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Collective memory of environmental change and connectedness with nature: Survey evidence from Aotearoa New Zealand

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Abstract

The field of memory studies has, in recent years, experienced a 'nonhuman turn' that extends the analytical focus beyond anthropocentric functions of collective remembering. However, while this growing literature has considerably enhanced our understanding of how memories of environmental change may promote a stronger sense of connectedness with nature, the different arguments-developed mainly through critical readings of cultural texts-have yet to be investigated empirically. By means of an original survey of 1,100+ adults in Aotearoa New Zealand, the paper here provides a first step towards addressing the empirical gap in the 'nonhuman turn' literature. Two main findings emerge from this analysis. First, knowing about historical environmental change and overestimating the extent of environmental change make it more likely that individuals see themselves as part of nature. Second, the survey demonstrates that the relationship between memories of environmental change and closeness to nature interacts with wider political conflicts over how to remember the colonial past. In particular, the question of who to blame for historical environmental change shapes the effect of ecological memories in different ways, depending on whether respondents identify as European New Zealanders or indigenous Māori.
Published in Memory Studies | doi: 10.1177/17506980221114077
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Collective memory of environmental change and connectedness with
nature: Survey evidence from Aotearoa New Zealand
Olli Hellmann (University of Waikato, Aotearoa New Zealand)
Abstract
The field of memory studies has, in recent years, experienced a ‘nonhuman turn’ that extends the
analytical focus beyond anthropocentric functions of collective remembering. However, while this
growing literature has considerably enhanced our understanding of how memories of environmental
change may promote a stronger sense of connectedness with nature, the different arguments developed
mainly through critical readings of cultural texts have yet to be investigated empirically. By means of an
original survey of 1,100+ adults in Aotearoa New Zealand, the paper here provides a first step towards
addressing the empirical gap in the ‘nonhuman turn’ literature. Two main findings emerge from this
analysis. First, knowing about historical environmental change and overestimating the extent of
environmental change make it more likely that individuals see themselves as part of nature. Second, the
survey demonstrates that the relationship between memories of environmental change and closeness to
nature interacts with wider political conflicts over how to remember the colonial past. In particular, the
question of who to blame for historical environmental change shapes the effect of ecological memories in
different ways, depending on whether respondents identify as European New Zealanders or indigenous
Māori.
Keywords
collective memory, nonhuman memory, environmental change, survey methods, Aotearoa New Zealand
Introduction
The burgeoning ‘nonhuman turn’ literature in memory studies has, in recent years, put forward
exciting theoretical ideas about how collectively remembering environmental change may help us
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understand that the separation between humans and nature is a false dichotomy. However, while
there is great value in these theorisations, they have been developed exclusively through critical
readings of cultural texts. What we lack is empirical research that would analyse the relationship
between collective memories of environmental change and connectedness with nature in the
wider context of the politics of memory. My paper takes a first step in this direction by
conducting an inductive survey among 1,100+ adults in Aotearoa New Zealand that measures
connectedness with nature using the concept of environmentalist identity (van der Werff et al.,
2013).
Aotearoa New Zealand provides a particularly suitable case study for at least two reasons:
not only has the country experienced dramatic environmental change over the last 700 years, but
collective memories of environmental change are entangled in ‘mnemonic battles’ (Zerubavel,
1997) over how to remember the history of colonialism, which allows me to explore how
ecological and anthropocentric memories interact with each other. At the same time, it needs to
be stressed that Aotearoa New Zealand is by no means an atypical or extreme case in terms of
concern for the environment. While the country seeks to portray itself as a ‘green’ and ‘clean’
society, the reality ‘on the ground’ looks very different (Shore, 2017; True, 2005). The country
struggles with a whole range of sustainability challenges – including threats to biodiversity, water
pollution, and methane emissions from livestock – and public opinion on environmental issues is
largely in line with other Western industrialised nations (Bell et al., 2021).
The survey reveals two main findings. First, knowing about historical environmental
change and overestimating the extent of historical environmental change foster a stronger sense
of connectedness to nature. Second, the survey provides evidence for a complex relationship
between blame attribution and connectedness to nature that is shaped by wider political conflicts
over how to remember the colonial past: whereas respondents who identify as European New
Zealanders are more likely to value unity with nature when they blame their own social group for
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historical environmental change, indigenous Māori are more likely to feel as one with nature
when they put the blame on the other social group.
Remembering environmental change: the ‘nonhuman turn’ in memory studies
Based on Maurice Halbwachs’ presentist view of remembering (1992), collective memory studies
has primarily been interested in the question of how present interests, needs, and concerns shape
the ways in which political entities and societal groups construct representations of the past.
Collectivities do not remember for the sake of remembering; instead, remembering is
understood to provide a ‘usable past’ that serves to further a broader social agenda in the here
and now (Wertsch, 2009: 122). This presentist focus has informed not only memory research on
how societies remember wars and political transitions, but it also reflects in academic work that
investigates collective memories of environmental change.
Three strands of scholarship are particularly noteworthy. First, scholars of nationalism
have shown that mnemonic representations of environmental change may play an important role
in the creation, legitimation, and maintenance of national identities and nation states – especially
memories of heroic efforts in taming nature, such as the Dutch people’s ‘fight against the water’
(Mostert, 2020) or the transformation of Western frontier wilderness into agricultural land by
American pioneers (Paul, 2014: ch. 6). Second, research has revealed how environmental justice
movements cultivate memories of environmental change in seeking to achieve their objectives.
Such bottom-up memory work provides evidence of ‘what happened’ – thereby challenging
amnesia and hegemonic narratives (Perreault, 2018) – and gives meaning to environmental
pollution and suffering, which may help mobilise support for the movement (Bisht, 2018; Sayers,
2006). Third, a growing body of work investigates how local memories of environmental
disasters – ranging from floods (Garde-Hansen et al., 2017) to bushfires (Reid et al., 2018)
facilitate disaster preparation and bolster community resilience.
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Despite highlighting different functions that memories of environmental change perform
in the present, what all of these studies share in common is that they are underpinned by
anthropocentric assumptions. That is to say, remembering environmental change is primarily
centred on human pasts: humans transforming the natural landscape, humans suffering from
environmental pollution, humans dealing with floods and other natural catastrophes. Moreover,
the cultivation of these memories is aimed at advancing human interests in the present: forging a
national identity, encouraging political activism, building resilience to environmental disasters.
Against this background, the field of memory studies has more recently – driven by
humanities disciplines rather than the social sciences – witnessed a ‘nonhuman turn’. What
distinguishes the nonhuman literature from previous work on memories of environmental
change is that scholars ‘think ecologically (rather than merely socially)’ (Craps et al. 2018: 500;
emphasis added). In particular, scholars have widened the traditional focus of memory studies to
also include nonhuman agents. As Vermeulen summarises, the latest wave of memory
scholarship ‘does not limit its concerns to human victims, but also factors in damage to
lifeworlds, destroyed landscapes, and suffering animals’ (2020: 111). By applying this expanded
frame of nonhuman remembrance, scholars theorise about how memories of environmental
change created through cultural products and performances can encourage us to rethink our
relationship with nature.
One argument is that culturally transmitted memories of environmental change help us
understand that nature’s current state is far from normal. For example, Jørgensen claims that
‘[m]emory affects the understandings people have of their environments … People tend to view
the environment of their childhood as the “right” one, and thus things that changed before that
are imperceptible unless they hear stories told about the way it used to be’ (2019: 122). Along
similar lines, Buell argues that literature and other media – by evoking memories of pre-modern
natural landscapes – can partly offset the effects of ‘environmental generational amnesia’ – that
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is, the phenomenon that ‘each generation seems to start from a baseline assumption of a more
deteriorated environmental status quo as the new normal’ (2017: 96).
A second notable contribution to the nonhuman memory literature revolves around the
notion of planetary memory. This body of scholarly work imbues the planet with mnemonic agency
– for example, by highlighting that the atmosphere, the ocean, and rocks possess memory
(Szerszynski, 2019). The key argument is that by retrieving planetary memory, cultural products
and sites – such as literary texts and museums – broaden the category of memory to include ‘a
more-than-human past, namely the past of the planet’s entanglement with humans’ (Liebermann
and Neumann, 2020: 150). In other words, planetary memory collapses the distinction between
humans and nature by making us aware that Earth had existed long before humanity’s arrival.
For instance, Wilson postulates that dinosaur parks and museums encourage visitors to rethink
humanity’s place in the vast timescale of Earth’s history, emphasising both the precarious
existence of life but also the need to consider humanity to be one among many species in a
shared environment: ‘Confronting the extinct species which once dominated the Earth can be
used to alter perceptions on the relationship between humans and nature’ (2020: 134).
Doing away with the separation between nature and humans is also the focus of the
growing ecological grief literature. Here, scholars argue that extending the work of mourning to
non-humans can help us understand that all life forms are connected to each other. For example,
in a discussion of memorial and ‘funeral’ events performed during Remembrance Day for Lost
Species, de Massol de Rebetz argues that these practices of ecological grief may make audiences
‘aware of some kind of entangled multispecies collectiveness’ in that they attend to ‘diverse yet
intertwined ways of living and dying’ (2020: 879). Moreover, in addition to the object of
mourning, ecological grief differs from anthropocentric grief in two other important aspects.
