Psychology researchers Schultz and Zelezny (1999) produced a study that caught my eye as offering some fascinating insights into how our underlying values could be influencing the kind of environmental concerns we have, and how these concerns drive our pro-environmental behaviours. The study, published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, is just over twenty years old; but just as environmental issues have only grown in importance since then, so has the importance of understanding what motivates people to engage with those issues. Wesley Schultz has made important contributions to the field, so in this post I’ll give you the basic idea of his work on values and environmental concerns.
The basic idea
Schultz and Zelezny (1999) present a three factor model of environmental concerns. These factors are classified as egoistic, altruistic, and biospheric. Each factor represents an attitude that can motivate pro-environmental behaviour given the right kind of stimulus. For example, someone with the egoistic attitude might be motivated to recycle the packaging of a product if they were rewarded for it – perhaps with a free box of the product for every fifty packages they returned for recycling. Someone with the altruistic attitude might be more likely to recycle because they were moved to do so by the scenes of thousands of children on a climate march, prompting them to think of the kind of world they would like to leave to their children’s generation. Finally, someone with the biospheric attitude might recycle for the sake of marine wildlife, and as part of the overall fight to protect the health of the natural world. As you may have already noticed, these three environmental attitudes cluster around three objects of value; namely, self, other people, and the biosphere. So the idea is that pro-environmental behaviours are triggered when one of these objects of value is perceived as being under threat.
Schultz and Zelezny's (1999) study provides some empirical evidence in support of this model. Thousands of people from several countries were asked how important different consequences of harming nature were for them. These included consequences for oneself, ones family, and the wider natural world such as plants, birds and marine life. A factor analysis on the results showed how peoples’ concern for the consequences of environmental harm tended to cluster either around the consequences for themselves, or the consequences for other people, or the consequences for the wider natural world, supporting the idea that peoples' concern for the environment tends to be dominated by either egoistic, altruistic or biopheric concerns.
The inclusion of nature in Self
The inclusion of nature in Self measurement was also included in the questionnaire. This is an instrument developed by Schultz intended to measure the degree to which a person feels nature to be connected to their own life and sense of identity. Unsurprisingly, it was found that the more a person felt nature to be connected to their sense of self, the stronger was their biospheric attitude. Conversely, those who saw their self and nature as separate tended have their environmental concerns driven by the egoistic attitude.
For me, there are some important take home messages from Schultz and Zelezny’s (1999) research. Although I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that egoistic, altruistic and biospheric concerns are mutually exclusive, I would like to suggest that a biospheric foundation for environmental behaviours is of greater utility because it is universally applicable. For example, a person with the egoistic attitude might protest against the opening of a local landfill out of concern for how this might effect the value of his house. A person with the altruistic attitude might sign a petition to stop local parents dropping their kids off to school in air polluting cars because the altruists are concerned for the health of all the primary school kids. Finally, someone with the biospheric attitude might join a political party in order to campaign for policy change in the face of the climate crisis because nature is so closely unified with their sense of self that ‘what happens to the land happens to us’. However, whilst the person with a biospheric attitude could equally be predicted to participate along side the egoist and the altruist in their causes, this prediction would be unlikely to function in both directions. For example, the person motivated by egoistic concerns, whilst concerned about the landfill, would be less likely to sign up to a political party that places environmental policy ahead of lowering income tax, since the latter lies closer to egoistical values. Therefore, getting people on board when it comes to living sustainably and in harmony with nature would be a lot easier if more people had the biospheric attitude.
The good news
Later work by Schultz (2007) suggests that an individual is not fixed within either egoistic, altruistic or biospheric concerns. Rather, the underlying values that drive a person’s environmental attitudes can change if a shift in that person’s identification with nature occurs. Schultz (2007) found that if contact with a natural environment was sustained for a certain amount of time, participants’ connectedness to nature, and their pro-environmental intentions, also increased. It seems to me, then, that a reasonable conclusion to draw from all this is that if you want to increase support for pro-environmental behaviours, the most effective long term strategy is likely be rest on more people connecting to nature in meaningful ways, to the point where nature is included in their sense of self.
Ultimately, it’s not about understanding what nature can do for us that will drive our concern for the health of our beautiful planet. It’s about understanding that nature is us and we are nature. When we damage the environment through pollution or unsustainable extraction of material resources, we damage ourselves – not metaphorically, but literally. This is the realisation that produces a biospheric attitude.
