How our experiences with nature affect our attitudes towards climate change

Rock climber Alex Honnold with solar panels placed by his foundation, The Honnold Foundation.

Rock climber Alex Honnold is known to most by the Oscar-winning documentary ‘Free solo’, where he ascends a 2 kilometer high cliff with no safety gear whatsoever. He also considers himself ‘90% vegan’ and donates a third of his income every year to his own foundation, the Honnold Foundation, which strives to bring solar energy to impoverished communities. 

Fellow rock climber Alex Megos, widely considered one of the best climbers in the world, created an ethically-produced t-shirt line with the slogan #carrotsforpower, in part to promote a more plant-based lifestyle. He donated 100% of proceeds in the first month to a non-profit focused on sustainable agriculture, and will continue to donate all of the proceeds to nonprofits. On his Instagram, he encourages people to only buy the shirt if they truly need a new shirt, encouraging people to live more simply and discouraging consumerism. 

When I first started climbing, almost three years ago now, I was pleasantly surprised to see how all these top athletes, and to some extent non-professional climbers as well, were much more environmentally aware than I had seen in any other sport. This lead me to wonder, is this because their sport has them spend a lot of time in nature? And how does this extend to nature experiences in general increasing environmental awareness?

Specialization

As it turns out, Megos’s and Honnold’s actions can be explained by their professions; research has shown repeatedly that individuals who are very specialized in one type of nature-based activity, such as birdwatching, fishing, and rock climbing, are more likely to undertake action to help the environment. Here, specialized means that these individuals are more experienced and skilled in the activity, spend more money on it, and consider it more important to their lifestyle than non-specialized recreationists. Honnold and Megos certainly fall in this category. 

The likely reason that specialized recreationists put more effort into combatting climate change is that the activity that is so important to them depends on natural resources, so it is in their best interest to make sure these resources continue to exist.

Different types of nature experiences

However, specialization in a nature-based activity is not the only kind of interaction with nature that predicts a high investment in environmentalism. For example, studies show that those who feel like they have benefited more from time in nature, also show increased environmental behaviours. This can go even as far as nature experiences during bad weather causing less pro-environmental behaviour than those on sunny days.

The type of activity performed in nature also matters to environmental attitude. Researchers identify three types of nature-based activity:

Consumptive: Taking something from the natural environment for your own gain (e.g. fishing, hunting)

Mechanized: Using mechanized equipment to interact with nature (e.g. driving quads in a field)

Appreciative: Enjoying the natural environment without making any changes to it (e.g. hiking, birdwatching, climbing) 

The research indicates that those who partake in appreciative activities are more likely to show pro-environmentalist behaviour, while mechanized or consumptive activities show low or even negative impact on pro-environmentalism. However, it is difficult to ascertain whether appreciative activities cause people to have a more pro-environmentalist attitude, or that those who already care a lot about climate change are more likely to partake in appreciative activities. 

Children playing in ‘wild’ nature

Childhood nature experiences

A more robust approach to measure the impact of nature experiences on environmental attitudes is to compare how experiences in childhood affect attitudes and behaviour in adulthood. One longitudinal study concluded that one of the main predictors of pro-environmental behaviours was time spent outdoors during childhood. This held true even when controlling for other variables such as parents’ attitude towards climate change. 

However, the type of interaction with nature again makes a big difference to environmental attitude later in life. Specifically, a distinction between ‘wild’ and ‘domesticated’ nature experiences can be made. Nancy Wells, a Cornell University environmental psychologist, concluded in her research that:

Although domesticated nature activities — caring for plants and gardens — also have a positive relationship to adult environment attitudes, their effects aren’t as strong as participating in such wild nature activities as camping, playing in the woods, hiking, walking, fishing and hunting,

Nancy Wells

Furthermore, participating in environmental education programs, such as the boy or girl scouts, seemed to have no effect on adult environmental attitude.

These conclusions suggest that letting children explore nature in the way they wish to, without having to listen to environmental education or follow instructions on how to garden, is very beneficial to fostering a pro-environmental attitude.

How can we use this information?

Knowing what we know now about experiences with nature and environmentalism, one might ask how we can use this to foster a more environmentally-aware mindset. 

Most importantly, we know childhood experiences have a significant impact on adult environment attitudes, and we know that ‘wild’ nature experiences are most beneficial for this. Therefore, increasing wild nature activities with children, and letting children explore nature on their own, are strategies that are likely to increase environmental awareness when these children grow up. Environmental education, where given, should ideally flow from childrens’ own curiosity, instead of being direct instructions or planned lessons.

But the effect of these strategies will not be seen until years later, when the children grow up. What can we do to increase pro-environmental attitudes and behaviours in adults right now?

As seen in rock climbers, being specialised in a nature-based activity can help. However, not everyone wants to be a highly specialised nature-based recreationist, so this might be difficult to realise.

We also learned that the type of experience matters, and that encouraging appreciative nature experiences may help. One study done by Stanford University gives further insight: they used VR to simulate a nature experience, and after letting participants appreciate the environment for a bit, they asked them to cut down a tree. Participants who had to cut down the virtual tree had a measurable change in pro-environmental behaviours, which researchers think will last for a long time. In contrast, those who had simply read about tree cutting barely changed their behaviour at all.

This study showed that even in adulthood, nature experiences (or virtual nature experiences), can lead to an increase in pro-environmentalist behaviour. In this case, people first performed an appreciative activity, and then had to destroy the environment with their own hands. It would be interesting to explore how this type of set-up could be implemented further.

In conclusion, encouraging adults and children to go out and appreciate nature will lead them to care much more about what climate change is doing to that nature. So I hereby encourage you to go out and hike, climb, and forage with all of your friends and family, to enjoy nature and perhaps convince some to do more to stop climate change from destroying it.