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The Development of Pro-Environmentalism in Context

Abstract and Keywords

Global warming has become an existential concern for our own and the planet’s future. As developmental psychologists, the authors are interested in pro-environmental behavior at the individual level, believing that the societal changes needed to address this issue require changes at the individual level. In this chapter, the authors frame environmental issues as moral issues to the extent that how people think about, react to, and interact in the environment reflect moral values such as caring. Consequently, the authors explore how people’s moral attitudes, thinking, emotions, and behavior around environmental issues form and change over the course of development. They also investigate how developing experiences with the natural environment can influence its importance to the self and in identity formation. Finally, the authors consider that cultural context matters; that attitudes and behaviors toward the environment and how they develop depend on the culture in which we are raised and that what we currently know about the development of environmentalism in not likely to extend much beyond mainstream cultures in Western, industrialized countries.

Keywords: environmentalism, cognitive development, emotions, self and identity, culture

I (first author) grew up in Vancouver, Canada. At the time, Vancouver seemed like a sleepy, peaceful city. It was before it had gained international attention through major events such as the UN’s Habitat Conference (1976), the Vancouver World Exposition (1986), and the Winter Olympics (2010). Close to where I lived were “The Flats,” a rural area of the city that bordered the Fraser River (Ross, 2009). In the summer, I would go down to The Flats and explore the trails on my bike. I would collect tadpoles and frogs in the ditches that lined the roads. I would greet the horses and their riders as they passed me by. In the winter, my brothers and I would toboggan down the hills of McCleery Golf Course, which only recently had been converted from a dairy farm. And I remember my Dad taking us down to the ponds that had frozen over and teaching us how to skate.

When I returned home to Vancouver in 2009 after job postings in northern British Columbia and then in the great state of Missouri, I went down to visit The Flats. Much of its ruralness was gone. While the golf club is still there, the ditches are filled in with asphalt. What was once open fields with endless trails are now populated with (p. 420) big, luxury homes walled off from prying eyes. And those long, cold winters that afforded us the opportunities to toboggan and skate are no longer. It seems global warming has taken care of that.

While these effects of global warming sadden me, they do not come as a surprise. Recent reports state that the past few years have been the hottest on record, adding evidence that this trend of increased temperatures is a sign of global warming (NASA, 2017). Such reports have caused environmental scientists to sound the alarm bell that our planet is in danger. In response, international organizations are leading the charge against the threats associated with global warming (United Nations, 2017). However, it is becoming increasingly more apparent that the international community is failing to address many of these threats (World Economic Forum, 2017). In fact, environmental activist David Suzuki has claimed that the entire environmental movement has failed to significantly address the threats associated with global warming (Suzuki, 2012). While many countries are working to reverse these global warming trends at a global level (e.g., the Paris Agreement; United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, 2017), our focus as psychologists is on the individual level. In this chapter, we explore how people of various ages think and feel about their environment and how these factors influence their behavior toward their environment. If we are to address global warming, changing our attitudes and behavior to be more “pro-environment” is likely to be a necessary condition.


Pro-environmental behavior can be best understood as a type of prosocial-moral action because it requires overcoming narrowly defined self-interest for the benefit of the natural environment, both for its own sake and for future generations. By the “natural environment,” we refer to living organisms and their environments that are not designed or cultivated by humans (Fjørtoft, 2004) and that exist largely outside and independent of the human-built environment (Kellert, 2002). Studies in environmental psychology regularly rely on normative-evaluative concepts to explain adults’ pro-environmental behaviors (for an overview, see Steg & de Groot, 2012). At center stage is the concept of personal norms, defined as a sense of personal obligation to protect the natural environment. Personal norms are considered to be the strongest predictors of everyday pro-environmental behaviors (Stern, 2000). This is particularly true for low-cost behaviors that are part of everyday routines and do not require significant personal investments (Steg & Vlek, 2009). Personal norms trigger self-evaluative moral emotions (such as guilt and pride) and are associated with feelings of responsibility (Brosch, Patel, & Sander, 2014; Kaiser, 2006; Kaiser & Shimoda, 1999). Value-belief-norm theory (Stern, 2000) maintains that personal norms for protecting the natural environment are grounded in biospheric value-orientations (i.e., in an appreciation of the natural environment in itself). Value orientations were found to be robustly linked to pro-environmentalism in many countries around the world, as evidenced by a mutlitnational study conducted by Schultz and Zelezny (1999) comprising 14 countries from North America, Latin America, and Europe. Despite this strong conceptual connection between pro-environmentalism and morality, research on moral development has largely neglected this topic so far. As a consequence, it is unclear at what point in development personal norms to protect the natural environment emerge and whether this is an early or late developmental achievement.

(p. 421) We do know from Waxman (2005), who studied children’s acquisition of folk biological knowledge, that such knowledge is important in determining how and when children identify biological entities, such as plants and animals, and biological processes, like life and death. Gaining this knowledge is likely to be a necessary condition in the development of personal norms to protect the environment. According to Waxman, children’s understanding of the biological concept of living things, while available as early as 5 or 6 years, is, nonetheless, rather tenuous. In contrast, the concept of animal is grasped far earlier (Gelman, 1990). Within the first weeks, infants can perceive faces (Carey, Diamond, & Woods, 1980), can distinguish biological movement from mechanical movement (Berenthal, 1993), and can differentiate self-initiated motion from motion driven by external forces (Poulin-Dubois & Shultz, 1990). These rudimentary perceptual abilities allow infants to distinguish animate from inanimate objects in their world and allow them to acquire the knowledge and representation of the concept of “animal” (Waxman, 2005). Furthermore, Hamlin (2013) demonstrated that even preverbal infants understand moral principles of care and fairness and are able to apply them to inanimate toy interactions, such as toys that have been given anthropomorphic characteristics. While the concepts of plants and living things develop later in life, the fact that infants develop the concept of animals and the moral principles of care and fairness suggests that, early on, infants have the potential to understand components of the natural environment (i.e., animals) in moral ways.

