Toward Eco-Social Justice
The disconnection and buried shame that hold us back.
When it comes to the mess of plastic in the oceans, human beings are often portrayed as parasitic consumers who thoughtlessly harm the Earth out of selfishness or ignorance. And people are quick to point fingers. But blaming individuals is not the way to tackle the plastics problem. Consumption is a result, not the root cause. People often consume to overcome unhappiness (and greenwashing capitalizes on this impulse).
Most importantly, though, blame often triggers shame, which makes people withdraw, writes Brené Brown, who researches shame and courage at the University of Houston. At a time when collective action on tackling plastics is critical, shame can disempower the very people who care most about the environment and their impact upon it. In her book Daring Greatly, Brown writes, “Shame can only rise so far in any system before people disengage to protect themselves. When we’re disengaged, we don’t show up, we don’t contribute, and we stop caring.”
Instead of seeing plastic as a shameful personal failing, what if we shift our focus to the inequality that plastic highlights? While some people do consume and dispose of way too much single-use plastic, for others, cheap plastic is the only affordable option for things like clean drinking water, diapers, or other basic necessities. The choice about whether to use plastic or a healthier, eco-friendly alternative is often a privilege. Shaming people for what they can’t afford is unhelpful, especially when plastic production, use, and disposal disproportionately harm poor people in the first place.
Andy Fisher, who teaches ecopsychology online at the Pacifica Graduate Institute in California, explains that shame is already a dominant emotion in the U.S. because our capitalist-colonial society is structured to be loveless, oppressive, and disintegrated. Social hierarchies are dehumanizing, and people are made to feel as though they lack value based on factors such as race, class, or gender. Making matters worse, it is shameful to feel shame in our society, so the emotion is often repressed. Nobody wants to admit to not feeling good enough.
“This unbearable, hidden shame then gets played out in countless directions, including addiction, domestic and racial violence, consumerism, selfies, conspiracy theories, populism, and storming the U.S. Capitol—all of which aim to supply the terribly missing sense of meaning, worth, connection, and community,” Fisher says. “The desire to connect is basic and strong in us; we are hypersocial creatures.” Fisher explains that people need to reconnect to the environment and to each other in order to bring the repressed shame to the surface and to heal. “It’s just hard to reconnect with so much shame, trauma, and structural impediments blocking the way,” he says.
When we understand the impact social structures have on our lives, Fisher says, we are able to see that it is not us personally but the system which creates the pain. Brené Brown puts it this way: When we can see that we are operating within an unjust system that shames people through cultural norms, we can choose not to play along. We can instead choose to change that system.
This is a call for eco-social justice: acknowledging how factors such as racial injustice, colonialism, and capitalism have created social divides as well as environmental disasters like plastic waste. Reconnection opens people up to forming new relationships and discovering new shared ways of being. The satisfaction of reconnecting—to one another and the Earth—will naturally reduce our perpetually unfulfilling drive to consume.
“This takes imagination,” says Shelley Sacks, a professor at Oxford Brookes University in the U.K., who uses art in the form of “social sculpture” to work toward ecological citizenship and social transformation. She agrees that shame is unhelpful. Instead, she says transformation comes from enabling people to reconnect with broader ecologies. Her work ties together internal systems change and external action. “Slowly, as we develop new eyes for the world, we are moved … mobilized internally. And responsibility, instead of being a duty, becomes an ability to respond.”
She calls it response-ability.
While shame constrains us into narrow social roles and motivates us to consume, healing and reconnection enable us to explore both our own value and that of all beings. It is this value which recognizes our innate power and motivates us to make a difference. By engaging, we can explore our buried shame, heal our wounds, and use our power to tackle the plastic problem at its core.