Are Immigrants Greener?

Updated: Apr 30, 2020

What did they learn about nature where they grew up? How will that change in America?

Environmental problems can seem so urgent today that it’s tempting to pick up a bullhorn and shout them out from the rooftops. Paradoxically, this blunt instrument approach to informing people about the environment may actually be counterproductive. That’s due to something we don’t always recognize: while the natural environment may be a thing in itself, people in all their variety don’t always experience it the same way. There’s lots of research from around the world showing different groups of people from different places see nature differently and look at environmental protection differently as well. For example, people who live in places with different rates of population change or resource-based employment have, on average, different views about the environment and natural resources. Physical aspects of the environment such as temperature and precipitation can also affect peoples’ levels of environmental concern. Over time, these cultural differences in human perception influence public knowledge and public institutions. Eventually the differences show up in environmental laws and policy too.

In Michigan State’s School of Journalism, Professor Bruno Takahashi is grappling with the difficult case of people who immigrate to the United States. What happens to their views of the environment? Surveys show not only that people from other countries have different views of the natural environment, but so do different demographic groups here in the United States. “A lot of survey-based research shows that minority populations tend to score higher in environmental concern scales or beliefs, even in some behavioral measures,” says Prof. Takahashi. “Now the question that has not been fully answered is why. It can’t be attributed to just to race or ethnicity, right? There's something else that's in play.”

Takahashi suspects the hidden element is the effect of time. Immigrants always make adjustments to their new surroundings, a process called acculturation. Some immigrants probably change their views of the environment as they acculturate to American values but it’s notoriously difficult to figure out which values change for which groups and how the process actually happens. “It could take generations to create this perception of the relationship between, let's say the U. S. mainstream culture,” Professor Takahashi says. “Somebody coming from Venezuela, which affects them at the individual level acculturation process that we are hypothesizing has probably an effect on how one consumes information to make social networks.” He adds, “It also depends on contextual factors. So if you go to Miami, it's different than if you go to Mississippi or Arkansas.”

As a student of mass communication and the environment, Prof. Takahashi also knows that everyone’s views on the environment are shaped by the messages they receive about it, especially from news media. Immigrants absorb the same messages as everyone else but because their ideas about the environment are different, these messages probably affect them differently. But it’s very difficult to use research to tease out exactly how this happens. Existing social surveys and other forms of evidence tend to treat major immigrant groups crudely, as if all immigrants from the same area on the map thought and acted alike.

Prof. Takahashi thinks this is a flawed way to look at the country’s actual diversity. He says, “If we approach it with, let's say, all Hispanics are the same and all African Americans are the same, and all Asian Americans are the same, communication strategies that take that frame of mind, conceptualize these different audiences with just those kind of very generic labels and misses really the point of how these subgroups, that make up these larger categories, really look at issues,” he says. “Somebody from Haiti, I'm sure, has a very different idea of what environmental issues are than somebody from, let's say, Mexico or even a Caribbean country like maybe their neighbors in the Dominican Republic. But we shouldn't be communicating to Haiti in the same way we’re communicating with the Dominican Republic.”

Takahashi is interested in what happens when new arrivals begin to use the American media system. Anyone from a developing country with a small media system or state controlled media may need time to get accustomed to American media with all their freedom, sprawl and diversity. What will they read? What will they watch—or binge watch? What will they interact with on their phones? Any of these changes could affect how immigrants think and act, how they spend their money, and--most importantly for Takahashi--how their behavior on the environment changes. Will immigrants from different countries, for example, develop different attitudes toward recycling or conservation, depending on their country of origin or their media use?

Takahashi is hoping to do a long-term longitudinal study of recent immigrants from Latin America, to see how their media practices change and how they create new social networks as they go through the process of acculturation. He’s eventually hoping to examine south Florida with its wide range of Hispanic groups but he may also do a smaller pretest in Michigan.

He wants to examine how behaviors on environmental issues are taken up or dropped based on the ideas and information they acquire from American media and the characteristics of their new American home, wherever in the U.S it might be located.

Image credit: Quinn Kampschroer, Pixabay