In this episode, host Daniel Raimi talks with Neil Lewis Jr., an assistant professor of communication and social behavior at Cornell University. Lewis elaborates on a recent study he coauthored, which surveys a diverse group of American adults and evaluates how individuals who are of lower socioeconomic status or belong to racial minority groups conceive of environmental issues differently. While whiter, wealthier Americans express a more narrow view of environmental health, nonwhite and lower-income respondents are more likely to conceive of issues like “racism” and “poverty” as relevant to the environment. Lewis contends that this dynamic should inform how policymakers and advocacy groups build coalitions and mobilize the public around environmental concerns.
Listen to the Podcast
- Income shapes how people see environmental issues: “If you’re a lower-income person, you’re aware of how low-income housing tends to be placed … closer to environmental hazards than the wealthier housing in the city. Whereas if you’re a wealthy person, you never have to notice that. It’s a more abstract issue you might hear about on the news from time to time, but it’s not a problem that you really ever have to deal with, so you don’t really connect the dots.” (7:26)
- Environmental justice is a priority for vulnerable communities: “Part of the reason why [distinct groups conceive of environmental issues differently] seems to be due to differences in concerns about environmental justice. We’re finding that minority and lower-income respondents in our sample were more concerned about environmental justice issues, like placing hazardous facilities in minority communities—and those environmental justice perceptions explain some of the differences that we found.” (13:29)
- Advocacy efforts should consider how perceptions of the environment vary: “Different issues resonate with different groups of people. If environmental advocacy agencies or policymakers want to broaden the tent and build more inclusive coalitions, they may have to start talking about and advocating for addressing a broader set of environmental issues.” (14:40)
Top of the Stack
- “What counts as an ‘environmental’ issue? Differences in issue conceptualization by race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status” by Hwanseok Song, Neil A. Lewis Jr., Matthew T. Ballew, Mario Bravo, Julie Davydova, H. Oliver Gao, Robert J. Garcia, Sofia Hiltner, Sarah M. Naiman, Adam R. Pearson, Rainer Romero-Canyas, and Jonathan P. Schuldt
- Palaces for the People by Eric Klinenberg
- “Rediscovery of Abandoned Wells in the World’s First Oil Field” StoryMap from the National Energy Technology Laboratory
The Full Transcript
Daniel Raimi: Hello, and welcome to Resources Radio, a weekly podcast from Resources for the Future. I'm your host, Daniel Raimi. This week we talk with Dr. Neil Lewis Jr., assistant professor of communication and social behavior at Cornell University. Neil works on a range of issues, but today we'll talk about his work on how different socioeconomic groups define what is and what is not an environmental issue. The work touches on a variety of policy areas from industrial pollution and housing policy to climate change and unemployment. Neil will help us understand how individuals define environmental issues differently and how being more cognizant of those differences can help inform policymaking. Stay with us. Okay, Neil Lewis from Cornell University, thank you so much for joining us today on Resources Radio.
Neil Lewis Jr.: Thank you for having me on the show.
Daniel Raimi: So, Neil, you have a ton of research interests, spanning a variety of topical and disciplinary areas. Because we're going to talk about environmental issues today on the show, it would be great to know how you got interested in working on environmental issues.
Neil Lewis Jr.: Yeah, so there are a few moments in my life that I think really steered me towards studying environmental issues. The first is that I took this AP environmental science class way back in high school, where we talked a lot about the relationship between people and their ecosystems, and those lessons have always sort of stuck with me and been there in the back of my mind over the years.
Then the second thing is that environmental issues came up in my other work. I started my career by studying education and health disparities in the United States. The more that I worked in those issues, the more I realized how much differences in the environments people are living and working in matter for their ability to learn and live healthy lives. There are studies on how air pollution near schools affects students' health and cognitive functioning or studies on how living near toxic sites affects other health outcomes. Over time, it sort of became more and more clear to me that if I really want to understand education and health disparities and interventions to address those, I also need to start examining disparities in people's environments.
Daniel Raimi: That makes a lot of sense and helps us frame today's conversation because that's, in a sense, exactly what we're going to be talking about: what counts as an environmental issue. Let's get into that conversation. I actually just said the name of the title of the paper that we're going to be talking about, which is “What Counts as an Environmental Issue? Differences in Issue Conceptualization by Race, Ethnicity, And Socioeconomic Status.”
You are an author along with several other coauthors. The paper's in the Journal of Environmental Psychology. We'll have a link to it in the show notes. The paper starts off by describing a misperception that racial and ethnic minorities tend to be less concerned about environmental issues. Can you start us off by giving us an understanding of where that perception might come from and how evidence on that topic has evolved over the years?
