Human Arenas

, Volume 1, Issue 4, pp 409–430 | Cite as

What Motivates Green Living? A Qualitative Investigation of Sustainable Life Choices

  • Andrea Varga WemeEmail author
  • Ole Jacob Madsen


The purpose of this qualitative enquiry was to map the psychological motives behind sustainable lifestyles. Narrative interviews with inhabitants (N = 8) of the ecovillage in Hurdal north of Oslo and the Sustainable Lives movement in Bergen were conducted. A thematic analysis shows that the informants express taking responsibility for climate change, which suggests that they perceive sustainability as a moral issue. They report a greater sense of alignment with their own values when living sustainably, something that is experienced as rewarding, but living sustainably is also recognized as more positive in own right. For example, the participants enjoy a lifestyle that is more social after a change to sustainable living. Nevertheless, there is acceptance that the informants sometimes have to live in ways that are less environmentally friendly in order to achieve the long-term goal; this duality helps them to continue their sustainable lifestyle even in the face of setbacks.


Sustainable lifestyle Climate change Ecovillage Motivation Narrative interviews 


Climate change and global warming represent an out-and-out threat to the Earth’s ecosystems (IPCC 2014). Regardless, the gap between ambitions and commitments to concrete climate gas reduction efforts remains considerable (Friends of the Earth Norway 2015). The mismatch between ambitions and actions that mark global decision-making can also be found on an individual level. A Norwegian survey shows that climate change is perceived as Norway’s fourth greatest challenge (TNS Gallup 2016). However, the same survey revealed that in 2014, 16% fewer than in 2010 were worried they would experience consequences from climate change. Two out of three respondents intended to reduce their carbon footprint, but mostly through efforts that do not reduce their levels of energy expenditure (TNS Gallup 2015). The realization that climate change demands serious measures appears to be gaining political consensus, while such measures remain difficult to pursue on an adequate scale for both governments and citizens.

However, some people do choose to live more sustainably. Investigating these individuals’ lifestyles and motivations might produce valuable insights. Previous psychological research has had a tendency to focus mainly on the barriers to influencing people’s attitudes and behavior towards climate change (Sweetman and Whitmarsh 2016; van Dam and Fischer 2015). Much of the research carried out uses experimental (Leviston et al. 2014; Zelenski et al. 2015) or correlational methods (Hedlund-de Witt et al. 2014; Rossen et al. 2015). There are few qualitative investigations of people who have made sustainable life choices on their own. In this study, we use a solution-focused approach where the psychological underpinnings that have enabled sustainable life changes are investigated phenomenologically. Recent studies have pointed to an action-oriented approach as a possibly fruitful way of understanding and creating sustainable changes (Bain et al. 2015; Feinberg and Willer 2011; Stoknes 2014). Finding a self-motivating, joyful, and social way of living sustainably may prove invaluable in inducing more people to support a sustainable lifestyle in the future.

Objective and Research Questions

The objective of this study is to contribute to more insight into what motivates a sustainable lifestyle. It does so through an explorative qualitative investigation of people who already live sustainably with an emphasis on the following research questions: What stories do the informants tell about their sustainable life choices? What motivated the participants to make fundamental changes in their way of life? What obstacles and what resources hinder or help them, respectively, in their endeavors to continue this lifestyle? And are there parallels to be found in the self-perceptions and worldviews of people choosing to live sustainably?



Our material consists of semi-structured interviews with eight participants recruited from two of Norway’s most prominent initiatives for sustainable living: the Sustainable Lives Movement (SLM) and the Ecovillage in Hurdal (EVH). SLM started as Sustainable Lives Landås in a neighborhood in Bergen, Norway’s second largest city, located on the west coast of Norway. The initiative started when the founders were part of “The Christian Network for Environment and Justice” through Church of Norway. However, today, the project has no Christian basis for its activities. Over the years, SLM has expanded into a number of locations in Bergen. SLM’s motto is that a neighborhood is the optimal size for crafting local change that can potentially evolve into a global movement.

EVH is situated in a small municipality 90 km north of Oslo. It used to be a farm, but was in 2002 rezoned to a sustainable residential area. When the project is finalized, there will be 175 households. Today, about 50 houses are completed. EVH strives to reach a high degree of local self-sufficiency and to generate a close connection between living and working facilities. The ecovillage aspires to be a place with a thriving social environment that is based on a lifestyle less resource demanding, consumer oriented and individualistic than the standard way of life in Norway.

The participants were recruited from SLM and EVH because of their recognized dedication to sustainability. This study was carried out in accordance with the recommendations of Norwegian Centre for Research Data (NSD) with written informed consent from all subjects. All subjects gave written informed consent in accordance with the Declaration of Helsinki. The protocol was approved by the Norwegian Centre for Research Data (NSD). The data material is anonymized so that gender and project affiliation are the only remaining identifiers. The informants’ ages have also been rounded to guarantee anonymity. Recruiting an equal number from both initiatives ensured diversity both in terms of geographic context and organization of the group, as SLM is based on making existing neighborhoods more sustainable, while EVH is a newly formed community into which people may relocate.

