Written by Madhushri Mudke
As conservationists and environmentalists, we feel guilty about our lifestyle choices almost everyday. When we make a choice with the knowledge that we are potentially harming the environment, we feel guilty or unhappy – this feeling is termed ‘Environmental Guilt’. Something as simple as a visit to the market to buy groceries can make or break our day. For example – the unnecessary use of plastic to wrap vegetables at a supermarket vis-à-vis a farmer’s market where vegetables are sold loose. Almost all of us would love to bring home vegetables in reusable cloth bags from the farmer’s market sans plastic. Being environmentally conscious myself, I have found it extremely difficult to navigate everyday lifestyle choices. I wake up with anxiety every single day. I am afraid that just one of my mistakes could endanger already endangered wildlife, send one more plastic to already overflooded landfills, and my desperation of having a baby could lead to more tons of carbon emitted by her, followed by her children adding to the already changing climate and further worsening my carbon footprint.
Feeling guilty about my own self wasn’t enough, people on social media are making it worse for me. Since my instagram bio reads ‘Environmentalist and Conservationist’, I am sure to be judged by others. Let me take this moment and talk about what I go through by being aware of the state of our environment and wildlife, and on top of that, being a mother to a seven month old baby. When some of my peers learnt about my pregnancy, the reaction was almost always negative. Some texted me, asking me of how I could think of bringing a baby in this world of climate change and pandemic. I earlier thought that these concerns were genuine, I later learnt that they actually weren’t. When I addressed them, they told me that it is selfish of me to overburden the already overburdened planet. I was eight months pregnant when a colleague texted me telling me how she can’t imagine having kids. I replied back by telling her that it’s her choice. She moved on to crack a derogatory joke on mothers in conservation/wildlife fields. Not just that, I have seen and heard many insensitive dialogues babbled by eminent conservationists (in India), comic strips, and articles that talk wrongly about the whole human population debate. Targeting and shaming mothers and parents who are having a child (or two) deviates from the real problems of inaccessible contraception, aboration rights, women’s education and rights and financial independence. I thought this was something everyone already understood, but I eventually realised that I was mistaken after I heard so many conservationists speak about overpopulation in overtly simplistic terms. I fail to realise why I deserve disrespect for having made the choice of donning the motherhood hat while simultaneously speaking about the planet’s condition.
Even if I keep motherhood aside, living with constant scrutiny and judgements that come from my peers or ‘the conservation community’ has made matters worse for me. Opinionated, judgemental discussions that follow at the workplace about what clothes someone chooses to wear, whether they are vegan or not and whether they have a baby or a dog, decides the fate and inclusivity (into eminent peer circles) of conservationists and environmentalists. To put it simply, the problem with such culture in professional setups is that it pushes people out, it isn’t welcoming. People start to look for opportunities elsewhere. When people do not have that choice of working elsewhere, they hang around and struggle to perform to the best of their abilities. Therefore, I decided to put these thoughts on paper.
I realised that I wasn’t alone. I wasn’t the only one being judged. I am also not the only one who wakes up daily with crippling anxiety of wronging to the planet. I have gotten into multiple conversations with several friends who have also felt judged and felt ashamed of themselves for their personal lifestyle choices. Some have complained to me about how they have felt guilty for buying a tiny diamond ring (possibly the only piece of jewelry they’d own for the rest of their lives) and having made purchases wrapped in single use plastic simply because they didn’t have a choice. Some have had it difficult at the conferences’ lunch tables where they chose to eat meat instead of salads and some at their workplace for wearing shoes that were “perceived” as snake skin (but were not!). This is just one side of the story where conservationists are constantly scrutinising themselves. The other side of the story is the scrutiny and judgments within peer circles. For example, a CEO of a popular wildlife conservation NGO in India shamed his receptionist for having a baby and for harming the planet.
I know for a fact that, if we want to grow as a community and as a profession then this feeling of guilt and bullying others within our circles needs to stop. Also, it is well known that many of us are dealing with some or the other form of emotional disturbances or abuse. Within such circumstances, judgemental peers only make matters worse. We are a small bunch of people who hold nature and wildlife dear to ourselves. Our end goals are the same – we want a better planet for ourselves and for the future generations. Aren’t we aware that there are only very few of us who are really talking about the wellbeing of humanity and its links with the forests and climate change. Others, on the other hand, are talking about colonising mars or living on the moon. Then why would we want to judge or antagonise this small group of like minded people?
Having said that, for a number of people, pursuing conservation and working with wildlife are actually just jobs that pay for their livelihoods – nothing more. So they obviously can’t live in constant environmental guilt and they do not deserve to be shamed. For a number of students, wildlife conservation is a ‘study’ and a potential future career choice. With their existing challenges, students might not find the time to go to a farmer’s market, live a zero waste life or turn vegan. So I don’t think that they deserve to be shamed by others or feel ashamed for the day they chose to pick up an exotic vegetable wrapped in plastic. Also, let me get it straight, neither going plastic free nor vegan is going to solve the existing biodiversity crisis or put a full stop to climate change. However, I salute people who have gone zero waste or are vegan. I am just saying that it cannot be forced upon everyone. Many of us may simply not have the right resources to lead such a lifestyle. Shaming our own community members needs to stop. We need to get comfortable with other people’s lifestyle choices even if they go against our own value systems.
Within conservationist/environmentalist circles there seems to be a confusion between ethics and morals. Practices like staging photography, unnecessarily collecting animal samples for science, speeding or honking on forested roads, feeding wild animals in areas where such practices are banned, and so on are unethical practices. Veganism or living a zero waste lifestyle is a moral issue. Ethics, on the other hand, are a set of rules that are right or wrong. Morals are opinions coming from a point of view of ‘doing good’. Ethics can be practical, systematic, quantitative points to note with a goal that needs to be achieved. Rules can be made with a backing of science or numbers. Therefore, there is a line between ‘calling out’ powerful, privileged and dominant people for their unethical actions and shaming someone for a lifestyle choice that is not directly under their control. Many times that ‘sustainable choice’ that we want to make is simply not possible or requires additional resources that are unavailable. Unethical practices, however, are under the control of the person indulged in those practices. If I am a scientist, I can choose to work on a different methodology of collecting animal DNA instead of killing the whole animal just to preserve it in a jar. And that is a moral stand that I am taking. As a mother, I want to have the choice of having a baby, but I obviously don’t want to have (biologically) four little critters that will make human population debates even more difficult than they already are.
A recent study highlighted how 70% of the world’s pollution comes from just 100 companies- it’s classic pareto at play here! Article after article debunks individual action as not really moving the needle on most major metrics and instead points to regulation as actual impactful change. I also believe that the conservation community must understand public action, and demand better policies from our governments. Participating and joining hands with local groups that hold large corporations and big polluting industries responsible for large scale environmental damage is more impactful than bullying someone for not going vegan. We can then start to ask ourselves the bigger questions of the ‘scale of the problem’ at hand and the solutions that we have to offer. Crippling questions like that asked by R. Guha in a book by the same title, “How much should a person consume?” or Galbraith’s great unanswered question “How much should a country consume?”. Once we understand the ‘scale of the problem’, only then will we be able to stop judging our own community members and work towards a more inclusive, professional community where everyone feels valued, and where everyone works towards that one larger goal of conserving wildlife and saving the planet and its people from climate change.
For more of Madhushri, check out @girlgonebirdzz on Instagram