Ecological citizens: do they exist?

The basic principles of a theoretical ‘ecological citizenship,’ as sketched out by Andrew Dobson, were summarised in my previous article. The obvious question to ask immediately of such a theory is whether it has any connection with the real world: do ‘ecological citizens’ actually exist?

Some social research which is able to answer this question has been published recently. Swedish political scientist Sverker Jagers (2009) has carried out a survey “to verify, identify and explain the presence of ecological citizens” (p.21).

Sweden, argues Jagers, is the best place for such an investigation. As he says, the people of Scandinavian countries are often seen as possessing the most environmentally friendly attitudes, and if ecological citizens can’t be found among the general population there, they probably don’t exist anywhere else in any numbers.

There are two key lines of questioning in the survey, firstly on wealth redistribution, and secondly on reducing economic growth.

As I’ve described previously, Dobson (2004) defined the “first virtue of ecological citizenship” as “justice … a just distribution of ecological space” (p.18). Therefore, Jagers’ survey investigates the willingness of people to address the current inequitable distribution of ecological space by asking:

How willing are you to pay taxes for environmental purposes?

How willing are you to pay tax for poverty reducing purposes?

In each case the survey asked to what extent such taxes should be allocated locally, nationally, around the Baltic region or in developing countries.

Dobson also emphasised the duty and responsibility of citizens to ensure that ecological footprints are sustainable. Jagers investigates this by asking:

What is your opinion about the suggestion “to work toward an environmentally friendly society even if it means low or no economic growth”?

1724 individuals completed the questionnaire, a sample which is representative of the Swedish population at large. The results show:

20% were very willing to pay higher taxes for environmental purposes in developing countries.*

26% were very willing to pay higher taxes to combat poverty in developing countries.*

12% believe it would be a very good idea to work towards an environmentally friendly society, even if it leads to low or zero economic growth.

*Willingness to pay higher taxes in either case was the same or higher if the taxes were to be allocated locally or nationally, and the willingness was lower if allocated to the Baltic region.

As Jagers indicates, essentially the same people have positive attitudes towards all three measures. It is quite a substantial group: the 12% of people willing to accept low or zero economic growth equates to around 900,000 of Swedish over 15 year olds.

Who are these people? The political party sympathies of those with the most positive attitudes are of particular interest. If we focus on the willingness to accept low or no economic growth – a key concept in green ideology – it is not surprising that Green Party supporters are most willing, though it is interesting to note that only 38% of green supporters actually show such willingness.

Greens might be wondering where like-minded people might be most likely found. The next strongest indication of support for a low/no growth policy comes from the Left Party, at 21%. Support declines across the political spectrum through 11% for the Social Democrats to the low figure of 6%  for the neoliberal conservative Moderates .

Of course it is difficult to apply the findings of this survey beyond Sweden. But the most significant and encouraging finding is the fact that ecological citizenship is no mere academic theory – ecological citizens do exist and in considerable numbers.


Andrew Dobson (2004) Ecological citizenship. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Western Political Science Association, Portland, Oregon, USA, March 11, 2004. (Available here.)

Sverker C Jagers (2009) In search of the ecological citizen. Environmental Politics 18(1), 18-36.


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