Environmental Actions and “American Values”

Over the past couple years, I have read through various books and papers to form my working ideas on community-led universal basic services and to create material for this site. These materials have covered topics ranging from degrowth to doughnut economics to community farming and so forth. While I have found much of this literature to be interesting—and some of it to be puzzling or likely impractical—I am often left with the following question:


Why would anyone carry out these ideas?


For the sake of argument, let’s say that “these ideas” can be broadly categorized as “lowering your ecological footprint“. If you haven’t tried calculating your ecological footprint, it’s a fun and potentially terrifying activity.


To be fair, many people are carrying out such ideas and attempting to lower ecological footprints. Barcelona hosts a degrowth summer school. There are various events that discuss and practice doughnut economics. Community farms exist. You may have also noticed that a large proportion of my sources and examples for this website were written by authors in Europe—but that I am targeting this website and my research to a US audience. So I guess a more precise question is:


Why would so-called “typical Americans” change what they are currently doing to lower their ecological footprints?


The Importance of Messaging


In 2003, Wesley Schultz and Lynnette Zelezny published a paper examining how environmentalist messages could be reframed to be more aligned with American values. Values are defined as “important life goals … standards which serve as guiding principles in a person’s life” (Schultz and Zelezny 2003Schwartz 1992, Schwartz and Bilsky 1987). Schultz and Zelezny observed that typical messages from environmental campaigns framed environmental protection as requiring sacrifices—driving less or using less electricity, for example. 


As one might expect, there are some Americans for whom this message is appealing—and many Americans for whom this message is contrary to living an ideal, comfortable life. That’s not to say the latter group is inherently anti-environment. But sacrificing is legitimately difficult, especially when trying to be or feel successful in this society. Maybe the messaging strategy is wrong.


Schultz and Zelezny draw on Schwartz’s Model of Human Values and other frameworks to categorize how environmentalist messages are transmitted. Schwartz’s model includes a variety of elements, but I’ll focus on two of this model’s broad categorizations of values: self-transcendence and self-enhancement. 


Schultz and Zelezny (2003) indicate that self-transcendent goals go beyond the individual, seeking to promote “the interests of other persons and the natural world”. These goals include being broad-minded, helpful, and forgiving. On the other hand, self-enhancing goals tend to promote one’s own personal interests over others’. These goals include the accumulation of power, wealth, and success. Of course, defining one’s goals as being in either of these two “camps” is misleading; most people’s lives are guided by combinations of self-transcendent and self-enhancing goals, and these goals can change over the course of one’s life.


Environmental messages, both back in 2003 and more currently, tend to appeal to self-transcendent goals, such as sacrificing for the greater good. Taking public transit is better for the environment than driving your car. Eat less red meat. Fly less. These actions are all likely good for the environment. But they tend to appeal only to some groups of people, while alienating others who can feel like they are being shamed into doing something. I would guess that most people, regardless of their worldviews, don’t like to feel shamed into doing something.


“American Values”


Various authors have found that the values typically considered as “American values” fall into the self-enhancing category (cf. Kohls 1984Triandis et al 1990). I put American values in quotes because there is no absolute, correct method for identifying what American values are. These values may not reflect many groups’ values and experiences in the US, such as minorities and those who have been historically (and currently) oppressed. Within groups individual values differ and change over time. 


With those caveats in mind, it can still be helpful to think of a list of American values. In 1984, L. Robert Kohls of the Washington International Center put together a list of 13 archetypal American values. Kohls compiled this list based on the Center’s experience with helping foreign visitors adjust to life in the US. 


  1. Personal control of the environment: In the United States, people consider it normal and right that they should control nature, rather than the other way around.
  2. Change: In the American mind, change is seen as a good condition. Change is linked to development, progress, and growth.
  3. Time and its control: Americans are very concerned with getting things accomplished on time.
  4. Equality/Egalitarianism: Americans assert that all people have an equal opportunity to succeed in life—though Americans differ in their opinions about how to make this ideal into a reality.
  5. Individualism and privacy: Americans believe they are rather individualist in their thoughts and actions, though historically they have joined many groups. Americans also value keeping their personal lives private.
  6. Self-help concept: Americans like to take credit for what they have accomplished themselves. Many Americans pride themselves in being born poor and, through their own sacrifice and hard work, climbing the ladder of success. This attitude can be seen as the heart of the “American dream”.
  7. Competition and free enterprise: Americans think that competition brings out the best in individuals. The American economic system is based on competition.
  8. Future orientation: Americans are typically hopeful that the future will bring greater happiness.
  9. Action/Work orientation: Americans tend to view action as superior to inaction. We plan and schedule very busy days, including our “recreation” times.
  10. Informality: Americans tend to be informal and casual, such as calling bosses by their first names.
  11. Directness, Openness, and Honesty: Americans prefer to be direct in informing other people of unpleasant information.
  12. Practicality and Efficiency: Americans pride themselves in not being philosophically or theoretically oriented. Rather, we wonder whether a given pursuit will make money or if we will gain something from it.
  13. Materialism/Acquisitions: Americans value and collect material objects, such as electronics and cars. Americans may then replace these objects once newer models come out.


