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Self-identity and Connection to Nature

This blog was originally posted on the website Valuing Nature.

Wesley Schultz, a psychologist at the University of California, who specialises in the psychology of sustainable development, suggests that there is a spectrum of approaches to getting people to change their behaviour.

At one end of the spectrum, Schultz suggests the rational choice model, which emphasises egoistic motives for sustainable behaviour. Accordingly, if you are going to encourage someone to change their behaviour such that this becomes more sustainable, you’d better persuade them that this is in their own best interests. An example would be to persuade people to conserve energy on the grounds that this will reduce their energy expenditure.

At the other end of the spectrum, Schultz proposes the psychological inclusion model, which emphasises ecocentric (as opposed to egoistic) motives for sustainable behaviour. Those individuals who make behavioural choices based on ecocentric motivations do so because they feel a concern for other living things, other people, and other animals, perhaps. They have a more inclusive sense of self. That is, they identify with the natural environment to a greater extent. Identification with the environment is something that few mainstream environmentalists work with, but advertising agencies fully understand the power of getting people to identify with the goods that they are trying to sell.

Schultz’s work shows that most people are either unconsciously (or otherwise consciously, but without articulating this) connected to nature. He also shows that people with this connectivity are more likely to make behavioural choices that help the environment.

Many environmental campaigners are careful not to frame their demands in terms of what people ought, or ought not, to do. Building a moral case against something may well be a bad way to go about inspiring people to change their behaviour.

But the more ‘ecocentric’ people in Schultz’s studies aren’t making their pro-environmental behavioural choices because their decisions are more influenced by an understanding of what they ought to do. They are not people who are simply beating themselves up morally, and making themselves behave differently. They want to do things sustainably because their sense of self is bigger; much as I want to save my pet from being run over because I am attached to it.

playground-ashton-gate.jpg

Playground, Bedminster, Bristol, UK

I might want to buy a Prius because Leonardo Di Caprio drives one, or because it would represent a contribution to making my country more energy-independent. But equally, I might want, just as much, not to fly because I know that it damages the planet. The potential error is to imagine that a more ‘inclusive’ motivation for doing something (by which I mean one that includes a greater set of interests, myself, other people, and the whole of life on earth) necessarily equates with a sense of moral ought. It is not necessarily the case that this is behaviour that we don’t want to take and that we therefore have to be cajoled into taking.

This seems to present us with a series of choices.

Firstly, we might work to effect radical behavioural change, proportional to that demanded by the environmental crisis, through a scatter-gun approach relying on a plethora of egotistic motives. Some of these will be there for the taking (save energy, save money), others may need to be contrived in the face of public opposition (increase the tax on flights). This is the approach that many environmental groups take at present. By its very nature, it seems that making things appeal to an individual’s egotistical motives will make for a very fragmented set of environmental interventions.

Secondly, assuming the dominance of egoistic motivations, we might try to persuade people that they should make their choices with a series of ecocentric concerns in mind. This was how environmentalists used to work, and some still do (especially in the case of some faith-based groups working on environmental issues). It works where moral imperatives, and the spectre of guilt, hold sway. If we are to adopt this strategy, we’d better know that guilt has strong persuasive power with the audience that we are targeting.

Thirdly, we might work to uncover, and make explicit, the innate sense of connection to other living things that the work of people like Schultz suggests most of us have (unconsciously, or consciously but unarticulated). We might use this to develop peoples’ sense of self, such that this is more inclusive, in the expectation that people will then want to make behavioural choices with a broader set of interests at heart. (It then no longer makes sense to ask whether this behaviour is egotistic or not; people who make ecocentric behavioural choices do so because they identify themselves with other people, places and living things. Making things appeal to other peoples’ ecocentric concerns in this way will lead, by its very nature, to a more systemic set of interventions.

Tom CromptonSelf-identity and Connection to Nature