First, as Cunsolo explains, the former dwells at the intersection of grief and guilt: ‘Often we
grieve and mourn for that which we have no control or part; within the context of
anthropogenic climate change, however, the changes experienced throughout the globe, and the
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impacts on humans and non-humans alike, are directly related to human actions, and thus
although we may mourn, we are also implicated in our actions’ (2017: 183). Second, ecological
grief ‘has a specific temporality: it is directed both into the past and in the future’ (Kelz and
Knappe, 2021: 9). That is to say, ecological grief not only addresses an absence in the here and
now, but it can also be anticipatory, pre-empting non-human losses that are yet to come. As
such, ‘extending grievability to more-than-human others can galvanize us to take positive action
on their behalf’ (Craps, 2020: 3), and foster an ethic of care and responsibility beyond the human
(O’Key 2021).
Through a critical interrogation of cultural texts, the nonhuman memory literature has
considerably enhanced our understanding of how remembering environmental change may
shape how we see our relationship with nature. However, the problem with these theorisations is
that they are disconnected from the empirical realities of collective remembering. In particular, if
we follow scholars who emphasise the plurality and conflictuality inherent in memory practices,
we must conclude that it is impossible to ascertain how members of a collectivity remember the
past from merely studying artefacts of memory. For example, according to the concept of
‘entangled’ memory (Feindt et al., 2014), individuals’ simultaneous belonging to different social
frames – such as religion, class or ethnicity – entails the existence of concurrent interpretations
of the past. In a similar vein, Rothberg’s notion of ‘multidirectional’ memory stresses that
collective memories do not crowd each other out of the public sphere; rather, collective memory
is ‘subject to ongoing negotiation, cross-referencing, and borrowing(2009: 3).
Scholars of nonhuman memory do acknowledge that remembering environmental
change is embedded in the politics of memory and broader networks of social relationships. For
instance, writing from an eco-grief perspective, Cunsolo and Landman state that ‘we need to
think about … how issues of race, class, socio-economic status, geographic positionality, geo-
politics, colonial legacies, and transnational corporatization (to name a few) interact with and
affect … how we understand and undertake the associated mourning’ (2017: 23). Likewise,
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Kennedy theorises that literary texts ‘may prove more successful in conveying the ways in which
human and animal pasts and futures are intertwined’ if they bring ‘memories of human and
animal vulnerability and survival into a single frame’ (2017: 275-276) – for example, by producing
memories of colonialism that present the suffering of indigenous people and animals as
interconnected. Nevertheless, while there is a lot of value in these theoretical reflections, we still
lack empirical research on how memories of environmental change – and their entanglement
with other remembrance practices – may help dismantle the false division between humans and
nature.
The discipline of environmental psychology provides a number of concepts that allow
us to measure perceptions of the relationship between humans and nature empirically – such as
inclusion of nature in the self (Schultz, 2001), environmental identity (Clayton and Opotow, 2003), and
environmentalist identity (van der Werff et al., 2013). No matter which measurement device is used,
‘all these procedures have tried to describe how people believe that the image they have of
themselves (self or identity) is linked to or separate from nature’ (Olivos and Clayton, 2017: 107).
However, despite having a whole battery of relevant concepts at their disposal, environmental
psychologists have so far only investigated how individual memories – in particular, childhood
memories of direct contact with the natural world
1
– shape environmental connectedness; they
have not yet explored how collective memory relates to individuals’ sense of connection with
nature.
Building on insights from the nonhuman memory literature and environmental
psychology, the remainder of this paper – by conducting an inductive survey in Aotearoa New
Zealand – provides a first empirical step towards addressing the question of how collective
memory of environmental change and connectedness with nature relate to each other. To this
end, the next section will briefly summarise different mnemonic interpretations of the history of
environmental change in Aotearoa New Zealand.
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Remembering environmental change in Aotearoa New Zealand
Aotearoa New Zealand was the last large habitable landmass to be settled by humans. Polynesian
people – who later came to be collectively referred to as Māori – arrived around 1300, European
settlers followed in the 19th century. Prior to settlement by human beings, Aotearoa New
Zealand had been isolated from other landmasses for around 60 million years, resulting in the
evolution of extraordinary floral and faunal endemism. The unique ecosystem contained – with
the exception of a couple of species of small bats – no indigenous land mammals. Vegetation
and animal life thus evolved in the absence of four-legged predators. For example, many bird
species either became poor fliers (such as piopio, kōkako or saddleback) or lost their ability to fly
completely (such as moa, kiwi or kākāpō). Given the long isolation, the ecology of Aotearoa
New Zealand was unprepared for the arrival of humans – with devastating consequences.
Before people settled in Aotearoa New Zealand, the land surface had been dominated by
evergreen temperate forests. Barren of large fruits and oil-rich seeds, these forests were seen as ‘a
substantial obstacle to human existence’ (Anderson, 2013: 42). Through widespread burning,
Māori destroyed large areas of forest in drier leeward areas, including the eastern South Island
(Te Wai Pounamu) and the lower east coast of the North Island (Te Ika a Māui). As the majority
of endemic tree species are slow-growing, forests did not regenerate to pre-fire conditions.
