Guest Post: Environmental Identity: research from two cultural perspectives

Originally posted on June 22, 2015

Image: Michelle Mileham sitting trailside in Glacier National Park while visiting the park with her family in 2012

by Jenny de la Hoz & Michelle Mileham
Guest Contributors

How do people come to the environmental movement?  What part of their identity is tied into nature and the environment? This is the work that we, Michelle Mileham and Jenny de la Hoz, have undertaken in our dissertation work in Oregon State University’s Free-Choice Learning program around self-identity and the environment. We are two individuals from different walks of life and with different trajectories, but we found ourselves doing similar environmental education work.

Jenny de la Hoz (right) with her sister and nephews. A big motivation for Jenny’s work is her family and their access to see wild spaces.

Michelle comes from a modern Midwest family. Jenny comes originally from Colombia and grew up in urban New Jersey. Michelle’s family, while not extreme outdoors enthusiasts, did partake in outdoor experiences when she was growing up, such as visiting state and national parks. Jenny grew up in an urban jungle and went tent camping for the first time when she was eighteen years old.

How we both came to the environmental movement with such varied backgrounds and what keeps us there is part of our individual dissertation work. We were both interested in what motivates people to become part of this movement and what theory there was to explain this motivation. We individually came across the work of Susan Clayton and her Environmental Identity Scale (EID; here is a modified version of Clayton’s EID). We will first tell you about our own environmental identity development, then evaluate the positives and negatives of Clayton’s Environmental Identity Scale, and conclude with a discussion of our own research around environmental identity while incorporating factors of culture and value for the interconnected natural world.

Our Own Environmental Identity Formation
For Michelle, childhood experiences in nature shaped her environmental identity. Vacationing lakeside and long cross-country roadtrips provided opportunities for free-play in nature through building paths and forts in woods as well as exposure to different natural landscapes. Although Michelle was a young activist writing letters to the Secretary of the Navy against its use of sonar in the ocean, she started making meaning of these experiences in adulthood, internalizing them in the form of an environmental identity.

Jenny’s environmental identity came from her latchkey childhood experience watching nature shows on television. As a young immigrant child, she was captivated by the natural landscapes she saw on television and the ocean adventures of the Cousteaus. Journeying into nature alongside these filmmakers allowed her to discover new places and new worlds and served as an escape from some of the harsher realities of her urban landscape. Her environmental identity cemented further in her adulthood when academic opportunities took her to study marine science in natural settings.

Michelle visiting Grand Teton National Park while on a cross-country road trip.

The Field of Environmental Identity Research
Connecting identity research with the environment, the field of environmental identity is relatively new. In the 1990s an interest in the environment started to grow in the public consciousness and the field of psychology. Researchers began creating assessments to measure the role of the environment in personal identity formation.

Identity is a complex construct to define and one shared definition remains elusive across the variety of fields that research it, including but not limited to the social sciences and environmental studies. What people in these fields do agree upon, however, is that identity is not static but is instead dynamic, situational, and formed through social interaction. Identity encompasses collective social identities, such as ethnicity and gender, as well as situational identities that change moment to moment. (For more on this, see Falk’s Identity and the museum visitor experienceGee’s “Identity as an analytic lens for research in education,” and Holland’s Identity and agency in cultural worlds.) Just as “identity” is a slippery construct to define, so too are “nature,” “environment,” and “place,” making it challenging to agree upon a definition of “environmental identity.” In fact, Clayton and Opotow, foremost environmental psychologists, argue in Identity and the natural environment that it may be undesirable to have an agreed upon definition of environmental identity. Clayton describes environmental identity as “a sense of connection to some part of the nonhuman natural environment…that affects the ways in which we perceive and act toward the world; a belief that the environment is important to us and…part of who we are” (Identity and the natural environment, 2003, p. 45-46).

As we began our personal research into environmental identity, each of us chose independently to use the Environmental Identity Scale (EID). Developed by Clayton “to assess the extent to which the natural environment plays an important part in a person’s self definition,” the EID tries to quantify the connection between the individual and the natural world, a connection which isn’t always readily tangible but is situated in culture and life experiences. These are often mediated by socio-economic status (i.e., access to larger back yards, nearby parks, or local recycling programs). Chawla adds in her 1999 article “Life paths into effective environmental action” that childhood experiences prove especially potent in influencing a person’s environmental actions in adulthood, which might ultimately lead to an environmental identity.

