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ARTICLE
Year : 2019  |  Volume : 17  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 38-50

Another Turn of the Screw on the Environmental Opinions: Utilising Surveys and Social Discourses to Investigate the Social Perception of Environmental Issues


1 Interdisciplinary Research Structure for Sustainability (ERI-Sostenibilitat), Universitat de Valènica, València, Spain; The Sheffield Institute for International Development, The University of Sheffield, Sheffield, UK
2 Freelance Social Researcher, Madrid, Spain

Correspondence Address:
Marina i Mora Requena
Interdisciplinary Research Structure for Sustainability (ERI-Sostenibilitat), Universitat de Valènica, València; The Sheffield Institute for International Development, The University of Sheffield, Sheffield

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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None


DOI: 10.4103/cs.cs_16_48

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Date of Web Publication7-Jan-2019
 

   Abstract 


In this paper, we explore the nature of the contradictions between capitalism and the environment as they emerge under new conditions of stress and austerity in Spanish contexts. These contradictions show how shallow the roots of urban post-materialism can be. They also show that post-materialism, which is embedded in the different habitus that can characterise rural lifestyles can have a stronger base. Ironically, however, it is precisely these lifestyles which are being threatened by top-down nature conservation practices being pursued in the Spanish State. We analyse the results of several surveys centred on environmental issues and compare the results with social discourses that arise from a specific study carried out in protected areas located in the Spanish State. In the introduction, the researchers present theoretical arguments that have played a fundamental role in shaping the social opinions on the topic of the environmentalism. In the first part, we explore the opinions revolving around environmental concern. In the second part, we focus on practices and social profiles that reflect environmentally sustainable behaviours. In the third part, we concentrate on our qualitative study and evaluate a paradoxical situation with respect to conservation. In protected areas, top-down conservation is imposed; however, many of these areas are also located in rural populations where a type of environmental conservation related to their way of life and everyday practices is part of their traditional knowledge.

Keywords: post-materialist thesis, environmentalism of the poor, social opinion on environment, environmental sociology, New Environmental Paradigm, Spain


How to cite this article:
Requena Mi, Moreno GR. Another Turn of the Screw on the Environmental Opinions: Utilising Surveys and Social Discourses to Investigate the Social Perception of Environmental Issues. Conservat Soc 2019;17:38-50

How to cite this URL:
Requena Mi, Moreno GR. Another Turn of the Screw on the Environmental Opinions: Utilising Surveys and Social Discourses to Investigate the Social Perception of Environmental Issues. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2019 [cited 2019 Dec 11];17:38-50. Available from: http://www.conservationandsociety.org/text.asp?2019/17/1/38/239519




   Introduction Top


Environmental sociology has undergone considerable development since the 1970s. This sociology is mainly based on the findings of the New Environmental Paradigm (NEP) formulated by Riley E. Dunlap. The success of this model lies in the ability of Dunlap and his collaborators to operationalise its theoretical items. The result is the famous NEP Scale, a theoretical and empirical apparatus capable of reliably measuring the degree of adhesion of the population to pro-environmental values. Its contributions have identified some social characteristics that typify different responses to environmentalism:

Younger adults, the well-educated, political liberals, Democrats, those raised and currently living in urban areas, and those employed outside of primary industries were found to be consistently more supportive of environmental protection than were their respective counterparts (Jones and Dunlap 1992: 28).

The relationship between income, environmental attitudes and behaviour has been an important topic within environmental sociology. Early research suggested a positive relationship between people's income and pro-environmental attitudes and behaviour (Inglehart 1977; Van Liere and Dunlap 1980). The post-materialist thesis contained in The Silent Revolution (1977) argued that the value priorities of Western societies, which had reached a high degree of economic development and satisfaction of material needs, were moving from material well-being and personal security towards concern for quality of life and satisfaction of post-material needs of self-realisation. In this framework, concern for the environment would depend, at least in part, on the dissemination of post-materialist values, as an expression of these kinds of values (Sempere et al. 2007). Consider the environment as a luxury good and a “post-material need”, which people have more degrees of freedom to emphasise when their material needs are well satisfied.

Given the increasing prosperity in Europe (at least) over decades, the groundswell of environmental concern generated should bode well for environmental health and environmental movements. However, we are not convinced that this has been happening, and if it indeed does happen, whether it will result in robust forms of environmentalism.

In the first instance, according to this theory, if the economic situation worsens, the environment is once again a matter of second priority. Economic downturns can intensify the double bind that can afflict attitudes towards the environment (Bateson 1988; García and Cabrejas 1996; Rodríguez 2002). Two contradictory commands are imposed: 'Live as if the environment does not matter because, otherwise, you are threatened by poverty and unemployment' and 'Protect nature because, otherwise, you are threatened by catastrophe and extinction' (García and Cabrejas 1996). Recession and austerity would unpick the post-material tapestry woven over the years.

But perhaps more importantly, post-materialism is not particularly robust in precisely the forms of material behaviour which matter for healthy environments. Other social environmental studies have shown that the link between environmental awareness and pro-environmental attitudes on the one hand, and environmental behaviour on the other, is generally rather weak (Brand 2010). Environmental behaviour in this case referred to behaviour that involves everyday practices as a whole. Moreover, such environmental behaviour, in nearly all cases, shows an inconsistent pattern, even among people with strong pro-environmental beliefs. As Brand (1997) has argued, quantitative data show that the population claiming to be in favour of environment protection, such as young people, have less 'green' lifestyles than other segments of society, such as retirees, whose tendency towards environmentalist values is less pronounced than younger people's but who have a lifestyle that uses and wastes much less energy and materials. A manifest environmental sensitivity in one domain of action or attitude is often combined with indifference in others. These findings are not unusual, considering the difficulty of making actual choices in line with strict ecological criteria in a society geared toward the Western way of life, economic growth, material affluence, technological progress (Brand 2010), and social inequalities. The efforts to establish more environmentally-friendly behaviours encounter a multitude of obstacles.