Schultz, W. P., & Zelezny, L. (1999). Values as predictors of environmental attitudes: Evidence for consistency across 14 countries. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 19, 255-265. doi: 10.1006/jevp.1999.0129
I am fortunate to have almost immediate access to natural places where the only things I hear are the sound of the wind in the trees, the bubbly chatter of nearby streams, and the sweetness of birdsong all around. I have lived in cities in the past, but nearly twenty years ago I made a conscious decision to move to the edge of a national park. Can my yearning to be close to nature be explained by a simple life-style choice? Or was my re-location all those years ago a behaviour driven by something more fundamental? Researchers Daniel Baxter and Luc Pelletier would suggest the latter. After an extensive review of the literature on nature relatedness, Baxter and Pelletier (2019) came to the conclusion that there was strong support for the claim that nature relatedness is a human need, and that many aspects of our physical and psychological well-being depend on that need being fulfilled. This conclusion was reached by judging the findings of multiple studies against a set of criteria. What follows is a summary of those criteria and how they were met.
If nature relatedness is a human need, it should not only produce positive outcomes when present, but also negative outcomes when absent.
The positive benefits of nature connection to physical and mental health are robust and well established. Various forms of nature relatedness have been shown to positively impact on recovery from physiological stress, enhance and support psychological well-being, and enable recovery from cognitive and attention fatigue. However, for nature relatedness to be a need, it should do more than benefit people when present: it should result in pathological effects when absent. Evidence of such effects are abundant. For example, after controlling for socioeconomic status and other demographics, urban children have shown a higher prevalence of mood disorders, self-harming, dysfunctional communication and thought processes, Asperger disorder, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder, and generalised anxiety disorder, than rural children. This suggests that growing up in an environment where nature is spare and less accessible leads to more pathologies during the developmental stage.
Especially interesting was one study that used monozygotic twins who had grown up together but lived separately in adult life. The study investigated the impact of green space around the twins' homes. After controlling for income, levels of exercise, local population size and the socioeconomic status of their neighbourhoods, it was found that the twins with less access to green space suffered significantly higher levels of depression and stress.
Adult studies have shown that those who enjoy 10% more green space than the average within a 1km radius of home show lowered prevalence rates of coronary heart disease, muscular complaints, depression, anxiety disorders, asthma, migraines and a number of infectious diseases.
So, it seems that there are physical and psychological benefits to be had from relatedness to nature at all stages of life, and a higher chance of pathology when we are cut off from the natural world.
If nature relatedness is really a fundamental human need, its effects on the human body and mind should be universal rather than culturally dependent.
If there is something fundamental about peoples’ need for a relationship with nature, then it should be apparent in one form or another across a variety of sociocultural groups. The need for nature relatedness should be universal. Whilst this is a harder argument to make, Baxter and Pelletier (2019) provide some evidence for this by having included in their evaluation studies from the USA, Canada, Sweden, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, the UK and Japan. Thus, the evidence they present can at least claim to have come from a variety of cultural contexts.
Nature relatedness should represent a need in itself - not just a derivative of another need.
What if the need for nature relatedness wasn’t so much about nature itself, but just about relatedness? After all, feeling connected to something greater than our individual selves is a typical nature experience which can even lead to numinous feelings of transcendence. This question was addressed by a study that found nature relatedness to be associated with a whole slew of psychological benefits (subjective vitality, positive affect, feelings of personal growth) even after controlling for benefits derived from other forms of connectedness (family, culture, friends etc). It seems therefore that there is something about nature relatedness that cannot be derived from just any type of connectedness.
Perhaps the benefits of nature relatedness are in fact derived from the physical activity associated with hiking and walking, both of which are known to produce physical and mental well-being; but studies have demonstrated that even when physical activity is taken out of the equation, the benefits of immersion in nature remain. Where physical activity has been a factor, it has also been shown that immersive experiences of nature elevate the measured benefits above those of physical activity alone.
The need for nature relatedness should be a driver for behaviours whose goal is to fulfill that need.
One study that supported this claim looked at Norwegian office workers. The study compared employees who had a window with a view next to their desks with those who did not. The results found that employees with no window view were five times more likely to place plants in their office space, and three times more likely to hang pictures of nature on their walls. This is just one example of the evidence supporting the idea that where nature is absent, we will proactively seek to compensate for that absence.
Baxter and Pelletier’s (2019) conclusions certainly rang true with my own personal experience, and it got me thinking about where the effort in promoting the value of the natural world should be focused. If anywhere, surely it should be focused on urban populations who may not even be aware that a lack of relationship to nature is an impediment to living life to the full. In a climate crisis, how can we expect people to fight, to make personal sacrifices, for something that is little more than an abstract idea? Never mind reforesting our national parks and farmlands – we need to reforest our urban landscapes. It isn’t enough to relate to nature as a climate statistic or a biology class. Nature must be known, and nature must be fallen in love with. What we love, we will surely protect.
