Date of Award

5-2004

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

Major

Human Ecology

Major Professor

Priscilla Blanton

Committee Members

John Nolt, Gary Peterson, Deborah Tegano

Abstract

The lifestyles of contemporary Americans are threatening the sustainability of plant and animal life on earth. Unsustainable household choices related to food consumption, waste generation and disposal, transportation, energy use, and family planning are at the crux of the problem. However, there are a small number of American families that are committed to practicing a more environmentally sustainable lifestyle, and contrary to popular assumptions, sustainable behaviors are being practiced not only on rural homesteads, but in urban households as well. The purpose of the present research, therefore, was to identify the types of sustainable behaviors that a sample of these urban families are practicing, and to describe the processes by which these families have adopted and maintained more environmentally sustainable practices. A grounded theory approach was chosen because of its methodological emphasis on identifying processes that operate within a phenomenon. Twelve couples (n=24) completed a brief questionnaire, which included demographic information and an assessment of individual partners’ involvement in household maintenance of sustainable practices, as well as participated in interviews regarding their household’s experiences with practicing sustainable behaviors.

Five themes were identified from the data: 1) continuity of worldview into marital relationship, 2) emphasis on encouraging and nurturing children’s ecological awareness, 3) strengthened parent-child and spousal relationships, 4) housework as a shared responsibility, and 5) children as challenging to a more sustainable lifestyle. Additional factors in families’ adoption and maintenance of sustainable practices were the importance of effective communication between partners and community support. Key concepts were pulled from the data and organized into an illustrative model of the processes by which families adopt and maintain sustainable lifestyle practices.

The findings from the present study provide a preliminary look at the forces that motivate families to adopt sustainable behaviors, and the factors that enable them to maintain these behaviors over time. While concern for the state of the environment was a major motivating factor for these families in living more sustainably, other important influences were good health for family members, higher quality family relationships, and being part of a community. As for being able to maintain sustainable behaviors, the critical components for families were that couples have similar social and environmental ideologies, that there is the capacity for effective communication among family members, and that household labor be shared equitably between partners. More research in this area is needed to reinforce the findings from the present study and to identify other important factors in families’ practice of a more environmentally sustainable lifestyle.

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