The failures of post-materialism are best illustrated in the way discourses of sustainable development intensify these contradictions, in part through the ideology it distils and in part through the blatant oxymorons it juxtaposes in its very terminology (Latouche 2006). As Riechmann (1995) explained, the term sustainable development generalised the use of an ideological formula, a kind of magic spell with which leaders, technocrats, and industrialists hope to continue their capitalist production. They get to do so after making ecological corrections to the industrial system, which is seen to be essential. Yet, in fact, they intend to minimise such rectifications. The success of this term has to do with its calculated ambiguity designed to please everyone, bridging the gap created in 1971 in the debate between development economists and conservationist economists (Rodríguez 2002). The term sustainable development pleases both perspectives. On the one hand, the economists were able to update the old concept of sustainable development—used to propose a development crisis and not altered by economic imbalances—with the new idea of environmentalism, without transforming their views. On the other hand, the conservationists saw the adjective 'sustainable' as fulfilling their expectations on the conservation of natural heritage. Its continual invocation, in the words of Naredo (2007), had two objectives: to sustain the myth of economic growth, which had faltered with the criticism of the seventies, and to reassure the population, implying that their ecological and environmental claims were being taken into consideration. Meanwhile, economic growth continues to be measured exactly as before it was challenged in the early seventies: by the simple addition of the product or income.

The result is today's panoply of recipes on sustainable technologies, environmental economic policies (taxes, tradable fishing quotas, markets in pollution permits), optimal rates of resource extraction, substitution of manufactured capital for lost “natural capital”, dematerialisation of the economy and environmental Kuznets curves, habitat trading and carbon trading, smart growth and smart cities, “green” economic growth (Anguelovski and Martinez-Alier 2014). These practices are accompanied by, and are the outworkings of, an ideology that has greened capitalism to the extent that it does not challenge its production bases. So it clearly acts as an 'ideological state apparatus' (Althusser 2003), which is essential in order to reproduce the relations of production and reproduction, albeit in an ideological and discursive plane for a limited period of time and not in a sustainable way. To sum up, “the notion of 'sustainable development' is merely a means of making the notion of development sustainable, although it really should have already been sent to the idea-recycling plant. There is no such thing as a sustainable capitalist economy” (Viveiros 2013: 36).

The difficulties of finding a convincing and comprehensive answer to the question of how to overcome these obstacles to environmentally-friendly behaviour are also reinforced by the way some social scientists cope with these inconveniences. For instance, psychology and economics exclusively focus on individual decisions. Therefore, some environmental researchers reduce the environmental problem to some specific individual actions or behaviour but ignore the impacts of lifestyles and of broader social structures (Christensen 1997). Social and environmental research projects focus on individual acts such as recycling, buying products with minimal packaging, buying energy-efficient products. These approaches, however, adequately consider the material dimension of social practices—the fact of everyday behaviour and consumption being systematically enmeshed with socio-technical systems and being embedded in specific spatial structures, in urban or rural settings (Brand 2010). Hidden aspects of daily consumption like housing, heating, washing, cooking, mobility, etc. (Southerton et al. 2004), are pervasive, hard to shift, highly routinised, and have a high environmental impact.

There is therefore a substantial disconnect between what post-material environmentalism purports to do, what it actually achieves, and what sorts of 'sustainability' it actually promotes. We contend that the problem arises because the historical and social specificities of post-materialism promote a form of nature conservation and a social representation of the environment, which hinges on thoroughly separating lived practices from the environment. That is why the environment is considered as a desire that we can satisfy when other 'material needs' are covered, considering the environment as a post-material need. The problem is manifest in commodity fetishism, which means people consume without having any knowledge of the socio-historical context in which things have been produced or the socio-material relations they come from (hence the contradictions inherent in most visions of 'sustainable development'). The social representations of the environment are intermeshed with commodity fetishism. That partly explains how people can separate their lifestyles from the environmental impact of these lifestyles.

In this regard, some social researchers have introduced a new 'practice-theoretical approach'', which also claims to provide a framework for an integrative analysis of social and material aspects of 'social practices'.

'Practices' in the sense of the theory of social practices (…) is a routinized type of behaviour which consists of several elements, interconnected to one another: forms of bodily activities, forms of mental activities, 'things' and their use, a background knowledge in the form of understanding, know-how, states of emotion and motivational knowledge. (…) A practice – a way of cooking, of consuming, of working, of investigating, of taking care of oneself or of others – forms so to speak a 'block' (…) which cannot be reduced to one of these elements. It represents a pattern which can be filled out by a multitude of single and often unique actions reproducing the practice (Reckwitz 2002: 249).

A central core of “practice theorists” conceives of practices “as embodied, materially mediated arrays of human activity centrally organised around shared practical understanding” (Schatzki 2001:11).

In Bourdieu's theory, these implicit schemes are closely related to the habitus concept and the corresponding class-specific lifestyles (Bourdieu 1990). On the one hand, the habitus is the result of social structures, more precisely of the social class (doxa) and the rules of the game on the field that have been internalised. On the other hand, the habitus also structures practices and reproduces social fields (Bourdieu and Passeron 2000), since individual strategies and practices as products of positions and rules inevitably assure the economic and social conditions for reproduction. In this sense, Bourdieu understands practice as the result of social structures on a particular field where certain rules apply and of one's habitus, i.e. the embodied history that is manifested in our system of thinking, feeling, perceiving, and behaving. The habitus assures the collective belief in the rules of the social game (illusio) and that actors act in accordance with their position on the field (doxa), which depends on their relative amount and structure of economic, cultural (and social) capital (Walter 2014). The habitus limits practices and strategies, and “entertains with the social world” by ensuring that we act “intentionally without intention” (Bourdieu 1990: 12) in conformity with our relative position on the field.

