Stirrings of the Soul
My friend Lorraine, email moniker “ecoeditor,” walks the talk of environmental consciousness. Her energy-efficient windows, her drought-tolerant garden and her rooftop solar panels are visible emblems of her commitment. She eats local, organic and free-range. She composts religiously. And I have never, ever seen her put a disposable plastic bottle to her lips.
So one evening as our women’s reading group was discussing several Earth-themed poems, I was stunned when Lorraine’s face suddenly contorted in pain, and her voice, rising a few decibels above her usual measured tone, wailed: “Climate change is my fault! I’m responsible!” We had just turned to a 2014 composition by Oregon poet Kim Stafford, In My Name. As Lorraine read the poem aloud, one stanza struck me as especially damning. “I touch the thermostat, open the fridge, turn my Volvo key, tap my Mac space bar for email — and the Pacific surges over Fiji, the Ogallala aquifer sinks away, the Sahara’s green rim withers, Greenland glaciers calve and crumble, Peruvian children thirst, fiery trees explode in Greece, Brazil, and Malibu.”
When she finished, we all sat still for a moment. Finally, someone asked, How does the poem make you feel? “Guilty,” one woman said. Everyone nodded. That’s when Lorraine’s longstanding distress over the planet’s plight, fanned by her chronic, wearying thoughts about her own complicity, burst out. I knew exactly how she felt. I’d been carrying around my own eco-guilt for years. But as I scanned the troubled faces of the warm-hearted, Earth-loving women sitting there that night, a nub of defiance took hold. Are my fridge and my furnace really drowning Fiji? I asked myself. Am I really supposed to shoulder the blame for the disappearing Ogallala aquifer and the thirsty Peruvian children?
I was still taking the measure of my personal guilt when, a few weeks later, I wandered over to the OSU Center for the Humanities to hear assistant professor Tim Jensen lecture on the “rhetorics” of social movements. When he pointed out the “collective guilt” that so many of us absorb, unconsciously, from corporate PR messages, my ears pricked up. Those messages, he told us, are often designed to deflect our anger away from the real bad guys.
Environmentalism and other social movements, he explained, are driven by feelings and emotions, “stirrings of the soul.” These motivating emotions are prompted first by love and then by rage. “Collective guilt,” he warned, “can become a paralyzing force” that short-circuits large-scale activism, leading us to seek atonement in individual acts (recycling water bottles and yogurt containers, for example) instead of demanding sweeping reforms.
Read more about Tim Jensen’s compelling scholarship in this issue of Terra.