Environmental Studies professors publish research exploring people’s roles within climate action

27 April 2021

By Evan See

Images provided by Professor Michael Maniates (left) and Assistant Professor Matthew Schneider-Mayerson.

The Environmental Studies major at Yale-NUS College is supported by a strong faculty that actively contributes to research in the field.

Recently, two of these faculty have had their work published – Professor of Social Sciences (Environmental Studies) Michael Maniates, and Assistant Professor of Social Sciences (Environmental Studies) Matthew Schneider-Mayerson. They have been studying how members of the public can make an impact on the climate through their individual actions.

Reproductive choices are an area of individual agency that have proved incredibly interesting for Asst Prof Schneider-Mayerson. Having conducted a study of 600 Americans in 2018, he realised something surprising:  while he did find pessimism towards having children in the future that many have reported when talking about the environment, he also uncovered a trend of environmentalists who reported having children because of their concern for the climate.

Asst Prof Schneider-Mayerson’s article, ‘The environmental politics of reproductive choices in the age of climate change’, was published in the journal Environmental Politics in March 2021.

“I found two climate-related reasons why environmentalists are choosing to have children: as a means of remaining personally invested in the future of the planet, and because of the hope or expectation that their children will become environmentalists,” Asst Prof Schneider-Mayerson explained.

“At the same time, I uncovered two additional climate-related reasons why environmentalists are choosing not to have children, which have rarely been included in this discussion: raising children takes up time, money, and energy that could otherwise be used for environmental politics and other actions; and people are leveraging their expected fertility as a socio-political tool by telling their families about their eco-reproductive concerns as a way to communicate their climate concern,” he said.

Environmental concerns, Asst Prof Schneider-Mayerson believes, are having a growing impact on young people around the world even in their most intimate and consequential life choices. These include whether to have children, and how many they choose to have.

“While scholars and activists frequently draw a sharp distinction between individual choices and political engagement on environmental issues, some individual choices are so significant that they can have important political dimensions and repercussions,” he noted.

Yet, the moral frameworks through which individuals understand their individual actions also matter significantly.

In his co-authored book Consumption Corridors: Living a Good Life within Sustainable Limits, Prof Maniates and his colleagues invite the public to think about the environment by asking how to live a ‘good life’ while still consuming within sustainable limits.

To do this, they introduce the ‘consumption corridor’ – a tool that frames both minimum and maximum consumption standards, ensuring provisions of basic social needs like housing, while limiting excessive consumption that damages the environment.

“This way, you can ensure that everybody today has the opportunity to pursue the good life, while protecting environmental systems that ultimately ensure that same opportunity for future generations,” Prof Maniates explained. “Consumption corridors combine critical concerns about social justice with the growing realisation that humanity is crossing important environmental boundaries.”

Published in March 2021, the book recognises that new technologies and increased efficiency levels are insufficient to address the climate crisis. Instead, it argues that consumption among the world’s affluent must be reduced, in combination with technological changes, if we’re to avoid climate catastrophe.

“The question is: how can we get to a lower consumption, higher prosperity world in the near future, when consuming more, not better, is such a powerful social force?”  Prof Maniates asked.  “That’s a provocative research and policy question for my colleagues, and many of my Yale-NUS College students.”

But rather than “frightening policymakers into action” by highlighting potential environmental apocalypses, the project takes a more positive approach.“The essence of the book is that limiting levels of consumption doesn’t need to be a dreary, dystopian thing. It can be exciting for us to think about reducing consumption in ways that lead to greater prosperity, peace, freedom, and opportunities to more fully realise our humanity,” said Prof Maniates.

Writing in collaboration with six other academics, Prof Maniates served as a lead author and primary architect of the book.

The book is open access and freely accessible online, a deliberate decision by the authors.

“We view the book as an important contribution to discussions among activist groups, within civil society and within faith communities who are thinking about religious or moral obligations to one another and the environment,” said Prof Maniates.

“We want to make real the enduring possibility of living the good life, within limits, on a small planet together.”