Following a practice approach, thus, means to study the environmental behaviour in the context of situated everyday practices and to reconstruct the implicit 'practical understandings' of the various practices (Brand 2010), keeping in mind the environmental impact of these practices. It involves an integral part of social practices like living in certain living arrangements, commuting, washing, cooking, eating, driving, etc., all of which are by their very nature systemically technically, economically, and culturally, interwoven in a particular type of society (Brand 2010).

In this regard, the argument of Smith and Wishnie (2000) is key; to qualify as a conservationist, one's actions or practices must not only avoid or mitigate overexploitation of resources or damage to the environment, one must also be socialised to do so. The conditions under which conservation will be adaptive are stringent, involving temporal discounting, economic demand, information feedback, and collective action. Theory thus predicts, and evidence suggests, that voluntary conservation is rare. However, sustainable use and management of resources and habitats by small-scale societies may often result in biodiversity preservation or in influence over environmental behaviour.

Rural and poor people favour the conservation of natural resources with their ways of life and customs. Rural people collect water, gather wood, look for medicinal plants, tend domestic animals, and grow crops; therefore, they have greater knowledge and awareness of their community's direct dependence on the natural environment (Anguelovski and Martinez-Alier 2014). Some authors have named this type of environmentalism, 'the environmentalism of the poor' (Martinez-Alier 2002). It is not a sacred reverence to nature but a material interest in the environment as a source of sustenance. In this sense, the environment is not considered a “post-material need” but certainly as a “material need”. It is not a concern for the rights of other species and future human generations but for the humans of today.

Finally, contrary to Inglehart's theory (1977), we are not in a post-material age (Martinez-Alier 2002). Guha and Martinez-Alier (1997) indicate that the term “post-materialism” is terribly wrong in societies where economic prosperity depends on the use of a large amount of energy, materials, and the free availability of carbon sinks and carbon dioxide deposits. But environmental preservation and protection have been understood as desires, which could develop only after the material necessities of life were already abundantly covered. The idea of post-materialism collects a documented reality in different, somewhat significant areas, but it does not exhaust the phenomenon of awareness towards the environmental crisis. This critical point has its victims that suffer deterioration of physical or mental health or economic and vital damages, i.e., of material conditions (Sempere et al. 2007). The diffuse worldwide movement of the environmentalism of the poor has shown this view. These movements have emphasised the links between the globalisation of the economy, the increasing flows of energy and materials, and the environmental degradation of habitats for many of the world's peoples. These conflicts and struggles could be catalogued as Ecological Distribution Conflicts. They involve struggles over the burdens of pollution or/and over the sacrifices made to extract resources, and they arise from inequalities of income and power (Martinez-Alier and O'Connor 1996).

However, in the case of our study a double paradoxical situation is produced. As we have mentioned, rural areas we studied are inside protected areas. On the one hand, a top-down conservation is imposed in these areas, legitimised on the basis of available technical and scientific knowledge as to what should be preserved and how it should be preserved (Santamarina 2009). In many cases, people who have a stake and a local lay knowledge of sustainable natural management remain excluded from these protected areas (Anguelovski and Martinez-Alier 2014). Nature preservationists also often neglect to examine the social impacts of protected areas on local residents and the displacement and loss that people have to suffer when parks and reserves are created (West et al. 2006). The result was conflict and resistance by local people to a vertical management model that was perceived as an expropriation of their space and contempt for their knowledge or experience, even though these protected areas are located in rural populations where conservation is part of their traditional knowledge. On the other hand, the establishment of protected areas leads to the imposition of certain restrictions on the use of resources by the inhabitants while these areas are threatened by the pollution that is produced outside them, by the inter-basin transfers of the rivers that give life to these wetlands or by climate change. That is why an excessive emphasis on protected areas may facilitate, perversely, the creation of polarised landscapes that are predominantly hostile to the sort of nature that is intended to be preserved (Brockington et al. 2008).

With these arguments in mind, we will analyse social opinion on environment and how the post-material values shape these opinions and behaviours, as well as what the limits of this post-material thesis are, focusing on rural lifestyles.


   Methodology: Surveys and Social Discourses in a Complementary Way Top


The theoretical and empirical work contained in this article is part of the research 'Social representations and environmental discourses in the Ebre Delta and the Albufera of Valencia'.1 The main purpose of this research was to analyse, from a comparative perspective, the social representations and environmental and agrarian discourses with respect to the Albufera Natural Park2 and the Ebre Delta Natural Park3 [Figure 1].
Figure 1: Geographical locations of the study areas Source: Prepared by the authors on the basis of images supplied by Google Earth

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This research was carried out by a sociological analysis built on a qualitative and quantitative methodology, using the techniques of discussion groups and semi-structured interviews and employing surveys on the environment, adhering to the perspective of the Qualitative School of Madrid, referenced in the works of Ortí (2000), Alonso (1998), and Callejo (2001).

