Jennifer Bernstein and the New Environmental Paradigm

I”ve written about the New Environmental (or Ecological) Paradigm (NEP) before here and there.

The New Environmental Paradigm is a battery of questions designed to establish where survey respondents stand on environmentalism. It’s one of dozens of similar standardised questionnaires used in the social sciences to discover where people stand in relation to numerous subjects. A well-known example is the two dimensional “Political Compass” questionnaire which divides people on both an authoritarian/libertarian axis, and an economically left/right axis.

Sociological tools like this are often culture specific, and therefore need adapting for different societies and different epochs. When I took the Political Compass test I turned out more libertarian than Gandhi, and further to the left than Stalin, which might be a tribute to my eccentricity, or a sign that society’s magnetic pole has shifted, and the compass needs adjustment.

What makes the New Environmental Paradigm (NEP) special is the fact that it’s defined as a paradigm specifically devised to overturn another paradigm – the Dominant Social Paradigm (DSP.)

Imagine if the social scientists who produced the Political Compass had openly avowed their intention of using it in order to overturn the existing capitalist order and replace it with a socialist one. Someone from within the social sciences might possibly object that this was a perversion of the scientific method worthy of Stalinism. Or possibly not.

But this is what Riley Dunlap and Kent van Lerne proposed in their 1978 paper which gave birth to the Paradigm, which Dunlap defended in 2008, inThe New Environmental Paradigm Scale: From Marginality to Worldwide Use” a most interesting paper which I strongly recommend to anyone interested in the green activist mindset. In his conclusion Dunlap insists on the fact that his life’s work as a social scientist has been one of political activism, and not the pursuit of objective scientific truth:

At this point, the question becomes how to spread this rapidly growing ecological worldview from scientific and academic communities to society at large […] Despite the current institutionalization of an antienvironmental perspective that would have been unimaginable in the early 1970s, I believe that environmental education – both formal and informal from the elementary to university levels – has continued to help infuse an ecological worldview among younger generations. In fact, evidence suggests that even short educational programs may stimulate an increase in NEP scores among children and college students […] Still, it is clear that environmental skepticism has become widespread, as significant sectors of the public have absorbed the antienvironmental message of conservative elites and, for example, question the reality and significance of global warming.

In the short term, reestablishing momentum toward societal adoption of an NEP will depend on political change, in particular the institutionalization of leadership that relies on and promotes scientific understanding of ecological conditions, rather than environmental skepticism. In the long term, it will rest on the ability of scientists, citizens, and policy makers to recognize and acknowledge the reality of ecological deterioration. In a sense, we are in the midst of a paradigm war, with two sides attempting to give highly divergent interpretations of ecological realities. Investigating and tracking changes in worldviews seems particularly important, and if the NEP Scale can be useful in this regard, I will feel even better about the modest research project Van Liere and I initiated three decades ago.

Dunlap illustrates in this largely autobiographical account how reasonable concern about concrete examples of environmental degradation can morph into a pseudo-religious cult. Since reading it, I decided to rewrite this article completely, modifying my normal bitchiness in favour of an attitude of sympathy for my fellow men, including professor Dunlap. That’s the advantage we amateur sceptics have over tenured professors. Not involved in the academic rat race or the pursuit of citations of our peer reviewed articles, secure in the knowledge thet the cheque from Big Oil will arrive at the end of the month, we are free to express our sympathy with the likes of Professor Dunlap, whose admirable youthful environmental activism led him to develop the New Environmental Paradigm, a Lysenko-like attempt to pervert science which, if implemented, would probably result in death and suffering on a Stalinist scale. But still, Professor Dunlap comes over as a thoroughly decent chap. So was Lysenko, probably.

I’ve had something to say about Professor Riley Dunlap and his Paradigm occasionally, pointing ourt that it’s a load of mystical bollocks based on a piece of pseudo-Maoist/hippy seventies catastrophe fiction by Pirages and Ehrlich (the latter recently elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.) and if I don’t mention it more often, it’s because it doesn’t get mentioned very much in climate circles. But a new paper has just come out by Bernstein et al. which is deeply critical of the NEP because it doesn’t produce a nice binary division between environmentalists and others, sheep and goats. Worse, it reveals divisions within environmentalist ranks, and therefore needs to be revised urgently to take account of changes in environmentalism. For what’s the point of a sociological tool if it doesn’t give you the results you want?

