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OPINION: The weight of eco-guilt on college students is too much

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Lauren Trench | The Daily Wildcat

Environmentalist's gather to protest climate change in El Presidio Park in downtown Tucson, Ariz., on Friday, Sept. 20, 2019. 

Most people have heard of climate change, whether they believe in it or not. For those who do believe that climate change is a threat that needs to be stopped, the statistics can induce a lot of anxiety. 

Just a quick glance at the United Nations research on climate change can quickly become overwhelming. I know that I read the sentence “Sea levels are rising, the Arctic is melting, coral reefs are dying, oceans are acidifying, and forests are burning,” and immediately wanted to click away. That was just in the second paragraph. 

The worrying statistics continued to fill the page and, in turn, they filled me with a lot of anxiety about the state of the world. The anxiety that I have felt about climate change since high school, when I first learned about it in detail, has led to a lot of guilt about how I personally contribute to climate change. 

This may sound familiar. You may want to reduce your carbon footprint by being more environmentally friendly, but soon you feel crushing guilt for every little thing you’re doing that isn’t sustainable. Eco-guilt is real, and it can be hard to combat while living on a college campus. 

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It makes sense to reflect on personal habits and to want to be more environmentally friendly. When you care about the problem, sometimes the gut reaction is to focus on what you can personally do to help stop it. 

There are so many things we know we can do to help slow climate change. Eat less meat, buy clothing from eco-friendly stores, reduce food waste, use less energy, scrutinize our water usage and use reusable shopping bags. The list goes on, and on and on. There are plenty of lists all over the internet that provide even more ideas on how to reduce your carbon footprint, including one that lists over 101 ways to do so. 

However, it isn’t easy to do all of these things perfectly, especially when eco-friendly alternatives can be expensive. For example, buying fast fashion from Shein or Wal-Mart is much cheaper than buying from a sustainable clothing brand. 

I found articles online that list “affordable” sustainable clothing brands, and when I went to search one of the websites mentioned, I found that it can cost $30 or more to purchase a plain T-shirt. It can be difficult to justify paying that price for a T-shirt as a college student, especially when Wal-Mart sells plain T-shirts at a much lower price. 

Another factor that can contribute to feeling eco-guilt as a college student is eating the food provided with a meal plan. I lived in a dorm my freshman year and only had consistent access to a microwave, so I relied heavily on food from the Student Union Memorial Center, which was included in my meal plan. 

It felt like everything I wanted to eat with my meal swipe was packaged in paper, plastic or another material that I would have to throw away. A bagel from Einstein Bros. Bagels comes in a plastic wrapper, meals from Panda Express come in a plastic container and the salads from Core come in a plastic box.  

Accumulating all of this waste over the course of a year in college can lead to a lot of eco-guilt. I know that it did for me, even when I was able to recycle some of my items. However, it’s important to recognize that our individual impact on the environment is negligible compared to corporations. 

The Natural Resources Defense Council reported that 71% of emissions are created by a total of 100 corporations. If just these 100 corporations used more environmentally friendly practices, it would reduce the severity of the climate crisis. Instead of pressuring consumers to scrutinize whether they’re living sustainably enough, we should place the pressure onto corporations. They’re the ones who really need to focus on being more sustainable. It would help all of us. 

Of course, this article isn’t intended to discourage anyone from attempting to reduce their carbon footprint. But it’s hard to feel motivated in the long term when your desire for living sustainably is your eco-guilt. Just do your best. 

It’s okay to forget your reusable grocery bag at home or to get food that comes in paper bags from a fast food joint. No one is perfect. You don’t have to feel guilty for not being eco-friendly with every single purchase or choice that you make. Allow yourself to make mistakes because making small imperfect changes is much better than feeling so much eco-guilt you decide to stop trying altogether. 


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Emma is studying English and creative writing. In her free time she likes hiking, baking and writing short stories.


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