Based on recognition of this social variables—the social position and the social use of these Natural Parks—between December 2009 and June 2014, 58 in-depth interviews were conducted with different social actors, namely, municipal officials, environmental technicians, environmental organisations, academics, industrial workers, domestic workers, self-employed entrepreneurs, representatives of agricultural unions, councillors for agriculture, and representatives of the traditional sectors (peasants, hunters, and fishers). The empirical material, which was used to capture the ideological positions, was completed by an analysis of two 'discussion groups' (Ibáñez 1979). One discussion was with individuals in social sectors that develop traditional or modern activities in the surroundings of the Albufera, whereas the other engaged with members of social sectors linked to conservation of the Albufera Natural Park. The fieldwork took place in towns surrounding the Albufera Natural Park4 and the Ebre Delta Natural Park5.

Built on the analysis and interpretation of the data, the research contextualises opinions, attitudes, and evaluations, as well as discursive reconstructions of the subjects' experiences. The findings identify the dominant ideological positions regarding the environment related to the modernisation processes. Also, these empirical materials reveal the main dimensions of ecological and social conflicts that underlie these positions, focusing especially on both natural parks.

The analysis of the discourses was supplemented with data mining from different surveys: Barometers6 (perception of the main problems in Spain 2000–2015) and the Survey 2954, conducted by The Centro de Investigaciones Sociológicas (CIS)7, World Values Survey waves 2 to 6 (results for Spain), and the International Social Survey Programme: Environment III – ISSP 2010.

With the analysis of these surveys and analysis of the social discourses, the aim was to answer three research questions:

  1. What is the variety of social opinions about the environment?
  2. What are social opinions on the link between environment and economic growth?
  3. What social profiles would a person have who develop practices to take care of the environment?



   Another Turn of the Screw on the Environmental Opinions Top


As the World Value Survey has shown [Figure 2], more than 58% of the people asked consider looking after environment to be important to them. There is also evidence to suggest that this is still the case even in periods of economic uncertainty and social instability (see wave 2010–2014). In addition, we observed from our qualitative research that in every social discourse, regardless of the social position from which it emanates, people are concerned about environmental issues.
Figure 2: Looking after the environment is important to this person; to care for nature and to save life resources (Spanish State, 2005–2014) Source: Own figure based on statistics from the World Value Survey

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Of course, this concerns all of us[...] when the environment is better, it's better for everyone8 (agricultural farmer, interview, Catarroja).

It has worried me for years... because if we do not care a bit about the environment, there will come a time when we will end up with all the wildlife... if we do not increase the awareness of our citizens of the need to be careful with environment... (entrepreneur, interview, Catarroja).

I am very concerned, because these days it is so latent that the earth is rejecting us because of the damage that we are doing to it. For me it is a rejection[…] the earth says: enough[...] I am very concerned about the environmental problems that I am leaving to my grandchildren[...] glaciers are collapsing, the overheating of the earth, the atmosphere... all these problems are returning us the damage that we have done to the earth... the carelessness we have shown (housewife, interview, Catarroja).

Although opinion surveys and social discourses show a broad environmental consensus, we should establish certain methodological precautions. First, it should be noted that asking about concern for the environment invites positive responses because saving the environment is difficult to disagree with (similar to other values, such as solidarity and equality between sexes and between ethnic groups). That is why, in this section, we will take a closer look at environmental opinions and environmental behaviours.

The social and economic crisis overshadows the ecological crisis

With respect to the various surveys that have investigated public preferences on the choice of 'Protecting the environment versus economic growth', the results are quite contradictory and depend on how the questions are structured. In the World Values Survey, the results of this question in Spain in 2010–2014 reveal how the thesis of post-material values postulated by Inglehart (1977) still holds sway [Figure 3]. In the questionnaires, the respondents had to choose between 'Protecting the environment should be given priority, even if it causes slower economic growth and some loss of jobs' or 'Economic growth and creating jobs should be the top priority, even if the environment suffers to some extent'. Thus, with regard to a wave of surveys covering the years 1994–1998, 1999–2004, and 2005–2009, [Figure 3] response rates favoured the protection of the environment more than economic growth. In the latest round of surveys, spanning 2010–2014, against the backdrop of ongoing economic and social uncertainty, percentages tilted in favour of economic growth (58% of cases).
Figure 3: Protecting environment vs economic growth (Spanish State, 1994–2014) Source: Own figure based on statistics from the World Value Survey

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In the International Social Survey Programme: Environment III (2010) and the Survey 2954 of the CIS (2012)—which revolved around environmental issues—we see that the answers to the choice between environmental protection and economic growth, as recorded on the Likert scale, reveal varying degrees of support for these issues [Table 1] and [Table 2]. Interestingly, the question ceases to present the two positions in opposition between which respondents must chose, but separates them into two sentences, to which respondents separately record their level of agreement. The two sentences are: 'economic growth is necessary to protect the environment' and 'economic growth is always harmful to the environment.' It is quite possible for a respondent firmly to agree with both sentences! Because of this, the results can be quite contradictory. Indeed, [Table 1] (at international level) and [Table 2] (at Spanish State level) show that a significant minority of people agree or agree strongly with both sentences (13.3% at international level and 12.7% at Spanish State level). A similar proportion disagree or disagree strongly with both (8.1% at international level and 14.8% at Spanish level).
Table 1: Contingency Table: Environment: protected by economic growth* Economic growth: harms environment (International level, 2010)9

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Table 2: Contingency Table: Environment: protected by economic growth* Economic growth: harms environment (Spanish State, 2012)10

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The contradictions in the results of the surveys are reproduced in the social discourses of our qualitative research. These contradictory results confirm the aforementioned hypothesis that environmental values are subject to a double bind structure (Bateson 1988). A message mandating the protection of nature is inevitably frustrated by a message simultaneously calling for the acceptance of the necessity of current economic development (Rodríguez 2002). The problem is that in our study areas, this double bind structure is more tangible. In this sense, on the one hand, the commandment that says 'Protect nature because, otherwise, you are threatened by catastrophe and extinction' becomes much more palpable. The effects of pollution and other environmental problems, such as inter-basin water transfers, are more present in these zones and begin to affect the lives of those living there:

Of course we are concerned because we see that the river itself is running out... the water does not come as it came before[...] now, only rubbish comes... because there is a lot of cancer here[...] between the nuclear plants from Ascó and Vandellòs, we are surrounded (housewife, interview, Amposta).