Little is known about how developmental changes in reasoning, emotions, and behaviors are related to environmental issues and about the factors that contribute to change. Yet there are two notable exceptions to this general trend. First, in a series of cross-cultural studies, Kahn and colleagues investigated children’s reasoning about behaviors that are potentially harmful to the environment (for an overview, see Kahn, 1999). While applying social domain theory, developed by Turiel and colleagues (e.g., Smetana, Jambon, & Ball, 2014), Kahn demonstrated that children take a strong moral stance toward nature protection. Second, Pratt and colleagues investigated pro-environmental activism in adults taking a personality approach and using McAdams’s framework for studying personality development (Alisat, Norris, Pratt, Matsuba, & McAdams, 2014; Matsuba et al., 2012). The authors stressed that environmental activism is intimately tied to individuals’ sense of identity.Conceptually and empirically, these two areas of research have very little in common as they study diverse age groups, engage different theoretical frameworks, and apply different criteria for assessing pro-environmentalism. Nonetheless, it is noteworthy that personality research repeatedly identified nature experiences in childhood and adolescence as formative for adult environmental activism (cf., Matsuba & Pratt, 2013; Chawla, 2007). Thus, the moralization of nature that is characteristic for children (Kahn, 2006) potentially has long-term implications for the moral lives of adults and for their environmental commitments and sensibilities.

In this chapter, we attempt to join these two major approaches—cognition and personality—on the development of pro-environmentalism singled out in the previous section. In addition, we consider research on emotions and sociocultural contexts in order to understand how pro-environmental behavior develops from a psychosocial perspective. Specifically, we first discuss Kahn’s studies on children’s understanding of nature protection. Yet, even though Kahn’s studies provided strong (p. 422) support for the claim that protecting the natural environment is a moral issue for children, they covered only a rather narrow aspect of moral development. The focus is on judgments and moral reasoning at the expense of emotions, motivations, and behavior. Moreover, Kahn’s research is limited to childhood. We will therefore systematically expand the approach pioneered by Kahn to include other aspects of moral functioning (emotions and behavior) and older age groups (adolescents). Children’s and adolescents’ moral reasoning, emotions, and behaviors must in some way feed into the development of an environmental identity, which is also shaped by cultural factors. Finally, in considering other cultures, we adopt a social ontogenetic perspective (Nsamenang, 2006). That is, we believe that there are universal biological mechanisms underlying children’s psychological development that are tuned differently depending on the particular culture and its practices.

Children’s Moral Judgments About Nature Protection

Kahn investigated children’s sociomoral reasoning about environmental pollution in a series of cross-cultural studies. The same methodology was applied across studies while varying the economic, ecological, and cultural contexts of children’s upbringing: African American children from an impoverished community in Texas (Kahn & Friedman, 1995) were interviewed about environmental issues, along with children from urban and rural parts of the Amazon jungle (Howe, Kahn, & Friedman, 1996) as well as children from Lisbon, a densely populated European capital city (Kahn & Lourenço, 2002). In these studies, Kahn and collaborators relied strongly on social domain theory, as developed by Turiel and colleagues (Smetana et al., 2014), which posits that children from an early age onward are able to distinguish between moral norms, conventional rules, and matters of personal discretion. Three criterion judgments are commonly employed to assess whether an issue is considered moral: prescriptivity (vs. permissibility) of behavior, rule-contingency, and universality. A particular behavior is considered moral in this framework if it is legitimately regulated (prescribed) and not merely seen as a matter of personal preference. This judgment does not depend on the presence of an explicit rule that prohibits the behavior (noncontingency). Moreover, it is binding even if the behavior is not common practice in a country (universality). Kahn found that the vast majority of children in his studies applied all three criteria when reasoning about environmental pollution (e.g., polluting a neighborhood bayou or creek). More importantly, this tendency was largely independent of the developmental context in which children were raised and applied to black children growing up in Texas (87%) in the same way as children from the Amazon (93% and 97%) and European city-dwellers (95%). Thus, children in all studies took a strong moral stance toward protecting the natural environment. One study involved a comparison of children from different grade levels (Kahn & Friedman, 1995). It was found that the moralization of the natural environment increased with age. In grade 1, 68% of children took a moral point of view when reasoning about environmental pollution. This percentage increased to 91% in grade 3 and to 100% in grade 5.

No less revealing than criterion judgments are the justifications children come up with when explaining why they believe it is wrong to pollute the natural environment. Kahn and collaborators (Kahn & Lourenço, 2002) used several categories to code these justifications (e.g., personal interest, aesthetic considerations, welfare of human (p. 423) beings, harm to nature, intrinsic value of nature) and grouped these categories together as either moral or non-moral. Across all studies, it was found that the majority of children (80–90%) used moral justifications to support their views. Note, however, that these moral justifications were not always biocentric and did not necessarily refer to the intrinsic value of nature or to the respect nature deserves. Across all studies, biocentric reasoning was found to be relatively rare (4–8%; Kahn, 2003) and unrelated to age even if older participants were included in the sample (Kahn & Lourenço, 2002). Thus, most participants in Kahn’s studies focused on the negative physical and psychological consequences that environmental pollution had for humans. This may be due to the focus on pollution that affects humans and animals alike.

