Facts will not win the war against catastrophic environmental breakdown, pandemics, wildfires and all. They bounce off the hard shells of our western middle-class identities. Learning about climate change et. al. isn’t enough. Even consciously engaging with the influence of our identities on our behaviour won’t cut it. Only education that helps to rebuild environmental identities will succeed. These are the findings of my postdoctoral research, now published in an article I wrote together with my EUC colleague Gera Noordzij for the Journal of Cleaner Production.
Radical change in behaviour
I started my research project at Aalborg University in 2017, just after the hottest year on record. This was the pre-Greta era, and certainly the pre-Covid era, but already it was plain to see that we were heading for a cascade of crises that would demand a radical change in behaviours at all levels. That many older folks show little interest in environmental issues, while disconcerting, is not entirely surprising. The idea of inter-generational solidarity is nice on paper, but it doesn’t cut any ice (excuse the pun) with a generation that has basically had it all – economic prosperity, access to housing, subsidized healthcare – and will be gone before the price really comes due. However, that many young people would still make individual and collective choices that will add up to a dangerously destabilized world within their lifetimes? That’s a harder circle to square.
I investigated two groups of students who went through what you could call ‘best practice’ sustainability education. One group was in an environmental planning programme in a project-based study in Denmark, and the other, right here at EUR, studying sustainability in an interdisciplinary, problem-based learning approach. My thinking was that if we look at the impact of best-practice sustainability education on changing mindsets and behaviour, then we can draw conclusions regarding young people who don’t have access to this kind of environmental education.
First, the good news: taking an interdisciplinary, problem-based, humanistic perspective on environmental breakdown really does help students to reflect systemically. Students who learned about sustainability in this way were less likely to indulge in ‘technofix’ fantasies and other greenwashed ways out of the crisis. But now comes the bad news: even with this systemic awareness of sustainability issues, and even with an understanding of the racial and socio-economic inequalities involved in these problems, students still did not want to change some of their most damaging behaviours.
To their credit, most of these students changed their eating behaviour to more sustainable habits. However, the minute I mentioned travel… that was the no-go zone. The American Dream is alive and well – house, kids, (electric) car and all – and now comes with an Instagram-friendly list of travel destinations and a high-adrenaline, high-environmental-impact bucket list. The students offered justifications that would make the founders of neo-classical economics proud: literal cost-benefit analyses in utility terms.
Western middle-class habitus
What did I conclude from this? That students’ concern for the environment forms part of a ‘moral identity’. This moral identity is part of a whole identity-package that’s been socialized into them since birth. In sociological terms, we call this package a ‘habitus’, and it’s reinforced by all the interactions we have in all the areas of our lives: family, school, clubs etc. For the sake of giving things names, we’re going to call this package ‘western middle-class habitus’. It’s not class in the classical Marxist sense, it’s more of a class-in-practice, as a result of the social interactions that we build up over time.
Being seen as a moral person, a person who does good things in the world, a person who is good, is an important part of that identity package. But so is being seen as a cosmopolitan, worldly, travelled person with a litany of exciting experiences to boot.
So what happens when the two are in conflict? Simple, it’s a number’s game – all students need to do is to ‘compensate’ the bad moral behaviour (i.e. polluting) with morally ‘good’ behaviours, such as going vegetarian. Or even things completely outside of the environmental register, like being a good friend or a good sibling.
This is a process I’ve called ‘bargaining’, and it happens very, very, very often. And companies know it, that’s why KLM now offers you a chance to ‘compensate’ for your flight with tree-planting projects. You don’t know that they will actually plant trees, or that this will actually be done in a sustainable way, but it helps the moral calculus. Still, even as we click the ‘compensate’ button, something doesn’t feel right.
My research showed that students do walk around with a guilty conscience and a feeling of unease, despite their utilitarian rationalizations. Because we know that these types of behaviour are not going to prevent catastrophic environmental collapse within our lifetimes. What will prevent this is comprehensive change at every level – system change, community change, individual change. To make such change happen, we need to engage at all levels. My students see the enormous gap between the changes they can make at the individual level and the broad, collective changes that need to happen, and often panic at the distance between them. I try to break down that distance by showing them that they do not need to go straight from one to the other: there are pathways that go through local collective action (starting a community garden, joining a local green party…) and global individual action (becoming a climate scientist, a climate journalist or film maker…) that make it far easier to make the step towards global collective action. We don’t all need to turn into Greta overnight.
But knowing where engagement is possible isn’t enough. We really need to tackle the identity problem. My suggestion, following from the work of Susan Clayton, is to help our students to move away from moral calculations about the environment. Instead, we need to help students to build a genuine attachment to nature. To appreciate and value nature not as a consumer, but as something we’re a part of and we can build meaningful relationships with. That’s a really difficult one for a lot of our young urbanites who have never put their hands in the soil.
One of the reviewers on this article wondered if exposing students to nature might not simply make them retreat into depression as they witness the state of decline of most environments. I strongly disagree. I draw inspiration from indigenous movements, looking at the strength of their environmental identity, the vigour of their environmental activist movements, and their commitment to changing things at every level. Their voices are often drowned out, not in least part because of racist prejudice (and in some cases destructive intent bordering on genocide, in Brazil for instance). But some of their voices are coming through in environmental education circles. I highly recommend reading Leanne Simpson’s book As We Have Always Done, if you want to learn about indigenous environmental identity and activism
Our conversations about environmental breakdown need move out of the theoretical realm. We have got to get our students out into the woods, the dunes, the fens and the prairies. Busy rewilding, busy growing things with their hands, busy observing the wild. Initiatives like Edible EUR are a great place to start, but this needs to be much more systematic across the university. And since we can’t congregate indoors anymore, why not use this opportunity to take our classrooms into outdoor spaces, instead of retreating further from nature into our computer screens? If my thinking on environmental identity is correct, then engaging in the garden is not a substitute for personal and political action, but a prelude to it.