This dissertation explores young people’s engagement concerning global environmental problems. To be able to reverse these problems, it is vital to involve the public in the strivings for a sustainable society. However, environmental problems are complex, imbued with uncertainties and ambivalence. Furthermore, learning about global environmental threats can trigger unpleasant emotions. Some social theorists even claim that we live in a “culture of fear” where people’s worries about different risks are related to a low degree of social trust, low well-being, and egocentrism.
Therefore, the first aim was to take a critical approach to the view of emotions, and worry in particular, as being solely negative, or even irrational, states. First, a review of emotion theories focused on the constructive role of emotions. Second, self-report studies were conducted with two groups of young people. Worry about environmental problems was positively associated with other-oriented values of both an altruistic and biospheric kind, and with trust in one’s own and other actors’ ability to contribute to the solution of the problems. The young women worried more than the men. This was explained by the fact that they embraced altruistic values to a higher degree. Environmental worry, hence, was not the same as a low degree of trust, but seemed to be a moral emotion.
The second aim was to identify factors that can help young people deal constructively with their worry. In a group of late adolescents, environmental worry was negatively related to subjective well-being at a population level. However, there existed subgroups of young people who were highly worried: one high and one low on well-being. The first group experienced more existential meaning, as well as anger, hope, and trust concerning the environmental problems than the second group. Thereafter, interviews were performed with a group of young volunteers. They perceived their environmental worry both as a constructive force motivating behavior, and, when connected with feelings of guilt and helplessness, as related to psychological struggle. Sources of hope were pinpointed. These consisted of cognitive restructuring, trust in different societal actors, and trust in the efficacy of pro-environmental behavior at an individual level. Furthermore, the collective engagement worked as a coping strategy activating positive emotions.
The third aim was to explore how ambivalence at a macro and micro-level is related to recycling. In a group of young adults, mixed negative (worry) and positive (hope and joy) emotions about the environmental problems were positively related to recycling. Ambivalent attitudes about recycling, on the contrary, were negatively related to behavior. Interviews revealed that the ambivalence at a macro level was associated with an ability to face the ambiguities of environmental problems. The ambivalent attitudes seemed to be signs of an inability to perceive a clear connection between behavior in everyday life and the environmental problems, and to integrate ideals about living in an environmentally friendly way with the everyday life of young adulthood.
The dissertation concludes by pleading for more holistic methodological approaches when it comes to exploring attitudes and emotions concerning the environmental issue.
Future studies should avoid looking at worry about societal problems in isolation. Negative and positive emotions are not bipolar. Young people who are highly worried can also experience positive emotions to a high degree, which seems to have a positive impact on both well-being and behavior.
Örebro: Örebro universitetsbibliotek , 2007. , 148 p.
2007-03-16, Hörsal P2, Prismahuset, Örebro universitet, Örebro, 13:00 (English)