If someone looked in your grocery cart, saw the car you drive, or noted your recycling habits, would they think you care about the environment? Is this caring about the environment? For some people, yes. But consumerism is not the only way to take care of the planet.
After studying Americans’ environmental beliefs and behaviors, I found that when people reduce their definition of who cares about the environment to eco-friendly consumption, they exacerbate political polarization.
A majority of Americans appreciate efforts to buy products presented as being better for the planet, want to be seen as environmentally friendly, and use consumer choices to gauge people’s concern for the environment. Our social status, or our relative worth to others, is enhanced by the transmission of our ethical commitments as much – and sometimes even more – than by ostentatious displays of wealth. For example, driving a Hummer may earn less respect than driving a hybrid or electric vehicle, because the latter shows that you care about the environment.
Sociologist Cecilia Ridgeway describes our semi-conscious struggles for respect and recognition as “status games.” In these games, people earn “points” when they act in a way that matches the values of their social group.
I thought about the notion of Ridgeway’s status games while watching “The Good Place,” a popular television comedy created by Michael Schur. In the show, the protagonists experience an elaborate point system that dictates who spends their afterlife in the “right place” and who spends it in the “wrong place”.
The surprising twist (spoiler alert) is that no one has arrived in the right place in over 500 years – not since the rise of industrialism. Why? Because our consumption choices accumulate negative points due to the way these choices affect the environment.
Part of “The Good Place”‘s popularity was perhaps its ability to metaphorically convey how many people feel about their consumer choices. People feel proud and virtuous when shopping at a farmer’s market, riding a bike to reduce their car, or after installing solar panels in their homes. These actions reflect both a genuine desire to reduce environmental impact and an ability to play a status game well.
If everyone accepted the rules of this status game, it probably wouldn’t be a driver of political polarization. But the terms of the game are disputed by many conservatives.
Describing how status and political ideology work together, David Brooks wrote in The Atlantic that “classes struggle not only from the top down, against the richer and poorer groups on their own scale, but against their opposite partisan across the ideological divide”. This perfectly characterizes what I observed when I asked people to tell me what it is like to care about the environment. High-ranking Liberals replied, “Sounds like me,” describing their efforts to recycle, install solar panels and reduce meat consumption. Lower status liberals told me it sounded like people they knew who were mindful of reducing the impact of their drinking.
But senior Tories told me they resent Liberals who tell people to cut back. They said concern for the environment should reflect their actions, emphasizing their love of nature and the time they spend enjoying the local trails, rivers and landscapes. These conservatives challenged the status of eco-friendly liberals by accusing them of being hypocritical (eg, flying around the world while telling people to use fewer disposable plastic water bottles).
Lower-status conservatives told me that no one cared enough about the environment to protect it. They despised eco-friendly consumption because they saw it as a corporate gimmick – something corporations do to distract us from all the damage they cause to the environment.
The divide between liberal and conservative concerns for the environment in general, and climate change in particular, is wider in the United States than in any other country. This must change.
The recent law containing important climate provisions, the Inflation Reduction Act, was an unexpected step forward after years of delays and backtracking in climate policy. But fighting for the virtues of the ecological status game prevents the adoption of more ambitious – and necessary – climate policies at all levels of government.
How to get out of the impasse?
We have to accept that our adversaries care about the environment. Because they do. They just do it differently.
Research shows that liberals are more willing than conservatives to make sacrifices to protect the environment, regardless of how calls for environmental protection are framed, so their respect for conservative ways of being caring about the environment would not be a setback.
Liberals could make a significant contribution to environmental protection by respecting the way Conservatives care about the environment. And conservatives need to stop making fun of green consumption.
Efforts to reduce consumption take time, money and effort. To accuse someone of hypocrisy is to hold them to an impossible standard – as we can see in “The Good Place”. Because of the way we work, heat, cool and power our homes and travel from place to place, each of us uses resources from the environment in everything we do.
Efforts to reduce our impact should not be mocked but respected and valued.
As long as our society is organized in such a way that we consume resources – water, forests, fish, minerals, fossil fuels, etc. – at the current rate, we will exceed the carrying capacity of the Earth and undermine the survival of our own and many other species.
Civil society must be a strong and united voice to demand and participate in changing the way our society interacts with the environment. Each of us can play a role in achieving this goal by respecting the various ways of caring for the planet.
Emily Kennedy is Associate Professor and Associate Head in the Department of Sociology at the University of British Columbia (UBC) and author of the recently published Eco-Types: Five Ways of Caring about the Environment (Princeton University Press).
#green #choices #sound #good #play #role #political #polarization