—By Judy Bramble, PhD, environmental science department chair, DePaul University

We’ve come a long way toward understanding our impact on the environment since the first Earth Day in 1970. Yet despite growing concern among scientists and extensive news coverage, many people remain skeptical about the seriousness of environmental issues. Even for those who do express concern about the environment, there is a large and persistent gap between how they say they feel about the environment, and how they actually behave.

Perhaps of greatest concern is evidence of a decline in pro-environmental attitudes among American adolescents over the past 30 years—despite greater emphasis in K-12 environmental education.

Richard Louv’s Nature Deficit Disorder hypothesis provides one explanation, suggesting that a lack of time in nature play leads to a lack of attachment to nature. With this in mind, one of my college students, Aleksandr Pevtsov, explored the impact of childhood experience in nature on college students’ empathy for nature in distress.

Aleksandr created a survey that showed photos of nature in distress to nearly 400 college undergraduates at a large urban university in Chicago. Half of each group saw photos of human-caused harm to nature (e.g. birds covered with oil), while the other half were shown photos of natural peril (e.g. deer caught in a forest fire). Half of the students in each of those groups were then instructed to view the photos with empathy for organisms in the photos, while the other half were instructed to view them objectively.

Before viewing the photos, Aleksandr’s survey asked students about their experiences in nature as children and their feelings about nature. As expected, we found that students with limited childhood experience in nature showed lower concern for organisms that were naturally imperiled. More surprising to us, however, was that these students also displayed no empathy for the organisms in these photos.

This image was used in the survey with the caption: “Many animals, like these deer, are affected by natural wildfires.” (Photo by John McColgan, USFS)

Interestingly, their environmental worldview, as measured by the New Ecological Paradigm, which measures the degree to which people believe they are part of nature and that there are environmental limits to growth, was identical to students with more childhood experience in nature. It was their lack of empathy for nature when humans were not involved that distinguished them.

The study also found the expected relationship between where students grew up and their childhood experiences in nature: Students raised in urban environments reported having less experience in nature. So, is it urban living or childhood experiences in nature that account for the lack of empathy? The relationship between concern for nature and childhood experience was stronger than where the student was raised, and after statistically accounting for the effect of experience in nature, the impact of location was no longer significant. This means that it was experience in nature and not where the student grew up that was associated with concern and empathy for nature in distress.

This is good news. As the world’s population becomes increasingly more urban, we still have the opportunity to shape our children’s attitudes to nature. We’ll be repeating this study this fall and would welcome your feedback.

Further reading:

  • “Measuring Endorsement of the New Ecological Paradigm: A Revised NEP Scale,” by R.E. Dunlap, K.D. Van Liere, A.G. Mertif, and R.E. Jones, Journal of Social Issues, 2000
  • “Mind the Gap: Why Do People Act Environmentally and What Are the Barriers to Pro-Environmental Behavior?” by A. Kollmuss and J. Agyeman, Environmental Education Research, 2002
  • Last Child in the Woods, by Richard Louv, Algonquin Books, 2005
  • “Ecosystems and Human Well-Being: Synthesis,” a Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, Island Press, 2005
  • “Examining Trends in Adolescent Environmental Attitudes, Beliefs, and Behaviors Across Three Decades,” by L. Wray-Lake, E. Environment and Behavior, 2010

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