Tuesday, 27 November 2007

In the Tracks of the Ecological Citizen

Another day, another Keele seminar. The latest I attended was a presentation by two Swedish researchers, Sverker Jagers and Johan Martinsson. Theirs was very much a declaration of intent rather than a presentation of findings (though it did involve this). Their ambitious aim is to put empirical flesh on the abstract bones of an increasingly important concept in green political thought: the ecological citizen.

What is an ecological citizen? This concept has come out of the work of the well-known green theorist and Keele-resident, Andy Dobson. At the risk of doing some violence to his work, his idea of the ecological citizen is someone who is motivated by green values and a concern for social justice. This can be manifested in many ways through political practice and/or personal behaviour. Jagers and Martinsson have taken upon themselves is to try and operationalise this concept to see if the concept has any analytical purchase.

Jagers began by describing his previous work. His completed PhD thesis was on liberal democracies and sustainable development, where he argued for their potential to adopt comprehensive environmental policies, but enacting them is dependent on institutional development, political will and public support. His second major piece of research looked at the popularity or otherwise of green policy instruments. Unsurprisingly, punitive tools such as Sweden's carbon tax were not popular whereas measures such as subsidised green fuels or an expansion of public transport were more preferable. However, Jagers pointed out that of the sum total of Sweden's taxes, the carbon tax was more popular than other forms of taxation. But if taxation in general is unpopular, then the funding of a greener transport policy is called into question.

This is the context in which Jagers and Martinsson want to go hunting for (Swedish) ecological citizens. They intend to produce a battery of questions for web-based surveys with the aim of identifying this constituency, and start to build an understanding of how their values affect their behaviour. Common ideology, lifestyle, socio-economic status, and education will all be looked at to determine what the key factors are that help explain why some people become ecological citizens. The survey design will also measure levels of altruism, awareness of the consequences of one's behaviour, willingness to adjust behaviour, and openness to environmentally-friendly policy instruments.

Martinsson then moved on to consider research on Swedish environmental attitudes and their relationship to media coverage. The first study he cited indicated a strong relationship. Since 1988, the number of Swedes who perceived the environment as a vitally important political issue has declined from around the 40% mark to approximately 10% ten years later. Here it bumps around this percentage for six years, until 2003-2006, when it jumps from 6% to 13%. It's also worth noting that 1988 was a peak figure, growing from a very low base in 1979. If you compare the recent growth with media coverage of environmental issues, the number of newspaper and magazine articles jumped between February 2005 and January of this year. But is there really a correlation?

A very recent piece of research they've done on the shaping of green opinion by media coverage suggests a very weak relation. In May this year, Sweden saw a major green awareness media campaign featuring regular slots on TV and radio, and presumably a good deal of press coverage. It took place over the space of a week. Through phone canvassing before and after the event, they recorded the following results from their sample. Interest in green issues went from 16-20%, willingness to pay environmental taxes climbed 14-18%, and concern over climate change grew 36-44%. Compared with the massive quantity of green media content, all these increases are quite small. They also found those of a higher educational background, with high political interest, and women generally were most responsive to the coverage. For the old and those with no political interest, there was no measurable effect. The conclusion therefore was the media is not as powerful an instrument as is commonly supposed, and somewhat frustratingly achieving behavioural change was easier among those with positive environmental attitudes already - in other words, the ecological citizen constituency.

There followed a series of questions concerning methodological issues, and particularly what set of attitudes can be said to approximate ecological citizenship. One participant proposed Jagers and Martinsson should perhaps look into a scale that measures ecological citizenship traits, which could go some way to capture the different and complex ways it can be thought and practiced. One example is the tension between intentionality and behavioural outcomes - the "doing good but thinking wrong" problem. For instance, in Sweden many people routinely recycle and pay their carbon taxes without consciously being ecological citizens. Can they therefore be regarded as such? Another problem that was highlighted were how people felt about their capacities to change things - would people do more if they felt what they did already achieved something?

There are some problems from my point of view - not least the way liberal democracy has been abstracted from its capitalist context and an uncertainty whether ecological citizenship can be reconciled to a system amorally concerned with profits - but the research has every chance of putting the definition of 'green constituencies' on a firmer footing. Also, the media findings were particularly fascinating, if a little gloomy from the standpoint of radical politics. But then again, green, like any other political conclusions, tend to be an outgrowth of experience, which to their credit is what Jagers and Martinsson seek to quantify.

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