Shame in One of the Happiest Countries in the World

While Australia is on fire and tensions in the Middle East are rising, holiday time is finished, and normal life in the Netherlands starts again. During a New Year’s get-together, we exchange good intentions, most of which will not last. Research shows that people drop out after 12 days. Not really surprising, because why should change your behaviour when you already are living in one of the happiest countries in the world?

Despite the fact that many will not be able to keep up their good intentions in the short term, we also see a striking trend, where a large group of people give their lives different meaning. And they really go to town on this. They want to enjoy more, meditate more frequently, work less hard, less stress, live in smaller spaces and travel more, walk regularly in nature, own and buy less stuff, and eat less meat. These wants can be traced back to two important subjects: the choice for well-being above prosperity and quality above quantity. They are joining a growing group of sustainable businesses that respond to their needs with climate-neutral houses, electronics with replaceable parts, subscriptions to borrow or rent clothing, apps that help you start meditating, or eating vegetarian food. We may well conclude that the growing awareness about sustainability is expanding and slowly becoming mainstream, for consumers and businesses. And that produces hope.

And, while I entered the new year full of positive energy, I read that The Word of 2019 was –shame. You can add the word -shame to all kinds of environmentally damaging choices. Think of flying shame, buying shame, or wood-burning shame. I was shocked, because shame espouses the fearful manifestation of disappointing another. Shame lavishes a negative effect on the intrinsic desire to take responsibility for positive change, and on all the uncertainties that come with it, because shame deters. I experienced that myself not much later on.

I had committed to eating plant food in January, yet I would remain flexible. With friends or family, I would eat what was served. Two days later, half a cow was laying on the table in front of me. My 11-year old son took to the floor and explained why he was not going to eat that animal. As though I heard myself talking: it was pathetic, bad for the environment, and not necessary at all. He continued, “My mother is only eating plants this month. And my dad, too.” As I desperately took a bite of meat, I felt a mixture of pride with regard to my son’s principles, guilty about eating the meat, and simultaneously shameful towards our host, who had been cooking for over three hours.

I thought about this uncomfortable incident for a long time. The feeling of shame, the little voice in your head that tells you exactly how to live your life, made me feel guilty despite my own conscious choice to eat flexible vegetarian foods. Actually, that works counterproductive. 

I propose that we leave the word -shame behind in 2019 and pour our energies instead into actively encouraging each other’s personal, sustainable choices in 2020.

Asceline Groot is ondernemer bij hetkanWEL, schrijfster van ‘Het Nieuwe Groen’ en PhD kandidaat aan de Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen. In haar columns schrijft zij over (start-up) sociale ondernemingen en trends en ontwikkelingen op het gebied van duurzaamheid.