Overall, it is estimated that Māori – either intentionally or accidentally – removed close to one
half of the original forest cover (McGlone, 1989: 121).
Deforestation continued under European settlement. In particular, after the New
Zealand Wars (1840s to 1870s) and the large-scale confiscation of Māori land, much of the
remaining North Island forest was transformed into grassland for grazing sheep and cattle
(Peden 2011). While sawmilling was initially concentrated in coastal districts, the expansion of
the railroad network opened up new areas for exploitation; the number of sawmills grew from
150 in 1876 to 414 in 1905 (Wynn, 2013: 129). Kauri trees – prized for construction and
shipbuilding – were almost logged to extinction. As a result of land clearing and timber cutting,
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the forest cover shrank further; from an original three-quarters of land area to roughly one
quarter (Wilmshurst, 2007).
Biodiversity was also seriously affected by the arrival of people. From fossil records, we
know that most of the large endemic bird species that were present at first human contact have
disappeared; others – such as kiwi and takahē – have survived, but they are now confined to
drastically reduced distributions (King, 2019: 31). Deforestation and the destruction of habitats
are part of the explanation for this dramatic loss of bird life. In addition, poor fliers and flightless
birds were extremely vulnerable to the introduction of mammals. While Māori brought with
them kurī (Polynesian dog) and kiore (Pacific rat), European settlement opened the door for a
veritable invasion of mammals, including other rodent types (Norway and ship rats, mice),
rabbits, cats, ferrets, stoats, and weasels. What is more, some bird species – such as moa and
adzebill – were probably hunted to extinction by Māori (Anderson, 2013: 44-45). Human
predation also decimated other animal populations. In particular, the first half of the 19th century
was a period of ‘boom-and-bust exploitation’ of native marine mammals, as European
commercial expeditions harvested huge numbers of whales and seals in the waters around
Aotearoa New Zealand (King and Forsyth, 2021: xxix). It is worth noting that Māori, too,
hunted seals; however, partly because they lacked the technology of European sealers, the impact
on rookeries was relatively minor.
Rivers and lakes have also felt the impact of human activity. The discovery of gold in the
mid-1800s led to an influx of European migrants and the development of a mining industry.
This industry was virtually unregulated, which had to with the fact that – initially – it mainly
consisted of ‘pick and shovel’ operations by individual miners. However, legal regulations did not
keep up with technological advancements. Towards the end of the 19th century, the industry
expanded into hard rock mining – facilitated by sizeable inflows of English capital, the
consolidation of smaller enterprises into large-scale businesses and, most importantly, the
invention of cyanide extraction. The environmental effects were devastating, as thousands of
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tons of cyanide-treated tailings were dumped into rivers and streams (Hearn, 2013). At the same
time, the country’s dairy sector had grown to an enormous size – again, with dire consequences
for the environment. Rivers were polluted not only by cattle effluent, but also by other dairy
factory by-products such as chemicals used for cleaning (Knight, 2016: 82).
Reflecting conflictual and dynamic understandings of collective memory, remembering
this history of environmental change ‘occurs in the context of the discursive negotiation of social
differences and identity’ (Wertsch, 2009: 123). The national master narrative promoted by the
state – for example, through heritage sites maintained by the Department of Conservation
(Hellmann, 2022) – presents environmental change brought about by European settlers in the
19th and early 20th century as an ‘heroic’ effort that set the country on a path of economic
development. This particular interpretation serves two main functions: legitimising colonialism
and constructing a national identity. Based on a description of New Zealand as a land ‘flowing
with milk and honey’, the master narrative fosters the belief that, when Europeans first arrived,
they found that the rich natural resources had not been utilised to their full potential: Māori
cultivated crop plants in communal gardens but relied mainly on hunting and fishing for
subsistence. It was successive European settlers, the narrative continues, who improved the land
for economic development, most importantly by transforming much of the native forest into
grassland for grazing sheep and cattle (Brooking, 2021: 109). Further, it is through the persona of
the European settler that the nation is endowed with virtues and values. For one, by emphasising
that converting ‘wild untamed nature’ into ‘richly productive agricultural land’ was a
‘superhuman effort’ (Bell, 1996: 35), the master narrative serves to support a collective self-image
that is ‘extremely physical, emphasising hard work, athletic prowess’ (Sinclair, 1986: 13).
Moreover, the master narrative describes the work of clearing the forest as a lonely and isolated
experience, thereby imbuing New Zealanders with a ‘creative problem solving’ trait – commonly
referred to as ‘Kiwi ingenuity’ or ‘8 wire mentality’ – as well as qualities of ‘loyalty’ and ‘integrity’
(Phillips, 1996: 26-27).