For the sake of brevity, I have been selective in presenting what was an extensive literature review. For those interested in reading the source paper in full, I have provided the reference below.
Baxter, D. E., & Pelletier, L. G. (2019). Is nature relatedness a basic human psychological need? A critical examination of the extant literature. Canadian Psychology/Psychologie canadienne, 60(1), 21–34. https://doi.org/10.1037/cap0000145
Furthermore, you may be interested in a link to the organisation Cities4Forests. See if your city is a member. If it is, you could find out how you can get involved. If it isn't, you could write to your local authority and ask them to look into it.
I’m incredibly excited about today’s post, because I’ll be sharing with you a section of an interview I conducted with artist, hedgewitch and incense maker, Danielle Barlow. Danielle is author of the Green Wheel Oracle, which is a stunning celebration of nature, as well as someone who feels deeply connected to the natural world. Danielle kindly took part in a study I conducted – a phenomenological investigation into the experience of love and care for nature. Below is a section of an interview where I ask Danielle to talk in more depth about her experiences of communion with nature.
That sort of leads me to my second question, which is to do with the word communion, and this ties into what you were talking about earlier in your text when you were walking among these ash trees, and you said you would talk to them. And I was just wondering if you could unpack that in a bit more detail. What does this experience of communion actually consist of? What’s going on when it’s happening?
When I talk to the trees I build up a personal relationship with them. They’re old friends. They’re familiar faces. There are two very very old trees on the farm – ash trees. There is an ash there which is the largest ash I’ve ever seen. We measured it and it has this girth of nearly seven meters. We measured it last Summer. It’s enormous, and we call it Yggdrasil. It’s been there for ever. And if I were to sit out there I’d treat it as a friend. I’d talk to it. Does it talk back? I like to feel that there is a communication there sometimes if you build a relationship and a friendship with these plants or trees, and that I do get something back. It’s not like a conversation in my head as such; but, you get a feeling back, and it’s not in your head at all: it’s in your heart and it’s deep in your belly. That is the thing that I try to teach other people – particularly my children – how to listen to the trees and listen to the plants. You have to drop your attention, you have to switch off the chatter in your head, which is really hard for us, so it’s perhaps like meditation, but it’s not. It’s dropping your consciousness down and it’s having that real open heartedness so you’re aware but you're listening with your belly. I don’t really know how to describe that except as a feeling that bubbles up in your gut. And sometimes there are words there. Knowing is more like it. You know… ah, it’s really difficult to describe. There is not a voice in my head saying anything: it’s not like that. It is a gut feeling, and you kind of have to learn to trust it, because when it first happened I thought ‘well it was just my imagination wasn’t it’. And who knows? Maybe it is your imagination. I don’t know; but the more you listen to it, the more you trust that that’s what it is, the more it becomes a backwards and forwards connection. And it's like having a connection with a person. It’s also very different, and it’s something that has to be built up. You can’t just walk in and go ‘hello tree, tell me this’ – well some people perhaps can. You have to kind of get to know a plant, a tree, or something like that. But most often what you get from them, or what I get from them, are waves of feeling, rather than the sentence of communication in the way that we would be communicating. Sometimes I just chatter away literally out loud, chatter away at them; but you have to actually be still and listen in order to get anything back. For me, sometimes it’s images; most often it’s a wave of feeling of some sort and you kind of have to learn to interpret that because at first it’s just sort of ‘I don’t really know what this is, is this just something I imagined?’. Sometimes you know there is just no connection at all; but it begins with knowing them [plants and trees] well and walking the land and recognising what’s grown and what hasn’t, saying hello to familiar faces, that sort of thing – that classic talking to your plants. And then, one day, there’s something back. And you think ‘did I just imagine that? Is there something strange going on?’ And the more you do it the more you think ‘this is actually a two-way relationship’. But it’s quite different from a human to human relationship.
You mean that in the sense that…
You’re not verbalising it. You’re using that other sense, that gut feeling, that intuition. That sort of thing can’t be quantified or scientifically proven, and therefore, is very easily dismissed. But, you know, there is something there.
Do you find this communion and mode of communication is uniform across all elements of the natural world or do you find you have it with trees but you don’t have it with something else?
I think you can have it with everything. It is slightly different for every – I was going to say every species – but even within that there might be some trees that just have no interest whatsoever. I guess it’s like some people, you know, you don’t have much in common, no connection. Or maybe a tree just doesn’t like people and just doesn’t want that. I don’t know. But there are definitely ones that you can’t connect with, certainly with animals. There are some that are so open to connection, and others that are utterly closed and want nothing to do with you.
