Clayton & Optow 2003: Identity and the Natural Environment


Clayton, S. D., & Opotow, S. (Eds.). (2003). Identity and the natural environment: the psychological significance of nature. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.


Right now, this is just a selection of quotes. I intend to add commentary later.

Introduction: Identity and the Natural Environment (Clayton & Opotow)

One way of thinking about environmental identity concerns the way in which we define the environment, the degree of similarity we perceive between ourselves and other components of the natural world, and whether we consider nature and nonuhuman natural entities to have standing as valued components of our social and moral community (Opotow, 1993, 1996) (p. 8).

Merely by existing as an important symbolic, physical, and political reference point that is encountered in books, stories, public debates, and experiences, the natural environment serves to inform people about who they are (p. 8).

These strong attachments to and contrasts with nature can contribute to the formation of group identities in environmental contexts. Bird watchers, urban dog walkers, hikers, and hunters develop bonds of friendship as well as engaging in collective action, battling private development and public initiatives as they advocate land protection or fight hunting restrictions or leash laws. Thus, nature-oriented activities can elicit strong social connections that take on intensified meaning in environmental conflicts between those who want to interact with nature in one way and those wishing to interact in another. Those working to preserve a forest, for example, become “us,” while those who log the forests become “them” (p. 9).

In sum, one’s social orientation leads to ways to position oneself environmentally, while one’s environmental orientation leads to ways to position oneself socially (p. 11-12).

Identity can be described as a way of organizing information about the self. Just as there are multiple ways of organizing this information, we have multiple identities, varying in salience and importance according to the immediate context and to our past experiences. Each level of identity may suggest its own perspective.

Chapter 3: Environmental Identity: A Conceptual and Operational Definition (Clayton)

Because the social aspects of identity are so obvious and so important, psychologists often overlook the impact of nonsocial (or at least non-human) objects in defining identity. Yet there are clearly many people for whom an important aspect of their identity lies in ties to the natural world: connections to specific natural objects such as pets, trees, mountain formations, or particular geographic locations (which has been studied under the rubric of “place identity”) (p. 45).

An environmental identity can be similar to another collective identity (such as a national or ethnic identity) in providing us with a sense of connection, of being part of a larger whole, and with a recognition of similarity between ourselves and others. Also like a group identity, an environmental identity can vary in both definition and importance among individuals.

Self-concept can vary from situation to situation; William James argued that people can be said to have as many social selves as there are groups of people whose opinions matter to them (James, 1950) (p. 46).

Nature doesn’t have to be “out there,” at a remove from daily living, in order to be valued. In an extensive investigation of “the meaning of things” for individuals, Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton (1981) asked members of eighty-two families what things in their home were most special to them. Fifteen percent of the respondents (forty-seven people) mentioned plants; significantly, plants were described as embodying personal values more often than any other type of object (p. 47-48).

It is important to acknowledge that an environmental identity is also at least in part a social identity. An understanding of oneself in a natural environment cannot be fully separated from the social meanings given to nature and to environmental issues, which will vary according to culture, world view, and religion” (p. 53).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *