How Can We Make Green An Identity?

This article was written by Joe Brewer on September 6, 2007 while he was a fellow of the Rockridge Institute.

There is a lot going on in the ‘green’ debate. People have been hesitant to identify with the environmental movement because of stories that paint environmentalists in a negative light. We can change this by promoting stories with ‘green’ characters people want to identify with. Along the way, we should be wary of how polls are interpreted when dealing with moral issues.

A survey was done to see what issues would be a deal breaker for voters: if a voter disagreed with a candidate on an issue, would the voter withdraw support for that candidate.

The order of deal breakers were: gay marriage, abortion, illegal immigration, social security, taxes, gun ownership, the environment. This is a general poll of Americans. If we think about this– none of these issues affect the general population of America on the scale that destruction of the environment does.

Where you stand on abortion-gay-marriage-guns-taxes-immigration is an identity linking you to a large social group. How can we better frame green–and all that it entails–as identity in the same way that a person’s stance on abortion-gay-marriage-taxes-gun-ownership is an identity?

Rockridge Nation member DavidP

Hi DavidP,

The question you raise about identity is very important in politics. Before discussing how political identities emerge and strategies for promoting the development of ‘green’ identity, I would like to comment on the limitations of polls as they are currently done.

A common misunderstanding about polls is that they measure public opinion as it exists in the world. This requires two assumptions that are false. The first is that opinions objectively exist in the world. The second is that they can be measured in their singular form in a reliable manner. Current polling methods do not adequately take into account the existence of frames, metaphors, contested concepts, or narratives. They are based on a faulty understanding of rationality that presumes knowledge to be an object that resides in the mind and each object of knowledge can be inspected by the person to see what it is.

For example, if I were to ask you if you preferred apples to oranges, you might tell me that you prefer apples. As a pollster, I would take this to mean that you have numerical values for the desirability of each fruit existing objectively in your head and that you simply compared these numbers to supply an accurate response.

A more realistic description of the mind shows this to be flatly wrong. Knowledge is constructed in the moment through various interpretive schemes that make use of past experience, cultural narratives, moral worldviews, and computational guidelines that allow knowledge to be built quickly “on the fly.”

Two very different interpretive schemes can be seen with respect to the outcomes of polls. Many conservatives who see the poll results you mention may respond with something like “We need to get our message out better to change public opinion.” This implies the meaning of polls to be an assessment of success at advocating your views to the populace. Contrast this with a (sadly) typical progressive interpretation that says “We need to compromise on these issues to mirror public opinion.” This implies the meaning of polls to be an assessment of the objective (and unchanging) views of people.

A critical concept in the poll you reference is the idea of a deal breaker. What does it mean for an issue to be a deal breaker? As it turns out, there are (at least) two competing meanings to consider. The first is that the person will not vote for a candidate unless they share the same position. This is a typical progressive interpretation (that we hope to change), leading to the campaign strategy that the candidate should steer clear of discussions of moral values because some voters might disagree with them.

The second meaning of deal breaker is that the person will not vote for the candidate unless they share the same values. This leads to the strategy that Rockridge advocates, which is to authentically express moral values so people know where you stand morally and can identify with you as worthy of trust.

Now we can talk about identity in politics.

In Chapter 4 of Thinking Points, there is a brief discussion of identity issues on pp. 63-64. Here is a snippet of what it says:

“Imagine that you are a pure conservative and your worldview is shaped by the strict father model applied to every aspect of your life. It defines your very identity: your notion of right and wrong, of God, of what makes a good parent, and of how to run a successful business. It even defines your maleness or femaleness, your sexual identity.”

This is why gay marriage is an identity issue. It challenges the strict father notion of a gendered family structure (with a man and woman as the parents). To legitimize a gay or lesbian family by default delegitimizes the strict father model – calling into question the self-defining roles of people who identify with it.

Of course, there is more to it than moral worldview. Dan McAdams, a narrative psychologist at Northwestern University, studies the personal life stories of people. His research shows that our personal identities do not come from personality traits or the issues that concern us at any particular time in our lives. Our identities come from the stories we tell (often unconsciously) that bring the episodes of life together into a coherent unity. These stories incorporate our concerns and express our interpretations of inherited dispositions (e.g. outgoing and sociable), but do not become an identity until they are brought together into a narrative.

This is where we can begin to think about the cultivation of ‘green’ identity. It has to do with the stories we tell ourselves about how we relate to our communities, purchases, nature, and so on.

A major obstacle to the environmental movement has been the use of stories to discredit environmental concerns. A heavily funded series of campaigns have been waged to paint environmentalists with negative stereotypes. Examples include:

Ascetic Life
In order to protect the environment, you must give up the comforts of the modern world and live with the bare minimum of resources. The role-model for this story is the self-sacrificing individual who seeks a spiritual path of simplicity. This makes people feel like they have to give up pleasures in life – not something most of us feel compelled to identify with.

Chicken Little
The sky is falling! Our civilization is on the verge of collapse. Doomsday is nigh. The role-model for this story is an alarmist who wakes up the village in the middle of the night to warn everyone about imminent disaster.

Spoiled Child
Some people want to have their cake and eat it too. They don’t realize that in the “real world” it is necessary to make sacrifices to get what you want. People who call for protection of the environment are naive and spoiled, trying to make everyone else give up comfort (through job losses and other economic harms) to protect plants and animals.

None of these stories is true, but campaigns have been waged to hardwire these stories into the brains of people. We need different stories. Here are a few examples of positive green identities:

Cleaning Up Our Mess
As a society, we have really dirtied things up. As responsible adults, we recognize that it is our mess and we need to clean it up. This is what good parents do. It is what good citizens do.

Make the Polluter Pay
Freeloaders have been using our common wealth (the air, water, land, etc.) without paying for it. Not only are they using it, but they are damaging it with pollution. As promoters of fairness, we work to make these people pay us for our losses – or at least get them to stop causing harm.

Providing a Safe World for Our Children
We care about our children and want them to be safe and healthy. From a very early age, we recognize ways that we can make their environment safer. By keeping things clean, we protect them from illness. By protecting our natural places, we provide them with places to explore that inspire them to care about the world they will inherit.

Each of these stories provides a positive role for the environmentalist. It also implicitly makes anyone who opposes these roles fall into a negative role. No one wants to be the irresponsible mess maker, freeloader, or a person who endangers the lives of children.

Other stories can be used as well. The environmental movement can be reframed with positive stories that people want to identify with.


Cognitive Policy Works specializes in providing organizations and individuals with frame analysis, policy briefs, strategic advising, and training.

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