Your green choices may feel good, but they also play a role in political polarization.
If someone were to look in your shopping cart, see the car you drive, or take note of your recycling behaviors, would you think they care about the environment? Is this what caring for the environment looks like? For some people, yes. But consumerism is not the only way to take care of the planet.
After studying Americans’ environmental beliefs and behaviors, I found that when people narrow their definition of who cares about the environment to green consumption, they exacerbate political polarization.
A majority of Americans value efforts to buy products promoted as better for the planet, wants to be seen as eco-friendly and use consumer choice to assess people’s concern for the environment. Our social status, or relative worth compared to others, is enhanced by conveying our ethical commitments as much, and sometimes even more, than through ostentatious displays of wealth. For example, driving a Hummer may earn less respect than driving a hybrid or electric vehicle because the latter shows that you care about the environment.
Sociologist Cecilia Ridgeway describes our semi-conscious struggles for respect and recognition as “status games.” In these games, people earn “points” when they act in a way that their social group values.
I thought about Ridgeway’s notion of status games while watching “The Good Place,” a popular TV sitcom created by Michael Schur. In the show, the protagonists learn of an elaborate point system that dictates who spends their afterlife in “the good place” and who spends it in “the bad place.”
The surprising twist (spoiler alert) is that no one has gotten to the good place in over 500 years, not since the rise of industrialism. Why? Because our consumption choices rack up negative points because of how those choices affect the environment.
Perhaps part of the popularity of “The Good Place” was its ability to metaphorically convey how many people feel about their consumer choices. people feel proud and virtuous when shopping at a farmer’s market, bicycling to reduce driving, or after installing solar panels on their homes. These actions reflect both a genuine desire to reduce environmental impact and the ability to play a status game well.
If everyone accepted the rules of this status game, it probably wouldn’t be an engine of political polarization. But the terms of the game are questioned by many conservatives.
Describe how status and political ideology work together, David Brooks wrote in The Atlantic that, “Classes struggle not only up and down, against the richest and poorest groups on their own scale, but against their partisan opposite across the ideological divide.” This perfectly characterizes what I observed when I asked people to tell me what it’s like to take care of the environment. The high-status liberals responded, “It looks like me,” describing their efforts to recycle, install solar panels and reduce meat consumption. Low-status liberals told me they seemed like people they knew who were conscious of reducing the impact of their consumption.
But high-status conservatives told me they resent liberals who tell people to cut back. They said caring for the environment should reflect their actions, pointing to their love of nature and the time they spend appreciating the local trails, rivers and landscapes. These conservatives challenged the status of the eco-liberals by accusing them of being hypocritical (for example, flying around the world while telling people to use less disposable plastic water bottles).
Low-status conservatives told me that nobody cares enough about the environment to protect it. They despised green consumption because they saw it as a corporate stunt, something companies do to distract us from all the damage they do to the environment.
The gap between the concern of liberals and conservatives for the environment in general and climate change in particular is major in usa than in any other country. This needs to change.
The recent law with important climatic provisions, the Inflation Reduction Law, was an unexpected step forward after years of delays and setbacks in climate policy. But fighting for the virtues of the green status game stands in the way of passing more ambitious and necessary climate policies at all levels of government.
How can we break the impasse?
We need to accept that our opponents care about the environment. Because they do. They just do it differently.
Research shows that liberals are more willing than conservatives to make sacrifices to protect the environment, regardless of how calls for environmental protection are formulatedso granting respect to conservative ways of caring for the environment would not be a setback.
Liberals could make a significant contribution to environmental protection by respecting the ways in which conservatives care about the environment. And conservatives need to stop mocking green consumption.
Efforts to reduce consumption take time, money, and effort. To accuse someone of hypocrisy is to hold them to an impossible standard, as we can see in “The Good Place.” Because of how we work, heat, cool, and power our homes and travel from place to place, each of us uses resources from the environment with each of our actions.
Efforts to lessen our impact should not be mocked, but respected and valued.
As long as our society is organized in such a way that we consume resources (water, forests, fish, minerals, fossil fuels, etc.) at the rate we do now, we will overwhelm the Earth’s carrying capacity and undermine the survival of our own. and many other species.
Civil society must be a strong and united voice to demand and participate in changing the way our society interacts with the environment. Each of us can play a role in making that happen by respecting the various ways of caring for the planet.
Emily Kennedy is Associate Professor and Associate Director in the Department of Sociology at the University of British Columbia. (UBC) and author of the recently published “Ecotypes: five ways to care for the environment(Princeton University Press).