Psychology research finds that one of the factors influencing environmental behaviour is identity. Some identities are more likely to motivate pro-environmental behaviours than others. An identity that is positively associated with pro-environmental behaviour is a sense of self as part of and connected with nature, a so-called ‘environmental identity’ (Clayton, 2003). Other terms used to refer to similar constructs include ecological identity, ecological Self, nature connectedness, nature relatedness and inclusion of self with nature.
Identity is a complex and contested construct, and to discuss it further we first need to establish some clarity, for there are various different ways of defining and understanding identity. In psychology and sociology literature, the terms ‘self’ and ‘identity’ are often used interchangeably. In this entry, identity means self-identity and refers to how a person sees themself. Each individual has multiple identities that are hierarchically arranged in the mind in a dynamic manner. The strength and salience of a particular identity at any particular moment is influenced by contextual factors (such as whether social interactions affirm that identity), as well as by the commitment the individual has to that identity. Identities are not fixed or static, but rather are in a continuous process of formation, emerging and changing through our ongoing embodied interactions with the world. Identities may be integrated and unified to varying extents, with consequences for a sense of inner coherence and psychological wellbeing (Deci and Ryan, 2000).
Some identities, if salient in the mind, can form a barrier to pro-environmental behaviour, even if the person also holds pro-environmental values. An example is self-identity as a car driver, which is reinforced by cultural messages, structural supports and the experience of convenience.
A sense of self as part of nature recognises other living beings as part of one’s in-group
Nature as in-group
A sense of self as part of nature recognises other living beings as part of one’s in-group; as kin. This identity can be strengthened through repeated immersive and embodied encounters with the natural world – interactions that are rooted in the specificity of a particular place and a relationship of care with the community of beings that live there (Andrews, 2018; WWF, 2011). These practices help to counter powerful social forces that undermine environmental identity by promoting the idea that humans are separate from the natural world and that non-human beings are part of one’s out-group.
Separate, superior and entitled
As people tend to show bias towards those they see as being part of their in-group and show prejudice and discrimination to those they see as part of their out-group, identifying nature as out-group may exacerbate human-wildlife conflicts and incline people towards environmentally harmful behaviour. The notion that humans are separate from nature is closely bound to beliefs that humans are superior to nature and, therefore, can achieve mastery over nature and transcend its limits. It is also accompanied by a sense of moral entitlement: the natural world exists for humans to exploit for our own ends. This set of beliefs is the story upon which the project of modernity is founded: it pervades our political and economic systems and underpins global responses to climate change. It is a root cause of ecological crisis, for it has led us to put human interests first and live as if there are no limits, over-exploiting nature’s resources and overwhelming biospheric cycles and processes.
Rewilding the psyche
Being part of nature means that connecting with nature is also connecting with ourselves: it is a ‘rewilding’ of the psyche. This involves accepting and integrating parts that have become devalued and derogated through their perceived association with nature: emotion, the physical body, intuition, the unconscious mind (Hasbach, 2012; Totton, 2011). Nature connection is then a journey towards inner-outer wholeness and, for this reason, for many people, it has a strongly spiritual dimension.
Andrews, N. (2018). How cognitive frames about nature may affect felt sense of nature connectedness. Ecopsychology Journal, 10(1).
Clayton, S. (2003). Environmental identity. In Clayton, S. and Opotow, S. (Eds.). Identity and the natural environment: the psychological significance of nature, (pp.60-86). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Deci, E.L. and Ryan R.M. (2000). The ‘‘what’’ and ‘‘why’’ of goal pursuits: Human needs and the self-determination of behaviour. Psychological Inquiry, 11, 227–268.
Hasbach, P.H. (2012). Ecotherapy. In Kahn, P.H. and Hasbach, P.H. Hasbach, (Eds.). Ecopsychology: science, totems, and the technological species, (pp.115-140). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Totton, N. (2011). Wild therapy: undomesticating inner and outer worlds. Ross-on-Wye: PCCS Books.
WWF (2011). Natural change: catalysing leadership for sustainability. WWF Scotland.