Book Review

Ecological Identity: Becoming a Reflective Environmentalist

(1996, Cambridge, MA:  MIT Press)
Written by: Mitchell Thomashow

Reviewed by: Anna Coldham, December 2007

As a child I spent hours in a nearby conservation area.  Today, I do not remember how I passed that time, only a sense that my time outside has helped shape who I am and, directly or indirectly, informed many of the choices I have made to date.  In his book Ecological Identity: Becoming a Reflective Environmentalist, Mitchell Thomashow draws on his experiences working with people who also question how our interactions with Nature shape who we are and how we make decisions. In a clear and thought-provoking text, he describes how individuals and groups can answer these and other questions through the construction and analysis of their ecological identity. 

Thomashow defines the process of developing an ecological identity as, “using the direct experience of nature as a framework for personal decisions, professional choices, political action, and spiritual inquiry.” He identifies and discusses three categories of environmental experiences that people explore: “childhood memories,” “perceptions of disturbed places,” and “contemplation of wild places.”  He concludes that as one’s ecological identity expands, it increasingly connects people to their environment because, as their identity begins to include the environment (e.g. a nearby lake or mountain), they become related to the fate of this environment.  Thomashow also challenges the reader to understand how their opinions are based on and divergent from historical perspectives.  He focuses on the differences within the environmental community and the roots of this divergence (preservation vs. conservation). Where do your beliefs fall on this “tree” of environmental thinking?  Why? He provides an overview of Thoreau, Muir and Carson and discusses how these thinkers have shaped the experiences of those after them.

He moves on to contrast private property with the commons, and individualism with community.  Private property is equated with a sense of security – Thomashow characterizes this as an “ego boundary.” He uses the relatively low taxes as an example of to degree to which individualism is engrained in the United States.  He asks the reader, as he has asked his students, to consider how much property they own.  What does this say about you?  He then moves to discuss the individual vs. the community.  What is a community? What are different types of communities?   He suggests that by understanding their ecological identity, communities can realize a collective view of the “commons.”  Thomashow then leads the reader through several political identity building exercises.  He dissects an example of a conflict he had at a campsite with neighboring campers and frames language and conversation as a source of power.  The following discussion is a good overview of the nature of conversation and the potential for conflict as it relates to building one’s own political identity. The chapter concludes with a discussion of ecological citizenship.  Thomashow suggests that in order to be a citizen of the earth, we must be participants through discussion and the daily choices we make.

Refocusing on the environmental professional, Thomashow expands the duties of environmentalists to include supporting one another. He cites numerous examples of environmentalists struggling to balance negative news with the inspiration they get from the natural world. He follows with a discussion of how accepting the “guilt and despair” (which Thomashow believes is inherent in the work of an environmentalist) can challenge the psyche of those working to improve environmental conditions.  The final chapter in the book is devoted to environmental education for the classroom, community and the individual.

Throughout these chapters, I found this book to be engaging and well-structured, credible and thought-provoking.  The book maintains a conversational tone, using vignettes from everyday life.   This personalizes concepts to the reader and provides a forum for the author to explain why such discussions are important. His engaging and accessible style is appropriate given his primary audience is the everyday person.  Part of the reason this book is accessible is the structure by which the author presents his thoughts. He lays out the purpose and framework of the book in the introduction. There is a logical progression through the chapters.  This is critical as I found this book to be fairly philosophical.  Each chapter is also meant to be a standalone article as he recognizes that people are busy and may only prioritize one or two chapters.  In this way, he underscores that the book is meant to serve the reader.

By maintaining a fairly objective and matter-of-fact style, Thomashow lends legitimacy to a topic that some might dismiss as “soft.”  Thomashow cites studies from psychology that tie a change in understanding of ecology to a change in identity.  He supports statements with quotations from the original source and examples that reflect his extensive teaching experience.  Throughout, Thomashow draws on and integrates the works of other notable thinkers, serving to both underscore his ideas and educate the reader on other influential figures (e.g. Thoreau, Carson, Muir, and Orr).  For those looking for additional detail, he also provides an extensive bibliography and recommends texts for further discussion on specific topics.

Finally, Thomashow’s vision has the potential to help move society towards more sustainable living practices.  Schellenberger and Nordhaus (2005) have made the case that one of the problems with the current environmental movement is that it is too focused.  Unsustainable practices are a global problem.  Therefore, a key challenge is to connect, and subsequently empower, community-minded groups with different missions and/or geographical locations.  If Thomashow’s vision can help to form coalitions between these allies (e.g. environmentalists, human rights activists, social justice advocates, social workers), his ideas and activities could hold significant weight.

While the book’s strengths are numerous, I noted two areas for improvement.  First, Thomashow uses the term “environmentalist” throughout his text.  This book was published in 1995.  Would he have used this term if the book was written today?  I do not consider myself an “environmentalist” although I am looking to move the global community towards a sustainable living system. Thomashow should qualify this term or use new a phrase that includes all those people looking to form, or better understand, their ecological identity.  Today, the term “environmentalist” is too focused and consequently undermines his idea that forming an ecological identity can bring people together.

A second area that lacked clarity was how Thomashow’s ideas relate to communication between people that do not share a fundamental commitment to the environment. He discusses the nature of controversy but does not talk about how to communicate with those holding divergent opinions.  Thomashow reiterates that building an ecological identity can be a very personal experience.  Such reflection has the potential to heighten emotions associated with a given issue.  However, when trying to convince others on a given decision, emotions may be detrimental.   In his experience, does a firmer ecological identity on the part of the “environmentalist” community help or hurt communication with opposing organizations?  Why?  While this is, admittedly, not in the declared scope of the book, I was left wishing he had addressed this question.

While I believe most people could benefit from the improved self-understanding associated with the development of one’s ecological identity, this book may be of specific interest to those people working in the field of sustainability who want to explore the subject of, and motivation behind, their work.  The stories and activities woven throughout the book may also appeal to those in this field who are looking to strengthen their professional community, to those interested in expanding their understanding of “community” or to those interested in pursuing work in environmental education.   As someone who does not characterize herself as an “environmentalist,” I also found this book insightful as I am curious about the motivations and challenges facing this group.  Finally, this book is for those who enjoy self-actualization activities (e.g. those who may know they are interested in the environment but may not know exactly why).

I had originally borrowed this book from the library.  However, after reading it, I will purchase a copy for myself.  I see it as a reference – for its accessible stories and activity ideas – and as a dense philosophical challenge.   I will read this book again; hopefully with someone else as it appears one can learn the most from this text through real-time discussion and personal reflection.


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