And, moreover, the other commandment, 'Live as if the environment does not matter because, otherwise, you are threatened by poverty and unemployment', is also more present in these towns, where the agricultural economy has been under significant pressure and the fact that these wetlands are protected areas limits economical activities. They suffer the effects of unemployment and joblessness and they explain how their children should leave the territory because “there is nothing here” (self-employed worker, interview, Sueca) there is no “job, industry... nothing... nothing...” (housewife, interview, Sueca).

The self-delusion involved in continuing to deny the gravity of the ecological crisis subjects citizens to a double bind. The contradiction between a message (expression of ecological conscience) pointing to the need to protect nature and a message of a higher order (calling for acceptance of the current need for economic development) inherently means that one of the two goals cannot be realised. Apparent contradictory values (such as in the contingency tables or social discourses), erratic behaviour, fears, paralysis or inability to act, are not in any way surprising (Almenar et al. 2000). As Jesus Ibáñez (1985: 275) pointed out, whatever they do, subjects always feel at fault, and always feel guilty; they will always be in debt to society.

Finally, we analyse the evolution of an open-ended question asking respondents to identify the most important issues in Spain. While unemployment always appears to be a problem, the environment (as a key problem) never exceeds 6.5% of the responses [Figure 4], even in times of economic boom. Similar results were found in the International Social Survey Programme. At an International level, by 2010, the environment was considered as one of the most important problems in only 5.3% of cases, while economic issues were viewed as important by 24.4% of the respondents.
Figure 4: Evolution of the perception of 'unemployment' and 'environment' as the most important issues for Spanish State and for the interviewee (2000–2015) Source: Own figure based on statistics from CIS

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As for social discourse, against the backdrop of ongoing economic difficulty, we see that theories of post-material values are becoming more prevalent. Survival and 'materialist' values are associated with having a job and health and education—necessities that many now lack. However, environment is perceived as a post-material need. According to this train of thought, economic growth is necessary to supply the assets that are now lacking (jobs, health, education…). This economic growth has ceased to oppose itself to the protection of the environment. From being a force that could bring us to our end as a human species, it has become the redeemer and saviour.

... but I think if we could get out of the economic trouble that there is now, that is the lack of jobs and all of these kinds of things[...] I think everything else (in reference to the environmental crisis) will be nothing, you know what I mean? (bar owner, interview, Amposta)

Climate change in 2005, 2008, was a subject that was talked about a lot [...] now, with the economic crisis, this issue has been mostly neglected and has not been not talked about (high school teacher, interview, Sueca).

... I do not see any future... environment even less... if there are more important things... do not get me wrong... certain things... because I believe that the public health or employment are more important than the environment (housewife, interview, Sueca).

The qualitative research of Alonso et al. (2014) indicates there is a growing social bifurcation between economics and the ecological crisis, in that the economic crisis is perceived as near and real, whereas the ecological crisis is seen as distant, although, in general, it is widely regarded as something true.

The social discourses describe the environment as something 'post-material'; our survival does not depend on it and there are more 'important' things (such as employment and public health). Environmental preservation and protection have been understood as desires, which could develop only after the material necessities of life were already abundantly covered.

If we analyse the social opinions on the environment, we can conclude that environmental preoccupation is stuck in the present time. However, the discourse of the different social sectors involved in eco-social conflict shifts responsibility for the problem to the past and projects its resolution into the future. They describe an idealised future in which scientific knowledge, new technologies, progressive environmental awareness, and education of citizens converge to produce a creative solution. In this vision, progress—understood as capitalist economic growth—is safe in social discourse. Environmental concern is consequentially eclipsed, subordinated to the exigencies of economic progress, with prudent initiatives to solve ecological and social problems being deferred to the far-off future. Interviewed express that it is not too late to find a solution to the environmental crisis. Science and new technologies are the antidotes that limit their perception of risk.

Is it too late to solve the problem of ecological crisis? I think it is not, because it could be arranged somehow[…]. I do not know by what or by whom, but there are more educated people who could give some opinions to stop all these[…] earthquakes, tsunamis, we never knew about their existence[…]. Now scientists tell us why these things are happening (housewife, interview, Catarroja).

But we have to say that although social discourses appeal to science as an antidote to threats that produce the ecological crisis, respondents also expressed the need for a collective consciousness in order to protect the environment because “it is ours” (housewife, interview, Amposta), and “we all have to take care of it” (housewife, interview, Amposta), “from young people to elderly people” (public administration worker, interview, Sant Jaume d'Enveja). Otherwise, “we face a debacle if people are not aware of the environmental problems” (housewife, interview, Amposta).

Environmental behaviour, lifestyles, and traditional knowledge

If social opinions are shaped by the postmaterialist thesis, we wanted to know what happens with behaviours. In this section, we will describe the relationships between pro-environmental behaviour and its socio-demographic predictors. And, we will explore whether having concerns about the environment leads to the adoption of isolated practices that reduce the effects of consumption (example.g., recycling or purchasing products with reusable packaging) or, alternatively, whether taking care of environment is related to developing a whole lifestyle less exploitative of the useful functions of nature.

