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How I Live with my Environmental Guilt: Reflecting on My Experience at SUNY Geneseo’s Climate March and How I Plan to Continue the Momentum


It’s almost impossible for me to not feel environmental guilt most times. When I am in need of a midday Starbucks pick-me-up but I don’t have my reusable cup, I internally cringe at myself. When I get a drink at a restaurant and forget to ask for no straw, I am disappointed with myself when it comes to the table with a straw already in it. Or when I forget to bring my reusable shopping bags to the store and get so much I can’t carry it out without a plastic bag, I blame myself for participating in a negative cycle of consumerism that justifies the use of plastic shopping bags. 


Environmental guilt is hard to deal with, especially when you care so much about fighting climate change. I think the important thing for those of us who experience environmental guilt to remember is that we are doing our best, and trying our best is better than complacently trying to do nothing.


Big companies are the worst offenders in terms of contributions to climate change, specifically in carbon emissions. This article by The Guardian talks about a report showing that just 100 companies are responsible for 71 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, top offenders including ExxonMobile, BP, Shell and Chevron. Forgetting a reusable cup on a Starbucks run won’t single-handedly destroy the planet, but it sure can feel like it.


Something that helped placate my environmental guilt was attending Geneseo’s Climate Rally on Sept. 25th by speaking up about environmental racism and bringing our concerns to administration. (Fun fact: it was also my birthday—who doesn’t attend a rally on their birthday??) It helped with my environmental guilt knowing that everyone who was there was also trying, and that together we could make a difference, even a small one. It allowed me to raise my voice for a cause I believe in, which felt very powerful. 


Going to the rally didn’t fully erase any feelings of environmental guilt, but attending, speaking my mind and hearing others speak their minds made me feel like individuals can make a difference again. It’s very easy to get discouraged when things get hard, but knowing that trying is half the battle makes things a little easier. 


Everyone with environmental guilt needs to band together and fight against these huge companies and institutions that contribute to high emissions, higher than any one broke college student could give off in their lifetime. One way us broke college students can make a difference is by petitioning SUNY Geneseo to make more of an effort to reduce their carbon footprint.


Don’t get me wrong, our college has made a lot of great efforts so far. In 2007 former President Christopher Dahl joined a coalition of colleges—American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment— who calculate their own carbon footprints, set dates for themselves to become carbon neutral and establish an action plan to achieve that. In 2012, the Environmental Impact and Sustainability Task Force was promoted to a President’s Commission by Dahl. In 2013, the college created an Office of Sustainability, featuring Dan DeZarn as the director. There is also a completely student initiated composting program on campus that is only a year old at this point!


(source - photo credit: Keith Walters)


At the same time, the campus has a long way to go. Academic and administrative buildings often light up the dark night with their lights on—and the custodians in each building are only there until midnight. If the college were to institute better practices to turn off lights after midnight, or even keep on half the lights or make them motion activated during the night hours, they could not only conserve a lot of energy but also save the college a lot of money—money in which they could devote to the Office of Sustainability, which consists of one professional staff member, a handful of minimum-wage paid student interns and a host of student volunteers from residence halls.


None of these changes can be made, however, unless we continue to make our grievances known on campus—one rally isn’t enough. At the end of the rally on the 25th, I announced to all of the attendees that we should go to the Dinnertime Conversations with President Denise Battles at Red Jacket Dining Hall on Wednesday Oct. 9 from  6 - 7 p.m., or to the lunch in Mary Jemison Dining Hall set for Nov. 18 from 12:30 - 1:30 p.m., as have been announced via email to every Geneseo student. These informal settings are great opportunities for the president to hear our voices and see how much we really care about the sustainability on campus. 


Environmental guilt is a lot, but I plan to offset my occasional straw or Starbucks cup usage by advocating for positive change on my college campus. I encourage all of you to find a way for you to advocate for change to offset your environmental guilt, all the while sipping water from our HydroFlasks (or an equivalent) like unabashed VSCO girls who give a damn about our planet!



Margaux (they/them) is a senior Women and Gender Studies major at SUNY Geneseo. Outside of Her Campus, they work at Geneseo's Office of Diversity and Equity, is on the executive board of Pride Alliance, and is an active Safe Zone trainer. They love to write about diversity, mental health, and environmentalism, with the occasional goofy topic or two (or five). Margaux hopes to someday be the coolest gender studies professor you will ever have.
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