Three forgotten values can help you overcome divisions

Emphasize group bonding values to create environmental messages that will appeal to a broad audience.

People must work together across differences to solve environmental problems. Water infrastructure, for instance, will require increased public investments. However, community divisions are getting in the way of backing solutions, which researchers have demonstrated that communication failures may be to blame. Environmental educators overwhelmingly rely on just two of the six basic moral values common to all people. By emphasizing bonding values of loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion and sanctity/degradation, many more people are likely to support environmental initiatives.

Tailoring environmental messages to emphasize maintaining group integrity and social order have been shown to be effective. What follows are examples of how environmental messaging using in-group domains frequently absent from environmental appeals are:

1) In-group/loyalty – Patriotic symbols such as the American flag, team spirit or any such group brand can engage one’s feelings of attachment to one’s group. Michigan State University have expanded the use of their mascot to build in-group identity of the Michigan State University affiliated community. By using branded colors, typeface and phrases, the in-group is easily recognized in their marketing imagery. Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha is the pediatrician who brought attention to the Flint Water Crisis in 2015. By quoting Dr. Hanna-Attisha, the University invites the in-group, fellow-Spartans, to be bold in their efforts to address environmental injustices.  

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Michigan State University uses branding to reinforce ingroup prosocial environmental justice behavior.

2) Purity/sanctity – Purity connotes an ideal condition associated with health and safety. Efforts to prevent pollution, contamination from invasive species or other harms to natural resources are a good fit for emphasis on purity/sanctity moral.  The Pure Michigan campaign is a ubiquitous example that also draws on another of the less common moral domains, purity/sanctity.

3) Authority/respect – By treating leadership and institutions with respect, campaigns can appeal to people’s desire to live in peaceful and orderly communities. Being mindful of etiquette and other pro-social norms are ways to demonstrate reverence for the value of authority and respect. Images that illustrate children learning from their elders in natural environments appeals to this domain.

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Families are a basic unit of society and provide a foundation for learning social norms and rules. | Photo by Monica Day

Most environmental messages stop short by only emphasizing harm versus care, fairness, justice and reciprocity. To inspire actions to benefit the common good, messengers can look for examples that reinforce in-group identity such as the Pure Michigan campaign, “we all drink water” messages that are presented in an organized and respectful manner.

Efforts to protect and preserve environmental health has historically been a non-partisan issue. However, in recent decades, environmental issues have become divisive. Researchers such as Christopher Wolsko have identified group dynamics and a limited array of appeals to bonding moral frames as explaining this divide. To inspire a broader base of support for collective action, organizers should tailor outreach to all five moral foundations.

This article is one of a series on soft skills for working in community to solve environmental challenges:

How Gentle Volunteer Recruitment Efforts Can Yield Astonishing Results

Deliver Programs that are Social and Attractive

NIMBY Solutions

Working Together to Improve Natural Resources


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