But Professor Dunlap can sleep easy. The New Environmental Paradigm (NEP) which he proposed nearly forty years ago (Dunlap & Van Lerne 1978) and defended thirty years later (Dunlap 2008) is just as valid as ever. It may be politically motivated bollocks, but Bernstein is worse. Whereas Dunlap is nineteen seventies pseudo-lefty activism disguised as social science, Bernstein is blatant careerism undisguised by its thick veneer of theological appeal to authority. Dunlap argued for a better world, according to his lights; Bernstein is arguing for her place in the sun in a solar powered world.

Dunlap at least had the honesty to declaim his belief in the need to replace the Socially Dominant Paradigm (SDP) (i.e. capitalism, which, with all its faults, is what people vote for) with a New Environmental Paradigm, which would somehow produce (presumably without the voters realising) a Brave New World of environmental orthodoxy. It didn’t happen, which Dunlap has the lucidity to admit in his 2008 paper. And in the section entitled “Opposition to a Societal Paradigm Shift” he proposes an explanation:

Although use of the NEP Scale has clearly spread around the world, it is apparent that an ecological worldview has diffused more slowly in our own society than I would have expected in the 1970s. In retrospect … it is clear that in science, defenders of established paradigms do not readily abandon their views in the face of disconfirming evidence (e.g., Oreskes, 1999), but over the past few decades we have learned that defenders of the DSP can bring enormous resources to bear in mounting effective counterattacks to challenges to their hegemony […] conservative economic and political elites began to develop a powerful conservative countermovement spearheaded by conservative foundations and think tanks […] In the 1990s, conservative think tanks, political commentators, and political elites launched a full-scale effort to undermine environmental science and claims that environmental quality was in jeopardy. […] The overall result of this largely successful assault was the delegitimization of environmental science, and growing skepticism about the seriousness of environmental problems […]. This staunch antienvironmental orientation [was] promoted effectively by conservative think tanks…

Despite forty years of surveys of the NEP kind demonstrating that an overwhelming majority of the population thinks we’re living on a fragile planet and that we’re going to hell in a fossil-fuelled handbasket, we still haven’t adopted the New Paradigm. Why not? Because of conservative think tanks. Never mind that Greenpeace and its acolytes receive thousands of times more funding than is disbursed by the Heartland Foundation and the Koch brothers. Something is clearly wrong, and one way of putting it right is by changing the way we measure environ,mentalism.

The new paper by Bernstein, which proposed it’s time to bring the NEP up to date, breaks new ground in the kind of politically motivated corruption of the social sciences which José Duarte has been valiantly criticising on his blog. It’s a qualitative analysis of environmental attitudes among 22 respondents. That’s right, a sample the size of your family, the neighbours, and the people across the road, chosen for their fervent belief in environmentalism among a sample of 200 people who responded to an invitation to participate in a survey on environmentalism posted at a number of environmentalist sites. One wonders why Bernstein didn’t simply interview herself and her 21 best friends. Maybe she did.

Having obtained a sample of 22 of the most environmentally mental people she could find, Bernstein subjected them to interviews lasting up to an hour and a half and obtained an average of eight “constructs” from each respondent. Her attempt to analyse this material qualitatively was a total failure, as she admits when she says:

Agreement was initially moderate to weak, but extremely strong after revision of the categories and blind independent recoding.

Right. If your criterion for deciding what people mean by what they say is consensus among the analysts of what they mean, then you’re likely (eventually) to hit on a way of analysing what they say which means that what they say means what you want them to say.

Tables 3-6 detail the results of the qualitative research, which are too boring to describe since they tell us absolutely nothing about the opinions of this highly specific sample. But fortunately there was a quantitative part to the survey detailed in table 1, where we learn the responses of 22 people to questions 5 to 13 of something or other. I expect it’s the NEP, but Bernstein et al. don’t say.

But never mind. At least we have some concrete information about what her sample (all twenty two of them) actually think (or believe, or feel in their bones) about the environment.

For example: Thirteen agree that Nature would be at harmony if human beings would leave it alone” while a certain number (I leave it to you to work out how many) disagreed.