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Meanwhile, Māori communities have – through protest
2
(Harris, 2014), legal proceedings
(Durie, 2012), art (Randerson and Yates, 2017), and other communicative means – offered a very
different interpretation of environmental change in the 19th and early 20th century. For one, from
a Māori perspective, colonisation is not a story of economic progress; rather, European settlers
taking control of and transforming customary land – facilitated by the introduction of private
property rights and forceful confiscation (raupatu) – meant that Māori lost access to traditional
food sources, which subsequently led to economic disadvantage and poverty (Hill, 2012). What is
more, in the Māori worldview, people are sustained by the land, but are expected to reciprocate
in turn – an inter-generational obligation that is best captured by the concept of kaitiakitanga
(guardianship) (Kawharu, 2000).
3
However, through colonisation the ability to perform this
reciprocal relationship of caring for the land – which is integral to Māori identities and cultural
wellbeing – was violently disrupted. That is to say, while the national master narrative claims that
environmental change brought about by European settlers forged national character, indigenous
counter-narratives portray the transformation of the land and the commodification of natural
resources as diametrically opposed to the Māori value system.
With these different interpretations in mind, the remainder of the paper will employ
survey methods in an inductive manner to examine how citizens remember environmental
change and, in a second step, explore the relationship between collective memory and
individuals’ sense of connectedness with nature.
Research design
The questionnaire about environmental change in Aotearoa New Zealand was embedded in the
HorizonPoll omnibus survey conducted between 24 and 29 November 2020. Participants (N =
1,176) were recruited from the HorizonPoll and Horizon Research Māori panels and a third-
party research panel used for source diversity, each of which represent the New Zealand
population aged 18+.
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The survey included three measures to assess what individuals know and believe about
the history of environmental change in Aotearoa New Zealand (see questionnaire in Appendix).
First, responses to the open question ‘What do you think has been the most significant change to
New Zealand’s natural environment since the first arrival of human settlers?’ were coded into
nine categories. Second, participants were asked to judge the extent to which the environment
has changed since human settlement. These factual questions covered a broad range of
environmental issues, including deforestation, loss of biodiversity, pollution of rivers and lakes,
and the melting of glacier ice. To measure whether participants overestimated or underestimated
the extent of environmental change, I adopted a method developed by Huang (2015). Following
this method, each correct answer was given a score of zero, while the choice next to the correct
answer that overestimated (underestimated) the extent of environmental change received a score
of 1 (−1) and the choice that overestimated (underestimated) the extent of environmental change
even more was assigned a score of 2 (−2). Respondents’ scores were then summed up over the
different questions. A negative total score thus indicates that the respondent’s overall knowledge
of environmental history underestimates the extent of change, whereas a positive score indicates
an overall overestimate. Third, the questionnaire – focusing on the same range of environmental
issues – asked participants to reflect on whether environmental change mainly occurred during
(1) Māori settlement, (2) European settlement or (3) the second half of the 1900s. This allows me
to probe into the question of blame attribution. For each question, Māori and Pākehā
respondents (other ethnic groups were excluded from this part of the analysis) received a score
of 1 if they chose ‘Māori settlement’ or ‘European settlement’, respectively. The self-blame
variable is constructed by adding up respondents’ scores across all questions: the higher the
score, the greater the tendency to blame one’s own ethnic group for environmental change.
To conceptualise connectedness with nature, the survey employs the environmentalist
identity framework (Kashima et al., 2014; van der Werff et al., 2013; Whitmarsh and O’Neill,
2010). Environmentalist identity – sometimes referred to as environmental self-identitycaptures
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‘the extent to which you see yourself as a type of person who acts environmentally-friendly’ (van
der Werff et al., 2013: 46). It is important to distinguish the concept from environmental identity,
which is defined as ‘a belief that the environment is important to us and an important part of
who we are’ (Clayton, 2003: 46). Whereas environmental identity places heavy emphasis on
cognition, environmentalist identity is geared more towards behaviour. By measuring
connectedness with nature using the environmentalist identity concept, I thus acknowledge the
possibility that individuals may think of themselves as part of nature (environmental identity) but
do not engage in pro-environmental actions. Environmentalist identity is a more direct reflection
of pro-environmental behaviour and therefore a particularly promising concept for tackling the
challenges of the Anthropocene (cf. van der Werff et al., 2013). Following Whitmarsh and
O’Neill (2010), environmentalist identity was measured as the average across four (five-point
scale) questions.
