Your eco-friendly choices may feel good, but they also play a role in political polarization

If someone looked in your grocery cart, saw the car you drive, or took note of your recycling behaviors, would they think that you care about the environment? Is this what caring about the environment looks like? To some people, yes. But consumerism is not the only way to care for the planet.

After studying Americans’ environmental beliefs and behaviors, I found that when people narrow their definition of who cares about the environment to eco-friendly consumption, they exacerbate political polarization.

A majority of Americans value efforts to buy products touted as being better for the planet, want to be seen as eco-friendly and use consumer choices to evaluate people’s concern for the environment. Our social status, or relative worth compared to others, is enhanced by conveying our ethical commitments as much — and sometimes even more — than through ostentatious displays of wealth. For example, driving a Hummer may earn less respect than driving a hybrid or electric vehicle because the latter shows that you care about the environment.

The sociologist Cecilia Ridgeway describes our semi-conscious struggles for respect and recognition as “status games.” In these games, people earn “points” when they act in a way that their social group values.

I thought of Ridgeway’s notion of status games while watching “The Good Place,” a popular television comedy created by Michael Schur. In the show, the protagonists come to learn of an elaborate points system that dictates who spends their afterlife in “the good place” and who spends it in “the bad place.”

The surprising twist (spoiler alert) is that no one has made it to the good place in over 500 years — not since the rise of industrialism. Why? Because our consumer choices accrue negative points because of how those choices affect the environment.

Perhaps part of the popularity of “The Good Place” was its ability to metaphorically convey how many people feel about their consumer choices. People feel proud and virtuous when shopping at a farmers’ market, cycling to reduce driving or after installing solar panels on their homes. These actions reflect both an authentic desire to reduce environmental impact and an ability to play a status game well.

If everyone accepted the rules of this status game, it probably wouldn’t be a driver of political polarization. But the terms of the game are contested by many conservatives.

Describing how status and political ideology work with one another, David Brooks wrote in The Atlantic that, “Classes struggle not only up and down, against the richer and poorer groups on their own ladder, but against their partisan opposite across the ideological divide.” This perfectly characterizes what I observed when I asked people to tell me what it looks like to care about the environment. High-status liberals answered: “It looks like me,” describing their efforts to recycle, install solar panels and reduce meat consumption. Low-status liberals told me it looked like people they knew who were conscious about reducing the impact of their consumption.

But high-status conservatives told me they resent liberals who tell people to reduce their consumption. They said caring about the environment should reflect their actions, pointing to their love of nature and the time they spend appreciating local trails, rivers and scenery. These conservatives challenged eco-friendly liberals’ status by accusing them of being hypocritical (for example, flying around the world while telling people to use fewer disposable plastic water bottles).

Low-status conservatives told me no one cares about the environment enough to protect it. They were dismissive of eco-friendly consumption because they saw it as a corporate gimmick — something businesses do to distract us from all the damage they cause to the environment.

The divide between liberals’ and conservatives’ concern for the environment in general, and climate change in particular, is greater in the United States than in any other country. This needs to change.

The recent law with significant climate provisions, the Inflation Reduction Act, was an unexpected step forward after years of lagging and backtracking on climate policy. But fighting over the virtues of the eco-friendly status game gets in the way of passing more ambitious — and necessary — climate policies at all levels of government.

How can we break the impasse?

We need to accept that our opponents care about the environment. Because they will. They just do so differently.

Research shows liberals are more willing than conservatives to make sacrifices to protect the environment, regardless of how appeals for environmental protection are phrased, so their granting respect to conservative ways of caring about the environment would not be a setback.

Liberals could make a significant contribution to environmental protection by respecting the ways that conservatives care about the environment. And conservatives need to stop mocking eco-friendly consumption.

Efforts to reduce consumption take time, money and effort. Accusing someone of hypocrisy is holding them to an impossible standard — as we can see in “The Good Place.” Because of how we work, heat, cool and power our homes and travel from place to place, each one of us uses resources from the environment with each of our actions.

Efforts to lessen our impact should not be mocked but respected and valued.

As long as our society is organized in such a way that we consume resources — water, forests, fish, minerals, fossil fuels, etc. — at the rate we do now, we will overwhelm Earth’s carrying capacity and undermine the survival of our own and many other species.

Civil society needs to be a strong, united voice to demand and participate in changing how our society interacts with the environment. Each of us can play a role in making that happen by granting respect to various ways of caring for the planet.

Emily Kennedy is associate professor and associate head in the Department of Sociology at the University of British Columbia (UBC) and the author of the recently released “Eco-Types: Five Ways of Caring about the Environment” (Princeton University Press).