Maie Kiisel: The Paradox of Environmental Awareness

My interest towards society grew out of my interest towards the environment. I have been an environmental activist and researched environmental movements in Estonia, as well as the way the environment is depicted in the media, consumption, eco-innovation, and ways to make people act in a more ecological and sustainable manner.


Maie Kiisel. Photo from a personal archive.

Behind all of this experience are some unanswered questions that still haunt me. How is it possible that after the decades-long environmental education and the highest environmental awareness of all time the global ecological footprint is still growing? What is it in a person’s activities and way of living in a society that causes the ecological footprint? And why is it relatively complicated to decrease it?

The tent pillar of sustainable development is thought to be people’s knowledge of their actions’ impact on the environment. Knowledge is supposed to make them value the environment more and it should in turn lead towards deeds that save the environment. The latter leads to a decrease in the ecological footprint and is a step towards saving the planet.

Lately, however, many scientists have demonstrated that knowledge and values play a relatively small role in promoting environmentally friendly behavior. A person’s level of involvement in the practical organization of everyday life has much more impact on one’s behavior than one’s own wish to save the environment.

It’s true that as a former environmental activist I might have high environment-related demands on my own choices, but it’s inevitable that I fly by plane to an environment conference where narratives of the ecological footprint are offered, abundantly dressed in the very thing itself. I see no chance that my environment-related knowledge and values could somehow help me avoid the impact on the environment that comes with mobility, which is a characteristic of a scientist. I oppose the approaches that hope to achieve ecological sustainability by changing people’s minds. I’m critical towards viewpoints that imply that raising the awareness of individuals, as well as changing their values, leads to actions to save the environment.

A human being is not rational or emotional, but a rather perfunctory doer who doesn’t contextualize his or her activity that much. A person usually accepts the fact that he has an escalator or a metro in front of him. A person accepts that when there is no room in the city centre for all of us to live, we go to work by car. We also cannot do much about the fact that every child needs to have a computer when attending school for the first time. Therefore, a lot is dictated to us by the society and our level of ecological wisdom might not help us to change the world or one’s behaviour. It is more likely that ecological awareness can cause frustration, because we cannot avoid the resource-spending that the society makes us do.

There are certain activities we have agreed to describe as being related to environmental actions. We know that environmentally damaging activities exist – dumping one’s garbage in the forest, washing the car in a lake, etc. Some other activities, on the other hand, are good for the environment – sorting one’s garbage, buying eco-friendly products, participating in the “Let’s Do It!” clean-up campaign.

Photo credit: Pjotr Savitski / Flickr Creative Commons

In between, however, are many acts that we don’t really see or contextualize, but which still “use” our environment. We breathe, producing carbon dioxide, contributing to climate change. On our desks are computers that are using electricity. Producing a computer spends resources, too. We aren’t used to viewing these costs as something to do with environmental activities. That’s where we commit a fallacy, as we assume that we can make people act in a more environmentally friendly manner by increasing their knowledge. There are so many activities that use the environment which are going just unnoticed by people and it is staying this way. Analyzing and criticizing all these actions would finally become detrimental to “real life”.

Based on the literature on the ecological footprint it turns out that energy consumption has had the biggest contribution to increasing our ecological footprint. It is such a furtive factor that creeps into our everyday life without us even noticing it. It includes our hidden journeys, i.e. driving our children to kindergarten. It includes the agriculture that demands a lot of fuel, so tractors and other machines can move around. It includes buying and producing food, which makes the ecological footprint bigger; transport, heating, using electronic gadgets, etc.

Thus, the ecological footprint has mostly grown because of the invisible energy consumption. That’s because resources are going to be spent through human activity. Fuel doesn’t start spending itself; there is a human and social factor in why the energy is put into motion. As a sociologist I can research those human factors and reasons why energy is put into use, including whether one’s ecological awareness could help to stand up against those deeds.

The ecological footprint. Image credit: Institut Escola Les Vinyes / Flickr Creative Commons

To answer the question that was proposed before – does environmental awareness really lead towards a smaller ecological footprint? – I performed quite a simplistic analysis. I observed the data that my home institute had collected in the representative survey “Mina. Maailm. Meedia” (“I. The World. Media”)  about (Estonian) people who are trying to decrease their ecological footprint (and, to an extent, are probably succeeding). I analyzed indicators that make it possible to comprehend the respondents’ ecological footprint.

People’s opinions about what should be considered an ecological lifestyle are so different that they may lead to inflexible confrontations, personal offence, and even fights when discussed in social situations. That’s why I need to explain who the people are that I named “environment savers” in my analysis. These are the respondents whose answers reflected an effort towards following habits that are usually considered environmentally friendly: storing different kind of garbage separately, consuming organic or eco-products, trying to cut down on consumption, package usage, driving, and electricity usage. These respondents also claim to have an environmentally friendly lifestyle, they participate in campaigns such as “Let’s Do It!”, and they also re-use and recycle furniture, clothes, and other things.

Now I’ll give some examples where I juxtapose a group of respondents who consider themselves to be actively taking into account the environment (hereafter referred to as “savers”) to another group who see their behaviour as fully indifferent in this respect (hereafter referred to as “non-savers”).

Mobility as a Cause of the Ecological Footprint

Mobility is one of the things that causes the ecological footprint; it includes travelling. We asked the respondents about visiting 21 different travel locations and it turned out that although the people with environmentally friendly habits may try to cut travelling, too, they are still travelling more often and farther than those who don’t practice an environment-saving lifestyle. 16% of savers hadn’t travelled to foreign countries in the last five years; but among non-savers, the number was 37%. Thus, when it comes to ecological footprint caused by travelling, savers have it worse.

