Reforming the relationship between people and nature is vital to our future environmental and economic sustainability. Yet we know very little about the kinds of experiences that increase a person’s level of concern for the environment. We wanted to discover how the childhood experiences of people who are very concerned about environmental issues differed from those less concerned.
We asked a group of Australian undergraduate students about their life experiences and measured their exposure to natural environments, books and movies, environmental education, environmental organisations, and family values. We then related these experiences to their present-day ‘conservation concern’. This meant asking participants questions about their perspectives of nature and sense of environmental stewardship, and preferences for working in conservation related careers.
Our findings showed that people with strong environmental concern were brought up in a very different socio-cultural environment than those with weaker environmental concern. For example, students with strong environmental concern were more likely to have been brought up in a family setting that emphasized environmental stewardship (biospheric values) and opposed the pursuit of personal gain (egoistic values). We also found the desire to pursue a conservation career was linked to recalled childhood preferences for nature-related storylines and school subjects, and long-term engagement in environmental volunteering.
Childhood experiences of animals and natural environments such as national parks, bushland and rivers were not significantly associated with conservation concern, suggesting that some young Australians cared about nature even if they had little opportunity to experience it as children. This is an exciting finding, as it appears that rapid urbanization and generational shifts away from nature play hasn’t impacted on the development environmental awareness and conservation concern in young Australians.
While previous research has shown very clearly that spending time in nature is good for our health and wellbeing, our findings suggest that it is not the only way to develop environmental awareness and conservation concern. Our study points to a mixture of social, value-based experiences and audio-visual tools that may prove highly effective at promoting conservation concern in young people.