Sarah Fredericks

Eco-Guilt: How Feelings of Guilt and Shame Inhibit Environmental Action

Guilt and shame have long been associated with robbing one of happiness, but the two words—often used interchangeably—can also inhibit a person’s environmental actions, says Sarah Fredericks, assistant professor of environmental ethics in the Divinity School.

Fredericks, who joined the University of Chicago in 2015 from the University of North Texas, pursues research that examines the ethical implications of guilt and shame that comes from participating in environmental degradation.

“Sometimes, especially with shame, a person can feel so problematic that they want to hide and run away and not admit that they’re part of the problem, yet alone attempt to address it,” she says. “So they feel bad about things they have personally done and for things they’ve only contributed to a small bit like climate change.”

Fredericks’ exploration suggests that part of the environmental movement has shamed people into doing things through finger wagging or interrogation, which she says happens through social media or through the tactics of some environmental organizations. “So my work is trying to explore the practical effects and whether this technique is effective. And beyond being effective, is it morally good?” she says.

Such questions and insight are the work of an environmental ethicist, whose main tasks are observing what’s happening in the world, and recognizing the areas of ethical concern that others may have overlooked.

After those initial observations, part of the role of an environmental ethicist is to analyze what makes the particular phenomenon in question ethical. “I see the examination of ethical issues to not only raise new insights about how we ought to act, but also how to raise insights about how we’re actually perceiving the world and thinking through basic philosophical concepts.”

Another component to Fredericks’ guilt and shame research is focused on how people make decisions. “I’ve really been rethinking notions of responsibility and causation and the relationships between individuals and communities,” says Fredericks. “Part of my project is arguing that as people are feeling guilt and shame, it’s a signal that they are not as individualistic as many 20th and 21st century western philosophers have assumed people are. And, in fact, their individuality is bound up in that of their community.”

Fredericks’ interest in this particular area developed while she was in graduate school studying the interaction of science, philosophy, and religion. Her focus touched on theoretical work in the philosophy of physics and how that relates to conceptions of divine action. “I was getting frustrated because it seemed so far-removed from everyday experiences and practical problems,” she says. “So I decided to shift my focus to energy ethics and that came about because a lot of my interests had to do with basic means of generating electricity.”

Religions, she added, comes into play because it’s one of the many ways people express and develop their ethics and test them out in communities that connect to rituals and ancient traditions, which then connect to stories about meaning and purpose in people’s lives.

Author of 2013’s Measuring and Evaluating Sustainability, Fredericks is currently co-editing a book series titled Religious Ethics and Environmental Challenges. The series, she notes, addresses a proliferation of ideas and ways to encourage the field and push it forward in a more interdisciplinary, cross-cultural direction and interfaith approaches.

In addition to editing and focusing on guilt and shame, Fredericks is also answering big questions regarding environmental justice movements in urban and industrialized areas. Environmental justice, she explains, deals with particular groups who disproportionately experience burdens on environmental degradations without benefiting from whatever or whoever is doing the degradation.

“Studies here and abroad have demonstrated that environmental injustices are experienced by people of color more than any other demographic group, and by poor people,” she says. “This seems to be a basic failure of justice and of responsibility, and an incredibly important ethical concern.”

Among the specific issues she’s addressing include poor air quality rates leading to higher asthma rates in cities, as well as poisoned drinking water, and lack of access to clean soil to grow food or to even play safely.  “People of color and the poor are also more likely to live near toxic waste storage facilities and be at risk from toxins,” she says.

It’s this research that actually led her to a focus on guilt and shame. Questions such as what are people’s responses to recognizing they have contributed to such injustices indeliberately, how do they respond, how can they move forward, and lastly how can they clean things up, are at the forefront of this project.

“What would these sorts of things mean when we’re talking about environmental damages that maybe can’t be undone?” she asked. “And then how do we prevent the degradation from happening again?”

As her first year concludes at the University of Chicago, Fredericks is proud of being among other scholars and talented students from whom she’s engaged in many rich conversations.

“I’ve really been excited about the intellectual engagement at the University of Chicago,” adds Fredericks. “I feel like my ideas have been so fruitful. The only real challenge there is getting the time to write them all down.”

By Tanya R. Cochran