Schmitt, M. T., Mackay, C. M., Droogendyk, L. M., & Payne, D. (2019). What predicts environmental activism? The roles of identification with nature and politicized environmental identity. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 61, 20-29.
In a nutshell: Environmental activism is directly influenced by a political identification but less so by an environmental identity
The authors of a recent article in the Journal of Environmental Psychology argue that previously reported associations between various psycho-environmental constructs and pro-environmental behaviour arise from (or amount to) a distinct social identification. The authors suggest that people feel kinship with nature and form a collective identity that can influence engagement in pro-environmental behaviors.
Research across a number of fields in psychology has also demonstrated that activist behavior may be more highly influenced by a politicized identity than collective identification. This supports the authors’ hypothesizes that:
- a ‘politicized environmental identification’ is a direct predictor of environmental activism;
- That this can explain an indirect relationship between collective identification with nature and environmental activism; and
- Moral obligation and perceived environmental threat also predict environmental activism.
The authors tested these hypotheses across three studies by comparing activist behaviors with green consumer behaviors, and found that:
- Politicized environmental identity strongly predicted both self-reported environmental activist behaviors and a willingness to participate in environmental activism;
- Identification with nature had an indirect relationship with activism that was mediated by politicized environmental identity;
- Moral obligation directly and indirectly influenced activism. While perceived threat indirectly influenced activism;
- Politicized environmental identity was a weak predictor of consumer behaviour;
- Moral obligation strongly predicted environmental consumer behaviour; and
- environmental identity predicted consumer behaviour
So what does this mean for promoting environmental activism? This research tells us that strengthening people’s connection to nature may well increase the likelihood of some biodiversity conservation behaviors, such as green consumption, but is likely also to be insufficient to promote environmental activism.
However, conservation campaigns could be made to be more effective by developing politicized environmental identities amongst the public and by strengthening a community’s sense of moral obligation. The authors note that “environmental activism is driven less by feeling a part of the natural and more directly motivated by feeling a part of a collective of people who comes together to create proenvironmental social change.”
Perhaps the recent student-led climate marches will provide a natural experiment; what proportion of these budding activists will continue to be environmental activists into adulthood, and what degree does future reinforcement of politicized environmental identities influence this retention rate?