The Anthropocene is defined as an era of profound human influence upon Earth’s processes. Usually that’s understood in terms of obvious planet-altering activities: agriculture and mining, fossil fuels and land use. Less appreciated, but perhaps no less important, are the social aspects of all this: feelings, beliefs, attitudes. After all, it’s these that determine our behaviors. That mine or road or greenhouse gas target is a manifestation of human values. Psychology becomes ecology.
It’s especially important to understand, then, not just what people do to nature, but how they think about it. And in the United States, there appears to be a gap — perhaps profound — between the values of different demographic groups.
As described in a new Conservation Biology study, whether people tend to have a “mutualist” orientation, seeing humans as one part of a larger natural community whose needs deserve respect, tracks with their living in urban areas, being highly-educated and earning more money. Conversely, people who live in rural areas, are less-educated and have lower incomes, are more likely to have “domination”-oriented values. From that perspective, the nonhuman world is ours to exploit.
That such a schism exists isn’t a brand-new idea. One of the Conservation Biology study’s co-authors, social scientist Michael Manfredo of Colorado State University, has spent much of the last decade exploring it. (In a nutshell: it’s complicated, but might have something to do with people in crowded places putting a higher value on tolerance in general.) In the new paper, Manfredo and environmental scientist Alia Dietsch of Ohio State University dig into the dynamics, examining the fine-grained distribution of these attitudes at local levels and how they translate to action.
Manfredo and Dietsch surveyed more than 4,000 households across Washington state, collecting demographic information and asking about values as well as conservation-related activities. They found the expected links between modernization — as the confluence of urbanity, education and income is formally known — and values, but with a twist: county-level demographics mattered more than an individual’s. People with little education and low incomes who lived in more-modernized communities tended to share those mutualist values, and vice versa.
They also found links between mutualism and support for conservation on issues like wolf recovery, the restoration of salmon populations, and the idea that state wildlife agencies should expand their focus beyond hunting and fishing. Conversely, people oriented towards domination were less likely to support those forms of conservation. “Actions that restrict human interests to promote biodiversity were negatively associated with domination and positively associated with mutualism,” wrote Dietsch and Manfredo.
What might be the long-term implications of these social patterns? Ralph Maugham, founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, has elsewhere written that the confluence of politics, identity and conservation could give rise to culturally-determined patterns of biodiversity. Dietsch and Manfredo focus on practicalities: conservation efforts, they write, need to pay close attention to social dynamics.
Therein may reside a seed of a better Anthropocene. If Anthropocene threats to Earth’s biodiversity are fueled by modernization’s appetites, but modernization leads to more nature-friendly values, we might yet reverse our biodiversity-extinguishing trajectory. “Does modernization, which contributes to contemporary conservation challenges, also foster increased support for actions aimed at addressing those challenges?” ask Dietsch and Manfredo. Apparently it does.