Studying under a symbolic interactionist as an undergraduate, I was understandably intrigued by the possibility that the self concept, and the identities that constitute it, could be the mechanism through which environmentally sustainable behavior, and the society in which such behavior is normative, are produced. In an undergraduate thesis advised by Andy Weigert, I argued that the deep ecology philosophy of the self becoming one with nature is hypothetically possible from a sociological/symbolic interactionist perspective. In my Masters thesis I attempted to demonstrate empirically that ecological identities can be observed by doing ethnographic fieldwork, including employment of a a measurement instrument for observing individuals’ identities, at a two-week workshop of deep ecologists.
This work eventually resulted in a chapter in a book called Identity and the Natural Environment: The Psychological Significance of Nature, edited by Susan Opotow and Susan Clayton (2004, MIT Press). My chapter, titled “Constructing and Maintaining Ecological Identities: The Strategies of Deep Ecologists,” argues that although the deep ecologists I observed exhibited evidence of ecological identities, they also reported challenges in maintaining these identities. A fundamental premise of interactionism is that we make meaning through social interaction. Daily life in a society where the vast majority of interactions treat one’s ecological identity as if it does not exist takes its toll.
One of my proudest moments as a scholar was learning from my mentor, Andy Weigert, that he assigned this chapter to students in the very same class that years earlier had set me on my intellectual and career path. But not too proud. Andy once told me that his mother always warned “Pride is ugly,” or something along those lines. More recently, I’ve been extremely honored to have the opportunity to work together with Andy on a chapter for a book that is under review. The chapter, which we are tentatively titling “Ecological Identity as Social Identity: A Meadian Examination of Self and Identity Toward a Sustainable Future,” argues that certain cultural impulses, especially those occurring among urban-dwelling Millennials, point to the importance of identity in shaping sustainable lifestyle choices despite the absence of ecological identities.
My dissertation research expanded from ecological identities to examine attitudes and values towards the environment and towards consumerism. In the late 1990s in the Pacific Northwest there was growing interest in the ideas of voluntary simplicity. Among the participants in voluntary simplicity workshops that I interviewed, “simplifying” one’s life (and lifestyle) usually meant reducing levels of consumption. I examined whether the desire to reduce the importance of material possessions in one’s life was tied to underlying environmental concerns. For some it was, but significantly, many people showed no signs of simplifying out of concern for the environment. Stress reduction, rather, was a primary motivator.
Much to my initial surprise, this line of work was of great interest to the marketing and consumer research fields. I ended up guest editing a special issue of a journal called Psychology & Marketing on “Anticonsumption Attitudes” (2002). My article in the special issue, “The Social-psychological Bases of Anti-consumption Attitudes,” continues to be cited today. In “Environmental Concern and Anticonsumerism in the Self-Concept: Do They Share the Same Basis?,” a chapter in a book called Sustainable Consumption: Conceptual Issues and Policy Problems edited by Maurie Cohen and Joseph Murphy (2001), I demonstrated how despite some overlap, environmental concern and anti consumerism in the self concept do not share the same basis.
Zavestoski, Stephen. 2001. “Environmental Concern and Anticonsumerism in the Self-Concept: Do They Share the Same Basis?” In Sustainable Consumption: Conceptual Issues and Policy Problems, edited by Maurie J. Cohen and Joseph Murphy, pp. 173-189. London: Elsevier Press.
Zavestoski, Stephen. 2002. “The Social-psychological Bases of Anti-consumption Attitudes,” Psychology & Marketing 19:149-66.
Zavestoski, Stephen. 2004. “Constructing and Maintaining Ecological Identities: The Strategies of Deep Ecologists.” In Identity and the Natural Environment: The Psychological Significance of Nature, edited by Susan Opotow and Susan Clayton, pp. 297-316. Cambridge: MIT Press.