Some of you, myself included, are likely questioning or doubting some of these values. My inclusion and discussion of this list is not an endorsement. Kohls does not describe his methodology for compiling these values. The paper itself is written from an American-centric perspective, and makes generalizations about other cultures that may not be appropriate. Given Americans’ inclinations towards individualism, it is ironic to create a list of common values. But these values are consistent with other research, while also being written in an accessible way.


Messages and Actions


If we do take Kohls’ list at face value, it would seem that most of these values would not align with pro-environmental messages. Preserving the environment would seem at odds with our personal control over the environment. The Slow Food movement might seem like a waste of time. Degrowth and doughnut economics would strike some as an affront to free enterprise and materialism. 


So, should we try to align environmental messages—or the concept of community motive and community-led basic services—to include both self-enhancing and self-transcendent values? Maybe. That might be effective to an extent. But I suspect such efforts could be overdone or seen right through. 


Others might say that we need to change Americans’ values from self-enhancing to self-transcendent, from trying to control our environment to realizing we are only one, interconnected part of it. We can and should learn more from Native American communities about how to better manage our local agriculture for sustainability and biodiversity. However, I think it will take a long time to change the values of many Americans, and we should be mindful of the risks of trying to change others’ values.


Maybe we need to stop focusing solely on messaging and start focusing on actions—which may be difficult, given the trend of environmental (and other) organizations increasingly focusing on fundraising and messaging campaigns (cf. Skocpol 2003). (Value 9, action/work orientation, likely applies to me.)


Additionally, I suspect that messaging campaigns are overall less trusted these days, compared to 2003. In today’s society, there is a lot of misinformation and distrust of authorities and experts. We have particularly seen this with respect to Covid. While some messages related to the pandemic could have been better delivered according to different values, I’m not sure there would have been much long-term impact.


But I suspect many Americans are more persuaded of an idea when they can actually practice and experience it in an accessible way—not just because an expert says the idea is good. This is one reason why conviviality is an important concept to me and to community-led universal basic services. I think participation is a necessary component to building support and carrying out basic services.


Control of the Environment


In my upcoming blog posts, I’ll tackle various of the American values listed above, discussing how potential (and actual) practices of community basic services can help Americans to lower their ecological footprints. 


Control of the environment is a core value in this country. Many Americans, of course, aren’t walking around thinking about how they personally can chop down a forest or drain a wetland. I think this value is more subtle. Many of us wouldn’t think twice about moving to a new suburban subdivision (provided we could afford it). The house is bigger and cheaper and move-in ready. The schools are likely better than in rural or urban areas. We can entertain our friends in the backyard. It feels nice, and it is rational in our society to want that.


But suburbs do crowd out what could have been local farmland and disrupt habitats that belong to native species. They do typically create longer commutes, by car, which add pollution to the environment. The creation of suburbs, particularly those that mandate minimum lot sizes, are an imposition of control over the environment that we tacitly support.


However, I know that we cannot just undo the suburbs and force people to live in energy-efficient urban apartments in walkable neighborhoods. (And urban areas should not give themselves a free pass and think that they necessarily have a lower carbon footprint. Many urban residents also consume more goods and fly more than rural residents.)


Community farming provides an example of how Americans can reduce their ecological footprints, while also feeling that they have control over their environment. Brian Donahue (1999) in Reclaiming the Commons: Community Farms and Forests in a New England Town describes Lands’ Sake farm in Weston, Massachusetts as a suburban community farm that educates adults and children, hands-on, about sustainable, locally appropriate agricultural practices.


Donahue writes that Lands’ Sake approaches its mission through four principles: ecological, economic, educational, and esthetic. From an ecological standpoint, Lands’ Sake seeks to manage their land in ways that do not degrade the soil and its water and to preserve the biological diversity of its area, including parts that are not agriculturally productive. The farm’s economic mission looks to find markets for its products, but this mission is secondary to the ecological imperative; the goal is not to maximize profits, but rather to maintain the operation and ensure the land’s continued health. 


Education is likely the community farm’s most important mission. Local schoolchildren have worked on many of the farm’s projects, from planting and harvesting crops to pressing apples for cider to boiling sap into syrup. The tools that adult and children volunteers use are relatively convivial; the farm operations are labor-intensive. The children’s involvement on the farm brings in the parents’ interest, which helps to foster an appreciation (and purchases) for locally grown foods.


Finally, the esthetics of this farm—how it looks and operates—brings beauty to the community. Such beauty can increase local pride in what the community is doing. Locally grown fresh food can taste better than supermarket produce, which is often shipped in from afar and grown under highly systematized conditions that dilute flavor. There is something nice about eating food that was grown sustainably, locally, and in season.


Reclaiming the Commons is under no illusion that Americans will suddenly start taking the time to grow all of their food locally. There would be a revolt of coffee drinkers and chocolate lovers. But if there were more opportunities for American families (adults and children) to volunteer on community farms, particularly in exchange for local, seasonal produce, then we might increase our appreciation for the land and lower our ecological footprints. These actions can help us to understand the potential we have as a community and lower our reliance on large-scale industrialized agriculture and the pollution it causes—while also giving us better-tasting meals at home that every family member contributed to.


What other things can we do that feel like (responsible) control of the environment, which also lower our ecological footprint?