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Culture and Environmental Attitudes

News Story

Dyson Sociology and Anthropology Professor Judith Pajo, PhD, and Shen Yang ’21 have embarked on a unique study analyzing shared belief in environmental concerns and issues across cultures.

As our planet continues to evolve, and humans continue to disrupt the natural order of earth to build cities, feed growing populations, and innovate technologically to power civilization, there are undoubtedly major effects on our environment. Yet, as Dyson Sociology and Anthropology Professor Judith Pajo, PhD, and Shen Yang ’21 have uncovered, environmental concerns are not always shared by individuals within societies, let alone across cultures. Though age, gender, education, income—variables commonly studied in the social science—do impact environmental views, much less attention in such studies is given to culture as a variable. But in fact, the environmental causes we care about, arguably, have a lot to do with the culture we’ve grown up in.

“We all depend on the environment, we all interact with the environment, we all eat food, and we all produce trash,” says Pajo. “The question is, what kind of environmental practices do we have? What kind of consciousness do we develop about the environment? That certainly isn’t something we’re born with, it’s something we’re socialized into.”

As an international student from Chongqing, China, Yang came to Pace interested in cross-cultural environmental and urban issues. Noticing differences between western and eastern societies and their concerns regarding our natural world, Yang teamed up with Pajo after taking one of her classes, in which the duo had surveyed students on their thoughts regarding pollution.

“We started with a mock study in class last semester,” said Pajo. “I was teaching Global Culture, Local Identities—a course that Shen was enrolled in. The course dealt with issues of globalization concerning politics, the economy, and the environment. When it came to environmental issues, we collaborated, and surveyed a few students about various topics, including pollution.”

Yang and Pajo noticed that many of the written responses had certain narrative qualities, which piqued their interest—it was as if these responses were part of a larger story. From there, they developed a research proposal to study cross-cultural environmental concerns in a greater, more systematic fashion.

As they formulated their study, the duo began surveying both American students and Chinese students about environmental issues. What they’ve found so far, is that American and Chinese students can often look at the same goal—environmental protection, for example—through a considerably different lens.

“I’ve found the concerns of Chinese students differ from students in the United States,” says Yang. “In the US, college students are concerned a lot about food. Veganism, vegetarianism, students think this is a good way to protect the environment. But in China, we didn’t talk often about veganism. We were mainly concerned about air pollution, because that’s the most relatable environment issue China.”

This finding would seem to support the local urgency of contemporary environmental issues. In China, air pollution has emerged as arguably the single most pressing environmental issue. Due to rapid industrialization over the past several decades, Chinese cities are among the most polluted in the world, and have reached crisis levels in the eyes of many experts. And while certain regions of the United States, particularly southern California, cite air pollution as a major environmental issue, the problem is not nearly as pronounced as it is in China, and the air quality in America’s most polluted cities is not remotely as hazardous as those in many Chinese urban centers. Conversely, in America, issues like global warming and animal protection have been at the forefront, which can arguably create stronger opinions about these issues when it comes to environmental conservation and care. 

“We're not seeking to conclude that one culture is more environmental than another,” says Pajo. “Wouldn’t the Americans like to say they are at the forefront of the environmental movement? Wouldn't the Chinese like to say they are at the forefront of recycling materials? To an anthropologist, this is not the right way to frame the question.”

Pajo goes on to note that the way in which we think about the environment—the way in which we may perceive different sources of energy as good, neutral, or bad, for example, might have to do with a lot of cultural variables. We have old technologies, like fossil fuels, and new technologies, like solar and wind, and we are constantly learning, through culture, to evaluate and develop shared understandings about the world. If nuclear energy is important to a region’s economy, for example, it might be viewed more positively within a culture; but risks associated with nuclear disasters and nuclear waste also play a role. 

“We grow up in a culture, we learn the language, and we learn to think about the environment much like the people around us think about the world” says Pajo. “Are we afraid of nuclear energy because of the risks associated with radioactive materials, or do we feel it is beneficial, because our economy depends on it? Any element in the environment could be classified as positive or negative—we might have a name for it, or we might not even recognize it exists. What are the cultural taboos? What are things that we’re missing? With veganism, for example, we’ve created classifications and rules for dietary ideas to make our own bodies healthier and the planet more sustainable, but if you go into a different culture, there might be a different system of classifying things, from healthy foods to environmental problems.”

The pair is still collecting data, but the goal is to find greater narratives, cross-cultural similarities, and a more unified theory to tackle worldwide environmental concerns.

Additionally, Yang and Pajo stress that these concerns are by no means static. As both cultures, their potential economies, and the planet changes, new fears, opinions, and attitudes are likely to emerge and come to be shared across cultures. They cite one question from their study in particular—“Do you think environmental protection comes first, or does economic development come first?”—as evidence of an ever-changing environmental narrative.

"In China, we tend to think pollution is inevitable, because we have to prioritize economy instead of environmental protection. Take my hometown Chongqing as an example. It used to be a very poor city. Nowadays, it has become one of the most industrialized and urbanized cities in southwest China. Of cousre, it is also heavily polluted, but we will say it is inevitable in terms of city development—people need money and jobs," says Yang. “I think that used to be and still is the general idea in China. But we did another pilot study, and I was quite surprised to see that many Chinese students are starting to put environmental protection ahead of economic development. After the industrial process, people have enough money, so they’re starting to put environmental concerns over economic concerns.”

Ultimately, both Yang and Pajo are excited to see where their work takes them, and how it can lead to better understanding the world—and the issues we need to collectively tackle—from both micro and macro perspectives. Such research on the cultural variables of environmentalism can help us better understand some of the dynmaics of global environmental discourse, such as the conversations between countries in COP24, the UN Climate Change conference held in Poland this month.