Data Collection

This study was designed with a phenomenological framework in mind (Smith et al. 2009), as we wished to focus mainly on deriving motives for living sustainable from the subject’s lifeworld, and bracket foreknowledge in the data collection. A narrative approach to interviewing is a methodology well-suited for exploring a relatively unknown subject (Patton 1990) such as sustainable living, and also to collect phenomenological material. Interviews were therefore carried out according to a narrative structure in which informants were asked to tell their story about living sustainably and how they came to make that choice. However, semi-structured interviews were applied with designed questions where some were informed by previous research. For example, questions about whether the informants felt they had a green identity were inspired by research suggesting a correlation between sustainable self-perceptions and green behavior (Bartels and Onwezen 2014; Fielding et al. 2008; van Dam and Fischer 2015). Questions about how much effort and self-discipline the lifestyle demanded were informed by research, suggesting that ego depletion and a state of flow might influence the stamina with which people continue living sustainable (Harré 2011; Vohs and Faber 2007). Questions about the participants’ worldview and political affiliation were included in the interview-guide based on research suggesting a link between leftist political views (Jacquet et al. 2014; Rossen et al. 2015) and intrinsically oriented world view (Hedlund-de Witt et al. 2014) and sustainable behavior. This mix between an inductive narrative methodology and a deductive theory-driven approach was chosen as a trade-off both in order to encourage and secure openness on one hand, and on the other hand, to make potential new insights into the field easily identifiable and coherent with previous research (Kvale 2007). The interviews lasted around 1 h and were audio recorded as approved by the informants. Six interviews were carried out in the informants’ homes, while two interviews were done in public places in keeping with the requests of the informants. The interviews and analysis were conducted in Norwegian, but we translated the quotations into English for the sake of the article.

Thematic Analysis

A pragmatic analysis of the narrative material was conducted. The narratives collected were categorized according to mutual themes. Pragmatic analyses allow a coherent connection of different individual phenomena to produce a general understanding (Polkinghorne 1995). More specifically, thematic analysis was used in categorizing the data as described by Braun and Clarke (2008). A theme is derived from quotes from the interviews that are relevant in answering the initial research questions. A good indication of an emerging theme is when it reoccurs in the material.

The analysis started already during the transcription as we looked for themes that seemed important. Then, we went back and forth between the interviews, the introductory codes, and the themes to select the categories that described the data best. In the first round of analysis, we grouped relevant statements from the interviews under codes that resembled the quotes they categorized and ended up with 23 tentative themes. In this phase, we were careful to provide an equal amount of attention to the whole dataset in order not to overlook a theme. We looked for patterns that could indicate major themes.

During the next phase, we established 25 different codes based on the first tentative themes, but added two codes for quotes that did not fit in to any of the existing themes. In addition, we revised the code labels. These codes were then sorted in broader themes before final themes were selected in accordance with the principle of inner homogeneity and outer heterogeneity. The codes within a theme are connected in a meaningful way and codes from different themes are easily separated and identifiable as belonging to their theme (Patton 1990). In order to obtain this, we considered whether there was a clearly coherent pattern of codes within each theme, and to what extent they fit their respective categories.

Then we went through the entire dataset again to assess the extent to which the remaining themes reflected the dataset, and to check if there was something we had left out. At last, we worked on finding good definitions and appropriate terms for each theme based on what stood out as the essence of each theme and how it related to the research questions. How well the themes and subthemes connected was also important in defining the last categories. Braun and Clarke (2008) define a complete theme with a good definition and an appropriate term as a theme that is easily explainable. When the analysis was completed to satisfaction, the data material was sorted into the five main themes: (1) values, (2) community, (3) contact with nature, (4) individual characteristics, and (5) political affiliation, with several subthemes.


Julia (35) is a mother, lives in a townhouse in SLM, and her work is creative. She first took an interest in living sustainably after visiting Viking and medieval festivals. Julia is motivated by thinking about future generations.

Eva (40) is a mother, divorced, and lives in a condominium in SLM. She grew up on a farm and has ever since been aware of ecosystems’ fragility. Eva is passionate about local solutions to the climate crisis and works as a politician.

Erik (30) lives with his girlfriend in SLM, is an industrial worker, and a vegan. Erik decided to live sustainably after backpacking around the world, which led him to realize how few things he needed to live a good life.

Lars (45) is a father, married, and lives in a villa in SLM. He works in the health sector and was motivated by Al Gore’s seminal book An Inconvenient Truth. Lars bikes all year round and only eats organic food. He finds it easier to engage in SLM than in other environmental organizations because SLM’s work is predominantly down-to-earth and about daily life.

Sonja (30) lives by herself in a cabin connected to the ecovillage in EVH where she also works. After she contracted chronic fatigue syndrome, she wanted to have a closer connection with nature and people.

Ingrid (35) lives in a townhouse by herself in EVH and does creative work. A former boyfriend inspired her to become politically involved, but she always felt an urge to protect nature regardless of the climate crisis. Ingrid has now left politics in order to “walk the talk.”

Frida (40) is a mother, a student, and lives with her boyfriend in EVH. She grew up in an alternative community where sustainability was an integrated part of daily life. Frida moved to the ecovillage to avoid the social vulnerability of the traditional nuclear family.

Fredrik (35) is a father and lives with the mother of his child in EVH. He is a teacher and studied bioregions abroad, which made him aware of EVH.

Theoretical Framework

Before we address the results, a brief presentation of the theoretical framework and some clarifications of definitions are necessary.


In this study, the concept “sustainability” is used to describe the research participants’ lifestyle. It was first introduced by the World Commission on Environment and Development where sustainable development is defined as “a development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (United Nations 1987, p. 16). We are aware that sustainability has drawn critique for supposedly being a shallow term that has been overused rethorically in such a wide array of contexts that it has lost its initial meaning and purpose (Beckerman 1994). However, we still prefer to use this term, as sustainability contains more dimensions than rival terms like “environmentally friendly.” Sustainability also includes social and economic dimensions (United Nations 1987). And even more important, this is the term our informants apply when talking about their own lifestyle.