Kahn’s studies provided strong support for the claim that protecting the natural environment is a moral issue even for younger children and regardless of their socioeconomic and cultural background. At the same time, however, this research was rather limited because it covered a relatively small area of moral development. It was exclusively focused in judgments and sociomoral reasoning and did not address emotional, motivational, and behavioral issues of children’s development. It has become a truism that moral judgment alone does not predict actual behavior. Some authors even go further and claim that moral judgments are rather inconsequential and stress the importance of affective processes instead (e.g., Haidt, 2007). In any case, children’s moral judgments about environmental issues by no means imply the presence of a personal norm that guides their actual behavior.

A second limitation of Kahn’s work is its almost exclusive focus on childhood. As a consequence, it is unclear how the moralization of the natural environment that is present in children develops in the adolescent years and beyond. In general, social domain theory emphasizes that domain distinctions are robust over the course of development (Nucci & Turiel, 2009). Consequently, domain classifications of environmental issues as moral may not change much as children grow older. Still, differences in gradual tendencies to view an issue as obligatory versus discretionary have been documented in adolescence (Smetana et al., 2009). Thus, even if environmental protection continues to be considered a moral rather than conventional or personal issue by the majority of adolescents and adults, there might be systematic age-related trends in the strength of individuals’ moral judgment. Indeed, Krettenauer (2017) reported a decline in the gradual tendency to consider pro-environmental behaviors as obligatory and universally binding from early to late adolescence. With age, teenagers considered pro-environmental behaviors such as energy conservation, waste reduction, and recycling less obligatory from a moral point, even though the majority of participants still tended to consider these moral issues.

Development of Moral Emotions

Montada (1993) argued that the existence of a personal norm is best indicated by the presence (or absence) of moral emotions such as guilt, shame, and pride when engaging in norm-conforming or norm-violating behavior (see also Blasi, 1999). In line with this view, research demonstrated repeatedly that moral emotions predicted actual pro-environmental behavior in adults (Kaiser, 2006; Kals & Müller, 2012; Kals, Schumacher, & Montada, 1999). Presumably, this effect is also present in children and adolescents because moral emotions were shown to predict prosocial and antisocial behavior in these age-groups also (Malti & Krettenauer, 2013). However, the relationship between moral emotions and pro-environmental behaviors has been rarely studied directly in these age groups. Krettenauer (2017) reported moderate positive correlations between self-evaluative emotions of guilt and pride and pro-environmental behavior in a sample of Canadian adolescents. Teenagers who anticipated stronger positive moral emotions when engaging in pro-environmental behaviors and stronger feelings of guilt when failing to do so reported engaging in energy conservation, waste reduction, and recycling more often.

As research following social domain theory has demonstrated, young children around the age of 4–5 years generally experience no difficulties in judging acts of victimization (such as pushing another child or stealing) as morally wrong (Smetana et al., 2014). Yet children at this age often fail to anticipate moral emotions of guilt or remorse when engaging in these behaviors (cf., Arsenio, Gold, & Adams, 2006; Krettenauer, Malti, & Sokol, 2008; Malti & Ongley, 2014). Instead, children focus on positive outcomes of moral infractions (e.g., happiness over having achieved a desired object). It is typically not before the age of 7–8 years that children’s moral judgments and the emotions they anticipate in the context of moral transgressions become coordinated. This coordination process continues well into adolescence. Positively charged moral emotions (e.g., pride) were found to further increase in the adolescent years (Krettenauer, Colasante, Buchmann, & Malti, 2014). For negatively charged moral emotions (e.g., guilt), age-related trends were not uniform and depended on the issue at hand. Whereas minor moral transgressions (such as fare dodging) triggered less strong moral emotions in older adolescents, major infractions (e.g., giving false testimony at court) evidenced a U-shaped pattern, with lower scores in middle adolescence (cf., Krettenauer & Eichler, 2006).

Given that the anticipation of moral emotions is an important predictor of actual behavior, and, at the same time, evidences issue-specific developmental trajectories, it appears to be essential to study what moral emotions children and adolescents expect when engaging in pro-environmental behaviors or when failing to do so. These emotion expectancies should not be limited to self-evaluative emotions (guilt, shame, and pride) but should also include other-evaluative emotions (outrage, admiration) that arise when observing others engaging (or not) in pro-environmental behaviors. Other-evaluative emotions indicate a strong normative orientation where a personal norm was not only applied to the self but also imposed on others. Correspondingly, other-evaluative emotions were shown to be strongly associated with pro-environmental commitment (Kals et al., 1999). Krettenauer (2017) systematically compared the positive and negative, self- and other-evaluative emotions that adolescents anticipate in the context of various pro-environmental behaviors (energy conservation, waste reduction, recycling, proper disposal of hazardous waste). It was found that positive emotions were stronger than negative emotions, and self-evaluative emotions were stronger than other-evaluative emotions. However, there were no significant differences between age groups (early, middle, and late adolescence). Overall, the intensity of anticipated moral emotions was slightly above the theoretical mid-point of the scale and indicated a moderate level of emotional involvement. Strikingly, the intensity of anticipated moral emotions was similar to the intensity of moral emotions that adolescents expected in the context of antisocial behaviors such as shop-lifting and academic dishonesty (cf., Krettenauer & Jia, 2013). Thus, even (p. 425) though anticipated moral emotions in the context of pro-environmental behaviors were moderate in strength, they were similar to the emotions adolescents expected in the context of other immoral behaviors.