First of all, we must say that Dunlap's and his followers' work inspired much empirical research on the perception of the environment. In Spanish state, where environmental sociology has undergone considerable development over the past three decades, the work of Navarro Yáñez (1998, 2000), Chuliá Rodrigo (1995), Garcia Ferrando (1991), Gómez and Paniagua (1996), Gómez, Noya and Paniagua (1999) and Moyano and Jimenez (2005), are among the most important contributions in this regard (Cerrillo 2010: 5).

However, this methodology runs into issues when confronted with the so-called environmental gap—pro-environmental inconsistency between declared values and behaviours. That is why, for our study and analysis, we have constructed a composite indicator of environmental performance based on individual behaviours instead of pro-environmental values (which have already been analysed in the previous section). We did so using the list of environmentally-friendly actions in Survey 2954 of CIS. Specifically, the actions included were related to frequency of behaviours respectful to the environment in buying habits (buying products with packing that can be reused, buying products with minimal packaging, and buying appliances with efficient energy use), frequency of using recycling centre use, and frequency of separating glass, plastic, and metal as well as paper and cardboard waste [Table 3]. [Figure 5] analyses by social and demographic variables—gender, age, ideology, level of education, habitat, occupation, labour situation, socioeconomic status, and ideology—what percentages of people are doing, often or very often, all the actions included in [Table 3].
Table 3: Environmental performance as a constructed variable with the following variables

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Figure 5: Bivariate analysis of environmental performance: sociodemographic variables (Spanish State, 2012) Source: Own figures based on statistics from CIS (2954)

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We could conclude that the current social profile of Spanish citizens acting with the environment in mind is not far from that described by Dunlap. As we can see in [Figure 5], the social profile depicts a person with a high educational level, who lives in a big city or metropolitan area, belongs to the middle or upper class, is ideologically left leaning, and has an occupation probably related to something technical or scientific.

Nevertheless, as we can see in [Table 3], the environmental performance derived from surveys is based on individual acts that only seek to mitigate the effects of consumption (example.g., by recycling or by purchasing products with reusable packaging) but ignore the environmental impacts of lifestyles (Christensen 1997). As we have mentioned before, the historical and social specificities of post-materialism support a form of environmental conservation that depends on the deep separation of lifestyles from the environmental impacts that these lifestyles are producing. That is why, instead of considering the environmental behaviour as individual acts, we should consider the material dimension of social practices, the fact of everyday behaviour in the context of situated everyday practices and to reconstruct the implicit 'practical understandings' and the environmental impact that these practices are producing.

In interviews with the inhabitants of rural places, respondents explained that their environmental consciousness was a type of 'habitus'—an ethos regulating all the social practices—and 'practical logics'—meaning that practices must be understood based on the social and historical conditions of their production and their producers—(Bourdieu 1990). For them, environmentalism is not a voluntary action, is a way of life inherited from a type of socialisation process. However, they rarely saw themselves as 'environmentalists'.

It seems that we carry environmentalism within; you know? The people who live here... I mean, I think if you go and ask, few people will tell you that they are environmentalist, okay? But instead we are... we act as if we were, you know? But you do it because that is how you have always lived (public administration worker, interview, Sant Jaume d'Enveja).

In some ways, we can talk about what Martinez-Alier (2002) called 'the environmentalism of the poor'. Rural people favour the conservation of natural resources with their ways of life and customs, and therefore have greater knowledge and awareness of their community's direct dependence on the natural environment (Anguelovski and Martinez-Alier 2014).

There are many diseases here because of contaminated river water... people have drunk water from the river, people have watered their crops from the river, and livestock have drunk from the river... the ducks... hunting animals have drunk from the river… and people still consume local crops, local livestock, local fisheries… and many people are sick. And this problem… this affectation is perceived by local people... and everyone knows it (fisherman, interview, Sant Jaume d'Enveja).

In the course of carrying out fieldwork, we observed that rural people developed practices such as: growing one's own fruits or vegetables, making their own clothes, using bicycle as their habitual transport, buying from local suppliers, consuming little electrical energy in their houses. The greatest part of these practices is a legacy from the way of life of their forefathers. Of course, most of these practices were not canvassed in the analysed surveys. And, as we can see in [Figure 5], skilled agricultural workers and fishers show the lowest amount of environmentally-friendly behaviour; only 3% perform all the actions included in [Table 3]. Moreover, living in small cities or towns are the variables that show the lowest frequency in doing all the activities proposed in [Table 3].

In the previous point we have concluded that in social opinions the environment is considered as a “post-material need”. However, in our qualitative study in rural areas, when we analysed behaviours and ways of life, we observed that rural people perceived the environment as a material need. It is not a sacred reverence to nature but a material interest in the environment as a source of sustenance. Moreover, the struggles of resistance and defence of alternative lifestyles in rural areas unite the defence of natural environment with the defence of material conditions of existence. That is why social opinions on these zones also emphasised the links between globalisation of the economy, increased energy and material flows, and environmental degradation of their habitats and their lives.

If [you ask me] the river is contaminated or not? Then most likely yes... There are a percentage of cancer cases per population[...] The truth is that this area suffers enough of it (small business owner, interview, Amposta).

As a result, these people perceive modernisation as a process that has destroyed their traditional way of life, their habitual way of working—in part due to the subsumption of agriculture under capital—and also the natural surroundings in which they were accustomed to working (as farmers). As Polanyi explained in 1944, in social discourses it was perceived how “the growth of the capitalist market impaired or destroyed its own social and environmental conditions” (cited in O'Connor 1988: 12). Economic modernisation “involved the destruction of family life, the devastation of the environment, forest clearance, pollution of rivers, professional disqualification, breaking the popular traditions and the general degradation of human existence” (Polanyi 1957: 221).

