This blog was originally posted on the website Valuing Nature.

What is an ecological identity?

I just re-read a paper, ‘Constructing and Maintaining Ecological Identities: the Strategies of Deep Ecologists’ by Steve Zavetoski in a book entitled ‘Identity and the Natural Environment’. Steve contributed a comment to this site a while back.

The paper explores whether an ecological identity can be a meaningful concept, given that our self-concepts (“the sum of all the individual’s thoughts about her or himself as an object”) are shaped by social interaction. Such an identity would require, in Steve’s view, some part of us being able to “anticipate the reactions of the environment to [our] behaviour”.

Presumably, this need mean nothing more than an ‘empathy’ with the environment or another species. Clearly, such empathy is possible – WWF use it to prick the consciences of people we communicate with all the time; it’s generated by pictures of polar bears floundering around looking for an ice-flow to clamber onto, or stories of the resurging fortunes of a previously dying river. This doesn’t, presumably, require us to go as far as John Seed – a campaigner for rainforest protection and deep ecologist – who reminds himself that he is “part of the rainforest protecting itself. I am that part of the rainforest recently emerged into human thinking”. Nonetheless, empathising with a polar bear and feeling like part of the rainforest may be different points on the same continuum?

Steve suggests that ecological identities seem to emerge, in part at least, “from direct experiences in nature that reframe individuals’ experiences of themselves in light of a connection to a natural world that is exogenous to culture or society”. But, crucially, Stephen points out that while identities may not necessarily be products of social interaction, their persistence requires social affirmation.

There is clearly a difference between identifying with a polar bear because it is socially desirable for you to do so (your friends all identify with it), and identifying with a polar bear because, absenting a social context, you feel empathy with it (even if you then need the affirmation of a social context to maintain and respond to this empathy). Intuitively, I feel the latter is possible. But the evidence for being able to make this distinction (Steve draws on the ideas of William James and George Herbert Mead) isn't clear.

Steve then goes on to make a fascinating distinction. He suggests that there might be two ways in which an ecological identity could be validated (and ensuing behavioural choices affirmed). One is through social response (some social groups affirm a choice not to fly, for example), and so membership of these groups confirms one in this decision. The other is through a response from nature (there is a discernable environmental impact of our decision). But in the case of a decision like not to fly, Steve writes: “because the incremental impact of our decision has on lessening global warming is not detectable…, we cannot expect a meaningful reaction from nature.” He therefore concludes that the only way an ecological identity can be significant (at least for addressing a diffuse problem like climate change) is through the social context in which it is held.

Three possible motivations for taking personal action on climate change

On my reading of this, there are three possible motivations for taking individual action to contribute to mitigating climate change (however imperceptibly):

1. As part of our social identity. (It becomes socially unacceptable to fly, so most of us stop; we do so without the need for the involvement of any sense of ecological identity). This is where most NGOs campaign today – it would be typified, for example, by highlighting a celebrity who makes a ‘life-style choice’ to fly less.

2. As part of our ecological identity, validated socially. (We come to feel individually uncomfortable about flying because we empathise with an environment under threat, but this empathy is validated socially – in ways that it generally isn’t at present). Mainstream environmental NGOs do not work – so far as I can see – to directly validate an emerging ecological identity, as a deliberate change strategy (although their marketing departments often elicit empathy to recruit new supporters).

3. As part of our ecological identity, validated through a response from nature. (Steve suggests this won’t happen for a diffuse environmental problem like climate change).

Might an ecological identity itself become a possible motivator, without further social validation?

I’m not sure Steve is right to discount (3) above.

I recently spent an hour on the banks of the Thames in Central London, with someone who brought the river alive to me. Until then, I had often crossed the river, and seen nothing but a grey-brown canal that I assumed to be pretty much lifeless. But hearing from someone who was passionate about the invertebrate and fish life, and the heritage of the river, meant that I went away empathising with the river as an entity that was ‘struggling’ to regain its life. Now, when I am miles away in our offices in Surrey, I have become more careful about conserving water – even though I know rationally that running the tap as I clean my teeth at work will have no discernable effect on the health of the Thames. (In fact, I am doing this as an act of faith - although our water company’s website urges its customers to save water, it says nothing about where our water comes from, and I gave up on my telephone enquiry after 8 minutes on hold; so I don’t actually know that saving water in Godalming, Surrey, helps reduce abstraction from the Thames river-basin).

Of course, everything I do is clearly done, and reflected upon, in a social context (and it was only in talking to another person, who understood the ecology of the Thames, that I came to see it differently). But my point is, here seems to be an example of my responding to an ecological identity without the validation of any group of people with whom I am continuing to interact. There was just something natural and human about my coming to empathise with a river that I had been helped to appreciate and empathise with (I don't think of myself as a 'deep ecologist'). I think this response would be usual - indeed the person who showed me the river testified to having generated similar responses in dozens of other people, from stockbrokers to school-children.

Are environmentalists missing something?

Whether or not a real distinction can be drawn between (2) and (3) above, it seems that large environmental NGOs may be missing something. We are not, by and large, working to provide the cues that might be needed to nurture the emergence of an ecological identity (legitimising the responses we have in direct experience of nature, for example). Nor are we providing the social context which would legitimise an emerging ecological identity (other, perhaps, than where we do so for fund-raising purposes). As Steve concludes:

“[R]ather than concerning ourselves with the precise origin of ecological identities, we might do better to focus on the ways that current social structures and social meanings prevent ecological identities from becoming more important and more salient identities in a wider range of individuals.”

There is much that environmental NGOs could do to address this problem.

There is work to be done to legitimise ecological identity in public life; to encourage celebrities not just to drive Priuses, but to explain their motivations for driving them (particularly where these arise form an ecological identity) and to encourage debate about such motivations; to support public figures who are willing to articulate what their own sense of ecological identity means to them; and to find new ways of communicating with people that helps nurture a sense of ecological identity.