Which environmentalist are you?

There is no doubt that society is politically polarized on many dimensions of environmental protection. The gap has widened in recent years between Conservative and Liberal voter support for public spending on environmental protection, belief in climate change and support for climate policy.

Research suggests that conservatives tend to be more enamored with capitalism and industrialization and more likely to oppose threats to economic growth. When environmental policy is presented as anti-growth, conservatives may be wary of it.

We also know that fossil fuel companies have invested heavily in disinforming the public about climate change – particularly targeting conservative voters and exacerbating it on social media.

But political polarization over the environment also has a much more emotional, personal, and resolvable side: failing to recognize how people from all political backgrounds care about the environment differently.

In my recently published book, « Eco-Types: Five Ways of Caring about the Environment », I present the most common relationships with the environment that I have encountered in my research:

  • Eco-committed, politically liberal people with high cultural capital care about the environment by having solar panels on their homes, driving electric cars, and shopping at farmers’ markets.
  • The Self-Effacing are also liberal but have less cultural capital. They care by trying to use less plastic, recycle their waste and eat less meat, but they wish they could do more.

  • Optimists are politically conservative and have high cultural capital. They care about the environment by spending time in nature, teaching their children about local plants and animals.
  • The Fatalists are politically conservative, young and have little cultural capital. They care in thinking and talking about greed and excessive consumerism and the failures of corporations and governments to uphold the common good.
  • The Indifferent, who tend to be older political conservatives. They have little connection with the environment, although they want to see it protected and admire those who garden, ride bicycles and have solar panels.

Because these ecotypes can be organized along lines of political ideology and cultural capital, slandering or ignoring them can lead to both class and political polarization on the environment.

What can we do about it?

First, instead of judging a person’s behaviors or attitudes toward environmental issues, we can become curious about why they believe or act the way they do. And we can be sure that if we had grown up in the same circumstances, we would probably think and do the same.

Second, we can remember that everyone cares about the environment, even if we don’t like the way some people demonstrate it.

When we blame individuals for complex issues like climate change, it diverts our attention from actors and institutions that should be doing less to harm the environment and more to protect it. It divides civil society at a time when we need to be united.

Turns out, something we all share is an appreciation for this amazing planet we live on.

Emily Kennedy is Associate Professor and Associate Chair in the Department of Sociology at UBC.

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