Motivation is a key factor in the transition from the status quo to a sustainable society or lifestyle. Sustainable living involves being motivated to make lifestyle changes and maintain the designated behavior when faced with obstacles, as reflected in the research questions. One of the most influential theories on human motivation is self-determination theory (SDT) (Deci and Ryan 2008a). SDT uses a sociocultural context to explain how intrinsic motives seek to make us feel competent, autonomous, and related to others, while extrinsic aspirations seek to fulfill external motivators, such as wealth and fame. However, external motivators fail to provide the sense of well-being and satisfactions that true gratification and intrinsic goals will give (Deci and Ryan 2008a, b). Applied to the context of sustainability, we argue that many behaviors that sustain a high carbon emission life may be extrinsically motivated. SDT also differentiates between controlled and autonomous motivation. With controlled motivation, people often feel pressured to behave in certain ways, which decreases their sense of autonomy (Deci and Ryan 2008b). Autonomous motivation is important to intrinsic motivation, as it is difficult to enjoy an action you feel forced to perform. With autonomous motivation, people tend to experience their acts as voluntary and their sense of sovereignty is increased. Autonomous motivation has been associated with greater well-being, more effective performance, and long-lasting maintenance of behavior (Deci and Ryan 2008a, b).

They also found that certain social contexts facilitate satisfaction of intrinsic needs. These environments are not perceived as controlling or judgmental, but rather as supportive and informational (Deci and Ryan 2008a). Participants’ descriptions of how they perceive the movements they are part of may fit with this. Quite a few previous studies have applied SDT to investigate sustainable behavior (Hedlund-de Witt et al. 2014; Pelletier and Sharp 2008; Schösler et al. 2014). It looks as if factors that increase intrinsic and autonomous motivation in living sustainably are important for creating lasting changes. In this paper, SDT is therefore used as an overall framework for understanding the nature of the informants’ motivation.

Results and Discussion

Voluntary or Necessary?

The informants reveal that they are emotionally affected by the climate crisis, but without experiencing it as overwhelming. This stands in contrast to much previous research indicating that climate change is often perceived as unmanageable, especially when threatening aspects are communicated (Feinberg and Willer 2011; Leviston et al. 2014). The participants seem to hold themselves personally responsible for contributing to a solution for the climate crisis. This might indicate that sustainable actions are perceived as a moral concern. Harré (2011) argues that moving sustainability from personal choice to a matter of moral actions will elicit social mechanisms that are bound to moral violations; people will try to control each other’s behavior instead of leaving the subject in the hands of the government or viewing it as a matter of personal choice. This fits various descriptions our informants give on how they help each other in making more sustainable choices, and tell each other if they see someone choosing a less sustainable alternative. Many of the informants reflect on what values, worldview, and self-image the consumer culture conveys, which can be defined as a recipe for a good life (Syse and Mueller 2015). Several of the informants report that they disagree with this dominant Western way of life, which is not that surprising given that in a market economy, consumer demands often come into direct conflict with the Earth’s resources. In addition, freedom for individuals is a strong moral position in today’s society. This ideology might be hindering collective action towards climate change as one’s individual freedom, for example, to choose to travel by plane when going on vacation, might be thwarted by putting sustainability first (Harré 2011). However, it seems as if the informants have changed their view on what encompasses a good life in a more sustainable direction. This change may be more in line with intrinsic life goals than the views informing a choice to pursue a life of high consumption (Hedlund-de Witt et al. 2014). The following subthemes address how life may unfold when sustainability has become an important value and a preferred individual choice.

Morality Versus Moralization

Prior research signposts that people perceive the climate crisis mainly as a distant threat, which makes it seemingly less important than topics that more directly influence their daily lives such as the economy, tax levels, health care, infrastructure, and immigration (Leviston et al. 2014; Stoknes 2014). Having children might make climate change a more immediate threat, as all informants with children portray their offspring’s future as an incentive for taking responsibility now. Regardless, there are many parents who do not perceive climate change as an imminent hazard and there are informants without children who do see it as an immediate danger. Therefore, being a parent is not the only factor that can cause engagement in the issue of climate change. Still, it is an important motivator for living sustainably for those of our informants who are mothers and fathers. These parents are also committed to teaching their children sustainable living. This is an important indicator that sustainable living is a question of morality, as morals and values constitute one of the most important cultural legacies and parents are its primary bearers (Sterelny 2010). Making sustainability a question of morality is important if living unsustainably is to be perceived as wrong (Crimston et al. 2016). Moral actions also have the power to elicit motivational feelings such as pride, admiration, and shame (Bissing-Olson et al. 2016). This may help to explain why the interviewees succeed in living sustainably.

Feeling responsible for opposing climate change and including these actions in the moral domain can lead to the moralization of others’ behavior. The informants seek to avoid moralizing, as this may put people off. Erik describes why he thinks moralizing is futile:

You can’t tell people what to do and what’s good for them (…) if you do, maybe they will do the opposite instead, and you can’t just go and start bossing people around (…) even though they might agree that there is a climate crisis or pollution or something. So, that might be an expression of a fear of being forced.

Climate change is seemingly experienced as a sensitive issue, in the discussion of which it is easy to offend others. This may explain Erik’s perception that autonomous motivation is crucial to create sustainable change. It might also indicate that climate change is closely tied to identities, core values, and worldviews (de Leeuw et al. 2015; Guy et al. 2014). This in turn may explain why people perceive sustainable living as a threat to their values (Rossen et al. 2015). The same goes for our informants; they do not want to elicit feelings of guilt in themselves over sustainable life choices they do not make. In fact, the informants also describe feeling threatened by the example of people who live more sustainably than they do. Lars admits to this initial hostility:

We have a friend who is extremely “green.” So extreme that most people would not want to live like him (…) he is sort of the reason why I… “Damn it, if he commutes by train to Germany, I can commute by train to Oslo” (…) he actually kind of inspires me. In the beginning I thought it was too much. But now I see what his points are (…) I am kind of wondering if this is a set pattern, that we all have some phases of resistance before you begin, or the unconscious begins to realize how important this is.