Emotional Affinity for Nature

As discussed in the previous section, moral emotions can be defined as emotional responses to behaviors that either conform to a moral standard or violate it. In this sense, guilt, shame, pride, outrage, and awe qualify as moral emotions as long as they are based on moral appraisals. As moral emotions, they require attribution of blame or responsibility to one or more persons for morally relevant acts of commission or omission. However, there is a second group of emotions that are supposed to predispose individuals to moral actions even though they may not directly relate to moral standards of right or wrong: notably, sympathy, gratitude, and forgiveness. These emotions qualify as moral emotions in a broader sense.

Sympathy can be characterized as an evolutionarily based moral emotion that impacts virtually every single aspect of moral functioning (cf., Eisenberg, Spinrad, & Morris, 2014). It is therefore indispensable for any account of moral development (Bloom, 2013). The basic process of sharing emotional experiences with others (empathy) can transform into sympathy and the desire to help others in need. Sympathy may give rise to empathic anger and potentially provides a motivational basis for prosocial activism. Even though sympathy for humans might be less important for the development of pro-environmentalism, it has been argued that humans experience a basic need and propensity to affiliate with life in general, called biophilia (for an extensive discussion, see Kahn, 1997). Biophilia manifests in feelings of connectedness with nature, which in turn form an important motivational basis for pro-environmental behavior (Chawla & Derr, 2012; Kals & Müller, 2012). Thus, sympathy in the context of prosocial-moral development and feelings of connectedness with nature in the context of pro-environmentalism each serve similar functions (cf., Schultz, 2000). In line with this view, it has been demonstrated repeatedly that emotional affinity for nature is one of the strongest predictors of pro-environmental behaviors in childhood, adolescence, and adulthood (Brügger, Kaiser, & Roczen, 2011; Kals et al., 1999; Kals & Ittner, 2003; Krettenauer, 2017; Hinds & Sparks, 2008).

In the literature on moral development, it has been described how empathy undergoes systematic transformations from global empathy in babies (also known as affect contagion) to compassion for other people’s life conditions in adolescence (cf., Hoffman, 2000). With development, empathy becomes less contingent on situational cues and more cognitively mediated; empathy broadens in scope and turns into a stable disposition to feel compassion for others. It is important to note that different levels of empathy development are not stages, where lower stages are replaced by higher ones. Rather, with empathy development, new layers are added on top of preexisting modes of empathy (cf., Hoffman, 2000).

Similar to empathic emotions, feelings of connectedness with nature come in many different forms. They may manifest in the enjoyment of experiencing nature with all five senses (e.g., when watching butterflies, listening to birds, smelling flowers, or when showing care for animals or plants). Feelings of connectedness with nature also can be reflected in cognitively mediated interests to explore and understand natural phenomena. Finally, feelings of connectedness with nature can be expressed (p. 426) through a deep community with the natural world that transcends everyday experience and has a spiritual quality. This broad range of emotional experiences is also reflected in measures that are commonly used to assess feelings of connectedness with nature. The measure developed by Mayer and Frantz (2004) addresses a spiritual sense of connectedness with nature by asking participants to respond to items such as “I often feel a sense of oneness with the natural world” or “I feel as though I belong to the Earth as equally as it belongs to me.” Clayton’s measure of environmental identity (Clayton, 2003) mixes more abstract beliefs (e.g., “I think of myself as a part of nature, not separate from it”) with hands-on nature experiences (e.g., “I really enjoy camping and hiking outdoors”). In contradistinction, the scale developed by Brügger et al. (2011) describes hands-on behaviors that people generally like to engage in as means for bonding with nature and for expressing appreciation of nature (e.g., “I take time to watch the clouds pass by”). It is evident that some of these forms of expressing connectedness with nature are developmentally more advanced than others. Whereas even young children likely do not have any difficulties expressing enjoyment of being in nature, more abstract notions of experiencing unity with the natural world may be beyond their grasp. Cheng and Monroe (2010) demonstrated in a sample of Grade 4 children that enjoyment of nature (e.g., “I like to hear different sounds in nature”), empathy for living beings (e.g., “I feel sad when an animal is hurt”), a sense of oneness with nature (e.g., “Humans are part of the natural world”), and a sense of responsibility (e.g., “My actions will make the natural world different”) form an internally consistent scale. Thus, feelings of connectedness with nature are multifaceted and yet meaningfully connected even in younger children.

Currently, there is no theory available that brings the various forms of emotional affinity for nature into a developmental order and specifies the factors that help individuals to expand their feelings of connectedness with nature similar to their ability to experience empathy for humans. Moreover, there is very little research that tracks emotional affinity toward nature across different ages. As a consequence, very little is known about systematic age-related changes in the intensity of these feelings. Yet there is one major exception. The age period of adolescence has been characterized as a “time-out” (Kaplan & Kaplan, 2002) for individuals’ environmental sensitivities. While children and adults cross-culturally prefer natural environments over urban scenes, the opposite applies to teenagers (Kaplan & Kaplan, 2002). Correspondingly, feelings of connectedness with nature were found to decline over the adolescent years (Krettenauer, 2017; Szagun & Mesenholl, 1993). Thus, older teenagers report less enjoyment of nature and of outdoor experiences as compared to younger teenagers, and they are less engaged in hands-on activities with nature (e.g., taking care of animals and plants, gardening) and also report less empathic feelings for living beings (animals and plants).

