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Illustration by Mahgul Farooqui

Environmentalism and Guilt: Are We Justified in Judging Individuals?

Overly critical statements about individual habits often dominate discourse about the environment and get in the way of making real progress.

As NYU Abu Dhabi students, it is incredibly easy for us to lead unsustainable lifestyles. It’s not hard to see why: we eat food flown from Australia, Europe and South America. We are given endless free t-shirts and merchandize with every awareness campaign. We are blessed with access to our very own Starbucks—and the single use plastic straws that come with it. We buy clothes manufactured all over the world, we take taxis just to leave campus and we buy large single-use water bottles all too often. Our living spaces are heavily air-conditioned and artificially lit, even in the wee hours of the morning when they’re not in use. The U.A.E itself has one of the highest per capita waste generation rates in the world, with average daily waste generation between 1.9kg and 2.5kg per person. And most of us are guilty of the worst environmental sin of all: international air travel.
This kind of wasteful lifestyle can cause many of us to feel shame, guilt and a deep sense of hypocrisy. Despite so many of us being self-proclaimed environmentalists, scared about the consequences of climate change and ecosystem collapse, we lead lifestyles that go against our values. There are also some of us in this community who like to point out this hypocrisy, criticizing the environmental community with statements such as, “If you're so green, why did you fly to Istanbul over your break?” or “I don’t see your reusable cup today!” This kind of hyperfocus on the trivialities of our lives is incredibly counterproductive and these cynical, overly critical statements have the potential to dominate discourse about the environment, getting in the way of any real progress.
Some people avoid this guilt by taking extreme efforts to avoid environmental hypocrisy. 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg uses her lifestyle to educate the youth and politicians around the world, sailing to every environmental conference in order to remain carbon neutral. For most NYUAD students, this is a big ask. We have schedules packed with deadlines, assignments, sports and meetings, and we can’t just hop on a boat and sail to climate change conferences every weekend. Similarly, we can’t be expected to devote all of our mental faculties to calculating the precise environmental impact of every meal and cab ride. It’s unreasonable.
Focusing on this hypocrisy doesn’t just paralyze us with guilt. It also places the blame squarely, and inaccurately, on the individual. For example, after one small meal at the Al Wahda food court, I was left with an empty chip packet, a cup, a lid and straw, a piece of paper, four individual tomato sauce packets, a plastic knife and fork wrapped in yet more plastic and two serviettes. I was immediately struck with guilt and disappointment in myself. Yes, I should have known better and bought food from D2 instead. But is this entirely my fault, or is the restaurant partially accountable for this waste I am generating? For many people around the world, this kind of cheap food is the only affordable option available. Should we blame them?
Similarly, throwaway culture and single-use plastics are so prevalent in part because of lobbying groups such as the Plastics Industry Association. According to the [Carbon Majors Report] (, only 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global emissions. Admittedly, we need to change individual behaviors, and we need more people to care about their footprint. But more importantly, we need to challenge the systems and companies that intentionally place the moral burden of our wasteful lifestyles on the shoulders of us, the individual consumers.
We may want to lead the purest, utopian beliefs of becoming completely at one with nature, living off the land, living a sustainable, zero-waste, zero-carbon lifestyle. But we aren’t perfect. We’re human first and foremost; we are wired to live, experience the world, try new things and connect to people. In fact, striving for that kind of environmental perfection is enough to make one disconnect from the world that we are trying to understand, and change. Sometimes, meeting our needs runs counter to the sustainable lifestyles we may envision. That doesn’t make us bad people.
By dwelling on what we aren't doing, we are shutting down important conversations, and unfairly placing the blame squarely on the individual. Rather than nit-picking your friends’ habits, I challenge you to lobby a company whose environmental practices you disagree with and educate yourself and others on major environmental issues in your country. Come along to a Green House or Ecoherence meeting, and make your voice heard about the unsustainable structures this campus needs to eliminate. And of course, adopt environmentally conscious personal habits.
However, while practicing your own kind of environmentalism, do not forget the bigger picture. Personal environmental habits are important, but condemning companies whose practices are more damaging than 90% of the population is even more important. Do not let consumer guilt eat you and instead realize where that guilt comes from, and who places it in you. Calling out individual people for their habits might have some form of an impact, but ultimately, we need to call out the real culprits that caused the decay of our planet.
Katie Glasgow-Palmer is a contributing writer. Email her at
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