At the beginning, we planted rice by hand and it was arranged in tables with horses... then the machinery began[...] That is not good either[...] when the herbicides started out... I risked my ass by washing it with water coming from the canal... and it really stung[...] in the Citroën [his car at that time] I could not load the eels that were dead... and from that day forward I have not seen any other eel... (retired farmhand, interview, Amposta).

A paradoxical situation: environmentalism of the poor and protected areas

As previously mentioned, the rural and semi-rural towns in this study are also inside protected areas. Decisions in relation to the natural parks were perceived by local people as an implementation of a model dictated by a top-down policy, legitimised on the basis of available technical and scientific knowledge as to what should be preserved and how it must be preserved. The result was conflict and resistance by local people to a vertical management model that was perceived as an expropriation of their own space and contempt for their traditional knowledge. In response to this method of decision-making, the traditional sectors showed disdain for the technical knowledge that informed the process.

You live with it... [referring to the environment][...] the hunters put some wood in the water channels because[...] if animals fall into the channels they cannot leave because the cement is high and animals are small and cannot get out of there[...] And people who are living in the delta already have this environmental consciousness. And now, depending on which campaign, which project... depending on what letter of sustainability, we have to change our consciousness... it makes me laugh because we already know all about the environment so I do not know what they want to invent(…) I think that the Administration, environmental groups, foundations come to do some tests, a few studies that cost a lot of money to the Administration, ok? But the result of these studies show things that we already know... It is ridiculous... These are the things that make you say: “and what are these people doing?” if these things of conservation have already existed… (fisherman, interview, Sant Jaume d'Enveja).

Our interviews demonstrated the paradoxical situation that is produced in these areas. They feel that they have a type of conservation that comes from their traditional knowledge and experience and do not understand the top-down conservation that is imposed on them. Moreover, our interviews clearly highlight the contradiction of living in protected areas—where they cannot have factories or cannot build inside—while simultaneously residing at the end of polluted rivers. Amposta and Sueca are the towns situated at “the last stretch of the river” [Ebre and Xúquer Rivers, respectively] and because of that, according to a self-employed worker from Sueca, “the water coming is the dirtiest, the most polluted water... [laughs] here comes the most polluted water”.

In addition to this, the rivers that provide water to the studied wetlands—Ebre and Xúquer—are transferred to other rivers. There are social struggles against these transfers. These struggles have been driven by social and ecological movements—Plataforma en Defensa del Ebre and Xúquer Viu.

These conflicts and struggles could be catalogued as Ecological Distribution Conflicts. These social movements were consistent with the need to sustain livelihoods as well as biodiversity in these wetlands. The expert knowledge has reinforced and legitimised the arguments of the traditional sector. These movements were also consistent with their cultural values and their sense of territorial identity. Therefore, the movements are characterised by the heterogeneity of their members (economists, environmentalists, engineers, sociologists, peasants, fishermen, housewives...).

In the case of the Ebre Delta, the water transfer would have meant the deterioration of the ecosystem, because of the reductions in sediment transport, increased duration and length of the salt wedge upstream, longer anoxia periods in the estuary, increased salinity in the Delta water bodies leading to the disappearance of some lagoons, impacts on wetland vegetation, reductions in fish and shellfish fisheries, severe effects on protected animal species, and serious problems in order to cultivate rice because of the salinity in the water. In addition, there are three nuclear power plants in the last stretch of the Ebre River and there was a very big company which polluted the river and, by extension, the surrounding area. The Albufera ecosystem is also threatened by the water transfer of Xúquer River and by many industries and cities that surround the lagoon. However, these populations do not generate so much pollution:

The quality of life here... is better than other places... for a lot of reasons[...] There is not much industry or population... there is not a lot of pollution generated here... everything comes from other places (small business owner, interview, Amposta).

Conversely, these towns suffer the effects of unemployment, and young people are forced to leave the territory because “there is absolutely no employment in our towns... we only have two or three factories” (housewife, interview, Amposta). Social discourses express regret and fatalism about the environmental impact of the modernisation process that has left them only 'rubbish'. In this sense, according to Ibáñez (1991), we can say that the relationship between the rural and urban world is regulated in the class struggle: those who live in the villages are the oppressed class, and those living in the city are the ruling class. The city is a 'crap factory': the recipient of food and the emitter of excrement. The countryside, by contrast, is the emitter of food and the recipient of excrement.


   Conclusions: Back to the Origin in Order to Rebalance the Environment and Society Top


Social opinion on the environment continues to be influenced by the post-materialist thesis and by the ideology derived from the concept of sustainable development. It is not that sustainable development manages to overcome environmental problems and/or sustain the current level of production or consumption with its magical form of economic and environmental rationalisation. Rather, the concept masks inherent 'environmental conflict'. We cannot talk about environmental problems that represent risks for humanity, as these problems represent profits for many investors and countries.

That is why, the historical and social specificities of post-materialism promote a form of nature conservation and a social representation of the environment that hinges on separation of lived practices from the environmental impacts that these practices have been producing.

Nevertheless, people suffer every day the effects of environmental degradation. These cases are important and show the limits of the post-materialism thesis, which would be circumscribed to the rich and would affect mainly the middle classes and the educated sectors of the population. The idea of post-materialism collects a documented reality in different more or less significant areas. But it does not exhaust the phenomenon of awareness towards the environmental crisis, because this crisis has its victims that suffer deterioration of physical or mental health or economic and vital damages, that is, they suffer deterioration of their material conditions of life (Sempere et al. 2007).

