A quick Google search for “environmentalist” will retrieve images of a pair of arms wrapped around a tree, a group clad in green shirts with shovels in hand, a mother and daughter watering a plant. The environmentalists all appear to be white.
The whiteness of the mainstream environmental movement (as opposed to smaller, often community-based environmental justice groups) is well documented. While racial minorities make up approximately 40 percent of the U.S. population, they compose only 12 to 16 percent of staff at environmental NGOs, foundations, and government agencies.
The lack of diversity in environmental organizations is particularly striking given recent population projections that by 2045, racial and ethnic minorities will form the majority of the U.S. population. If demographic trends in the environmental movement continue, the gap between the percentage of minorities in the movement and in the U.S. will only widen.
Without diverse staff and stakeholders, environmental organizations will lack a diversity of perspectives on how to frame and approach environmental problems.
This gap is dangerous, as it threatens the efficacy of environmental work just when it becomes even more urgent. It is also paradoxical given that communities of color are disproportionately exposed to pollution. Without diverse staff and stakeholders, environmental organizations will lack a diversity of perspectives on how to frame and approach environmental problems, as well as the ability to learn from, recruit, and form strong coalitions with broad swathes of the US population.
The lack of minority participation in environmental groups is not due to a lack of concern: public opinion polls and research in sociology and psychology show higher levels of environmental concern among minorities than whites. Part of the problem, according to a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, may be misperception: the general public is largely under the (incorrect) impression that whites are more concerned than nonwhites about environmental issues.
The study builds on previous research on norms. That research documented how normative beliefs about what other people think and do can drive positive environmental behavior. Such research also showed the barrier pluralistic ignorance—the false belief that one’s own views deviate from the views of others—can pose to such positive behavior.
The researchers—Adam Pearson of Pomona College, Jonathon Schuldt of Cornell University, Matthew Ballew of Yale University, and Rainer Romero and Dylan Larson-Konar of Environmental Defense Fund—surveyed a nationally representative sample of 1,212 American adults in 2016. In order to document whether the American public’s perceptions of others’ environmental concerns were accurate, respondents rated their own level of environmental concern, and rated concern of various demographic groups. Replicating prior work, the authors found that minorities reported higher levels of environmental concern than do white people, even when controlling for political ideology, gender, education, and income.
But respondents from all backgrounds—including both white and nonwhite people—significantly underestimated the actual environmental concern of nonwhite and poor Americans. They also (mis)perceived that minorities were less concerned than white people. For example, 54 percent of Latinos indicated they were “very” or “extremely” concerned about the environment, but just 12 percent of respondents rated Latinos as very or extremely concerned.
Americans also stereotyped environmentalists as white, educated, and middle-class. Pearson et al. asked respondents to rate the extent to which they associated certain racial or ethnic groups with the term “environmentalist.” Both white and non-white respondents associated environmentalists with white more than non-white people. Again, these associations did not match up with who self-identified as an environmentalist in the survey. In fact, Hispanics and Asians were more likely than whites to self-identify as environmentalists.
Pearson et al. refer to the above findings as the “environmental belief paradox.” The groups that are the most concerned about environmental problems, and are disproportionately impacted by environmental pollution and degradation, are also perceived as the least concerned. This study suggests that flawed normative beliefs and pluralistic ignorance may present a socio-psychological barrier to minority involvement in the mainstream environmental movement in addition to structural ones, such as insular recruitment practices by environmental organizations.
The groups that are the most concerned about environmental problems, and are disproportionately impacted by environmental pollution and degradation, are also perceived as the least concerned.
How can behavioral scientists build on and use these findings? Much research in the field of environmental psychology has focused on potential psychological barriers to environmentally friendly behavior such as personal concern about and perceived risk of environmental problems. However, public opinion research has revealed already high levels of awareness of environmental risk and support for pro-environmental policies among Americans. As such, this study and further research on beliefs about which attitudes and behaviors are common or desirable can shed additional light on the observed “attitude-action gap”—the gap between high levels of reported environmental concern and the lack of consistent environmentally friendly behavior.
Beyond influencing further research, these findings may guide psychological interventions in the field to counter pluralistic ignorance about environmental concern. Furthermore, in order to encourage applicants and collaborators from a wider range of backgrounds, behavioral scientists can work with environmental organizations to highlight their diversity and appreciation of diverse perspectives. Working to correct widespread misperceptions about who environmentalists are may well be one path towards a broader, more inclusive, and more effective environmental movement—which, after all, is the only type of movement that will enact the society-wide changes we so desperately need.