In a recently completed manuscript draft, I argue that childhood experiences are central for understanding why and how some people come to be involved in the environmental movement. My work centers on identity theory and its central idea that when a person incorporates an identity into their self-concept, and the identity becomes salient, it motivates their behavior (Stryker and Burke 2000). Therefore, I use the framework of environmentalist identities to think about how we can predict and understand which individuals take environmental action.
In this paper, I use interviews with participants in the People’s Climate March to learn about how childhood experiences influenced environmental behavior through facilitating the development of environmentalist senses of self. Through this work, four central types of childhood experiences emerged as influential in the development of environmentalism. The most frequently discussed topics were: experiences in nature, witnessing environmental degradation, parents and families modeling environmental and activist behavior, and school experiences.
Some participants described their experiences outdoors as connections to nature that facilitated environmentalism when they learned about threats to the natural environment. Evan, a repeat protester and law student from Montana discussed traveling and exploring with his family:
“As a kid being born in Las Vegas and living there for a good while, every summer my parents would get us out of the dessert and take us up to the Northwest. And just seeing…that geographical transformation of going from a dessert to the Sierra Mountains to the redwood forest and into Oregon where there’s beautiful rivers and lakes, that helped open my mind to how amazing our environment is… And then just as I continued to grow and understand how the world works I became aware that these beautiful amazing things that I’ve come to cherish as a kid are being threatened.”
In contrast, other participants talked about their experiences witnessing environmental degradation as central to the development of their environmentalism. They were surprised by practices or situations that they learned about, and it shaped their views and informed their future activism. For example, Karen, a repeat protester from Ohio, discussed pollution near her childhood home:
“I also lived on the shores of Lake Erie just a block or so down and I could walk to the lake every day…and our lake was declared dead. So we had dead fish on the beaches and the lake smelled so bad that some days you couldn’t get near it…so I knew then that that wasn’t right.”
Others talked about learning political, and sometimes specifically environmental, activism from their parents who were involved in those activities. Ann, from Massachusetts, spoke about the influence of her family’s political involvement:
“From childhood my parents were always politically involved. So I think that’s an expectation that I grew up with. Like my dad went to the March on Washington with Martin Luther King and my mom got arrested for civil disobedience in the Reagan administration about what they were doing in Central America, so I think I always grew up with that as an example.”
This work begins to highlight the life events that lead to the development of an environmentalist identity, and also demonstrates the importance of childhood experiences. The significance of positive experiences in nature indicates that considering inequality in access to outdoor activities is an important area for future research, as, of course, is inequality in exposure to environmental pollution.
In addition, this research indicates that other social movements may be able to increase participation through identity formation processes and experiences leading to direct contact with relevant social issues. In future work using these data, I plan to explore the definitions and contents of environmental identities to understand which “pro-environmental” behaviors are considered to be central to these activists.
Stay tuned for my next post in 2018. Happy holidays!
Stryker, Sheldon and Peter J. Burke. 2000. “The Past, Present, and Future of an Identity Theory.” Social Psychology Quarterly 63:284-97.