However, the struggles of resistance and defence of alternative lifestyles in rural areas unite the defence of natural environment with the defence of material conditions of existence, sometimes at levels close to mere subsistence. At a time when there has been a widespread feeling that the current model of capitalist accumulation faces insurmountable socio-environmental limitations, materialism thinking can offer a realistic social transformation of projects (Rendeueles 2017).

The case for a general 'win-win' solution, which consists of environmental protection in conjunction with economic growth, is far from proven (Martinez-Alier 2002). Infinite growth is not possible on a finite planet (Clémentin and Cheynet 2005) or, in other words, the “earth does not take MasterCard” (Brockington et al. 2008: 188). From this perspective, it is politically necessary to work to overcome society's current relationship with nature as well as the social relationship between humans, which presupposes a global transformation of modes of production and global learning in Western societies. With that purpose in mind, in cultural terms, constructing a new productive and political rationality is needed, and in terms of knowledge, a new reworking of knowledge that integrates different epistemologies is needed. In political terms, the only chance to stop the ecological crisis and social inequality is through a confrontation with capitalism and a change of lifestyle.

The results of the qualitative study reveal that old people living in rural towns and working/having worked as farmers or fishers, are people who are taking care of the environment, which is an integral part of their social practices. These social actors consider the environment as a material need and connect the environmental impacts with lifestyles. It is not a sacred reverence to nature but a material interest in the environment as a source of sustenance. In this regard, the argument of Smith and Wishnie (2000) is key.

As we move toward a more nuanced and realistic view of human-environment relations in small-scale societies, the actual accomplishments of these peoples in constructing their livelihoods in a generally sustainable fashion, sometimes deliberately conserving or enhancing species and habitats, become even more remarkable and worthy of understanding and respect (Smith and Wishnie 2000: 516).

In addition, the social discourses we examined emphasised the links between globalisation of the economy, increased energy and material flows, and environmental degradation of their habitats and their lives. That is why we should analyse the remnants of these lifestyles, the socialisation process, and the traditional knowledge and experience, as this could lead us to rebalancing the environment and society.

The hierarchy of capitalist modernisation has imposed the primacy of scientific and technological knowledge over sensitive and traditional knowledge. Global capitalism, conventional mechanisms for biodiversity conservation and biotechnology, frame property rights and exclude local visions of biodiversity, eroding the ecological, social, and cultural well-being of many rural communities (Garí 1990). The conventional discourse of economic development, understood as a reductively linear and evolutionary process, has tended to characterise traditional knowledge and the rural world with concepts such as residual or marginalised. According to West (2005), as environmental social scientists, we have to think carefully about how we translate socioecological lives, and we need to locate the politics of translation, value, and spatial production at the heart of an engaged environmental social science.


   Acknowledgements Top


Thanks to José Manuel Rodríguez Victoriano, Luis Enrique Alonso, Javier Callejo, Jesús Vicens, and Johan A Oldekop for an interesting exchange that led to this article, and particular thanks to Daniel Brockington for his patient guidance, enthusiastic encouragement, and useful critiques of this research work.


   Notes Top


  1. This research was financed by the Ministry of Education of the Spanish Government, through the program of Scholarships Teacher Training University (FPU); AP2010-2996.
  2. The Albufera (from Arabic al-buhayra meaning 'small sea') is a freshwater lagoon and estuary on the Gulf of Valencia, off the coast of Valencian communities in eastern Spain. The lagoon is surrounded by a number of industries and cities, the biggest of which is Valencia. In 1986, the Albufera was declared a Natural Park by the Valencian government. Since 1990, the Albufera Nature Reserve has been included as a Ramsar site in the list of wetlands of international importance for birds. Since 1991, the Albufera Natural Park has also been included in the Special Protection Areas by Natura 2000.
  3. The Ebre Delta is one of the largest wetland areas—320 sq. km (79,000 acres)—in the western Mediterranean region. It is located in the delta region of the Ebre River in the Province of Tarragona, Catalonia, in north-eastern Spain. It is on the Mediterranean Sea, and it is the northernmost point, by some designations, of the Gulf of Valencia. In 1993, the Ebre Delta was placed on the Ramsar Convention list of wetlands of international importance.
  4. The cities and towns that surround the Albufera Natural Park are València, Albal, Albalat de la Ribera, Alfafar, Beniparrell, Catarroja, Cullera, Massanassa, Silla, Sueca, Sollana, València, Sedaví, and Algemesí.
  5. The Ebre Delta is surrounded by seven towns, namely, Amposta, L'Aldea, L'Ampolla, Camarles, Deltebre, Sant Carles de la Ràpita, and Sant Jaume d'Enveja.
  6. These Polls are carried out on a monthly basis (http://www.cis.es/cis/opencm/EN/11_barometros/index.jsp).
  7. The Centro de Investigaciones Sociológicas (CIS) is an independent entity assigned to the Ministry of the Presidency. The CIS gathers the necessary data for research in very different fields, from trends in public opinion to applied research. The main remit of the CIS is to contribute scientific knowledge on Spanish society.
  8. The verbatims have been extracted from in-depth interviews and focus groups conducted in the fieldwork of our study. These verbatims have been translated from Catalan to English.
  9. The chi-square test indicates that there is an association between these variables X2=6566.108>26.30=X0.05;16.
  10. The chi-square test indicates that there is an association between these variables X2=415.387>26.30=X0.05;16.




 
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    Figures

  [Figure 1], [Figure 2], [Figure 3], [Figure 4], [Figure 5]
 
 
    Tables

  [Table 1], [Table 2], [Table 3]



 

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