Are we egocentric, or is it just politics?

Have you ever wondered if culture changes the way we perceive the impact of climate change?

I have, especially since I come from the United States. My country has recently pulled out of The Paris Agreement and reduced climate change action in regards to mitigation.

With the shift in political power after the November 2016 election, the US foreign government has strayed away from aggressively mitigating or adapting to the effects of climate change.

I often wonder if this is due to the fact that the United States has strong values of individualism. Is it just politics, or is it a lack of education and apathy?

While cultural values and apathy might not be mutually exclusive, it is psychologically proven that cultural values have an impact on how we view ourselves and others around us.

According to Harry Triandis, a professor of Psychology at the University of Illinois, cultural patterns lead “people to view their worlds through different lenses, attaching different meanings to life events” (Individualism and Collectivism).

Specifically, Triandis claims identification with individualist or collectivist cultures can impact our understanding of human motivations, needs, and preferences.

In addition to understanding how self-identification with collectivist or individualist culture might impact climate change perceptions, Triandis believes that understanding how culture impacts our psychology. . .

“. . .can help us better understand why crime rates, divorce rates, levels of self-esteem, feelings of well-being, and indeed overall behavioral patterns can be so different from one society to another.”

Harry Triandis

COLLECTIVIST and INDIVIDUALIST are categories of culture, and reflect how individuals view their impact on society. Collectivist culture refers to groups which view themselves as part of a larger system, or whole. Individuals in individualist cultures tend to preference personal needs and goals.

These categories of culture are often associated, but are not exclusive, to certain countries and regions of the world. Western or European countries are defined as individualist, while Arab and East Asian countries are considered collectivist.

Watch our introductory video on climate change and culture. We interviewed Alice Reznickova, a Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow for Sustainability at Emory University.

I attend Emory University, where cultural, racial, economic, geographical, and ethnic diversity seem to be on the institution’s priority list. Emory University has been ranked by as the 10th most diverse university, amongst 100 other institutions of higher education. Emory University also has a commitment to sustainability–to climate action. How do these two priorities co-exist on campus? And how can Emory make policies related to climate change that are culturally relative and easily understood?

Wenhao Sun, Shannon Thomas, and I first got interested in the relationship between climate change and culture when brainstorming our midterm project for ENVS 326: Climate Change and Society.

We then decided, to create a survey which would measure the relationship between culture (individualist and collectivist cultural identification) and the perception of climate change. We then made a simple survey, which asked participants 6 questions. These questions ranged from demographic information to questions on perception, culture, and behavior. All survey participants were anonymous.

For more information on the survey design and survey questions, take a look at our video on the results of our project.

We ended up receiving more than 100 responses from promoting the survey on a campus-wide scale. We can conclude, at a 95% confidence level, that individualist and collectivist cultures differ in their perception of climate change.

There was a statistical significance in our data when it came to the relation between perception and culture, but in terms of behavior, our team could conclude no statistical significance. Therefore, we could not conclude that there was a difference between how individualist and collectivist cultures act based on their perception of climate change.

This conclusion, in my perspective, has implications for how sustainability goals, emission standards, and policy is approached by those in power. Of course, larger studies must be done in order to assess if this trend applies to global communities. 

If we can better understand what motivates humans to take action against the negative effects of climate change we can work together to create more effective climate action goals for humanity.

Comment below on how you think cultural values impact your live–specifically, on how your cultural values have impacted your perception of sustainability on your campus, in your city, or in your home.

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