Findings and discussion
If we start by analysing the descriptive data, it becomes obvious that knowledge about
environmental change is relatively widespread in Aotearoa New Zealand (Figure 1). Only 18.1
per cent of respondents failed to give a relevant response
4
to the open question: ‘What do you
think has been the most significant change to New Zealand’s natural environment since the first
arrival of human settlers?’ By far the most common response was related to the issue of
deforestation (32.7 per cent), followed by answers that described general human activity, such as
the growth of cities and the invention of the car (19.6 per cent). For the analysis, data from the
open question was recoded into a binary variable indicating whether participants gave a relevant
response. I find no significant differences between the two main ethnic groups: 85.8 per cent of
Pākehā and 82.6 per cent of Māori respondents answered in a relevant way.
Figure 1. The most significant change to the natural environment (in per cent)
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Next, I calculated the under/overestimation score for every participant. As is evident from
Figure 2, the distribution of these scores is skewed toward lower values. However, we need to be
careful not to read this distribution as evidence that New Zealanders have a general tendency to
underestimate environmental change. Rather, the distribution of scores may be a measurement
artefact from the questionnaire design – specifically, stemming from the fact that, for three of
the five items, the correct answer was larger than 50 per cent. Nevertheless, the findings indicate
that some respondents underestimate the extent of environmental change more than others. This
allows me to analyse – in a systematic fashion – whether there is a relationship between
under/overestimating environmental change and environmentalist identity. Again, there are no
significant differences to report between the two main ethnic groups: for Pākehā the mean
under/overestimation score is -2.65, for Māori -2.31.
Figure 2. Under/overestimation score (in per cent)
0
5
10
15
20
25
30
35
Deforestation
Biodiversity loss
Pollution
Invasive species
General human activity
Climate change
Other forms of environmental change
Irrelevant responses
Don't know / no answer
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Finally, the survey asked respondents to pinpoint the principal time period during which
environmental change occurred. Focusing solely on Pākehā and Māori respondents (82.1 per
cent of the total sample), we can see that individuals who identify as European New Zealanders
were much more likely to blame their ancestors for environmental change than Māori (Figure 3).
In particular, large shares of Pākehā participants felt that European settlers of the 1800s were
responsible for deforestation, the extinction of birds, and the overhunting of seal rookeries.
Māori, on other hand, generally refrained from pinning blame on past generations – despite the
fact that, as discussed earlier, considerable environmental changed occurred during Māori
settlement between 1300 and 1800. Meanwhile, to explain the pollution of rivers and the loss of
glacier ice, both Māori and Pākehā respondents mainly point at human activities during the
second half of the 20th century.
Figure 3. Own group’s settlement as the principal period of environmental change (in per cent)
0
5
10
-10 -9 -8 -7 -6 -5 -4 -3 -2 -1 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
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Figure 4. Historical self-blame score (in per cent)
From this data, I construct the historical self-blame score. Based on what was just discussed, it is
not surprising that respondents with scores of 4 and 5 are relatively rare – 2.9 and 1.4 per cent of
respondents, respectively. Still, even when recoding the variable into three categories, there is
sufficient variation to investigate if perceptions of historical environmental change (in particular,
in relation to the responsibility question) are linked to environmentalist identity (Figure 4).
0
10
20
30
40
50
60
70
80
Forests Birds Seals Rivers Glaciers
Pākehā Māori
0
10
20
30
40
50
60
01-2 3+
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To assess the relationship between the key independent variables and environmentalist
identity, I ran three separate linear regression models. The models contain a number of third
variables, most of which – such as level of education, income, age, and gender – are standard
controls in analyses of environmentalist identity (Kashima et al., 2014; Whitmarsh and O’Neill,
2010). In addition, based on research that shows that environmental attitudes are strongly
associated with how individuals position themselves on the left-right spectrum (e.g., Stanley et
al., 2017), the models control for political views. Moreover, following survey studies in Aotearoa
New Zealand that demonstrate that Māori tend to be more environmentally conscious than
Pākehā, the models also feature a binary variable on respondents’ ethnic background.
5
As can be seen from Table 1, all three independent variables are positively and
significantly correlated with environmentalist identity. This suggests that (1) knowing about
historical environmental change, (2) overestimating the extent of historical environmental
change, and (3) blaming one’s own ethnic group for environmental change are all closely bound
up with the extent to which individuals see themselves as the type of person who acts
environmentally-friendly. Turning to the control variables, both conservative political views and
male gender have – as was to be expected – a consistently negative effect on environmentalist
identity; age exerts a positive effect on the dependent variable. In Model 3, significant positive
correlations are also found for the Māori and the university degree variables.
