The Consumer Choice of Guilt

At times, environmentalists scrutinize themselves to the point of burdensome guilt. 

We were standing in the middle of EcoEgo, a store in Copenhagen, huddled between hemp long sleeves and Maggie’s organic socks. The Green LLC packed into this eco-preneur’s shop in an attempt to identify an environmental place within consumer culture. We listened to the owner passionately describe the high caliber of socially and environmentally sustainable products. Not only was the entire store furnished and built from reused, recycled materials, but they also calculated their carbon footprint from the smallest lamp to the carbon cost of shipping. (If you are interested, download the North App to calculate your individual carbon footprint). In the middle of his discussion on purchasing offsets, he spoke of what often remains unspoken. Something that I had felt all along from living in a sustainable community, one dedicated to accountability.

He spoke of negativity and guilt embedded within environmentalism.

I was intrigued. What is the role of negativity in inspiring change? Environmentalists have always needed to hold this duality within us—both negativity and positivity side by side. The ability to point out the ways anthropocentrism has destroyed the planet, while maintaining the hope that it still might be saved. It is a tension that results in a deep feeling, an ineffability of experience, a recognition of the pain that is already felt due to climate change. It exists both in the past and into the future, while it must be solved in the present. And here lies the dark side of environmentalism, a dark ecology as Timothy Morton puts it. Forcing us to imagine a future shaken by the ramifications of what we as humans have done. A future that is dystopian and bleak, to shake our minds from complacency, to tell us that it is unacceptable to enter into that future knowingly, that it is our collective responsibility to change.

Yet, I would argue that negativity and guilt are two different things. While negativity has a role in determining the way our past harms our future generations, I question the value of guilt. Guilt is predicated upon blame. While taking responsibility is necessary in a geo-political sense, oftentimes shame proliferates as stagnation, especially on the intrapersonal or interpersonal level. An overwhelming guilt is often not accepted, it is deflected, it inspires defensiveness and divisiveness in the very moment when we need unity. It can become so heavy that we are dragged into an abyss of inaction. When analyzing climate guilt on the individual scale alongside the urgency necessary for change, I question its worth.

Sadness is certain in such apocalyptic predictions, but the aftermath of such feeling is care. In the wake, once we recognize the dark reality that our future is already upon us, in places that are neither distant nor unnoticed, we must give care. There is no time for hurt or accusations, only responsibility and love. For when we feel care for the person beside us, we have the courage to forge community, we have the courage to share knowledge and memories, we have the courage to fight for our future.

All we can do is try. Every moment of knowledge we gain from sharing with each other makes us a little stronger, eases each bit of guilt. Because when we know what choices we are making we give ourselves power. We must have faith in our ability to learn from each other to make the right choice. It is about habit forming; it is about knowledge and having consumer choice.

A vertical farm structure with plants growing inside
IMPACT FARM Copenhagen provides hand-on experience in urban agriculture and hydroponic cultivation for the students of health and nutrition. They are now actively contributing to the maintenance and development of their own vertical farm and food hub.

So, in the effort of sharing and forging community across distances, I will share a bit of what I have learned about a few urban sustainable food producers and companies that address consumer choice and accessibility in urban environments. In her Ted Talk, Carolyn Steel describes a ‘sitopia’ with food as the tool to reshape our world. Food as a way of life that is not distant—it is not a utopia that is always in the future. It is here, where networks in which food is grown locally, are a part of the landscapes, not a yield-based commodity. She delves into the ways that food has shaped our cities in order to re-conceptualize how food shapes our lives. Oftentimes cities, and the humans within them, are separated from their most important necessity—food. 

In Copenhagen urban agriculture has emerged in many forms from ØsterGRO, to Tagtomat reconnecting the consumer with its production. A greenhouse sits in Nørrebro as a highly efficient agriculture system, employing recycled rainwater collection in a closed loop system (saving 70-85% of the water used for its irrigation). The greenhouse employs vertical farming technology to hold a high concentration of plants in a compact place. It is naturally integrated into the neighborhood yet is a main fixture of the community. Eating and learning events draw community members of all ages. These concepts are not too far from home in America’s first urban agrihood (check out The Michigan Urban Farming Initiative). The Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations offers other valuable statistics on hunger food access and sustainability globally. Local also implies a reduction in the amount of transportation necessary to ship food across the world, lowering the carbon footprint of our meals. Eating foods that are locally in season was a concept that I had not fully contemplated before coming to Copenhagen as an additional more ecological approach to consumption.

Beyond Coffee was another company that allowed me to re-envision our chain of consumption and recognize how to enter into a more circular economy. A circular economy prioritizes the reduction of waste and the continual use of resources. This company used wasted coffee grounds to grow oyster mushrooms and lion’s mane mushrooms in storage containers in the city. They sell their mushrooms to restaurants like NOMA, considered by some to be the world’s best restaurant. NOMA is a part of the New Nordic Food Movement which is a recent trend in restaurants toward traditional Nordic foods, in terms of gastronomy, with a prioritization of health and ethical production. Alongside this place based discussion of urban agriculture I would note the inaccessibility of places like NOMA and the way that urban agriculture in some instances may contribute to forces such as gentrification. However, places such as the MUFI movement in Detroit proves to us that food access and community building can and should go hand-in-hand, wherever possible.

Mushrooms grow out of hanging black bags
Mushrooms growing from used coffee grounds

Yet it was the urban honey producer Bybi that opened my eyes to the potential that cities hold as future green, ecological food producing spaces. The owner talked of the way nature returns to a place, is called back to a lost land, through the simple act of flowers. In planting those flowers, we call to the honeybee. Animals and plants will follow. For when we make space for our world, nature begins to creep back in. In bringing life back into a space that had been designed to be separate, we may usher in a community of creation. For honey is not a passive product, it is all about the love between the bee and its flower and the interaction that sustains their care. In this way, we may begin to see humans not as a passive consumer, rather as interconnected part of a colorful community that must sustain care, for each other and for all else. In recognizing our potential for destruction, we also may see our deep potential for creation.  

Jars of honey stacked on a windowsill

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