It is unclear what factors account for this decline. Adolescents evidence lower rates of anthropomorphic reasoning when talking about the life of animals and plants (Gebhard, Nevers, & Billmann-Machecha, 2003). Thus, with age, they may become more detached from non-human living beings. At the same time, they prefer to spend more time with peers in urbanized environments rather than being on their own in nature (Larson & Verma, 1999). Last but not least, adolescents in Western industrialized societies are constantly exposed to the powerful influence of a youth culture that strongly promotes unrestrained (p. 427) consumerism as opposed to a sustainable lifestyle of environmental responsibility. All these factors together may lead to a decline in feelings of connectedness with nature in the adolescent years.

Pro-Environmental Behaviors in Childhood and Adolescence

Pro-environmental behavior is multifaceted and broad, similar to civic engagement that ranges from volunteering at a neighborhood event to running for president in a national campaign. Stern, Dietz, Abel, Guagnano, and Kalof (1999) distinguished between four different types of pro-environmental behaviors: engaged activism, active citizenship, policy support, and consumer behavior in the private sphere. Pro-environmental activists are committed to political action that aims at influencing the political system and changing the behavior of the broader public. Active citizenship is less demanding and manifests in signing petitions, writing letters to government officials, and contributing to environmental organizations. Policy support, by contrast, is a more indirect form of pro-environmental behavior that becomes evident in the acceptance of public policies that require some personal sacrifices. Finally, consumer behavior in the private sphere relates to all decisions individuals make in their everyday lives that affect how many resources they consume and what products they buy. These decisions may be small but make a considerable contribution if they are widespread (Schultz & Kaiser, 2012).

Evidently, these various forms of pro-environmental behaviors have different cognitive and motivational underpinnings. Stern et al. (1999) demonstrated that the presence of a personal pro-environmental norm predicted active citizenship, policy support, and consumer behavior, but not engaged activism. Moreover, these various forms of pro-environmental behaviors point at the multidimensional nature of pro-environmentalism, similar to findings for civic engagement. It has been demonstrated that the development of youth civic engagement is multidirectional (Wray-Lake, Metzger, & Syvertsen, 2016). Some aspects of civic engagement tend to increase over the adolescent years, whereas others decrease or do not evidence any age-related changes. This finding aligns well with the multidirectional nature of adolescent moral development. Adolescence has been described as a developmental period of increased moral sensitivity owing to more abstract thinking skills, greater perspective-taking abilities, and greater knowledge about societal issues (e.g., Eisenberg, Carlo, Murphy, & Van Court, 1995; Eisenberg et al., 2002). On the other hand, declines in social responsibility and prosocial helping have been reported for this age period (Smetana et al., 2009; Wray-Lake, Syvertsen, & Flanagan, 2016).

Adolescents may become more aware of the environment as an important political issue, as studies on environmental identity suggest (cf., Clayton, 2012). However, on the level of everyday consumer behavior in the private sphere, the overall trend appears to be downward. Three independent studies from Canada, Israel, and the United States reported a decline in pro-environmental behaviors related to energy and water conservation, waste reduction, and recycling over the adolescent years (Krettenauer, 2017; Negev, Sagy, Garb, Salzberg, & Tal, 2008; Wray-Lake, Syvertsen, & Flanagan, 2016). A decline in these behaviors was also reported in a sample of 6- to 12-year-old Spanish children (Collado, Evans, Corraliza, & Sorrel, 2015). Thus, the developmental ecologies of children and adolescents growing up in industrialized countries do not seem to support everyday pro-environmental behaviors. This may be due to decreases in feelings of connectedness with nature as (p. 428) described in the previous section and diminishing opportunities for children and teenagers to meaningfully engage with nature (Müller, Kals, & Pansa, 2009; Myers, 2012), aptly characterized as nature deficit disorder by Louv (2008).

It is an open question whether declines in pro-environmental behaviors in childhood and adolescence are permanent or not. There may be a rebound in the adult years as part of a general developmental trend toward greater moral maturity (cf., Krettenauer, Murua, & Jia, 2016). Studies with adult samples have repeatedly reported positive correlations between pro-environmental behaviors and age (Gifford & Nilsson, 2014; Otto & Kaiser, 2014), even though the overall effect size is small (Wiernik, Ones, & Dilchert, 2013). Moreover, these age-related differences might be due to cohort effects rather than age. Wray-Lake, Flanagan, and Osgood (2010) reported that adolescents’ proenvironmental behavior continuously declined in the United States from 1976 to 2005. Thus, cohort differences likely account for some of the age-related differences in pro-environmental behavior found in adult samples.

Personality: Identity Development

In the previous sections, we reviewed research on how issues related to the natural environment are thought about as moral issues and how moral cognition and emotions relate to environmental attitudes and behaviors. We also presented evidence of the decline in pro-environmental behaviors among adolescents in many developed nations. In this next section, we shift our focus to identity development. Taking an Eriksonian perspective (Erikson, 1963), we consider how development through the period of identity formation may influence and be influenced by our attitudes and actions toward the natural environment. Within moral psychology, the formation of a moral identity has been considered an important motivational factor in influencing people’s moral behavior (Hardy & Carlo, 2005). Similarly, environmental identity is considered an important motivational factor in leading people toward environmental behaviors (Whitmarsh & O’Neill, 2010).