The quotation serves as an illustration of how habituation can make life changes appear less threatening. Several researchers point to the need to exhibit the positive sides of sustainable living as being important in making climate change less intimidating and climate action more attractive (Feinberg and Willer 2011; Obermiller 1995). In this study, however, an important factor in reacting to the climate threat is allowing oneself time to absorb the impact of new and daunting information. It seems easier to make similar life changes when people with whom the informants identify live sustainably. This is in line with the notion that modeling can be a powerful factor in creating sustainable societies (Harré 2011). If someone watches another person do something that has an outcome regarded as positive, they are finely tuned to imitate their actions (Coates et al. 2008). Wanting to set a good example makes it easier for the informants to tolerate skepticism and negative feedback from others. It also appears to be a strategy they use to balance moralism and connect with the greater society, by setting a direct example instead of preaching sustainable living.

Many of the informants describe increased life quality when living sustainably, because it feels as if, morally speaking, they are living more correctly, such as Lars:

Sometimes one may wonder whether, or maybe even be suspected of self-flagellation or that we have a constant guilty conscience. But it’s really all about converting tons of knowledge to more correct behavior (…) that makes it feel more positive. This might sound a bit weird, but I think we have become happier, more harmonious.

The apparent contradiction between the notion of previous research that the climate threat is too distant (Leviston et al. 2014; Stoknes 2014) or that threatening information does not mobilize action (Feinberg and Willer 2011; O’Neill & Nicholson-Cole 2009; Thøgersen 2014) and the informant’s ability to both comprehend the climate crisis and take action might be due to counteracting effects and will be explained in the next two subthemes. The informants feel competent in coping with the crisis, and they do not have to change everything at once, which may increase their sense of behavioral control and thereby increase their sustainable life choices (Ajzen 1991; de Leeuw et al. 2015).


Information gathering makes up a big part of the participants’ daily lives. The scientific community is divided on whether more information is what the world needs in order to develop in a sustainable manner (Feinberg and Willer 2011; Guy et al. 2014; Stoknes 2014). However, our study suggests that new information in fact does inspire sustainable life choices. Lars describes how facts have affected his family’s life choices:

We have seen some movies and read a couple of books. Then we’ve made choices one after another. We completely boycott farmed salmon. That is a scandalous product in every way (laughs).

Of course, it is unlikely that information in itself is the main reason why the informants have chosen to live sustainably. But it appears as if the informants are able to choose to be influenced. Erik explains how he decided to approach this when he decided to go vegan:

I’ve seen a lot of films on animals really, about husbandry and maltreatment. But it’s like I kind of forgot it a bit and don’t want to know. But I decided to watch the film [Earth Links] and really take it in.

It is a paradox that the informants perceive climate change as very intimidating, yet feel confident in tackling the crisis. Usually, a danger seems less threatening when perceived control in handling the risk is high. In line with the informants’ descriptions, a previous study has found the opposite correlation when it comes to climate change (Hornsey et al. 2015). Understanding the severity of climate change might be an important motivation in taking action. On the other hand, feeling competent regarding living sustainably might make the situation easier to face psychologically speaking. The informants have great faith that their life choices are impacting climate change, such as Julia here:

You don’t need to do everything yourself, but everyone can do something. So if each and every one of us does a teeny-tiny bit, the total impact will be huge.

The informants are well-informed about their actions’ climate effects. Believing in what you are doing can be compared with self-efficacy or perceived behavioral control (Ajzen 1991). The theory of planned behavior (TPB) and self-efficacy have previously been shown to predict climate action (de Leeuw et al. 2015). Knowing how to live sustainably and believing that they can effectively combat climate change may strengthen the informants’ sense of competency and therefore strengthen their intrinsic motivation to live sustainably (Deci and Ryan 2008a). Perhaps this study’s findings might help to explain some of the apparent controversies regarding the effect of more information on sustainability actions (Feinberg and Willer 2011; Guy et al. 2014; Stoknes 2014). Dire messages about climate change being apocalyptic without more specific information about causes or about alternative actions might cause denial and dissonance, as Feinberg and Willer (2011) and Stoknes (2014) suggest. However, having instead specific information about what actions might be harming the environment and what can be done to remedy this seems to be an important factor in living sustainably, as also Guy (2014) and his collegues propose.

Step by Step

There is an incongruity between the gravity of the informants’ experience of climate change and the pace with which they make changes. Julia describes why a gradual development is important for a sustainable lifestyle:

That is just it; you don’t feel as powerless, when you feel like “Okay, I can just start like this.” I don’t need to do everything at once. I don’t need to throw out every plastic thing I own and buy wooden trays or something. Because… it’s okay not to do everything at once (laughs). It becomes easier to take the first step and begin… one thing becomes a habit, and then you can change the next thing.

Seeing the transition to a sustainable lifestyle as an ongoing process may be particularly important as the informants are used to a high rate of consumption. To become sustainable, they have to alter deep-rooted habits, which are known to be hard to change, as they are atomized behavioral patterns demanding little reflexive thinking (Hogg and Vaughan 2011). The slow process of breaking habits is apparent in the quote above. The informants have experienced that when they made certain life changes, their lifestyle automatically changed in other areas as well. For example, learning to grow organic food led to recycling more. A few of the informants did not even start living sustainably to take on climate change; they wanted primarily to be part of a more social community. Both SLM and EVH emphasize that you do not have to be interested in environmental issues to join them. They believe that people are more likely to start living sustainably if they can join their movement regardless of what their interest in environmental issues might be. Hence, people who may not be intrinsically motivated to live sustainably are subjected to group effects, such as modeling (Coates et al. 2008), social norms (Cialdini 2003; Goldstein et al. 2008), and group identity (Harré 2011) which might influence them in a more sustainable direction.