Neil Lewis Jr.: So that misperception is an interesting one. There are, of course, a number of factors that matter, but the two big ones that we've been thinking about that sort of reinforces the misperception, and a lot of work has come to show over the years, both of them really have to do with issues broadly related to representation and visibility within the environmental movement.
The first thing is if you look at media portrayals of environmentalists—so studies that have looked at how are environmentalists portrayed in the media and broader public discourse—what you see most often is middle-class white people. If that's all you ever see, then that would lead you to believe that, well, those are the only people who care about the environment. So, the media really frames how we think about the issue, and so that seems to be one place that these misperceptions are coming from.
The second one is representation in organizations. So, environmental organizations, at least in the US context, tend to be very white as well. In the United States, minorities comprise just 12 percent of the staff of both governmental environmental agencies and non-governmental environmental organizations. As you look around at who are the faces of the environmental movement, it's once again middle-class white people. So, seeing those patterns, leads people to assume that, well, those must be the only people that care about those issues, and so those seem to be some of the big drivers of the misperception.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah. We actually interviewed Dorceta Taylor, professor from University of Michigan on that exact topic over a year ago now, but that was a really illuminating conversation.
Neil Lewis Jr.: Yeah, that's the backdrop of our work.
Daniel Raimi: Great. So, you and your coauthors in this paper describe some of the reasons why individuals who are part of minority groups or are of lower socioeconomic status might see environmental issues differently. They might have a different concept of what it means for an issue to be environmental. Can you talk a little bit about that difference, and maybe give us a couple of examples of where it shows up in the real world?
Neil Lewis Jr.: This is where I think we have to pay close attention to research, and sociology, and history for that matter. The differences in what people count as environmental issues that we find in our work seem to stem from different experiences that people have had from living in very different social worlds. If you live in a poor neighborhood, you may notice that it's not only the air quality or water quality that's bad, or that there's not much green space to get regular exercise, but also notice that things like obesity rates are higher. There's less high-quality food around. Kids aren't doing as well in school. So, you start to see these things as all part of a larger interconnected set of problems. If you're living in a wealthier neighborhood, you may not see many of these problems so you wouldn't notice that they're related. It's these differences in the social worlds that we think are really driving these differences in perceptions of what counts.
Daniel Raimi: That makes a lot of sense. And, of course, ties into much larger societal problems around justice and equity.
Neil Lewis Jr.: Yeah, absolutely.
Daniel Raimi: To explore this particular issue—this environmental issue—you and your coauthors did a survey where you asked over a thousand respondents to rank which issues they thought of as being "environmental issues." You asked about 18 different issues, so we probably won't be able to talk about all of them, but can you pick a couple, or three, that you think are interesting and that might help us understand why some groups might see a topic as environmental while others might not?
Neil Lewis Jr.: Among the issues, two of the ones that had the biggest differences in our study were poverty and racism. This makes perfect sense to me, given those social stratification and segregation issues we were just talking about, those differences in sociology. If you're a lower-income person, you're aware of where the low-income housing tends to be placed within a city, and that they tend to be closer to the environmental hazards than the wealthier housing in the city. Whereas if you're a wealthy person, you never have to notice that. It's a more abstract issue you might hear about on the news from time to time, but it's not a problem that you really ever have to deal with so you don't really connect the dots.
If you're someone who belongs to a racial minority group, you probably learned a lot more about things like mortgage redlining, and other policies that explicitly divided neighborhoods by race, which put white people in the better parts of town and minorities in the worst parts of town, so it's clear to you that racism is also part of the story here. Whereas if you're a white person who has not learned as much about that part of American history, in part because we often overlook some of those things as we teach history, then you're like, "What are you talking about? Racism has nothing to do with the environment." So, again, these differences in context end up affecting how people understand these issues and whether they see the connections between them or not.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, absolutely. Let's get into some of the results of the survey itself that you carried out. Can you give us a high-level overview of some of the things you found?
Neil Lewis Jr.: The high-level takeaway from the paper is that we find that race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status matter for what Americans consider to be environmental issues, and that is due to these different experiences that Americans have had in our segregated nation. We have the survey results, but we also have another paper on the more qualitative research to get a deeper understanding of what's going through people's minds. It's very clear that it's these real differences in the lives that people are living, the experiences they're having, the things they're noticing, that are driving these perceptions.
Daniel Raimi: Interesting. Can you maybe dive into a little bit more detail there and talk us through maybe a couple more of the issue areas that you talked about and what some of the differences were?
