What Counts as an “Environmental” Issue?
There is a stereotype among both Whites and non-Whites that racial and ethnic minorities care less about the environment than Whites. However, this is a false belief that has been disproved by many studies. Research shows this misperception persists, even though people of color actually report greater environmental concern than Whites when asked in surveys.
We wanted to better understand why this is happening and explore what might correct these misperceptions. Changing these beliefs, we thought, could motivate behavior change, such as increasing engagement in environmental movements. Together with our colleagues and community partners in San Antonio, Texas—a city which has a sizable presence of Hispanics and Latina/os—we tackled these questions.
Finding Out What Matters To People
What followed was an admittedly unexpected discovery that led us to reconsider our own assumptions as researchers. When we asked our participants about the most important environmental issues facing Latinx communities in San Antonio, they elaborated on issues that went beyond what researchers typically consider to be “environmental issues.” Issues like air pollution or lack of green spaces were identified as inextricably linked to broader “social issues” such as racism, economic inequality, and public health (for example, obesity). Participants spontaneously discussed the connections between inequities in education, employment, and health care and leading environmental issues.
This made us reflect on how our own field thinks about “environmental issues.” Earlier research shows that minoritized people such as people of color are more sensitive to their disproportionate exposure to environmental risks (such as pollution) and the social conditions that exacerbate these risks (such as racism). We started thinking whether asking about the “environment” in surveys would elicit fundamentally different meanings depending on one’s social group.
This led us to conduct a larger study online with about 1,200 U.S. adults from diverse backgrounds in terms of race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. We listed 18 different issues and asked people how much they agreed each was an environmental issue. Listed issues included not only those that are conventionally regarded as environmental (examples: pollution, climate change, access to public parks), but also those that apparently pertain to the other issue domains such as health or society. These included diabetes, racism, and access to grocery stores. In line with what we learned earlier, both Black and Hispanics/Latinx Americans were more likely to perceive poverty, unemployment, diabetes, and racism as environmental issues than did White Americans. Furthermore, people from less wealthy communities were more likely to endorse this broader conceptualization of environmental issues.
Rethinking What The “Environment” Is
The word “environment” is often associated with images of scenic nature and recreational activities. However, our findings suggest that for marginalized groups such as people of color, the “environment” is a far closer to home, associated with basic livelihood, health, and fair treatment in the society. To be relevant, productive, and inclusive, efforts engaging diverse groups about the ‘environment’ need to carefully consider what the ‘environment’ means to the specific audience first.
For Further Reading
Lewis, N. A., Bravo, M., Naiman, S., Pearson, A. R., Romero-Canyas, R., Schuldt, J. P., & Song, H. (2020). Using qualitative approaches to improve quantitative inferences in environmental psychology. MethodsX, 7, 100943. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.mex.2020.100943
Pearson, A. R., Schuldt, J. P., Romero-Canyas, R., Ballew, M. T., & Larson-Konar, D. (2018). Diverse segments of the US public underestimate the environmental concerns of minority and low-income Americans. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 115(49), 12429. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1804698115
Song, H., Lewis, N. A., Ballew, M. T., Bravo, M., Davydova, J., Gao, H. O., Garcia, R. J., Hiltner, S., Naiman, S. M., Pearson, A. R., Romero-Canyas, R., & Schuldt, J. P. (2020). What counts as an “environmental” issue? Differences in issue conceptualization by race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 68, 101404. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvp.2020.101404
Hwanseok Song is an assistant professor at Purdue University. His research focuses on how people make and use social judgments in contexts where people communicate information about science, safety, environmental issues, and technological risks.
Neil A. Lewis, Jr. is an assistant professor at Cornell University and Weill Cornell Medicine. His research examines how people's social contexts and identities influence motivation and goal pursuit.