The informants balance between accepting climate change’s magnitude, believing that their actions matter, and that it is still accepted to make changes gradually. Lars describes this balance:

So, it’s very comfortable believing that all you have to do is to buy some organic food, fly less and not to mention recycle! That’s the sort of ritual you have to go through to get a clear conscience.

Yes, you have to take it down to the micro level [daily life], and be a bit fearless there, not take it all in.

Many of the informants report that it feels good to work towards the greater goal of becoming sustainable. This might clarify the apparent discrepancy between the attitudes towards climate change and the slack they allow themselves (Wright et al. 2012). It also looks as if having some kind of balancing morality gives the participants a little sting of guilt regarding the sustainable life choices they are aware of, but still have not made. This ongoing struggle may actually prevent stagnation and motivate the participants to continue towards a more sustainable lifestyle. This may also reflect that the participants are undergoing a process, whereby sustainable living is turning into a moral rather than conventional matter or a personal choice (Harré 2011). The discrepancy between the guilty conscience the participants describe and the way they emphasize the importance of living sustainably in their own way might be taken as evidence that sustainability is regarded as being situated somewhere in between the personal and the moral domains.

Because It Feels Good

Even though guilt may be a noteworthy drive, the informants describe their sustainable lifestyles as being first and foremost fun and fulfilling. Being able to choose how to live sustainably appears essential for this aspect. Eva testifies to this:

We have to start with the things that work. That’s what SLM has done. We have started out by doing the small things that work for us, the stuff that we have been interested in doing. The stuff we want to do.

The participants may be satisfying their need for autonomy through choosing how to live sustainably and thereby enhancing their intrinsic motivation (Deci and Ryan 2008a). For instance, sustainable actions are frequently described as rewarding and something on which the participants spend a lot of time. This may indicate that they experience a state of flow, a state that is closely related to intrinsic motivation and goals, characterized by total concentration and control (Csikszentmihalyi 1993). People in flow feel that what they are doing happens in a natural and effortless way. They feel certain about what they are doing and they can feel that they are doing it right. Actions that provide a state of flow may be many; the task needs to be solvable, but not easy enough to produce boredom. When people experience flow, they can sustain what they are doing for a long time and they continuously develop better skills. Flow is such a good state to be in that the activity becomes motivating in its own right (Csikszentmihalyi 1993).

If living sustainably gives the participants an experience of flow, it must be a big factor in motivating them to continue their lifestyle. This is especially interesting in light of previous findings on self-control being a limited resource (Baumeister et al. 1998). Having to use self-control might make people consume more when willpower is depleted (Vohs and Faber 2007). This is in line with SDT’s prediction that intrinsically motivated actions are easier to sustain (Deci and Ryan 2008a,b). However, some of the informants describe a change in motivation. They explain that they needed self-control as they changed a certain behavior, but that they are intrinsically motivated to sustain the behavior. Perhaps using self-control may be an important aspect of living sustainably, as long as it is in conflict with the larger society’s norm, given the great influence normative information has on our behavioral choices (Ajzen 1991; Asch 1956; Cialdini 2003). In this study, self-control does not seem to come into conflict with intrinsic motivation, but rather co-exist where sustainable actions might demand high self-control when they are novel, but may end up as intrinsic motifs (Deci and Ryan 2008b). Our finding hereby differs from the findings of other studies where intrinsic motivation and self-control are contradictory quantities (Baumeister et al. 1998; Vohs and Faber 2007). Deci and Ryan (2008b) argue that the degree to which an initially extrinsic motivation can be internalized well depends on to what extent it supports basic psychological needs. The lowest level of internalization is introjection. The behavior still feels alien and you are subjected to socially bound feelings such as guilt and shame if you are unsuccessful in the behavior. The second level is identification where the behavior is valued and you feel a great sense of autonomy in performing the behavior. The highest level of internalization is integration, through which the behavior becomes a part of your identity (Deci and Ryan 2008b). We argue that the participants may have integrated different levels of extrinsic motivation in living sustainably, as some of them do report being driven by feelings of guilt and shame as noted above. While some seem to feel autonomous and supported in their sustainable life choices, others fully identify as sustainable people.

The informants also describe how limiting previous unsustainable actions may reveal new and unknown possibilities. For example, by selling their car, some informants found that the local environment had good recreational activities for children within walking distance. They describe sustainable living as being healthier, cheaper, and more social. These extra perks may be important motivational factors when it comes to continuing a sustainable lifestyle, equally important as believing that climate change is important, which also previous research has shown (Bain et al. 2015).

The enjoyment in living sustainably that the participants describe may also be understood as a justification of their change of lifestyle. The participants might feel committed to continuing because they have invested a lot of time and energy in changing their lives, or want to promote their own communities. As Lars states,

I think we have arrived at a qualitatively higher level—there’s no going back from there. So, the answer is given. We will live at least as sustainably in the future, probably even more.

This is in line with commitment theory, which states that people are dependent on a relationship when they require it to fulfill important needs that cannot be fulfilled elsewhere, and when they are invested in the relationship. The subjective feeling of dependence is commitment, and greater dependence can lead to greater commitment. When devoted to a relationship, people will experience a change in motivation from personal satisfaction to the fulfillment of what is in the best interest of their partner or relationship. Nature can be the other party in a relationship, to which the informants feel obliged to give something back (Davis et al. 2009; Davis et al. 2011). It might seem as if a feeling of commitment can thwart the informants’ need for autonomy, but Deci and Ryan (2008a) argue that autonomy is different from independence. Autonomy means to act with a sense of choice, while independence does not necessarily provide autonomy and people can choose to depend or rely. Second, the explanation offered by Lars may be an indicator of his relationship with SLM and with nature, which can satisfy his need for relatedness (Poon et al. 2015; Baumeister and Leary 1995; Fraser et al. 2009).