Environmental Identity

Erikson (1968) believed that, during adolescence, youth face the crisis of identity formation versus role confusion. It is a unique stage in development during which people explore and eventually commit to a sense of identity in various areas of human functioning. Biologically, youth go through puberty, becoming more physically independent and sexually mature. Their brains continue to develop, allowing them to think more abstractly and complexly. Socioculturally, youth begin to work and may explore their career potentials. Some youth may explore various political and/or religious ideological positions. By the time they exit this stage of development and enter into young adulthood, they will have formed commitments in a number of these areas, having resolved many identity-related “crises” and thus reached achievement status (Marcia, 1966). However, while Erikson (1968) envisioned youth exiting this stage of development having committed to an identity, recent research suggests that the majority of young adults never reach identity-achieved status (Kroger, 2007; Kroger, Martinussen, & Marcia, 2010). Kroger (2007) attributes this finding to both personality and environmental factors: there are some kinds of people who aren’t interested in environmental contexts, such as universities, that challenge them and their thinking about their identity and that can produce identity-discrepant information (i.e., an identity crisis that has the potential to lead to identity status change).

(p. 429) In the area of environmental psychology specifically, there has been substantial research exploring how identity development in the environmental domain relates to environmental behavior. For example, Mannetti, Pierro, and Livi (2004) studied the behavioral intentions of Italian young/emerging adults (mean age = 24.35 years) to recycle and found that those who had more of a “recycling identity” had greater recycling intentions even after controlling for environmental attitudes, norms, and perceived behavioral control measures. In another study, Whitmarsh and O’Neill (2010) had British adults (age range: 16–65+ years) complete pro-environmental self-identity and pro-environmental behavior scales which were more general in nature (including water reduction, eco-shopping, water conservation, energy conservation, eco-driving, and political action) in addition to reporting on two specific environment-related behaviors—driving and flying reductions. They reported that pro-environmental self-identity was a significant, positive predictor of pro-environmental behaviors generally. However, when pro-environmental behaviors were separated into specific behaviors, pro-environmental self-identity positively predicted waste reduction, eco-shopping, and water/energy conservation only. It did not predict eco-driving, political action, or driving/flying reduction. The authors explained that there are contextual factors that influence people’s specific environmental behaviors, such as whether there are any other viable options to travel besides a car or plane. However, when these viable alternative options were available to behave pro-environmentally, those adults who had a stronger environmental self-identity were more likely to use these options.

An alternative approach to exploring this link between environmental identity and behavior has been to adopt an exemplar methodology (Bronk, King, & Matsuba, 2013) in the study of environmental activists. Environmental activists who have been previously studied have been recognized for their leadership in various environmental organizations (e.g., Greenpeace), involvement in environment-related education, and participation in land management and preservation and environmental design, among other things (Chawla, 1999); Horwitz, 1994; James, Bixler, & Vadala, 2010; Matsuba, et al., 2012). The assumption of this methodological approach is that by studying such activists we may be able to identify factors that lead to their “exemplary” environmental actions and status.

Three qualitative studies have investigated adult environmental activists or professionals (Chan, 2009; Horwitz, 1996; James et al., 2010). Horwitz studied a group of American environmental activists, asking them to describe, retrospectively, formative life events that have contributed to their attitudes about the environment. Horwitz identified direct experiences with nature, concern about the environment for future generations, and their identification with nature as prominent themes in activists’ responses. In another qualitative study of American adult environmental activists, Chan (2009) found direct experience with nature, identifying themselves as agents of environmental change, challenges associated with navigating social relationships and cultural systems, and their long-term commitment to work as salient themes emerging from her activists’ life narratives. Finally, in James et al.’s (2010) study of American environmental professionals, they reported that their participants developed an awareness of their environmental identity in adolescence and emerging adulthood. Moreover, the authors used the term “crystallization” as the moment when their participants became aware of their interest in, (p. 430) and competence and confidence in their knowledge about, nature, leading to their career decisions. Clearly, the Eriksonian identity processes of exploration and commitment were evident in the lives of environmental activists.

In our own quantitative work studying Canadian environmental activists (Matsuba et al., 2012) in both emerging adult and middle-adulthood groups, we found that, compared to non-activists, these activists scored higher in both general identity maturity as well as on environmental identity, attitudes, and actions. In addition, we found that environmental activists showed greater generativity than the comparison individuals. By “generativity,” we mean people’s concern and care for future generations and for leaving a legacy for the future (McAdams, 2001). When we tested for mediating effects, we found that generative behavior mediated the link between identity maturity and greater environmental activism. Finally, there were no differences between young and mid-adulthood groups. Hence, not only was identity formation important, but so was generativity. People’s environmental action was motivated, in part, because of their concern about the state of our planet for future generations.

Furthermore, using a narrative approach, when we compared environmental activists to non-activists in terms of the environmental stories they told, we found that the stories activists told about the environment were more reflective (i.e., showing deeper meaning, vividness, and impact), meaning that their stories showed a more mature form of narrative environmental identity (Alisat et al., 2014). Not surprisingly, this narrative environmental identity measure was significantly positively correlated with an established questionnaire measure of environmental identity (Clayton, 2003) along with generative concern (McAdams & de St. Aubin, 1992). We also found that generative concern mediated the relationship between environmental identity and narrative identity of the environment. That is, our own environmental identity influences our generative concern, which then relates to the meaning, vividness, and impact of the story we tell about the environment. Together, our mixed-methods results illustrated a robust connection between identity and environmentalism and showed that this link is mediated through generativity.

Moreover, recent research by (Zaval, Markowitz, & Weber, 2015) found that generativity can act as a motivator for pro-environmental beliefs, intentions, and behaviors. Zaval et al. primed a group of American adult participants by having them write a short essay on what they would like to be remembered for by future generations (i.e., their legacy). First, compared to participants who did not write such an essay, the “legacy” group scored higher on their attitudes toward combating climate change, pro-environmental behavioral intentions (e.g., buying green products), and donating to environmental organizations. Second, the authors were able to demonstrate that generative-legacy motives acted as the mediator between the legacy prime and climate change beliefs, pro-environmental behavioral intentions, and giving donations. Therefore, the motivational influence of an environmental identity on environmental attitudes and behavior seems to be due, in part, to generational motivational factors, consistent with the generativity model.

