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Russian Researchers Identify Psychological Traits Common to the Environmentally Conscious

January 20, 2020

Insects disappearing. Species dying out in the sixth mass extinction event. Arctic ice melting. Sea levels rising. Fires ravaging forests around the globe. Microplastics proliferating.

As the drama of global warming unfolds, a new psychological phenomenon has emerged, called eco-anxiety and defined by the American Psychological Association as “a permanent fear of environmental doom”. According to a December 2018 Yale University survey, 70% of Americans are at least “somewhat worried” about climate change, with 29% “very worried” and 51% feeling “helpless” about it.

In Russia, environmental concerns are also increasing. In a survey conducted by National Research University Higher School of Economics (HSE) from late February to mid-March 2019, 94% of those polled agreed that environmental pollution was an acute problem, with a bare 1% saying that it did not affect their region of residence and 5% believing that, while the problem did exist, it was of minor importance.

What makes a person susceptible to eco-anxiety? What do people have in common who engage in waste separation or join public protests against environmentally unsafe facilities?

Russian scientists have come up with some answers.

South Ural State University (SUSU) has conducted a study of urban residents’ pro-environmental behaviors to explore the genesis of environmental consciousness. Environmentally conscious persons, write the authors, are those who engage in pro-environmental behavior and share the values and attitudes inherent to it. The greater their involvement in pro-environmental activity, the more strongly their environmental consciousness is deemed to manifest itself.

According to Svetlana Morozova, junior PhD in Psychology, who heads the SUSU Department for General Psychology, Psychological Diagnosis and Psychological Consulting, the researchers set out to explore the environmental behavior patterns of those city dwellers that pursue environmental activities, i. e., join environmental action groups, engage in environmental volunteering and collaboration, etc. A survey by questionnaire showed that a majority scored high on such items as individual ecological behavior (74%), responsibility (69%), empathy (80%), self-reflection (52%) and values (95%). The last metric means that 95% of participants place a high value on nature.

The high performance on “responsibility” by 69% of those polled appears to confirm the assumption that pro-environmental attitudes are rooted in a strong sense of personal responsibility. A well-known theory sees individuals’ propensity to pro-environmental behavior as a product of their personal norms, specifically their willingness to take on responsibility for dealing with environmental issues.

That 80% scored well on empathy validates a hypothesis which links pro-ecological behavior to high levels of empathy. The reasoning runs that those who have a fellow feeling for other human beings will extend their compassion to the surrounding world as a whole.

Next, the preponderance of participants showing high levels of self-reflection suggests that the ecologically minded generally have a strong capacity to take stock of their environment, both human and natural, and its dynamics, cogitate on the fate of nature, etc.

Finally, a large majority of those surveyed (74%) ranked high on “individual ecological behavior” which comprises waste sorting, green consumerism and so on.

According to Alexander Lebedev, an HSE assistant (lecturer) and an Effie Russia Awards eco-marketing judge, the typical eco-conscious Russian consumer is a female millennial living in a big city, employed in a non-manual job and enjoying an average or above-average income. But the distribution of green consumers is bimodal, with the second peak being people from small towns and villages who buy local produce that is often grown organically because the farmers cannot afford chemicals or machinery.

Whereas environmentalists in the West are a major political force capable of pushing through a legal agenda that promotes environmental values, imposes restrictions on the use of some products and completely bans others, such as certain types of plastics. it is personal consumer choices that are driving the Russian green products market. Here, an important sector, as Alexander Lebedev points out, is baby food and products, since women tend to change their consumer behavior when pregnant (this is especially true for first pregnancies). At this time, they start reading product information more carefully, consulting various off- and online sources and, eventually, going greener. While these newly acquired habits may slack off a little as the child grows up, a shift towards green consumption will persist.

Although men in Russia generally lag behind women in terms of environmental awareness and sustainable consumerism, they are increasingly less likely to take a macho view of nature as a wild thing to be conquered. With upmarket consumers turning to natural materials and the urban middle class going in for responsible waste management and recycling (which was definitely not the case a few years ago), Russia is, on the whole, traveling down the same path as other countries, says Alexander Lebedev.

The SUSU researchers conclude that, in the case of urban residents, environmental consciousness implies at least some involvement in pro-environmental behaviors, with the environmentally conscious generally distinguished by such personality traits as responsibility, empathy and self-reflection.

While building environmental consciousness will take decades of hard work, Svetlana Morozova says that, based on the survey, urban Russians already possess it to a considerable degree, which means that society is moving towards a greater awareness of the need to preserve nature.

Leonid Rikhvanov, a distinguished Russian geologist and professor of geology at Tomsk Polytechnic University (TPU), agrees that the state of the environment is now a worldwide concern. Its deterioration is worrying experts across scientific fields, from specialized environmental disciplines like radioecology, which has revealed the profound impact that radiation has already had on the environment and the human body, to the broader social sciences like philosophy and psychology. Importantly, these concerns are now shared by ordinary people who would normally give them little thought but today are subject to eco-anxiety. While mostly lacking specialist knowledge and expertise, they actively adopt pro-environmental behaviors at the household level, which, in Leonid Rikhvanov's opinion, accounts for the numbers that the SUSU study has come up with.