Summarized, the informants experience the transition to a sustainable lifestyle from the consumer culture they grew up in as a pleasant change. This is in line with former psychological research that showed increased happiness through a connection to nature (Capaldi et al. 2014; Howell et al. 2013; Passmore and Howell 2014) and social anthropological studies that indicate increasing dissatisfaction in Western cultures despite economic growth (Syse and Mueller 2015).


In order to live sustainably, it has been calculated that an individual’s annual expenditure cannot exceed 1–3 t of CO2 (One Tonne Life Project 2014). Yet, Norwegians consume on average 10 t of CO2 per year (Statistics of Norway 2015). This means that the informants have to break with the dominant norm of excessive consumption. However, the interviewees do not wish to segregate from society. They do not believe that creating their own isolated community will affect social change. This puts them in a difficult quandary as Sonja describes in the following:

I have had to realize that in order to be a part of a society I have had to do some compromising (…) I can’t do everything. If you try that, you become a hermit (…) so you have to realize what level of pain people are able to endure. What are the compromises I am willing to make?

This theme is about how the informants fulfill their need for relatedness when they break with ways of living through the choice to live in their existing social environments.

Social Support

The support the informants obtain for their life choices varies, but they all describe receiving acceptance from their families. Some explain that making a conscious choice to change their lifestyle without much support made them feel resilient and more certain of their choice. Others describe what it feels like to get the social support they lacked at home from SLM or EVH, such as Sonja here:

To be a part of this feels incredibly good. It’s a bit like the feeling of returning home. To have this understanding and engagement for so long, and then finally get together with people who also see that “this is the way it is” (laughs) (…) that makes me think (sighs) “but I wasn’t crazy after all.”

Occasionally, the participants make life changes that are less sustainable. There are several reasons for this; if they are to make their lifestyle available to more people, they might have to make compromises. To live without power or running water and sewage may conserve natural resources but it also drains human resources. Finding equilibrium between these considerations is vital. Some informants explain that they also need to adapt to friends and family. Fredrik wants to minimize his purchases, but he also wants to please his girlfriend when they furnish their new home in EVH and she wants to buy different gadgets and things:

Does it have to be a big deal if it makes her happy? It’s nothing when you look at the big picture. Maybe I should try to be a bit more positive instead. But it is… I kind of felt it. I wouldn’t do that by myself, alone. I would minimize these purchases and live more Zen-like.

Empathy in close relationships may cause people to live in a manner that is less environmentally friendly, because kindness towards a friend feels more important than climate-friendly actions. This may be a particularly difficult barrier for sustainability because there is no shame in prioritizing kindness and friends. Therefore, social control cannot hinder this effect in the same way it hampers people’s more egocentric priorities (Batson et al. 1999). Perhaps the informants try to solve this dilemma by actively seeking close relationships in a sustainable group. Many of them emphasized belonging to a group of like-minded people working for sustainability as being more important for upholding a sustainable lifestyle than support from former family and friends. Research on group identity might explain this emphasis, as strong group identification may buffer against criticism from others as people are most affected by members of the in-group (Fielding et al. 2008).

More Meaningful Relations

Several informants relate their wish to live sustainably to a longing for a more social way of living. This is perhaps an indication of the informants’ wanting to fulfill their need for relatedness. Some of them view consumption in modern society as obstructing their connection with nature, animals, and other people. Being a part of a sustainability project, on the other hand, allows for deep and meaningful connections in ways they have seldom experienced before. Erik has this to say:

An inspiring thing about SLM is to meet people and think together, you meet in a very different way. Before, I usually met people at parties, going out or other settings (…) and I really notice how—after I moved here, from being interested in climate change and engaged in the neighborhood—how much better it feels to live here when you know what’s going on, you greet people on the street, in the shop and you relate to people (…) you care more.

Feeling deprived of a sense of community in an individualistic culture may motivate the informants to live sustainably, as nature in itself can enforce a sense of belonging (Poon et al. 2015). They might also be motivated through belonging to a movement, as this has proven to engender strong feelings of relatedness (Harré et al. 2009). The informants describe SLM and EVH as strong communities with meaningful relations, which may be accentuated by getting closer to nature (Howell et al. 2011). Fulfilling the need for relatedness may be a strong motivational factor for continuing a sustainable lifestyle (Harré et al. 2009). Sense of community, a concept that emerged within community psychology decades ago (McMillan and Chavis 1986), may prove valuable in future planning for a more sustainable way of life.


The informants describe external circumstances as barriers for living sustainably. Examples here would be a lack of public transport or limited access to locally grown organic food. This may suffice as an example of the importance of similar transitional processes on a societal level and an individual level. Even though the informants wish to do things in a certain sustainable manner, it may be exceedingly difficult if society does not provide suitable alternatives. This is an important effect of being in EVH or SLM; the community provides alternative sustainable choices of action, such as by carpooling or through organic food cooperatives. The informants explain that it is inspiring to live in a community where sustainable alternatives are accessible and new ideas to improve sustainability are flourishing. They use the Internet, newspapers, books, and scientific papers to get information and want sustainable living to become a part of the official school curriculum, but mostly information sharing seems to happen spontaneously in the groups. Working in a group to improve sustainability might meet both the intrinsic goals of relatedness and competency.

Contact With Nature

The informants view living a life that is more social as an important factor for continuing a sustainable lifestyle. They are not only social in relation to people but also connect with nature. However, the informants describe quite different relationships with nature. Some of the informants had frequent outdoor experiences while growing up, which they perceive as important for their experience of nature’s value, such as Ingrid:

I grew up in the countryside. In fact, it was in the middle of the woods. Even more in the middle of the woods than here, it is almost—you wouldn’t believe it is true, but it is. So, when it comes to nature and protecting it, animals and nature, it has kind of always been there, independent of all the negative tendencies that are escalating now. I would have had a relationship with nature and animals and a need to protect them even if it wasn’t for the climate crisis.

