Green Guilt Trips Won't Inspire Personal Change In his recent op-ed, "An Inconvenient Guilt," Gerald Skoning argues that it is misguided for environmentalists to try to shame Americans into decreasing their carbon footprint. "Guilt can lead to paralysis," Skoning writes. "And that is the last thing the green movement needs."
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Green Guilt Trips Won't Inspire Personal Change

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Now, it's time for the Opinion Page. Most people want to do their bit for the environment - fluorescent light bulbs, gas-efficient cars - that sort of thing. But no matter what you do, some people will argue that you really ought to be even greener. Wear green clothing, for example, or stay married. A new study concluded that divorce is bad for the environment. In an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune, Gerald Skoning, who described himself as a diligent recycler, wrote that the green guilt trip promotes paralysis, not participation. Does the relentless green mantra help the cause or hurt it? Is shame a useful tool?

800-989-8255; you can drop us an e-mail - You can also send us your comments on our blog at

Gerald Skoning is a free - lawyer and freelance writer in Chicago. He joins us from our bureau there. And thanks very much for coming in. I assume you took mass transit?

Mr. GERALD SKONING (Freelance Writer): Hi, Neal. Good to be with you. Actually, I walked today.

CONAN: Oh, well…

Mr. SKONING: So it was a double benefit.

CONAN: There you go. To be quite serious, you are quite serious about climate change and say in the op-ed that you support being green.

Mr. SKONING: I'm very supportive. And, I think, Neal, it's a movement like none I have seen in my lifetime that's garnered such broad-based support. When you think about, and it started with a group of concerned scientists and activists, and now it includes so much of corporate America who are advertising based on greenness and certainly, those aren't usual bedfellows, to say the least.

CONAN: Hardly. Yet you also argue that, well, there's an inconvenient guilt to all of this. The tactics of some of these groups, you say, are counterproductive.

Mr. SKONING: I'm not sure they're counterproductive; they certainly have raised the consciousness of Americans about green issues and sustainability and the perils of global warming and climate change, and there's no question that fear and peer pressure and guilt are strong motivators to be sure. But every once in a while, I start thinking that the movement's skating on the edge of devolving into a shrill, nagging whine, and they may marginalize the impact of their message. So my basic message to them is I get the message. I think you can tone down the rhetoric.

CONAN: Give us a for instance.

CONAN: Well, I'll give you a direct for instance from this weekend. As you can probably imagine, it was a wintry, blustery, snowy weekend in Chicago, and my wife and I decided we'd have a fire in the fireplace and kept it going most of the weekend. And as the weekend drew to a close, I was thinking, oh, my goodness, my carbon footprint has just grown to about a size 20 triple F as a result of a wood smoke, which certainly isn't the best kind of smoke to be sending up into the atmosphere.

CONAN: But nobody came to your door and said, sir, what are you doing?

Mr. SKONING: Nobody told me to put the fire out, although you mentioned the issue about divorce and how staying together protects the environment. There was another even more extreme story from the Left Coast, as we call it here in the Midwest - the Left Coast - where an activist encouraged his Jewish friends not to light all the candles on their menorah this season to help protect the environment.

CONAN: Which caused some rabbis to do a double take, I'm sure.

Mr. SKONING: I would think there was quite a reaction to that, Neal.

CONAN: In the meantime, though, the cause, as you suggest, is a noble one. Maybe a little guilt isn't such a bad thing.

Mr. SKONING: I think it is, frankly, and it certainly has me much more conscious about my own personal habits, but the reality is that navigating an eco-friendly lifestyle is a real challenge, and carbon guilt links around -lurks around every corner. For example, there's a Web site you can go to. I think all you need to do is Google carbon footprint and it will give you an online calculator where you can figure out your annual contribution in terms of tons of carbon into the environment. And you enter the year and make of your car, the miles per year you drive, monthly gas and electric bills and then the miles you have flown during the year on commercial aviation. I entered all those little bits of information and came up with an 11.5 ton carbon footprint that I contribute to the atmosphere every year. The national average is 7.5, so I concluded I really need to go on a crash carbon diet.

CONAN: You fly a lot for work, I gather?

Mr. SKONING: We fly a lot for work, and it's - I say it's unavoidable but it does make you think twice every time you get on an airplane.

CONAN: Hmm. And it's not just your car or your vacations you feel guilty about. Ultimately, I guess it's your job.