The EID scale acknowledges that environmental identity is part a social identity; that is, various cultures give different meaning to the environment and nature. Nonetheless, environmental identity emerges in each individual through experiences in the natural world and changes a person’s understanding of themselves and nature. Clayton’s scale works off of the premise that a strong sense of environmental identity predicts pro-environmental behaviors.

Critiques of the Environmental Identity Scale

Two horned puffins at the Oregon Coast Aquarium, Michelle’s research site.

We have each used the EID with different audiences and with the same goal of ascertaining how people come to see the natural world as part of their identity. Though this assessment tool has proved helpful in many ways, we each have our own critiques of the scale. Jenny feels the scale doesn’t accurately reflect all of the things that attract Latino Americans to nature while Michelle finds the scale to lack items related to free-choice experiences, where people have choice and control, in and about nature.

One of the major limitations of the EID is that it is based on the commonly-held belief that people with highly developed EIDs are willing to sacrifice self-centered behaviors for the environment. Conversely, Steg and de Groot, in their section on environmental values in The Oxford Handbook of Environmental and Conservation Psychology, posit that “people may refrain from pro-environmental actions because they value their comfort higher than the environment: for example, many people prefer to drive rather than to travel by public transport” (Steg & de Groot in Clayton, ed., 2012, p. 81). While this may be true for some people, the presence or lack of pro-environmental behaviors is also based on socio-economics, cultural practices, and historical access to services, not to mention institutional and industrial practices. Human behaviors are not completely motivated by individual values, but more often by comfort, accessibility, and a range of social factors.

Another limitation of the EID is that people from different cultural backgrounds may express their environmental identity in ways that are not measured accurately by the EID scale as it now stands. For this reason, we argue that the EID should be used alongside other research tools, including other quantitative measures or in conjunction with qualitative methods.

The EID & Our Research
As previously mentioned, we are both using some form of the EID to guide our individual dissertations.

One of Jenny’s greatest passions is discovering and sharing the beauties of the outdoors with others, even in urban spaces. Here she is kayaking the Willamette River in Portland.

Michelle’s study developed out of reflection on her own experiences as a volunteer naturalist. She believes that volunteers who spend a great amount of time ensuring others are provided with nature-based experiences are just as worthy of studying as the public audiences they engage. She hopes to understand ways that working in an environmentally themed organization, such as an aquarium, do or do not shape a person’s environmental identity. Her dissertation research used the EID alongside other research tools, including Personal Meaning Maps and storytelling. Personal Meaning Maps allowed participants to brainstorm and reflect upon environmental-based life and work experiences in their own words.

Michelle’s research culminated with storytelling, which provided participants an opportunity to make meaning about nature-based experiences and the impact of these experiences on the participants’ environmental identity. (To learn more about this storytelling process, read Michelle’s “Unlocking Meaning Making by Using Stories for Research”.) Michelle discovered that staff and volunteers at a small aquarium reported moderate to high EID scores; however, what participants accorded value to during their storytelling (e.g., quiet time in nature, engaging others in nature activities, and a two-way connection with nature or animals) are not topics covered by Clayton’s EID. Therefore, this storytelling process elicits information relevant to participants about their environmental identity that the EID does not measure.

Jenny’s research examined her own identity as a Latina in the environmental movement. When hearing the stories of how others came to be in the environmental movement, she did not hear her urban, Latino narrative. Her research utilizes the EID in conjunction with interviews to see if there are commonalities between her story and the stories of other Latinos working in fields related to the environment. She will also look to see if Latinos not working in an environmental field share any of the similarities.  Her goal is to discover whether and in what ways Latinos differ from non-Latinos already working for the environment.

As we have said, identity is a complex construct with cultural and social underpinnings that require a lot of time and introspection to dissect. Due to the dynamic nature of each person’s identity, the connections we have to identity markers such as the environment vary over time and context. However, we both hope our work inspires others to reflect on how each one developed an environmental identity. We hope it may foster understanding and consideration of other ways of knowing, seeing, and connecting with the environment and nature that are not being discussed in the main environmental movement.

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