It might be that these informants have developed an attachment to nature (Zelenski et al., 2015) or that they have developed an ecological identity, whereby protecting nature feels as natural as protecting oneself (Bragg 1996; Næss 2008). However, when asked about identity and feeling green or eco-friendly, few of the informants report a sense of having an ecological identity. Rather, they report on social comparison, rating themselves as more or less green than others. This may be taken as evidence of important group effects such as modeling, rather than tokens of ecological identity (Coates et al. 2008), social norms (Cialdini 2003; Goldstein et al. 2008), and group identity (Harré 2011) as discussed above, in addition to social control effects indicating sustainability becoming a moral concern (Harré 2011).

Not all of the informants describe having had important outdoor experiences, but they still feel connected to nature. Some of our informants describe being connected to nature in a way that feels spiritual. Perhaps an outdoor life is one way of connecting, but another could be spirituality, as this has also been found to correlate with nature connectedness and a sustainable lifestyle (Hedlund-de Witt et al. 2014). A third alternative would be place identity, a universal phenomenon developed in childhood that causes a person to become attached to and wish to defend a particular area. The place of attachment influences what qualities are valued in other places and self-perception (Proshansky et al. 1983). The informants describe a special motivational force as “neighborhood power,” like Eva:

I have always had neighborhood mentality, thinking about the local area and building society from the bottom up. We know best what we want, those of us who live in this area. We know what the neighbors care about and how we can create a good community together.

Eva explains how the neighborhood has created a voluntary communal project dedicated to living more sustainably. In both SLM and EVH, they want to create a local community that contains friends, leisure activities, work, and food production where they live. This attachment to their living space may be connected to place identity (Proshansky et al. 1983). Perhaps the informants have attachments to natural environments that motivate them to defend the environment by living sustainably. Prior findings have shown that a strong place identity may create more engagement in climate actions in the local community (Forsyth et al. 2015; Vaske and Korbin 2001; Vugt 2001), while others have not found evidence supporting this link (Gosling and Williams 2010; Hernández et al. 2010).

For some informants, connection to nature did not seem to be an important motivating force in choosing a sustainable lifestyle. However, they wish to live in close interaction with nature. They enjoy and want to spend more time doing things like growing food, fishing, and creating a natural garden. The participants perceive modern society as involving little interaction with nature. The joy and inspiration the informants feel when being in contact with nature may indicate that nature can fulfill important basic needs such as relatedness and happiness (Capaldi et al. 2014; Poon et al. 2015).

Individual Characteristics

This theme encompasses characteristics that make the informants particularly motivated for sustainable living. Previous research has pointed to green identity as a factor that can enhance climate actions (Bartels and Onwezen 2014; Fielding et al. 2008; Sparks and Shepherd 1992; van Dam and Fischer 2015). Some of the informants reported having a green identity. Others reported that green was not their main identity. They perceive living sustainably as being a small part of who they are. When a sustainable lifestyle becomes more mainstream, it is also difficult to build an identity based entirely on this. Ingrid explains that all kinds of people live in EVH:

We’ve got everything here, from people who are pretty close to the stereotypical hippie to super straight guys.

In this project, green identity did not stand out as a particularly important factor for living sustainably. It seems more important to belong to a group where people care for sustainability and with good access to sustainable alternatives. Identifying with a green movement, however, can make the climate-change threat more personally relevant; in that, sustainable living becomes a way of affirming group affiliation (van Dam and Fischer 2015). The informants explain that living sustainably is compatible with other important social identities, such as who they are at work. This is in line with previous suggestions that social identities compatible with a green life make the lifestyle easier to maintain (Harré 2011).

Civil Engagement

The informants are all engaged in a range of social issues. Many of them explained that previous civil engagement also made them interested in the climate crisis. This interrelationship has also been found in previous research (Bartels and Onwezen 2014; Fielding et al. 2008; Sparks and Shepherd 1992; van Dam and Fischer 2015). Perhaps already being engaged in social matters makes it easier for the informants to choose a sustainable lifestyle in a society where high consumption is the norm. The informants highlight that if sustainability was the default mode of society, it would be easier for people who are not engaged in climate change to live sustainably. This is also reflected in the relief many of the informants described when joining a group invested in sustainable living.


Quite a few of the interviewees provide details demonstrating that being a future-oriented person is more important than being a green person for sustainable living. They highlight creative qualities as significant for building a sustainable community in a society where this does not exist. It seems particularly vital to be able to visualize what they want. Fredrik elaborates on what he wants the EVH to become:

I picture a place where there are a lot of gardens, where we can grow and harvest and stuff (…) a place where we can learn from each other, without cars and where we can walk outside barefoot to greet our neighbors. Maybe we can have neighborhood parties or gatherings, just living simple and meaningful days (laughs). I’m thinking to cut down on work when it’s economically possible, so that I can spend more time here to participate and create more.

The informants also expound upon how it inspires them to have the opportunity to create a new community based on how they want to live as opposed to living in culture’s default mode. Perhaps this opportunity meets the participants’ needs for competence and autonomy (Deci and Ryan 2008a, 2008b). In addition, the informants’ creative abilities may be enhanced by interacting with nature, as attachment to nature is correlated with holistic and innovative reflection (Leong et al. 2014). Nature’s positive mood effects may also promote better problem-solving abilities, since positive affect has proven to enhance reflective abilities (Mayer et al. 2008).