While the survey design does not allow me to specify how exactly the three independent
variables are interrelated with environmentalist identity, it is reasonable to argue that the results
of Models 1 and 2 are consistent with theoretical arguments made by Buell (2017) and Jørgensen
(2019). When people have knowledge of historical environmental change or overestimate the
extent of historical environmental change, they are likely to understand two things. First,
compared to its natural (pre-modern) state, the current environmental status quo is one of
degradation. Second, humans can cause serious and permanent damage to the ecosystem,
thereby upsetting the delicate balance of nature and threatening to make the planet
Published in Memory Studies | doi: 10.1177/17506980221114077
18
uninhabitable. This awareness of ecological fragility, in turn, encourages the development of an
environmentalist identity. What is striking is that this effect of ecological memories appears to
work independently of wider negotiations of social identity. Both Pākehā and ori respondents
are very similar in their knowledge and their perceptions of the extent of environmental change,
and for both groups higher values on these two variables translate into greater environmentalist
identity.
Table 1.
Environmentalist identity
Model (1)
Model (2)
Model (3)
Model (5)
Knowledge
0.363*** (0.051)
Overestimate change
0.031*** (0.005)
Blame own group
0.168*** (0.035)
Blame other group
0.282* (0.112)
Māori
0.077 (0.057)
0.058 (0.058)
0.200** (0.067)
Political views
0.239*** (0.021)
0.224*** (0.022)
0.234*** (0.024)
-0.271*** (0.070)
University degree
0.064 (0.040)
0.061 (0.041)
0.131** (0.046)
0.244* (0.118)
Income over $100k
0.017 (0.045)
0.004 (0.046)
0.008 (0.051)
-0.173 (0.130)
Age
0.039*** (0.011)
0.043*** (0.011)
0.050*** (0.012)
0.068* (0.034)
Male
0.183*** (0.039)
0.197*** (0.058)
0.201*** (0.044)
-0.119 (0.109)
R2
0.203
0.195
0.179
0.252
Observations
1,137
1,088
932
148
Notes.
Entries are coefficients from linear regression analysis; standard errors are in parentheses.
*** p < 0.001, ** p < 0.01, * p < 0.05
On the other hand, the relationship between the self-blame variable and the environmentalist
identity measure does interact with the politics of memory and broader identity projects. For
one, as the data shows, Pākehā are considerably more likely to take collective responsibility for
historical environmental change than Māori. In addition, the positive effect of the self-blame
variable on environmentalist identity is mainly driven by Pākehā respondents – as can be
ascertained from the fact that the coefficient for the Māori control variable increases and
becomes significant in Model 3.
Published in Memory Studies | doi: 10.1177/17506980221114077
19
To investigate these differences further, I constructed two additional models, replacing
the self-blame variable with a binary measure of whether respondents put the blame for
deforestation – which, as already discussed, is a particularly contentious issue in public debates
on how to remember environmental change – on the respective other ethnic group. As can be
seen from Model 4, among the Pākehā sub-sample this variable produces a significant negative
effect: respondents who attribute deforestation to the time period of Māori settlement are
unlikely to hold a strong environmentalist identity. In contrast, we can observe the opposite for
the Māori sub-sample (Model 5): putting the blame for deforestation on European settlers exerts
a significant positive effect on environmentalist identity. In other words, whether self-blame or
other-blame promote environmentalist identity depends on the social group that does the
remembering.
The positive correlation between respondents’ self-blame score and environmentalist
identity among Pākehā respondents can be explained with reference to the role of guilt in
ecological grief. As discussed earlier, when it comes to human-caused environmental change,
grief and guilt are often tightly interlinked (Cunsolo, 2017). Moreover, ecological grief can be
anticipatory, prescribing ethical duties for the present and the future (Kelz and Knappe, 2021).
In other words, based on these theoretical ideas, it is not surprising that self-blame (or guilt) is
positively correlated with environmentalist identity.
However, the question of how why we are seeing this self-blame effect for Pākehā
participants requires further elaboration. While New Zealand’s national master narrative portrays
environmental change brought about by 19th-century European settlers as a ‘heroic’ effort, it
needs to be stressed that Pākehā’s relationship with the natural environment is complex and
multi-layered. Although ‘taming nature’ plays an important part in the construction of Pākehā
identity, European settlers also saw New Zealand as an ‘earthly paradise’ (Belich, 2007: 299), and
the uniqueness of flora and fauna helped define the colony’s distinctiveness vis-à-vis the British
‘homeland’ (Bell, 1996: 37). As a matter of fact, European settlers voiced concerns about
Published in Memory Studies | doi: 10.1177/17506980221114077
20
environmental degradation as early as the mid-1800s (Beattie, 2003). In short, it appears that it is
among those European New Zealanders who emphasise the distinctive natural landscape (over
the ‘heroic’ interpretation of environmental change) as a means to affirm their Pākehā identity
that self-blame leads to a greater sense of connectedness with nature.
