Are We All Environmentalists?

Headshot of Dr. Emily Huddart and cover of her book, Eco-Types
Dr. Emily Huddart had a burning question: Why were well-educated urban liberals, particularly women, consistently identified as the primary champions for environmental concerns? This led her on a five-year research journey investigating human-environment relationships and the dynamics of environmental polarization, and culminated in her book, Eco-Types: Five Ways of Caring about the Environment. In September 2023, Re.Climate invited Dr. Huddart to discuss her research with us. Here’s what we learned.

Watch the entire “Are We All Environmentalists? Five Ways People (Do and Don’t) Care about the Environment” webinar.

Key Takeaways from the Webinar

Dr. Huddart, Associate Professor and Associate Head of Sociology at the University of British Columbia, introduced several theories that aimed to explain human-environment relationships, such as Human Exceptionalism Paradigm (HEP), the New Ecological Paradigm (NEP), and Dr. Schultz’s values framework. However, she pointed out that these theories didn’t fully capture the complexities of people’s relationships with the environment. She also mentioned Yale’s Six Americas framework, a resource for climate communicators, which categorizes people into various levels of concern, from the highly concerned to the disengaged, without providing a clear understanding of the underlying factors influencing these behaviors and values.

Dr. Huddart proposes using eco-types as an alternative framework to address these gaps. Eco-types, as Dr. Huddart explained, draws inspiration from the idea that various groups within a species adapt to thrive in diverse environments. To put it simply, she suggested that each person’s connection with nature is influenced, not only by values, but also by their own life experiences, what they believe is important, how they see the world around them, and what they are capable of doing. Because of these differences, she categorized people into five eco-types:

Eco-Engaged: Individuals who passionately believe in environmental protection, actively supporting government policies, reducing their own carbon footprint, and encouraging others to do the same.

Self-Effacing: Those who share the eco-engaged beliefs, but feel limited in their ability to make a significant impact.

Fatalists: Individuals who attribute environmental problems to corporate control and therefore do not consider themselves morally responsible for change.

Optimists: Those who doubt there is a climate crisis but also believe their environmental commitment is unfairly vilified.

Indifferent: This less common eco-type is those who prioritize other concerns over environmental issues.

Dr. Huddart noted that these eco-types, unfortunately, do not co-exist harmoniously but all fight for recognition and respect in a hierarchy that assigns different levels of status based on one’s environmental values. At the top of this hierarchy are individuals with high status, often aligning with political liberals who come from well-educated, higher-income backgrounds. At the bottom, there are conservatives from various demographics. This hierarchy even intersects with their emotions towards the environment and others. Those at the top feel proud (Eco-Engaged), while those in the middle (Self-Effacing) feel guilty or ashamed. Those at the bottom may feel disengaged (Indifferent and Fatalists), and some are angry or resentful (Optimists). The different emotions show how much privilege a group has and how much they accept or reject this hierarchy.

Dr. Huddart thinks that one key factor that has played a huge role in the development of this hierarchy is the rise of lifestyle movements, which prioritize engagement with consumers and the market as a means of social change, diverging from traditional social movements that focus on direct state intervention. This shift has had significant implications for how we perceive and address environmental issues. Consumption of eco-friendly products and lifestyles became “moral” choices, with media, including documentaries, playing a key role in reinforcing this moral dimension.

Dr. Huddart shared the following takeaways for climate communicators:

  • Climate communicators should think of affective polarization as white noise drowning out proper communication. Rather than character judgments consider WHY someone might have a certain relationship to the environment.

  • Ignoring the role of hierarchical social structures means obscuring the role of the powerful actors that benefit from people in civil society disliking and distrusting one another.

  • When people oppose climate action, they may actually be challenging the status hierarchy in order to avoid the risk of being disrespected and dehumanized.

  • If it is not possible to dismantle the hierarchy by fostering respect for diverse orientations to the environment, then communicators should better facilitate upward movement within the hierarchy by removing obstacles to climate action such as reducing energy use.

  • Climate communicators should consider the five eco-types when addressing eco-anxiety. Each eco-type experiences climate anxiety differently—while the Eco-Engaged feel physical and emotional distress after extreme events, Optimists perceive the impact of extreme events as discomforts and tend to focus on non-personal harms.

  • Each eco-type is drawn to a specific sort of misinformation. For example, Eco-Engaged individuals can fall for greenwashing while Fatalists may be drawn to conspiracy theories. Optimists may be more prone to fossil fuel misinformation.

  • It’s important to accept a degree of moral relativism when discussing individuals—not corporations—and their relationships with the environment. Keep in mind that an individuals’ self-perceptions may not always be realistic. For instance, research has revealed that the carbon footprint of the Eco-Engaged, despite their eco-friendly perception, can often be higher than other eco-types. This can be attributed to factors like larger homes and frequent flying.


Are We All Environmentalists?
Five Ways People (Do and Don’t) Care about the Environment

Webinar Recording

We’re excited to share that there’s a discount code for Dr. Emily Huddart’s book, Eco-Types: Five Ways of Caring about the Environment, available until December 30, 2023. Simply use the code KEN30 and get 30% off when purchasing the book directly from the publisher, Princeton University Press, at this link.

Interested in learning more? Dr. Huddart penned two op-eds* which can provide more more context to the webinar:

Your eco-friendly choices may feel good, but they also play a role in political polarization
The Hill

What type of environmentalist are you?
Toronto Star

*Authored under the name Emily Kennedy

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