Why Isn’t the Brain Green?” written by John Gertner in the April 16 issue of the New York Times Magazine.

In it, he talks about how, in order for us to change the climate, we need to change human behavior. And unless we detect some immediate threat, it is unlikely our behavior is going to change any time soon. In the article he says, “A few years ago Weber wrote a paper for the journal Climatic Change that detailed the psychological reasons that global warming doesn’t yet scare us; in it, she concluded that the difficulties of getting humans to act are inherently self-correcting. “Increasing personal evidence of global warming and its potentially devastating consequences can be counted on to be an extremely effective teacher and motivator,” she wrote, pointing to how emotional and experiential feelings of risk are superb drivers of action. “Unfortunately, such lessons may arrive too late for corrective action.

Precisely my dilemma! Not enough risk. Unlike my third world women friends, I don’t feel a threat. I walk 4 feet to the bathroom, instead of miles to a watering hole or a communal spigot; I turn on the faucet, and have an unlimited supply of water at my disposal.

Another challenge with changing our behavior is our brain capacity. While climate change is not exactly 20 on my list of worries as apparently it is for the majority of Americans (see article), there are certainly other, more pressing matters that are troubling me. Like my aging in-laws, being able to afford my home, and feeding my dog. She’s over 70 lbs, she eats a lot. And this is precisely the point of the article. Our brains can only handle so many future worries at once. With the financial crisis, healthcare concerns and whatever current daily issues we are facing, the temperature of the planet, unless it is banging down our door, is not the top priority. Also, since we are not exactly sure what to do about it, the future of the planet becomes even less of a priority. We doubt that our own personal contribution will have a real impact. How can my cutting back on water really make a difference?

Well, I decided to find out. According to this website, “taking an 8-minute shower every day can indirectly create as much as 1,368 pounds of CO2 each year. By reducing your shower time to 6 minutes, you can eliminate 342 pounds of CO2 from your annual total.” I am not entirely sure what that means, but it certainly sounds like shaving 2 minutes off my shower could be a fairly good contribution to the planet. Now maybe I can get some sleep!