How individuals care for the environment

Editor’s note: Emily Huddart Kennedy is the author of Eco-Types: Five Ways of Caring about the Environment. This is an edited version of an article and Q&A titled “Which of these five eco-types are you.”

When it comes to environmental politics there’s a tendency to associate the left as pro-environment and the right as anti-environment, but a University of British Columbia (UBC) sociologist says this polarization might slow down our collective progress on environmental issues.

In her new book Eco-Types: Five Ways of Caring about the Environment, Emily Huddart Kennedy, an associate professor in UBC’s faculty of arts, proposes five new categories to describe how people interact with the environment. The work is based on research she conducted from 2015 to 2017 where she conducted over 60 interviews and conducted survey research in all 50 U.S. states.

Q&A with Emily Huddart Kennedy

What drew you to this work?

I started this project to understand the place of the environment in people’s lives – with the assumption that I’m not out there to find out who cares about the environment, but how people care about the environment. 

What are the five different ‘eco-types’ you found?

  1. The eco-engaged, who tend to be politically liberal, feel super intensely about the environment and they’re very worried. They think everybody should do everything they can to protect the environment and they think that they’re doing a good job.
  2. The self-effacing share the eco-engaged’s characteristics and concerns except they have a strong sense of doubt in their own capacity to protect the environment. They often feel guilty and sad.
  3. The optimists, who are often politically conservative, are confident in their relationship with the environment, doubt the severity of environmental problems and resent insinuations that they don’t care.
  4. The fatalists are pessimistic about environmental decline and feel little responsibility to adopt environment-friendly habits because they believe that corporations and governments hold control.
  5. The indifferent are the smallest proportion of the sample. They are people who have a low level of interest in the environment. They don’t feel capable of deciding how serious environmental issues are because they feel ill-equipped to make that sort of diagnosis.

Is the focus on depoliticizing the approach to the environment? 

I see this less as depoliticizing and more like taking a step to move us away from polarization.

Ever since the 1970s when we started looking at people’s relationships to the environment, their concern, engagement and behaviors, we’ve always seen political differences. But even in the 1970s, when these differences existed, we also passed some of the more comprehensive legislation than ever before or ever since.

I think that political differences can exist alongside passing proactive environmental policy. And I see this as an opportunity to look at some important common ground that we have. The common ground is that everyone cares about the environment.

Why is it important to go beyond left vs. right?

It has to do with the way we are communicating environmental issues to the public. Whether it’s messaging on voting or lifestyle decisions, I think that a lot of that messaging tends to really speak to the more left-leaning eco-engaged and self-effacing ecotypes. Environmental messaging often doesn’t speak to the optimists, the fatalists or the indifferent. So, this new framework could help create appeals around the environmental movement to engage more conservatives in addition to liberals.

Could this impact how we interact with each other about the environment?

I think this could help build consensus on the environmental movement across categories of political difference. If you encounter someone who you sense has a different orientation to the environment than you have, this could hopefully help you not make a moral character judgment of that person, but instead feel some curiosity about why they have the relationship to the environment that they do.