Things people do on their travels matter, too. Do they go on with their usual lifestyle or is there an increase in the consumption of products and services while they are away from home? It turns out that environmentally-minded people more often went abroad for holidays and to cultural events, but also because of business trips, as well as for self-improvement. Non-savers did not do it as much. A saver more often visits Western European countries with high standards of living – places where staying and travelling around have a greater contribution to the ecological footprint than in poorer countries. More distant locations (with a greater impact on the environment via travel there), such as Japan, Australia, Africa, US, and Canada are visited more often by savers as well.

But moving around in Estonia is an important shaper of the ecological footprint, too. A saver who lives in an urban area drives a car in the city streets on workdays and takes a trip to a second home in the countryside at weekends, while a family living in a rural area may commute to a workplace located in a county seat daily. Still, in an analysis of the frequency of visiting 16 different areas in Estonia, the savers basically have a two times greater ecological footprint than the non-savers. The savers have a much more varied array of places in Estonia that they visit. The savers probably visit their second homes more frequently, festivals taking place in peripheries, rest homes, and friends and relatives as well.

Then we asked how many cars there were in the respondent’s household. About 45% of non-savers live in a family that doesn’t own a car; with savers the number is around 23%. The latter own many cars within a single family much more often.


Mobility is one of the factors that causes the ecological footprint. Photo credit: John Grimm / Flickr Creative Commons

Food, commodities, services, technology

A saver is a more self-aware consumer. For example, when put next to a non-saver, she isn’t that keen on buying no-name cosmetics. It has to have a certain brand. A saver is not that price sensitive, with congruence held in higher regard than price. She ponders the purchases more thoroughly, without resorting to buying the first thing that she sees. Searching and weighing in one’s mind are involved, as well as consulting with friends and experts. It might mean consuming goods of greater quality, which have a lower economic footprint because they are more durable.

A saver is more aware when it comes to shaping his or her home, putting greater emphasis on style, as well as guidance by an interior designer. He isn’t indifferent towards personal appearance either: a saver is two times more active in using all possibilities to shape his body, i.e. sport clubs and other services related to maintaining a healthy body.

Unfortunately, a person who doesn’t care about her clothing and looks or the age of the furniture in one’s house definitely has a definitely smaller ecological footprint compared to someone who tries to move with the times and “tune” oneself and the surroundings. Savers are wealthier than non-savers. Non-savers can make do with little.

The same goes for media usage and property ownership. The wish to be aware of things happening in the world requires varied usage of media, leading towards a bigger ecological footprint. We saw from the analysis that 17% of savers buy books often or regularly; with non-savers the percentage is just 1%. The percentages of people who virtually never buy books are 13% and 61%, respectively. A saver has not given up on paper, either, although reading newspapers on paper is already seen as a rather archaic habit. Therefore, they use double the resources spent on producing newspapers, reading both paper and electronic newspapers more. Only 4% of savers don’t read newspapers (versus one-fifth, or 20% of non-savers).

Reading newspapers and books on paper is still considered to be more wasteful and harmful to the environment than using the electronic alternatives. But at the same time making technical gadgets comes with a great pressure to excavate metals (making the land inaccessible to other uses, spending a lot of energy on processing).

From our survey, it also turned out that on average, savers’ families have one and half parcels of property, while non-savers have one. Savers are three times more likely to live in a private house (that also uses more resources). Living in a more sustainable dwelling – a flat – is more common among non-savers.

Modern Savers Have the Biggest Ecological Footprint

Statistical analysis doesn’t say much about a single person at all. So no person leading an eco-friendly life should feel personally offended because of this analysis. And without a doubt, a study in the form of a survey is bound to have its problems. Still, I dare to claim that if there was a way to somehow clearly differentiate between people who consciously go for a sustainable lifestyle and people who do not, the former’s ecological footprints added together would amount to more than the latter’s.

Another thing that we see, based on various studies and graphs, is that the ecological footprint is bigger in those countries where there is more talk about the need to make it smaller. This includes such countries where there are higher salaries, which are more tightly linked to other countries through global economic ties, and where the living standard and principles regarding how one is supposed to live are comparatively complicated and intertwined.

The Estonian ecological footprint is quite big as well, and it’s largely caused because of our consumption of oil shale – another invisible societal factor that we aren’t personally able to change much. Therefore, a contradiction is lined out: the greatest number of people trying to do something for the benefit of our environment live in developed countries where the ecological footprint is higher.

Ecological footprint by countries

World map of countries by ecological footprint (2007). Image Credit: Institut Escola Les Vinyes / Flickr Creative Commons

Even if this analysis were proven using more precise data and better methodology, one shouldn’t conclude that the mix of various activities for promoting awareness and more sustainable behaviour (based on the ideals of sustainable development) has been entirely useless. Without it, the ecological footprint of people who play an active part in society, consume stuff, and partake in culture would probably be even larger, and their social life more destitute. Access to cheap energy, brought about by progress of the industrializing and modernizing society, has made it possible to live in an active, mobile, and anxious way, which in turn enables one to face the results of one’s actions – environmental pollution, dwindling resources, and species becoming extinct.

From my analysis, I make the conclusion that the modern consumer-centred worry about the environment is first and foremost accessible to such a person who is engaged in the complex, entangled relationships between self-expressive shopping, diverse media consumption, societal activeness, cultural consciousness, and mobility. In order to decrease the ecological footprint of “savers”, and instead of putting stress on knowledge, values, and all-around green bubble-building, we should be looking for innovation in the workings of society.

Maie Kiisel is a Research Fellow of Communication Studies at the Institute of Social Studies at the University of Tartu.

This blog post was combined from material in an article published in Bioneer and the lecture “Why is it so difficult to reduce the ecological footprint?” (both by Maie Kiisel).

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