Meanwhile, the finding that – for the Māori sub-sample – other-blame is positively
correlated with environmentalist identity aligns with existing survey research showing that Māori
socio-political consciousness fosters a strong sense of unity with the environment (Cowie et al.,
2016; Lockhart et al., 2019). Specifically, the positive effect of the other-blame variable suggests
that awareness of historical injustices – transmitted through protest, art and other mnemonic
practices – raises Māori socio-political consciousness, which in turn enhances environmentalist
identity. As outlined earlier, Māori counter-narratives of colonialism reframe environmental
change as a story of decline and loss, foregrounding how the forceful confiscation of land has
prevented Māori from fully performing their role as kaitiaki. These narratives not only remind
Māori that they have an innate relationship with nature, but they also blame the colonial
transformation of the ancestral landscape for disrupting this relationship. Given that we often
blame others to avoid responsibility, the positive link between other-blame and environmentalist
identity seems somewhat surprising. Here, other-blame boosts environmentalist identity because
it serves as a positive affirmation of Māori identity, setting Māori apart from European settlers
based on their unique relationship with the environment.
Conclusion
The growing ‘nonhuman turn’ literature in memory studies has – through a critical reading of
cultural texts – developed important theorisations about how remembering environmental
change may help challenge perceptions of a separation between humans and nature. My paper,
by applying environmental connectedness measurements from environmental psychology,
provides a first empirical investigation of these theoretical claims. In particular, my inductive
Published in Memory Studies | doi: 10.1177/17506980221114077
21
survey study reveals two main findings regarding the relationship between collective memories of
environmental change and closeness to nature.
First, the evidence suggests that when people share collective memories of how much
and in what ways the environment has changed due to human activities, they are more likely to
feel connected to nature than individuals who see the deteriorated environmental status quo as a
normality. Second, the analysis shows that shared representations of environmental change are
entangled in collective memories of colonialism and wider identity projects. In particular, we can
infer from the survey data that whether certain forms of blame attribution promote a sense of
connectedness with nature depends on the social milieu in which collective remembering takes
place. For one, among the Pākehā sub-group, self-blame enhances individuals’ sense of
connection to nature when they reject the ‘heroic’ master narrative of environmental change and
instead emphasise the uniqueness of New Zealand’s natural environment as a means to mark
their identity. On the other hand, the positive effect of other-blame among the Māori sub-
sample has to be understood as part of a larger narrative that seeks to raise Māori socio-political
consciousness by representing colonialism as a story of economic and cultural decline. This
narrative reminds Māori of their close relationship with nature, which in turn translates into
higher environmentalist identity scores. In short, what these two forms of blame demonstrate is
that the effect of memories of environmental change may depend on how ecological memories
interact with anthropocentric memories – that is, memories that serve human interests in the
present, such as constructing social identities or mobilising political support.
Needless to say that the survey results presented in this paper only begin to scratch the
surface of the question of how collective memories of environmental change can help dismantle
the false dualism between humans and nature. As this paper has demonstrated, the nonhuman
field of memory studies would greatly benefit from more analyses that bridge the divide between
theory and empirics. Not only do we need more empirical investigations of how theoretically
derived links between collective memories of environmental change and connectedness with
Published in Memory Studies | doi: 10.1177/17506980221114077
22
nature play out in different contexts of memory politics, but empirical research can also –
through both quantitative and qualitative methods – improve our knowledge of how individuals
‘consume’ narratives of historical environmental change. Two lines of inquiry are particularly
promising in this regard. First, which mnemonic constructions of environmental history promote
a greater sense of connectedness with nature among audiences? Second, we need a better
understanding of the direction of causality: Do collective memories of environmental change
foster a greater sense of belonging to nature or do individuals who identify as part of nature seek
out certain memories of environmental change to confirm their identity? Answers to these
questions could help inform the design of policy interventions – for example, through education
and heritage – with the aim to undo the illusion of a separation between humans and nature.
1
Chawla (2020) provides a comprehensive review of this growing literature.
2
Notable protest events include the Māori land march (1975), Bastion Point (1978), the foreshore and
seabed march (2004), and Ihumātao (2016-2020).
3
The responsibilities of kaitiakitanga are grounded in the ontological assumptions of whakapapa
according to which everything in the universe is related through genealogical ties (Roberts et al. 1995).
4
I considered irrelevant those responses that did not relate to the topic of historical environmental
change, such as ‘Neighbourhood watch’ or ‘Increase in alsohol, canabis, takeawys [sic]’.
5
To explain why Māori generally have greater regard for the environment than other ethnic groups,
several psychological studies emphasise the importance of socio-political consciousness that is, the
extent to which individuals support social justice and political rights for Māori. Spiritual beliefs, on the
other hand, have been found to play only a secondary role (e.g. Lockhart et al., 2019; Tassell-Matamua et
al., 2021) or no role at all (Cowie et al., 2016).
Published in Memory Studies | doi: 10.1177/17506980221114077
23
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