Note that Ms Bernstein doesn’t tell us how many people agreed with this fundamentally important concept (thirteen) nor how many disagreed (OK, I’ll let you into a secret – it was nine) but gives us percentages only. Together with means and standard deviations. Thanks to my maths O-level I am able to divulge her raw data.

What she’s revealing in this paper is that, if you recruit 200 people from environmental websites which are viewed by a small minority of the infinitesimal proportion of the population who are green activists, and then limit your sample to the 10% who express the most fervent environmental beliefs, they may still find something to disagree about.

There are similar divergences, varying from 14 to 8 to 19 to 3, on all attitudes from:

Nature would be at harmony if human beings would leave it alone”

to:

We are approaching the maximum number of people the earth can support”

Technology causes more environmental problems than it solves”

Almost everything we do in modern life is harmful to nature”

Environmental problems will eventually be solved through better technology”

The balance of nature is fragile and easily upset”

The earth has limited room and resources”

and

We will experience a major ecological catastrophe if society continues on its present course.”

Would you believe it? Not anyone agrees. Even when you reduce your sample from 250 million people US citizens over the age of 18 who speak English (Bernstein’s criteria) to 22 people who you hope agree with you.

Which leads us to Bernstein’s conclusion, expressed in the abstract to her article, that:

The results indicate that while aspects of the NEP remain theoretically relevant and analytically powerful, other components merit re-examination. The mixed methodologies suggest that repertory grid interviews can add depth and provide direction for construct development in traditional survey data collection. Further research could operationalize these findings with the goal of establishing a valid and reliable measure that expresses the diversity of contemporary pro-environmental attitudes.

Or, in plain English:

We surveyed 22 of the most extreme environmentalists we could find, and they gave varying responses to questions designed to separate the environmental sheep from the goats. Therefore the New Environmental Paradigm is not fit for purpose and must be revised.

I forgot to mention the most important point about Bernstein‘s research. It was all about climate change. It doesn’t say so in the title or abstract, or in the “key words,” but hidden away in the article we find this:

Repertory grid components consist of a topic, elements, constructs, and ratings. Climate change was selected as the topic, given its prominence within environmental discourse and ability to encompass multiple perspectives and topic areas. To reduce social desirability bias, the topic was qualified by asking participants what ‘‘people’’ generally believe to be effective solutions to the problem of climate change. The elements, of which each participant generated 6–12, were what each believed to be possible solutions to climate change.

So she tested the NEP (which is about environmentalism) by asking people what they thought other people thought would be the most effective solutions to the problem of climate change. And would you believe it? They came up with an average of eight answers each, but different ones.

Did I mention that half the sample had a PhD? They tend to be opinionated, garrulous folk, postgraduates, in my experience. Some of them even dared to disagree that “The balance of nature is fragile and easily upset” and three even disagreed with the proposition that “We will experience a major ecological catastrophe if society continues on its present course.” I mean, how are we going to overturn the conventional paradigm, which holds that people are what matter and that economic development to lift billions out of desperate poverty is what counts, if even the most extreme 22 environmentalists that social researchers could find on the internet aren’t unanimous about everything?

Dunlap and Bernstein and the hundreds of academics whose work they cite claim to be researching attitudes, of sometimes opinions, or beliefs, or world views. I suggest that what they are in fact researching is feelings, thrilling little shivers going up and down the spines of a certain sort of person, particularly persons with PhDs.

For the benefit of future researchers, I’ve rephrased ever so slightly the propositions from the New Environmental Paradigm which troubled Bernstein so. Try these:

– “I would be at harmony if human beings would leave me alone”

– “I am approaching the maximum number of people that I can put up with

– “Technology causes me more problems than it solves”

– “Almost everything I do in my life is harmful to nature”

– “My problems will eventually be solved through better technology”

– “My balance is fragile and easily upset”

– “I have limited room and resources”

– “I will experience a major catastrophe if I continues on my present course.”

Maybe rephrasing their questions like that will get them the consensus they’re after.

12 thoughts on “Jennifer Bernstein and the New Environmental Paradigm

  1. Geoff, On reading your post a few axons fired off and I was reminded of a science fiction short story in which forecasting and the social sciences had sufficiently advanced that elections only needed to poll a single, carefully selected voter, who was cosseted and kept safe until polling day. Bernstein is almost there. Does the Ig-Nobel award accept nominations in social “science”?