Place Attachment and Connectedness to Nature

One of the salient themes emerging from studies of adult environmental activists is the importance of early life exposure to nature (Chan, 2009; Chawla, 1999; Horwitz, 1996). Even in a more normative adult American sample, Wells and Lekies (2006) reported that childhood participation in nature was positively correlated with pro-environmental attitudes and behaviors. Such early exposure seems important in the formation of an environmental identity; however, it’s unclear how this process works. Moreover, there has been growing concern that people, at least in North America, may be becoming separated or distant from the natural environment and that this may be a problem because of its negative effects on both our own health and for its diminution of our care for the environment (Kahn, 2002; Louv, 2008).

There is also a substantial amount of research literature studying people’s connectedness to nature and place attachment. Connectedness to nature refers to a person’s belief and feeling that he or she is part of the natural environment (Bruni, Chance, Schultz, & Nolan, 2012), as was mentioned previously in the moral emotions section. Place attachment refers to the emotional bond, usually positive, that an individual develops toward a familiar location that he or she inhabits or visits, such as a home or neighborhood or the natural environment (Devine-Wright & Howes, 2010). Furthermore, our connection or attachment to place may contribute to our personal or social identity, with some suggesting that place identity arises from our initial attachment to place (Hernandez, Hidalgo, Salazar-Laplace, & Hess, 2007). In addition, changes to the places to which we are attached can impact our identification with that place and our behavioral responses to those changes (Bonaiuto, Carrus, Martorella, & Bonnes, 2002). However, whether that impact is positive or negative depends on a number of different factors, such as the strength of our place attachment, the distance of the place from where we live, the function of the place, and the length of time we have spent at that place (Kelly & Hosking, 2008; Stedman, 2002).

Much of the research studying environmental attitudes, behavior, and identity formation has been conducted on adults in the Western, developed world. In such contexts, the natural world is often seen as separate from the urban, “man-made” world in which people live. As well, researchers often write about the benefits of trying to “escape” to the natural world. Similarly, Louv’s (2008) concept of “natural deficit disorder” reflects the idea of what happens to us when we become separated or disconnected from the natural world. However, the research story we have told so far reflects a Western, predominantly urban narrative of how people understand and act toward the natural environment. In the next section, we turn to research from allied academic disciplines that have studied how people from other cultures value and interact with their natural environment. The purpose of doing this is to show that the social context in which people’s environmental identity, attitudes, and behaviors develop can look very different in other cultural settings.

Culture and the Environment

A child raised to believe that a mountain is the abode of a protective spirit will be a profoundly different human being from a youth brought up to believe that a mountain is an inert mass of rock ready to be mined. A Kwakwaka’wakw boy raised to revere the coastal forests of the Pacific Northwest as the abode of Huxwhukw and the Crooked Beak of Heaven, cannibal spirits living at the north end of the world, will be a different person from a Canadian child taught to believe that such forests exist to be logged.(Davis, 2007, p. 65)

People’s relationship with the natural environment varies by culture. In the preceding (p. 432) quote, the youth brought up to believe that a mountain is an inert mass of rock to be mined reflects what Williams and Patterson (1996) in the resource management field refer to as the “traditional Anglo-American” concept of place, where the primary purpose of a place is to fulfill a human need through instrumental/goal-directed meaning, thus reflecting an anthropocentric perspective. But this is only one of four categories of place meaning that Williams and Patterson (1996) have proposed. Other meanings include (1) inherent/aesthetic meaning, where people respond to beautiful landscapes emotionally; (2) individual/expressive meaning, reflecting the extent to which an individual identifies with a place as a whole on a personal level; and (3) cultural/symbolic meaning, which captures the spiritual, historic, cultural, and geographic importance of a place where people are part of a larger ecosystem or story of the place, which we illustrate next.

McDonald and colleagues (McDonald & McAvoy, 1996, 1997) have studied American Indian/First Nations people’s land ethics and have identified four common values associated with the land that strongly reflect its cultural/symbolic meaning. The first value, and the one most frequently cited, is the sacredness and spiritual aspect of the land to the individual and to the tribal community. The second value is the belief that there is an interdependent relationship with all of creation, such that humans cannot be separated from their natural environment. The third value is a strong sense of connection to and a sense of “place” with the land, as part of their history as a nation. The final value is on the oral, narrative tradition and the passing of sacred traditions through generations. As a result, First Nations children are likely to develop a much different perspective on their natural environment, given its cultural and sacred meaning, through being part of the environment and reflecting the interdependent relationship between the tribe and the natural environment. While First Nations people do attribute instrumental/goal-directed meaning to the land, given their interdependence with the land, they harvest resources in a sustainable way that reflects their beliefs that they are its custodians (McAvoy, McDonald, & Carlson, 2003).

Moreover, being raised in such cultures seems to impact children’s understanding of their environment. Coley and colleagues (Coley, Solomon, & Shafto, 2002) studied the Menominee Indian tribe of Wisconsin. Like other First Nations tribes, the Menominee people see human beings as an integral part of the environment. In contrast to many non-native Americans, Menominee children have significantly greater contact with and knowledge about plants and animals through fishing and hunting activities. The consequence of this is that Menominee children show no anthropocentric, folk biological reasoning regarding animals. That is, they do not impose human qualities on animals, as many non-native American children do (Carey, 1985). Coley et al. (2002) explain this difference as due to the fact that, for non-native American children, their exemplar animal with which they interact most is humans, and so they develop their folk biological reasoning based on humans. In contrast, the Menominee children interact with a greater diversity of wildlife, which allows for the development of a less anthropocentric perspective and presumably a stronger biocentric perspective compared to non-native American children.

