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Michael Schmitt  
Joshua Wright  
Caroline Mackay  
Scott Neufeld  
Johnathan Mendel  
Annika Lutz  

Imagining Alternative Futures and Environmental Activism 

Michael T. Schmitt, Professor, Simon Fraser University 
Joshua D. Wright, Assistant Professor, St. Joseph’s College 
Caroline M.L. Mackay, Simon Fraser University 
Scott D. Neufeld, Simon Fraser University 
Jonathan Mendel, Simon Fraser University 
Annika E. Lutz, Simon Fraser University 

In our lab, we assume that humans will not respond adequately or equitably to climate change without social movements that create fundamental changes in society. For that reason, we focus our research on the social psychological processes that lead people to support social change and engage in environmental activism.

Our recent studies incorporate an important concept from Social Identity Theory (SIT; Tajfel & Turner, 1979)—cognitive alternatives to the status quo. According to SIT, people are more likely to engage in action to create social change when they can imagine a plausible and desirable alternative to the present social system. For example, climate change activists fight for a world less dependent on fossil fuels in part because they can imagine such a world.

We began our investigations by developing the Environmental Cognitive Alternatives Scale (ECAS). This scale captures the degree to which people can imagine a world in which humans have a sustainable relationship with the rest of the natural world. Participants indicate their agreement with items like “It is easy to imagine a world where we no longer use fossil fuels” and “A harmonious relationship between humans and the natural world is easy for me to imagine.” In two studies (N’s = 386, 393), we demonstrated the reliability and validity of the ECAS. The scale predicts, but is distinct from, the perceived stability and legitimacy of the environmental status quo, self-reports of environmental activist behaviour, environmental activist intentions, and identification with environmental activists, explaining variance beyond extensive control variables. In a third Canadian study (N = 1029), we replicated these findings with a measure of actual environmental activist behaviour—writing and signing a letter to a government official urging them to take action on climate change. Results support the idea that imagining cognitive alternatives to the environmental status quo has important implications for whether people engage in environmental activism.

In other studies, we have examined what kinds of alternatives people imagine when they imagine what a sustainable world would be like. Many people mention technological changes—abandoning fossil fuels or increasing renewable energy. People also describe reductions in consumerism and materialism. Interestingly, people sometimes describe alternatives that, on the surface, appear unrelated to how humans relate to the rest of the natural world—describing a world where relations between humans are more just and peaceful. Implicitly, such visions of the future reflect what many climate justice activists are claiming: sustainability cannot be achieved without addressing injustice and conflict between human groups.

Although further research is needed, our findings consistently support the idea that pro-environmental social change is dependent on the extent to which people can imagine desirable alternatives to our current ecological trajectory. For many, a desirable alternative would involve changes to human social relations that enhance equity, justice, and peace. Our findings about cognitive alternatives raise many interesting psychological questions. More generally they raise a practical and ethical question for all humans: What kind of social world do we want to sustain?

We respectfully acknowledge that the work described in this article took place on unceded and ancestral territories of the Tsleil-Waututh (səl̓ilw̓ətaʔɬ), Kwikwetlem (kʷikʷəƛ̓əm), Squamish (Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw), and Musqueam (xʷməθkʷəy̓əm) Nations.