By Emily Huddart Kennedy
Princeton University Press, 2022
Emily Kennedy, a Canadian sociologist, who started her career in forestry, has written an important book that addresses the divisiveness that undermines efforts to combat the climate crisis and save the planet.
Her key message is that everyone cares about the environment, but they do so in different ways. She reaches this conclusion by interviewing a broadly representative community sample of ordinary citizens in Washington State over a three-year period ending in 2019.
Kennedy identifies five types of eco-social relationships on a spectrum from the most concerned to the least worried. The Eco-Engaged are most informed about the science of climate change and make efforts in their daily lives to adopt climate friendly solutions like electric cars and avid recycling; they believe the individual can make a difference. The Self-Effacing share their worries about the future but don’t believe that they can make a difference; they feel guilty about not doing more. The Optimists are not impressed with the data on climate change threats and think the natural world will survive; yet they value activities in nature (e.g. hunting, fishing, camping) and feel an obligation to protect it. The Fatalists are pessimistic, seeing ecological decline as inevitable; however, they place the blame at the feet of corporations and governments, and see no individual role that could make a difference. Finally, the Indifferent feel disconnected from environmental concerns, are focused on the challenges of their everyday lives, and lack the resources to follow the Eco-Engaged personal examples. Ironically, when Kennedy calculated the carbon footprint of each group (keeping in mind that this was pre-pandemic), it was the Eco-Engaged who had the biggest one, due to their larger or multiple homes, more cars and frequent air travel, compared to the other groups.
The strength of Kennedy’s research for climate activist groups like SCAN! is that she brings to life the human, ordinary citizen perspective that is essential to understand if a mass movement is to be a goal. She argues that judging who is “best” or “lacking” in their concern for the environment will impede our ability to protect it. This polarization needs to be countered by considering the public diversity of views on the climate crisis, having open conversations, and finding ideological common ground in civil society; this has the potential to provide the will and power to fight for a better world. As Wade Davis said, “we are all Indigenous to this planet.” (Globe and Mail, March 25, 2023).
Kennedy recognizes not only the ecological crisis we all face, but the danger in individualizing solutions while ignoring the structural aspects of the underlying and ongoing causes of the threat:
“Despite environmental activism’s history of targeting the fossil-fuel industry, the forest industry and various other resources extraction sectors, the ideal environmentalist (group) actually places considerable trust in the market to deliver eco-friendly options and considerable responsibility on individuals to purchase those products…[this] also obscures the role of corporate actors in escalating rates of using up environmental goods…and underestimate how the market and the state contribute to ecological decline” (p. 166).
The analysis in this book aligns well with many of the ideas and presentations by SCAN! about De-Growth, resource extraction, adaptation and the need to recruit a broader base of support. It provides valuable insights into what may be a similar range of environmental views in the Canadian public.
Pat Erickson is a member of SCAN!’s Education Committee.
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