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Accounting for the Performance of Environmentally Significant Behavior: The Symbolic Significance of Recycling

Symbolic Interaction

Published online on


The scientific community has pronounced climate change unequivocal and its consequences disastrous. Yet Americans' behavioral response to the global social problem of environmental degradation has been largely confined to the individual act of recycling. This article examines why Americans are not doing more to address climate change and other environmental issues. Taking a cognitive sociological perspective, I describe how Americans think about environmental issues and pro‐environmental behavior. I draw on Swidler's concept of a “cultural tool kit,” to examine the cultural narratives Americans use to account for the small amount of pro‐environmental behavior they perform. The act of recycling functions as a synecdoche for pro‐environmental behavior in general, allowing individuals to over‐claim the significance of a modest amount of pro‐environmental behavior. I argue that Americans' failure to engage with environmental issues at a collective level is rooted in the individualized culture of American environmentalism.