Trevor S. Lies
Department of Psychology
University of Kansas
Primary lines of research
Environmental historians and activists such as Hugo Blanco note that dominant efforts to address environmental problems tend to reflect and promote the interests of people who live in affluent settings of the Global North. One line of my research considers a distinction in different types of environmentalism (Martinez-Alier, 2015): the Cult of wilderness (CW), which refers to (violent) colonial efforts for nature preservation; and Environmental justice (EJ), which refers to grassroots efforts to address unequal environmental burdens placed on poor communities and communities of color.
One series of studies considered whether this disparity is reflected in popular conceptions of environmentalism (i.e., what is it?; Lies, Omar, & Adams, in prep). We asked Black and White U.S. residents to nominate their conceptions and to what degree various CW (e.g., nature preservation) and EJ (e.g., Indigenous sovereignty) topics are and should be the focus of environmentalism. Participants associated environmentalism with CW topics to a much greater degree than EJ. We also observed evidence of racialization, but only for EJ: degree of ethnic-racial identification was positively related to an EJ conception among Black participants and was negatively related among White participants. This work shows that people impose racial power in determining what environmentalism is and should be concerned with. An important question concerns how these insights relate to support for different types of environmental policy.
Another series of studies extends this work to consider whether political ideology is more strongly linked with some forms of environmentalism than others (Lies, Omar, Schmitt, & Adams, Under review). Consistent with the idea that the CW represents the hegemonic, standard form of environmental action, we found that the relationship of political conservatism was significantly weaker with CW than with EJ. Resonating with recent work (Ballew et al., 2021), this effect was especially true for White (compared to Black) participants whose political ideologies came to bear significantly more on their support for EJ than CW.
Climate Change Skepticism
“The United States seem to offer the most favorable conditions for answering the question as to the extent to which increasing cultivation of large districts of country may result in change of climate. In the east there has been an extraordinary decrease in territory formerly covered by forests; while on the other hand, a good deal of planting has been done in the western prairies and plateaus. No corresponding change in temperature or in precipitation has, however, thus far been demonstrable.”
Activists and policymakers have long considered how to generate the political will to engage people in actions that might mitigate impending ecological crises. One idea that has captured scholarly attention in recent years is that experience with extreme weather might translate into increased engagement with the issue of climate change (e.g., Borick & Rabe, 2017). However, the relationship of extreme weather experience with climate change engagement depends in part on whether people arrive at a personal understanding—or subjective attribution—that extreme weather is the result of climate change (Marlon et al., 2019; van der Linden, 2016).
One line of my research considers this idea through the perspective of decolonial theory. Though perspectives vary, one insight of decolonial perspectives is that everyday environments – even those understood as being close to nature – are anything but natural and are instead cultural products forged by colonial violence (Mignolo, 2011). My research considers this idea in the institution of U.S. state parks. In contrast to the celebratory view that parks are ideal spaces to inspire civic engagement in climate change, a perspective of cultural psychology informed by decolonial theory posits that prevailing colonial forms of environmentalism (i.e., the CW) might make parks ineffective for this task.
We conducted interviews with park visitors (Lies, Adams, & Santangelo, 2022, Psychology in Society) and employees (Lies, Adams, & Santangelo, Under Review) to explore the implications of this idea for how people make sense of recent extreme weather and its relationship with climate change. In both studies, we found that whereas most participants reported experience of extreme weather, significantly fewer reported experience of climate change or attributed the extreme weather to climate change. Building on research in sociology (McCright & Dunlap, 2011), we also found evidence of racialization: White park visitors (compared to visitors of color) and employees in settings with a higher (versus lower) proportion of White residents were less likely to attribute recent extreme weather to climate change. We integrate findings with place-specific archival research and insights from environmental history to illustrate how colonial ideas about nature and environmental engagement inform 1) the design and operation of parks, and 2) the process of subjectively attributing local extreme weather to global climate change. We also work toward an understanding of climate change skepticism as a form of investment in white settler futurity.
Nagel, J. & Lies, T. S. (2022). Re-Gendering Climate Change: Men and Masculinity in Climate Research, Policy and Practice. Frontiers in Climate. 77.
Lies, T. S. & Adams, G., & Santangelo, B. (Under review). Attributing Extreme Weather to Climate Change: State Park Employees as Institutional Actors.
Lies, T. S., Omar, S. M., Schmitt, H., & Adams, G. (Under review). The Association of Political Ideology with Environmental Policy Support Depends on Sociocultural Context.
Projects in Prep
Fellowships, Grants, & Academic Awards
University Symposium Poster Presentations