Research Summary

Emotional impacts of environmental decline: What can Native cosmologies teach sociology about emotions and environmental justice?

The experience of Native American people illustrates how environmental degradation can inflict emotional as well as physical harm

Theory and Society

The ideas presented in this paper are based on information and perspectives shared by members of the Karuk community, a Native American tribe whose ancestral territory is along the Klamath River in northern California. At one time, the Karuk Tribe’s access to the salmon and an abundance of other species of fish in the Klamath River helped the Karuk community become the wealthiest people in the region. Over time, land management policies implemented by the federal government and the State of California moved wealth from the Native to non-native people. A number of these policies and related practices degraded the natural environment (including the Klamath River) and denied Karuk people access to the food resources they needed to sustain their culture, and their lives.

Researchers — an academic researcher and a native collaborator — collected data from three sources: in-depth interviews with 44 members of the Karuk Tribe; responses to open-ended questions on surveys completed by 90 members of the Tribe; and public testimonies of Tribal members in reference to hearings about Klamath River dams. The researchers’ focus in collecting and analyzing data was on the emotions experienced by Karuk Tribal members in the face of environmental decline.

The data indicated that the natural environment strongly influenced the Karuk people’s emotional experiences which played a role in shaping their sense of identity, their social roles, and their resistance to racism and ongoing colonialism. The data also indicated that Karuk Tribal members felt intimate connections with the Klamath River, a sense of kinship with other life forms, and joy from being out in nature. With the decline of the river, they experienced grief, anger, hopelessness, and shame. Some of their anger related to their children not having the same opportunities for experiencing the salmon as their ancestors had. They felt shame in not being able to provide for their children and their elders as they had in the past.

The researchers note how the emotions of grief, anger, shame, and hopelessness associated with environmental decline serve as signal functions confirming structures of power in relation to identity, social interactions, and ongoing colonialism. Signal functions help shape the way people make sense of their place in the world.

These findings call for a recognition of the fact that nature and society are not separate and that we can’t ignore the natural world and still provide a meaningful analysis of society. Two related claims are presented by the authors: (1) the natural environment should be understood as influencing emotions, and (2) for Karuk people (and likely other indigenous groups) theorizing the natural world is necessary to understand the operation of ongoing colonial violence in the form of environmental degradation today. This research illustrates ways in which environmental justice concerns emotional as well as physical harm to people.

Norgaard, K. M., & Reed, R.. (2017). Emotional impacts of environmental decline: What can Native cosmologies teach sociology about emotions and environmental justice?. Theory and Society. doi: