As a communicator on climate change, I pay close attention to the starting points people use to talk about our climate crisis. There are a few problematic ones I see on a regular basis, but the one I want to discuss in this blog is the starting point of “blame and shame”.
On an interpersonal level, we don’t need a degree in psychology to know that blame and shame are not effective ways to resolve conflict. If someone says to you, “this is your fault, you are to blame”, what is the first thing you feel? If you agree, you probably feel a mixture of panic and shame. If you don’t agree, you probably still feel panic, with some anger and defensiveness rolled in.
Either way, blame is not constructive. It’s not the straightest path to finding a better way forward. Yet, I regularly see blame used as the starting point in conversations about the state of our planet.
“You have failed to act,”
“You have ignored the problem,”
“You have let this happen,”
“This is your fault.”
While these statements may be true, they are not constructive when discussing the climate crisis — for the same reasons they are not constructive on an interpersonal level. Just because the blame for the state of our planet is being directed at an amorphous group (governments, the private sector, capitalists, baby boomers– take your pick!), doesn’t mean it suddenly becomes an effective tool. It has the same effect of triggering emotional retreat or defensiveness, whether it is directed at one person or one million.
If our goal is to inspire action and solutions, and exchange business-as-usual for something much more sustainable, we need to stop using blame in our conversations about climate change.
Does that mean letting people in power off the hook for making bad decisions that are harming our planet? No, of course not. But if climate action and climate crisis solutions are the aim, we need to find ways of holding decision-makers accountable in a constructive way.
Blame versus Taking Responsibility for the Climate Crisis
I first learned the difference between blame and taking responsibility on a verypersonal level. About 10 years ago, I (finally) recognized an unhealthy pattern in my interpersonal relationships. When I figured out this pattern was a direct result of my choices, my first instinct was to blame myself.
Guess what effect that had? I felt worse. I felt defeated. I had no idea where to go from there. Then I heard a psychologist explain the difference between blame and taking responsibility. On the surface, they may seem to be the same thing, right? They do, until you put them into practice.
Blame feels like an angry finger pointed in your face with no desire to find a solution. Blame inflates a bad decision into a sense of failure, and goes the extra mile to assume bad intentions underlie the negative outcome in question. Blame feels like a conclusion.
Taking responsibility, on the other hand, feels more like a starting point.
It asks us to acknowledge decisions that weren’t the right ones to make, so that we can do better moving forward. When we take responsibility for something, a bad decision is just that — nothing more, nothing less. We can take responsibility for making a bad decision without feeling like a bad person. Try taking the blame for something without feeling bad about yourself.
Do you see the important difference?
Like a good boss who takes responsibility for the mistakes of their team, we can and should ask people in power to take responsibility for their organization’s role in degrading the health of our planet. We can ask them to acknowledge the negative consequences of their business-as-usual practices without vilifying their intentions or core mission.
This is the starting point we should be using in our tough conversations about the climate crisis. And while we are holding power to account, each of us can also acknowledge our over-consumption of fossil fuels, plastic, animal products (again, take your pick!) without vilifying ourselves.
Read my article on Managing Our Fears About the Climate Crisis.
Climate Crisis Solutions
Good people, good companies, good governments can (and do) make bad choices. Blaming each other for this won’t get us anywhere.
Instead, we all should take responsibility for our choices, acknowledge that we need to do better, and then move the conversation to inspiring sustainable, long-term climate action in our homes, our businesses, our governments, and our global economy.
It all starts with ending the climate crisis blame game. Are you with me?