Attachment to Nature: the Roots of Environmentalism
Attitudes to nature vary between individuals, between cultures and over history. Human behaviour towards nature varies similarly and crudely can be characterised as ‘abusive’, ‘indifferent’ or ‘caring’. Attitudes in western societies currently appear to be more proenvironmental, yet the actual collective behaviour of humanity is unsustainable, potentially threatening our survival. Investigations into the epigenesis of pro-environmental behaviours are few, qualitative, and mainly study environmental educators. Potential antecedents to such behaviour are suggested to include ‘experiences of nature’, adult instruction, and both formal and informal education. In comparison, the antecedents of interpersonal pro-social patterns are increasingly well understood as a result of systematic psychological research: the emotional and motivational qualities of an attachment with the ‘primary caregiver’ (principally parental ‘attachment status’) have been demonstrated to make enduring prototypes for the qualities of other, later, relationships. In this study, a comprehensive, retrospective questionnaire, covering the environment and behaviour of childhood, parent-child relations, and the behaviour of parents in relation to the environment, as well as the present attitudes and behaviour toward nature of the respondent, was completed by 294 adult subjects from a variety of ‘nature relevant’ occupations including Biotechnologists, Conservation Bureaucrats, ‘Ecoradicals’, Students, Farmers and Foresters. Factor analysis demonstrated a modest correspondence between attachment to parents and behaviour toward nature, and showed that people do replicate certain parental environmental behaviours. However, much more potent antecedents of pro-environmental attitudes and behaviours emerged. These were: unconstrained childhood exploration of nature, and modelling of easy familiarity with nature by a ‘nature mentor’, usually a parent. Vicarious experiences of nature, as from broadcast media, also appeared positively to influence attitudes and behaviour, but they result in a more ‘objectified’, less motivated, relationship, and were not a substitute for direct experience. Vocational choice was influenced by childhood nature experience. It is concluded that environmentalism may usefully be considered as composed of dimensions or components of three kinds: emotional, behavioural and cognitive. An emotionally secure relationship with nature, here termed ‘Attachment to Nature’, is hypothesised to be the most significant factor in the generation of committed proenvironmentalism, and a comparison to parent-child attachment theory is made. Outdoor recreation behaviour may prove to be a measure of this nature attachment, comparable with the ‘strange situation’ test of infants for parental attachment. As poor interhuman attachment is implicated in chaotic and abusive relationships, wider emotional and behavioural effects of separation from nature are probable, and may prefigure behavioural pathologies analogous to dissociative disorders, depression and violence. This remains to be rigorously investigated, as do detailed pathways to particular environmental values and behaviours for different personality types. The loss of access to the non-human inherent in the global tide of urbanisation may have long-term psychological costs, implying psycho-social sequelae significant for health, architectural, town planning, transport and economic policies. An ‘ecopsychological’ model of the present erosion and potential restoration of individual and collective psychological health in relation to nature is presented.