Mr. SKONING: Well it is. And that's what I'm talking about when I say every choice we make in life has sort of a carbon guilt factor hanging over it. And the other factor, I think, that's important to keep in mind is that all these individual sustainability initiatives are really working at the margins of a really global problem. The aggregate impact of our collective efforts will be an important contribution to combating climate change. But other issues - what are the Chinese doing? What is India doing? We can control bad environmental habits of emerging nations. And that's why Kyoto and Bali are so vitally important, not only for the treaty effect, but for the symbolism that they bring to the ongoing debate over controlling our carbon emissions.

CONAN: Well, that's thinking global, but what about acting local?

Mr. SKONING: Well I think everybody should be encouraged to act locally and individually. And frankly I think we, Americans, in particular, have been guilty of some really bad habits that are eminently correctible. I think of the campaign now where presidential candidates are jetting, crisscrossing the country in private jets, flying from Iowa to South Carolina and then New Hampshire, and when they arrive in New Hampshire having left a huge carbon footprint in the air, they're preaching about the importance of climate change and global warming and addressing those issues. There's some heavy irony that dances around that pattern.

CONAN: Were talking with lawyer Gerald Skoning. Gary Skoning is a freelance writer also in Chicago. He wrote an op-ed last month - "An Inconvenient Guilt: Confessions of a Carbon Bigfoot."

If you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255, 800-989-talk; e-mail is

And Bill is with us, Bill calling from Jackson in Wyoming.

BILL (Caller): Hi. I - my comment on this whole issue is that I think much more effective than the guilt trips is to appeal to people's pocketbooks. We too often ignore the fact that it's a lot cheaper in most cases to, you know, to protect the environment than it is to destroy it. These candidates that are flying by private jet could save their campaign a whole lot of money if they would fly on commercial, and they would also save a lot of carbon. And also, when you buy a solar panel it costs a lot of money, but for 40 years, it saves you electricity.

CONAN: Wouldn't you love to see Hillary Clinton or John McCain flying coach?

BILL: I sure would.

CONAN: And they could also do a little campaigning while they're in the air.

Mr. SKONING: Sure. You got 200 people in a captive audience, Bill.

BILL: Yeah.

Mr. SKONING: You're absolutely right. Economics are a major factor here. And I want to confess right now, I've never owned an SUV, I don't own a Hummer, and I've never even ridden in one, so I'm doing my part.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Bill.

BILL: No problem. Thank you.

CONAN: And here's an e-mail we got from Connie(ph) in Salt Lake City. It's good that environmental groups continue to call attention to the ways people waste energy and natural resources. However, activists should tell people two things each time they point the finger: specific steps to reduce an individual's impact on the environment, and the fact that if we would all do only a portion of the things we could do, the problem would be solved.

One of the things that - I happened to read that story about the one less candle for the menorah and also that study about the energy efficiency of living together and not getting divorced. And one of the - this phrase that popped up in both those stories is, it all adds up.

Mr. SKONING: I sure agree, Neal. The fact of the matter is that our own personal habits having a major impact on our environment in the aggregate and to the extent we can change those habits in minor ways, I think we can really make some progress in curtailing this major global problem.

CONAN: Fear, you write in your op-ed, is a great motivator. Some activists believe citizens will act only if they are terrified by the catastrophic global consequences of inaction.

Mr. SKONING: Well, frankly, when I saw "An Inconvenient Truth," that mental image of glaciers dissolving before my eyes has really stayed with me. It's a visual image that, I think, is frightening, and I think it should be frightening. And I think the combined effect of an Academy Award and a Nobel demonstrate that this initiative, this movement has such momentum and important momentum. As I said, I can't think of a movement in my lifetime which has garnered so much international attention. I was thinking the other - trying to think of one that has the same depth of conviction, and I was thinking back to the civil defense initiatives in the Cold War where people were building bomb shelters in their backyards and grammar - grammar school kids were drilling to hide under their desks in the event of an atomic blast, but I really can't think of a movement that's had this kind of grassroots and in corporate support.

CONAN: Gary Skoning is with us from Chicago.

Again, if you'd like to join us - 800-989-8255; e-mail is

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION coming to you from NPR News.

And let's get Ellen(ph) on the line - Ellen calling from Middletown in Connecticut.

ELLEN (Caller): Hi, Neal. How are you?

CONAN: Very well. Thank you.