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  2. Here are the questions on the original NEP scale:

    1. We are approaching the limit of the number of people the earth can support.

    2. The balance of nature is very delicate and easily upset.

    3. *Humans have the right to modify the natural environment.

    4. *Humankind was created to rule over the rest of nature.

    5. When humans interfere with nature it often produces disastrous consequences.

    6. *Plants and animals exist primarily to be used by humans.

    7. To maintain a healthy economy we will have to develop a “steady state” economy where industrial growth is controlled.

    8. Humans must live in harmony with nature in order to survive.

    9. The earth is like a spaceship with only limited room and resources.

    10. *Humans need not adapt to the natural environment because they can remake it to suit their needs.

    11. There are limits to growth beyond which our industrialized society cannot expand.

    12. Mankind is severely abusing the environment.

    I’ve asterisked the four to which a “good” environmentalist will answer in the negative. Two of them (nos. 4 and 6) imply a belief in creationism. All of them are pretty weird if you stop and think about them, but the point of a psychological test like this is that you’re not supposed to stop and think, but to give a spontaneous response which will reveal the kind of person you are.

    There’s nothing wrong with this kind of stuff in articles in the popular press. The problem arises when what is basically a kind of parlour game is transmuted into a behavioural norm which its inventors try and impose on society via education, which is what Dunlap has been doing all his working life, as he announces with pride at the end of his 2008 article.

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  3. Now don’t give up on yr NEP 22 environmentalists’ (or less)
    sampling, Bernstein et AL. Sometimes it only takes one
    (tree to rule them all.)

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  4. More on Jennifer Bernstein:
    She’s a faculty member at the Dornsife Spatial Sciences Institute at the University of Southern California. She has an article at
    https://thebreakthrough.org/index.php/journal/issue-7/on-mother-earth-and-earth-mothers
    which she presented as a talk at Cornell University last month. It’s a perfectly sensible reflection on environmentalism, feminism and technology – the kind of thoughtful journalism I no longer read because I’ve read it a million times before and life is too short – but she comes across as a very normal person. And so does Dunlap. This is what I find so fascinating about scientists in the environmentalist movement – they seem normal people, doing horrifying things to science in the name of a belief which verges on mysticism.

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  5. Geoff, my answers:
    1: logically true
    2: true
    3: true
    4: false
    5: depends on the meaning of disastrous and for whom/what
    6: false
    7: false
    8: too vague
    9: logically true
    10: false
    11: true
    12: true

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  6. Hmm, I did the test. I’m
    Left: -2.38
    Libertarian: -4.51

    Mind, many questions I wanted to say “don’t know”

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  7. Geoff I was taken by the varied nature of the questions, some overlap and seemingly mine for the same convictions, others (as you already noted) require a pre-existing belief base, whereas yet others might obtain different responses according to how long you gave for reflection, or upon the knowledge base of the respondent. Take question 5 for example “When humans interfere with nature it often produces disastrous consequences”. My first response was yes definitely because I remembered what I knew about the huge changes that occurred at Yellowstone Park, simply by removing wolves ( or the clearances in Scotland), but then I noticed that all important word “often” and I had a rethink. How many things do we do on a regular basis that have major effects? So I tentatively changed my mind and answered “perhaps not”. Then I remembered the work of R.L.Hooke who estimates a third of the land surface is the site of human activities and human rock and soil moving is only surpassed as a geomorphological agent by rivers. Each year humans shift more material than all the glaciers even during the Pleistocene, or the total moved by mountain building on continents. So the correct answer to the question of whether humans produce major and therefore potentially disastrous consequences is probably yes. So people with different knowledge and/or given different lengths of time to consider their answer, will give different responses regardless of their “feelings” about the matter.

    At UEA I occasionally assessed social science undergraduate final year projects that commonly involved the student constructing questionnaires. Questions within this one would have been awarded very poor marks.

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  8. Alan, the single voter (Norman) comes from an Asimov story, “Franchise”, August 1965.

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  9. Osseo. Many thanks. Interesting that it was an Asimov novel. Asimov had a great belief in the predictive abilities of future computers, as in the Foundation Series. Is it possible that Lew, Oreskrew and their Orc, are nascent psychohistorians.

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  10. The “new paradigm” is founded on the firm foundation if the old paradigm of deceit and manipulation.

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