Political Affiliation

Earlier research, done mainly within the US population, has established a correlation between right-wing ideology and a lack of interest in climate changes (Guy et al. 2014; Jacquet et al. 2014; Rossen et al. 2015). None of our Norwegian informants depicted themselves as right-wing. But some of them are highly skeptical of the political system and therefore cast blank votes. They believe that politics is too much talk and too little action. Others see political engagement as the most important area for sustainable transition, as politicans have the possibility to make changes on a larger scale. A few of the informants have been involved in NGOs or political parties such as the Green Party, the Socialist Left Party, and the Norwegian Centre Party; the latter advocates protection of district and farming subsidies. The majority of the informants view left-wing politics as better for sustainability. They also report voting leftist due to values such as solidarity and fair distribution of resources, but they maintain that these values and climate change are connected. However, all participants highlight that people of all political orientations exist in their movements. Some of the informants are also optimistic that the Green Party will help to alleviate climate change beyond any ideological divide.

Limitations of the Study

A key issue is whether the findings are applicable in settings other than those in which they were conceived (Andenæs 2000). In quantitative studies, the size of the sample is an important measure to ensure generalizability. In our study, the number of participants was only eight, which of course gauges for caution in generalizing our findings.

During the recruiting phase, important decisions were made that could affect the findings’ applicability. This study is based on voluntarily participation, which may lead to certain people participating in the project, for example, people with higher education (Thagaard 1998). The findings may then only reflect this group’s perspectives. Academics were overrepresented in the group of informants. However, the informants reflected upon whether their views only represented an academic perspective, and this openness may contribute to improving the applicability of the findings to other groups. The informants were recruited from organized groups for living sustainable. The way they live and think about their choices may differ from people choosing to live sustainable without belonging to an eco-community. The age range of the sample was also somewhat narrow (30–45 years), which may weaken the results’ applicability to other age groups. We came in touch with our informants through the organizations’ leaders and posts about the research project in their Facebook groups. Who the leaders regarded as suitable informants and the possibility that more social and talkative informants were more likely in wanting to participate may have skewed our sample.

To evaluate the applicability of our findings, we argue for using analytical generalizing, evaluating to what extent our findings may be used as guidance for what may take place in a similar situation (Andenæs 2000; Kvale 2007). In that way, our thorough descriptions of important experiences with sustainability are our most important way of assuring applicability (Andenæs 2000). We hope that this study might inspire further investigation of our findings with a diversity of methods that could add certainty and stability to our findings, such as longitudinal studies, using observational methods, other samples, and more interviews per informant.


The objective of this study was to get more insight into what might motivate sustainable living. This kind of societal transformation because of climate change happens on many different structural levels, as described by social scientists (Pelling et al. 2015). Findings from this study can be seen as an investigation of a larger societal change on an individual- and small-scale group level. It seems as the change our informants made and their motivation to continue their lifestyle is fed by characteristics in their daily life that meet criteria SDT predicts will enhance motivation (Deci and Ryan 2008a, b). In order to be able to act upon a problem, you must be aware that it exists, and it should be relevant to your own life (Pelletier and Sharp 2008). In this study, climate change was perceived as a dangerous threat, which the informants felt a personal responsibility to counteract. Self-determination theory (SDT) predicts that internalizing sustainable behavior is an active but gradual transformation of socially valued behavior into personally endorsed activities (Pelletier and Sharp 2008). This fits with the informants’ account of sustainable actions previously requiring self-control which became intrinsically motivated. According to SDT, sustainable behavior is more likely to become internalized if people are given a good rationale for the behavior, shown its effectiveness, and get to choose between different ways of displaying the behavior (Pelletier and Sharp 2008). These factors seem present as the informants are competent on climate change, have easy access to sustainable alternatives, and feel supported in living sustainably in their own way. The informants found a way to live sustainably that is intrinsically inspiring, which has been found to sustain long-lasting efforts (Deci and Ryan 2008a). Arguably, living sustainably might hold greater potential for reaching intrinsic aspirations, in the endeavor to redefine measures of a good life based on material goods—which is often the aspiration informing extrinsic motivation (Deci and Ryan 2008a).

The informants know that climate change implies a real threat, but they continue living sustainably. This stands in contrast to the findings indicating that threatening knowledge usually does not motivate change (Pelletier and Sharp 2008). Providing information is also decision-makers’ most frequently employed tactic for motivating sustainable change. The participants manage to do what many governments do not. Their choice to live sustainably might be motivated by knowledge of climate change, but their efforts sustain because they belong to groups in which living sustainably is the norm and they have easy access to sustainable alternatives. Governments have not yet succeeded in creating a similar environment for larger societies. Good access to information (Guy et al. 2014) and sustainable alternatives, together with openness towards different political views, may bridge the ideological divide that hallmarks the climate cause.

The informants describe their life as more social, encompassing strong bonds with people and nature. This may indicate that living sustainably could build a more community-oriented society in a time criticized for individualism (Nafstad et al. 2009). Increased individualism in Norway has also been connected to higher rates of depression among young adults (Skagestad and Madsen 2015). A more sustainable society may therefore also have positive psychological health effects.

It is our hope that examples such as the EVH and the SLM make it easier for individuals and decision-makers to implement similar changes. These movements have shown that one can adapt to new sustainable methods that previously seemed challenging and life choices that seemed to lead to obstacles, actually revealed hidden opportunities. In addition, this study showed that living sustainably can enhance quality of life by meeting intrinsic goals such as needs for autonomy, relatedness, and competence to a greater extent than a more consumer-oriented society. Finally, the informants have provided nuance for the term sustainability by showing that it involves more than covering this and the future generations’ needs. It also involves ensuring this generation’s welfare and values in a way that people can proudly transmit to future generations.



The Research Council of Norway provided funding for this article.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversity of OsloOsloNorway

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