Half-way around the world from the First Nations people of North America live the indigenous people of East Africa. Traditionally, wildlife has no intrinsic value to Africans (Sifuna, 2012). Rather, African tribes use wildlife for a variety (p. 433) of consumptive purposes—sociocultural, nutritional, and medicinal (Sifuna, 2012). Each tribe used to have their own cultural and traditional user rights over the management of wildlife. However, these traditional rights have been and continue to be eroded. The introduction of Western values and foreign religions has led to the condemnation of many African traditions, including those that involve the killing of wildlife as part of their cultural rituals and religion (Sifuna, 2012). Furthermore, state governments have undermined traditional rights by creating management policies with little or no consultation with tribal communities (Hodgson, 1999; Sifuna, 2012). For example, providing national park status to traditional tribal lands, thus making it illegal to hunt game, has meant the curtailing of traditional user rights. Many of these states are influenced by the economic potential of the modern uses of wildlife in Africa, such as for recreational purposes that generally cater to tourists from developed countries who value wildlife for their intrinsic beauty (Sifuna, 2012). Such a value is not a traditional African value, however.

It’s unclear how children and adults in these indigenous African tribes are developing with respect to their attitudes and actions toward and identification with their environment in light of colonization, missionization, war, poverty, and disease (Sifuna, 2012). If we consider the Maasai people of Kenya and Tanzania, we do know that the rites of passages leading to Maasai boys becoming warriors and then elders have changed due to colonization and modernization (Hodgson, 1999). No longer do we see Maasai boys killing lions as part of their ritual acts of bravery that were once part of their journey to manhood and their identity as warriors (Sifuna, 2012). Furthermore, as part of colonization, the once semi-nomadic Maasai people have now been confined to reserve areas and forced to raise cattle in some of the most arid regions. They are given minimal state resources for education and healthcare and are often mocked by the countries’ elites for their primitive lifestyles (Hodgson, 1999). In addition, a new category of men among the Maasai, ormeek, has emerged, which refers to those who have abandoned traditional customs and livelihood for a Western way of life as reflected in modern dress, formal education, a nonpastoral career, and the adoption of Western values (Hodgson, 1999). Such men are ridiculed and isolated by the traditional Maasai community. Hence, for many indigenous African tribes such as the Maasai, children are growing up “straddling” the divide between two ways of life. Yet as their traditional cultural practices continue to erode—practices that influence their attitudes and actions toward their environment—they will need to forge new ways to adapt to a changing world and renegotiate their relationship with the earth they occupy.

Conclusions and Implications for Future Research

In this chapter, we have shown how environmental issues can be construed as moral issues and reasoned about from a moral perspective independent of culture (Kahn, 2002). However, recent work has expanded the study of environmental issues by considering moral emotions, seeing environmental behavior as a type of prosocial behavior, understanding the development of environmental identity, and acknowledging that we are all embedded in cultures that influence our identity development.

This research story continues onward. So much of what has been studied on pro-environmental judgment, emotions, behaviors, and identity has focused on adulthood at one point in time or on considering cohort effects. Comparatively little longitudinal research has been conducted to determine the different types of trajectories (p. 434) that people may take from childhood onward in developing an environmental identity and in orienting their environmental attitudes and behavior, as well as the antecedent and consequential factors that are linked to these developmental processes. Such longitudinal research is long overdue.

As well, investigations of how early development with regards to pro-environmental sensitivities relates to later developmental achievements are needed. This has been addressed to a limited extent in narrative research on environmental activism in retrospective studies. This work should be expanded by including other forms of pro-environmental behavior beyond activism (e.g., engaged citizenship, policy support, consumer behavior) and, critically, by conducting prospective longitudinal research on these topics.

These lines of future research are worthwhile in shedding more light on our understanding of how cognition, emotions, attitudes, identity, and behavior around environmental issues develop together. However, it’s important to acknowledge that this research story is a very “WEIRD” (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic) one (Heinrich, Heine, & Norenzayan, 2010) that does not map onto other cultures embedded in non-Western, rural, underdeveloped nations. The cultural case studies we presented are two examples. In the case of First Nations within Canada, here is a minority group living in a developed country and yet their understanding of and interactions with their environment have historically been fundamentally different from the majority mainstream culture which surrounds them. Such minority voices are significantly underrepresented in the psychological literature, in this field as in others.

Similarly, when we consider cultures within economically underdeveloped countries, as in sub-Saharan Africa, their relationship with the environment is built on the goal of consumption. The concept of a “natural environment” to which they can escape from their current living environment does not exist. Hence, it’s questionable whether much of the research we presented here can apply to such cultures. Rather, a whole new set of studies is needed to better understand how people from non-WEIRD cultures conceptualize their environment and all the factors that determine how they think in, act in, and identify with their environment.

It is clear that, based on our review of the literature, psychological research on “environmentalism” remains in its infancy. We have a general sense of how people think about and emotionally react to some environmental issues. We also have some knowledge about how people construct variations on their selves and identities around environmental issues. Moving forward, we hope some of the avenues of research we and others have suggested will add to our knowledge and understanding of why people act in a pro-environmental way in the hope that such understanding can lead to more global, societal changes in this fundamentally important issue for our times and for our collective future on the planet.


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