Plants and other things are quite easy to talk to. Trees are a little more difficult. Things like rocks and that sort of thing (sighs). You have to sort of get this understanding of time because not everything moves in the same time frames as us. For instance, I’m told that a humming bird’s metabolism runs so fast and there heart beat is very fast and everything they do is very fast and their lives are over very quickly. I’ve never tried to speak to a humming bird because I’ve never come across one. Trees are much slower, live a much slower life than us. They have many of the same physical characteristics as us. They have fluid that moves around them, and I believe they have consciousness, but it works in a slower time frame. And it’s quite hard for us to slow down enough, mentally, and to make that connection. And then if you want to talk to something like the land itself, that can be even harder sometimes, because it’s on an even more vast time frame than we are.
Do you feel like that has to do with the proximity of the object to the human species? You describe the tree as having some qualities that are similar to a human, whereas a rock, of course there isn’t really much. I mean we’ve got some minerals in us. There’s a lot less there you can relate to.
Exactly, although when you get down to the atomic level we are all made of the same thing. There’s just energy dancing in different patterns; and when you start to look at it like that you start to think, okay, there is a way actually that we could connect, but you have to go deeper and deeper and deeper, the more different from you the thing is, and some people are more skilled at it than others. And sometimes (laughs) now it just gets into the more and more bonkers. Sometimes it’s easier to talk to them in a human form. You know this whole idea of spirits and deities and spirits of the trees and things like that. I used to question it a lot but the more you question the more difficult it is to have a connection. But actually, if you have trouble connecting, and you let it come in some sort of human form like a sort of spirit that you see in your mind’s eye, it’s easier to have that conversation, that connection.
So your communion with nature can happen through the medium of symbols?
It can do, yeah. If I’ve got a really urgent thing I need to go and have out with the trees, it might be easier to communicate with a human form. Maybe like an avatar or something I suppose. That sounds really weird; but a representation of the spirit in human form can help you go ‘right, I’ve got all these questions and I need to know this’. But mostly it’s much more preferable to just connect with the tree itself. It’s just a case of slowing down usually and trusting what you feel.
If I can ask you one more question, if you had the opportunity to give someone who didn’t have a connection with nature a piece of advice on how they might acquire it, what would you offer them?
I would imagine that the best way to start would be to find a place in nature as wild as you can. A quiet place uninterrupted by other humans. A beautiful garden in a city is probably okay. I’m not used to them. And to just sit and be still to begin with. That’s the hardest part, the learning how to be still. But once you can be still, and you can quieten your mind as well, that’s when things happen, like the connection with the deer [reference to an earlier part of the interview]. She saw me, but I was very still, and my energy was really still too, dropped down into my belly. And therefore, she obviously perceived that I wasn’t a threat, and carried on. But they don’t have to be deer. Once you can get yourself into that still space and just look at what’s around you, even if it’s just a patch of grass with bugs, and just start to see what’s really there. For me, that’s the most amazing thing, when you just go somewhere, just pause on your walk and you realise just how many species there are around you. And you can hone in on a small patch and it might not be full of wild flowers. It might be a bit of rock. It might be a bit of tree or something; but, the closer you look the more you see is there. It’s not just a rock with nothing on it. There could be lichen, there could be tiny red spider mites, there could be insects and things too. Just to really see those small beauties, rather than the great big picture. People don’t hone in on the little things, the individuals. I think that’s it, building a relationship with an individual, whether it’s a small flower or a spider in your garden. Anybody can do that. You might have a spider in the corner of your room that’s been living there for a couple of weeks, and you might just keep an eye on it to see, has it come out today, ‘hello’, you know. Those sorts of things. Maybe that’s the first step. It’s just noticing the individuals. It’s not just this great big thing called nature and you can take it or leave it. It’s made up of millions of individual beings, whether they’re plant or animal or whatever, and it’s about appreciating how important each one of those is within its environment.
Would it be fair to say it’s about developing a personal relationship?
I think so, because that’s what we care about isn’t it? Personal relationships. You know, the big picture can be dealt with by somebody else. In our mind it’s always that ‘who’s going to save the world? That’s somebody else’s job. I can only do this little bit around me.’ And I think it’s probably the same with nature. You have to build that first connection right on your doorstep, in the small ways, before you can start to realise that the big thing is also made up of all those small things.
is a PhD candidate researching under the topic 'Understanding Behaviour Change toward Sustainability'. Damien is also a strong believer that knowledge should be freely available; a belief that motivated him to start One Beautiful Earth as a way of informing earth lovers everywhere on what behavioural scientists and social psychologists are up to and what we're finding out, all in human readable language! It's not all science though: expect a smattering of environmental ethics, philosophy, interviews and the odd opinion piece thrown in. Enjoy!