Neil Lewis Jr.: The issues that came up, as I mentioned, poverty and racism before, but there are issues of health inequality as well. Obesity was another one of those issues that came up. There was talk about access to green space, contamination in tap water, a host of things that are really connected to broader structural inequities. There's these connections between environmental issues, health issues, and social inequality more broadly that some groups are seeing and others are not.
Daniel Raimi: Great. Are there any other results from the study that you found particularly interesting that you want to dig a little bit deeper on and tell us a little bit more about?
Neil Lewis Jr.: When they looked at the sort of overall rank order, taking a step away from the racial differences for a moment, just looking at the overall rank ordering of issues, I was a little bit surprised to not see climate change as the number one issue. There's so much talk about climate change. I thought, overall, that would be the number one issue. But participants had pollution and contamination as ranked higher than climate change, which I thought was interesting. I mean, there are not huge differences ... so I don't want to read too much into it, but I guess part of me did expect climate change to be number one issue, and maybe that's just reflective of the bubble I live in where that's all anyone talks about.
Daniel Raimi: Right. Yeah, it is important to remember that climate change is incredibly important but is only one of many important environmental issues.
Neil Lewis Jr.: Yeah, absolutely.
Daniel Raimi: Can you elaborate on that a little bit more? What was the difference that you found when it came to different groups' perception of climate change? I'm curious if you have any hypothesis as to why it might've ended up the way that it did in your results.
Neil Lewis Jr.: I want to be clear, it's still high, I think it was number three on our list. I don't have the paper up in front of me, but I believe it's number three on the list. But it was noteworthy to me that these other issues that people are dealing with, like the immediate pollution and lead contamination, have come up. So, you're in Ann Arbor. I used to live in Ann Arbor in the state of Michigan. Lead contamination was a big issue that was talked about a lot. So, it's interesting to see that in this broader national survey. This is also a bigger issue that was on people's minds.
Daniel Raimi: I mean, that Flint story really did make it out of Michigan, I think, and clearly has had an effect. Just so people are aware of that rank order that Neil mentioned, I just pulled up the paper, and if you go to Table One of the paper, you'll see this for yourself. But the rank order of the largest differences between groups—and, Neil, correct me if I'm characterizing that wrong—but pollution from industrial facilities was up at the top, followed by lead contamination of drinking water, followed by climate change, followed by drought in the Western United States, followed by flooding, and then there were a variety of other issues as well after that.
Neil Lewis Jr.: So, these other issues that people are sort of seeing and experiencing in different parts of the country are pretty high up on their list of concerns.
Daniel Raimi: Absolutely. One other issue that you looked at in this study is people's perceptions of environmental justice issues, or environmental racism, and how those perceptions were related to their responses on other environmental issues. What did you find when you crossed those two layers together?
Neil Lewis Jr.: Part of the reason that there are these differences in counting the more human-oriented issues, like poverty and racism as environmental issues, seems to be due to differences in concerns about environmental justice. We're finding minority and lower-income respondents in our sample were more concerned about environmental justice issues, like placing hazardous facilities in minority communities, and those environmental justice perceptions explain some of the variants in the differences that we found.
Daniel Raimi: This is all so interesting. There's so many rich findings in the paper. I'll encourage people to look into it themselves and dig out some more details. But when you think broadly about some of the conclusions that you're reaching here, I know not all of them are brand new, but they're certainly confirming some hypotheses that we may have held before. What are some implications that you draw, whether for policymakers who are thinking about environmental policies, or also maybe for advocates who are thinking about advocating or messaging their environmental issues in various ways?
Neil Lewis Jr.: As I've been thinking about this work, I think the practical takeaway is that there are different issues that resonate with different groups of people. If environmental advocacy agencies or policymakers want to broaden the tent and build more inclusive coalitions, they may have to start talking about and advocating for addressing a broader set of environmental issues. Realizing those differences in what people are concerned about is essential for developing broader sets of messages that will build coalitions to address these broader issues. That's the current takeaway for me right now.
Daniel Raimi: One of the interesting things that makes me think of is the Green New Deal. Whether one agrees with its broadness or not, it seems to me that the advocates of the Green New Deal, as defined broadly, are pretty aware of these issues, or at least they are including them in the tent of the Green New Deal, right, thinking about policies to directly address things like access to healthy food, access to green space, dealing with poverty issues. Does that comparison make sense to you?
Neil Lewis Jr.: Yeah, that comparison makes total sense to me. That's something we've been talking about in our own research group, seeing those proposals come out and it's like, yeah, that seems to fit with what we're finding that if you're wanting to broaden the pool of people, then you might have to start talking about a broader set of issues. Totally in line with what we're seeing.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah. Interesting. One of the challenges from a policy perspective and maybe from a political perspective, but I'm curious about what your sense is of this is, as the definition of environmental issues becomes broader, then the set of solutions that one might need to think about also becomes broader. Then you have the risk—and, again, this is something that's hotly debated, and I'm not trying to weigh in one way or the other—but you have the risk that broadening those set of policy solutions could make it more difficult to get legislation passed, rather than a legislative approach that is more narrow focusing on something like pollution from industrial facilities, without trying to go at these kinds of more structural issues like poverty, access to education, and other issues that I think we all agree are important but could be seen as different, in part because of the different policy solutions that would be required. How do you think about that political dynamic?
Neil Lewis Jr.: This political dynamic has always been there in the environmental movement. If you read some of the early papers on environmental justice, this same issue was talked about then: that there's dissension because it's easier to get political support for narrower issues that you feel like you can get big wins quickly, but that doesn't necessarily address the broader set of problems that at least some people are facing. There's dissension over how do you get support for addressing the issues that people are struggling with when there's often not the political will to really tackle larger structural problems. I don't know what the solution is. I don't think it's to pretend that the broader issues are not there, but something policymakers and politicians need to think about is how do you build that coalition to make progress.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah. Something really valuable for us at RFF and many other folks who work on environmental policy to, at the very least, as you say, be aware of as we think about policy design or when we get into the weeds of how to design cap and trade or how to allocate revenues from a carbon tax. These are all important issues but don't necessarily speak to that broader set of issues that you're raising here.
Neil Lewis Jr.: Yeah. It's possible to use some of that revenue to address some of the other issues. That gets politically dicey, I think sometimes, but we have to ask the question.
Daniel Raimi: Indeed, well said. All right. Neil Lewis from Cornell University, thank you so much again for talking to us about this work that you have been carrying out with your coauthors and expanding upon it for us, helping us understand the implications. It would be great now to close us out with our typical feature that we call Top of the Stack, so asking you to recommend something that you've read, or watched, or heard recently that's on the top of your literal or metaphorical reading stack.
I'll start off with something really great that I came across recently, and it's totally unrelated to this topic, but I just loved it so I wanted to share it. It's a story map, which is a sort of interactive article/mapping tool that you can experience for yourself online from the National Energy Technology Laboratory, and it's a story map that shows how people go about trying to detect abandoned oil and gas wells, which is something I've been working on lately, using helicopters, drones, and other technologies. They have this really great set of maps and pictures from Western Pennsylvania, which is where the oil industry began in the 1850s and 1860s. There are all these descriptions of how they try to find all these abandoned wells that are scattered around the area, and really wonderful pictures of the people, and the maps, and the places, and the pollution during that time. It's just really evocative and really great. We'll have a link to it on the show notes.
Neil Lewis Jr.: I'd love to take a look at that.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, cool. So, but how about you, Neil? What would you recommend to our listeners to check out?
Neil Lewis Jr.: One book I read recently that I think is relevant for this conversation is Palaces for the People. It's a book by Eric Klinenberg, who's a sociologist at NYU. It's not explicitly about the environment per se, but it is about the broader conceptualization of environmental issues we've been talking about on the show today. The social infrastructures that different groups of people have access to shape their understanding of the world and their willingness to engage with each other. That's something we ought to think about as we try to build a more sustainable future. I really like the way that that book talked about these interconnections between issues, and I think it's useful to think about that as we develop policies going forward.
Daniel Raimi: That's really interesting. Palaces for the People. What was the name of the author again?
Neil Lewis Jr.: Eric Klinenberg.
Daniel Raimi: We'll have a link to it on the show notes so people can dig it up and check it out for themselves. But once again, Neil Lewis from Cornell, thank you so much for coming on the show and telling us about your work. It's been fascinating.
Neil Lewis Jr.: Thank you again for having me.
Daniel Raimi: You've been listening to Resources Radio. Learn how to support Resources for the Future at rff.org/support. If you have a minute, we'd really appreciate you leaving us a rating or a comment on your podcast platform of choice. Also, feel free to send us your suggestions for future episodes. Resources Radio is a podcast from Resources for the Future. RFF is an independent nonprofit research institution in Washington, D.C. Our mission is to improve environmental, energy, and natural resource decisions through impartial economic research and policy engagement. The views expressed on this podcast are solely those of the podcast guests and may differ from those of RFF experts, its officers, or its directors. RFF does not take positions on specific legislative proposals. Resources Radio is produced by Elizabeth Wason, with music by me, Daniel Raimi. Join us next week for another episode.