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Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe

versão On-line ISSN 2224-7912
versão impressa ISSN 0041-4751


MEYER, Susan. Environmental identity in the Age of Man: New perspectives on Toorbos. Part 1. Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2020, vol.60, n.3, pp.708-726. ISSN 2224-7912.

The film version of Dalene Matthee's novel Toorbos (2003; translated by the author as Dreamforest, 2004) was released in 2019. Media interest in the film has drawn new attention to the novel. In the same year as the release of the film - which focuses on the obliteration of large parts of the Knysna Forest and accompanying indigenous ecosystems in the 1930s - the Symposium of the South African Academy for Science and Arts reminded us of the current pressure on the planet's life-sustaining systems. The theme of the 2019 symposium was "Man-made threats to life on earth: the age of the Anthropocene". The Age of Man, or the Anthropocene, refers to a geological epoch during which the earth is reaching critical tipping points due to increasing human influence. This could lead to rapid and irreversible change and could make life on earth impossible (Kotzé 2014). This study is positioned within current debates on identity issues among researchers who focus on approaches to environmental conflicts and crises. Studies concentrating on the links between environmental identity, behaviour and decision-making make it clear that the self is the most important motivator of any behaviour; identity can play a greater role in influencing behaviour than specific attitudes and worldviews (Stets & Biga 2003:398; Freed 2015:2, 7). In the first part of this study, I introduce Susan Clayton and Susan Opotow's ideas about identity and the environment. In exploring various conceptions of justice with regard to environmental issues, Clayton and Opotow (2003a:7) focus on identity, arguing that beliefs about what is fair are fundamentally interwoven with who and what we believe we are, how we relate to others, and what this means for rights and obligations. Clayton also emphasises that identity is both a product and a force, an assortment of beliefs about the self and a motivator of particular ways of interacting with the world. A strong environmental identity, as a motivating force, can have a significant effect on personal, social and political behaviour (Clayton 2003:46). Furthermore, Clayton and Opotow (2003a:19) argue that environmental conflicts can be neither understood nor constructively resolved unless we recognise the ways in which they reflect individual and group identities. In the second part of the study, to be published in the March 2021 edition of this journal, Clayton and Opotow's ideas about environmental identity serve as the theoretical framework for an ecocritical rereading of Toorbos. Environmental identity is described as a sense of connection to some part of the nonhuman natural environment (based on history, emotional attachment or similarity) that affects how we perceive the world and act towards it; a belief that the environment is important to us and an important part of who we are (Clayton 2003:4546). According to Clayton and Opotow (2003a:10), it is useful to conceptualise environmental identity as occurring along a continuum anchored on the one end by minimal and on the other by strong levels of social influence. Their point of departure is that environmental identities inevitably contain a social component because they depend on social meaning. How we understand ourselves in nature is infused with a shared, culturally influenced understanding of what nature is - whether it is "to be revered, reviled, or utilised" (Clayton & Opotow 2003a:10). We are reminded that social variables affect the extent to which we are able and choose to focus on the natural environment and how we interpret what we see. Therefore, the scale for assessing individual differences in environmental identity is based on the reality that, although social influence is inevitable, the degree of influence varies for different individuals or groups (Clayton & Opotow 2003a:10). This study has two objectives: The importance of environmental identity is firstly theoretically motivated (Part 1 of my study) and, secondly, it is practically illustrated by applying Clayton and Opotow's model of environmental identity in analysing the main characters in Toorbos (Part 2). The theoretical argument constructed around the concept of environmental identity in this first part of the study serves a greater purpose than merely to account for the theoretical basis of this concept. I attempt to also clarify and underscore the importance of this principle for environmentally oriented thinking in the context of the global concern about the existential crisis humankind faces when the planet's ability to provide is depleted. In addition, the value of Clayton and Opotow's model of environmental identity is also assessed. Clayton and Opotow seem to provide a practice-oriented scale for determining differences in environmental identity. Their model may serve as a point of departure for understanding the variety of approaches to the natural environment and moral beliefs about it, and for translating these insights into practical ways of predicting environmental behaviour and conflict. In Part 2 of the study, Clayton and Opotow's theoretical instrument is put to the test. Their model of environmental identity is used in an analysis of the main characters in Toorbos. Though Karoliena Kapp and Johannes Stander share a socio-economic and cultural background, they do not agree on the role of the forest in understanding themselves or their views or plans for the future. They arrive at a parting of the ways. When Clayton and Opotow's model is applied to this character analysis, Karoliena and Johannes are found at different places on the continuum with regard to environmental identity types. Due to the different levels of social influence on these characters, it is impossible for them to react the same or to have the same views on the environment. The greatest frustration in their relationship is to maintain their different environmental identities. Toorbos illustrates the effect of environmental identity differences, even among people whose backgrounds show various common features. It sheds light on the irreconcilability of people who are influenced differently by society. The finding on the powerful effect of environmental identity on human relationships and on environmental behaviour and beliefs can be carried forward from Toorbos to the broader present-day situation. The snippet of the South African reality depicted in Toorbos may create an awareness of environmental identity and the important implications it has for full comprehension and the constructive handling of environmental conflicts in the Age of Man.

Palavras-chave : Anthropocene; environmental identity; Toorbos (Dreamforest); Dalene Matthee; environmental attitude and behaviour; Susan Clayton; Susan Opotow.

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