ELLEN: I just wanted to say - well two things. One is that my sister started a company 17 years ago with the motto of cleaning up the planet one bag at a time. And she's been guilting me for 17 years to reduce and reuse and recycle. And it's an easy thing to do if you just do it incrementally. I think people get really freaked out about having to change every habit all at once. But even things like, you know, buying a big bag of chips and putting it in a little reusable container for my kids makes a big difference when you add up all those single-serving bags we don't use.

CONAN: So paper or plastic for you, Ellen?

ELLEN: Oh, you know, I use paper most of the time. We use the plastic bag very infrequently, and we bring canvas recyclable bags or those cotton string bags to the market. And, you know, our kids are telling their friends, why do you need all those plastic bags? They wind up in the streams and hanging from trees and, you know, our family does our little bit. We encourage our friends to do it, we give them as gifts, and, you know, it catches on a little bit at a time. People don't need to get overwhelmed by they have to do everything at once.

CONAN: You mentioned your kids. Kids are real enforcers on this, aren't they?

ELLEN: Oh, you know, they absolutely are. They're the ones who say, you know, why did you leave that light on? You're not in that room.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ELLEN: You know? Obviously their parroting what they're hearing, but they tell their friends if the friends are over playing, you need to turn off all the lights when you leave the basement, you know? So, clearly, they're hearing what we're saying, and they're more conscious of their use of energy around the house as well.


Mr. SKONING: Ellen, I've heard the same line and so it must be a universal principle.

ELLEN: Which one?

Mr. SKONING: The - you're not in that room. Why are the lights on?

ELLEN: Yeah, right. You know, the other one is, what, you've all - what, do you think I own stock in the electric company? But, you know, that was more my father's line than ours.

CONAN: This may change for a couple of years at the - about the age of 15.

ELLEN: Mm-hmm. Right, then they don't care.

CONAN: Then they don't care.

Mr. SKONING: Ellen, as a follow-up to your recycling of grocery bags and so on, another one that struck me that's very simple is dry cleaner wire hangers. Typically, equal…

ELLEN: Yeah, we send all those back.

Mr. SKONING: Exactly. You just take them back to the store, they're delighted because it cuts their overhead, and in the process you've saved a little bit of our landfill.

CONAN: And you stop poking holes in your plastic bags that you throw them out in.

Mr. SKONING: Right.

ELLEN: You know, and all those single serving, all of, like, the little yogurts for kids and all those individually packaged things. First of all, they're full of sugar, but that's another conversation. But the other thing is that they don't need them. You can buy a bigger container and put it in a little container and teach them to just wash it out and use it again rather than, you know, throwing all this junk away.

CONAN: You can wash it out and use it again. Teaching them to wash it out and use it again, that's another question. But, Ellen, thanks very much for the call.

ELLEN: Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: So long.

Let's see if we can get Frank(ph) on the line, and Frank is calling us from Eugene, Oregon.

FRANK (Caller): Yeah. Hi. I recycle and economize as much as I can, but, frankly, after taking some geology courses and what I've seen in terms of oceanography and study of climate change at the catastrophic event, I'm starting to feel that the humans on terra firma don't really make much of a difference. I mean, a methane hydrate deposit near a heat vent can produce an incredible amount of pollution in minutes. It's just a matter of the luck of the draw and what's going on with plate tectonics and sub-oceanic influences on the climate.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

FRANK: Unless I'm just over simplifying.

Mr. SKONING: No. Frank, that's a very interesting point, and it's one I've given a lot of thought to. There are other sources of carbon moving into our atmosphere that are kind of beyond our control - livestock, animals - the generation of methane from all those sources. Termites, I saw a figure years ago that production of methane by termites is just astronomical, so we have an issue we need to address on a macro-level as well as a micro-level. And I think, to a certain extent, with individual initiatives like this, we are working at the margins of the global problems you point out, Frank.

FRANK: Your point, though, regarding the research in terms of termites and methane from cattle, I think, speaks to the point of how much significant sub-oceanic research is going into global climate change in terms of finances? It would appear that the really good breakthroughs have been trickled down from military research on the ocean.

CONAN: Well, they're the ones interested in mapping it for one thing.

FRANK: Right.

CONAN: Well, thanks very much for the call, Frank.

FRANK: Thank you.

CONAN: And Gary Skoning, thanks very much for your time today.

Mr. SKONING: Delighted to be with you.

CONAN: Gary Skoning is a lawyer and freelance writer in Chicago. He joins us today from our Chicago bureau.

We have a link to the op-ed "Confessions of a Carbon Bigfoot" at It ran in the Chicago Tribune last month.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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