Earlier this year our new population measure of nature connectedness revealed a sharp dip in nature connection from 10 years of age, reaching a low between 13 and 18, with a slow recovery to the adult population mean at around 30 years old – see the chart below and blog. The measure was developed and tested through use in the existing omnibus survey the MENE survey, which has accredited National Statistic status in the UK. Independent research by the RSPB and Exeter has found a similar profile.
This ‘teenage dip’ can seem at odds with the youth climate strikes that have been hugely successful in bringing urgent attention to the climate crisis. With the youth of today being deeply concerned about environmental issues, how can they also be disconnected from nature? There are two key factors. First, the different focus of the climate strikes and nature connectedness. Second, the difference between population means and activists.
So, let’s look at the focus of each. Greta Thunberg’s school strike is ‘to protest against the lack of action on the climate crisis’ (fridaysforfuture.org). Inspired by Greta Thunberg the UK Student Climate Network’s mission also focuses on action against climate change. Rightly so, U.N. WMO figures show global temperatures are currently on course for a 3-5 degrees Celsius rise by 2100, and it could be higher. Yet many still use the 2C target when explaining the consequences. It’s difficult to know what a 4 degree warmer world would be like, but it could well be the vast majority of humanity would need to live north of London – with insufficient land for food. This situation has been known about for many years, but very little meaningful action has been taken and a UKSCN demand is to communicate the reality.
Nature connectedness is a psychological construct that describes how close an individual’s relationship with nature is – how much they enjoy nature and its beauty, how important it is to them, whether they feel part of nature and if they treat nature with respect. Nature connection leads to pro-environmental behaviours and correlates well with ecological concern – the highly connected are likely to be more concerned about climate change (and have better mental well-being).
So, there’s a clear link, but some key differences in focus. These are highlighted well by looking at the content of Greta Thunberg’s powerful and effective speeches. Nearly 5000 words from www.fridaysforfuture.org/greta-speeches produces the word cloud below. Amongst the most frequent words (35 to 11 uses) are climate, people, crisis, emissions, children, future, countries, leaders and carbon. The words nature, wildlife and biodiversity do not appear, although there are six references to extinction.
By way of comparison the word cloud below shows 5000 recent words from this blog. The most frequent words (168 to 11 uses) are nature, connectedness, relationship, connection, human, research, people, behaviours, sustainable and future. Climate and biodiversity have 8 uses, wildlife 7.
The youth climate strikes rightly focuses on the threat to their future and the need for change to reduce carbon emissions. Nature connection is about our relationship with nature – important as the current climate and biodiversity crises stem from a failed relationship with nature and part of the change required is a new relationship, one that increases pro-nature behaviours and can help lead to a new concept of a ‘good life’. The climate strikes are about the threat to our future, nature connection helps describe what a future relationship with the natural world needs to look like.
There’s a need for language that demands action and language that builds a new relationship with nature for a sustainable future – perhaps they need to be different voices, but not competing. This has been highlighted recently by the response to an XR poster that implies a connection to nature is less impacting and humiliating.
Nature connectedness also helps describe how we’ve ended up in this critical situation. The pathways to nature connectedness highlight the positive relationships with nature, and reveal the negative relationships that have exploited nature to create our modern world – utility, dominion and fear. Nature connectedness should be part of the new curriculum demanded by the UK Student Climate Network.
The second factor that explains the mismatch between the teenage dip in nature connection and the youth climate strikes comes through population means and activists. The dip from 64 at 9 years old to 47 at 14 is in the mean level of nature connection, there are still highly connected teenagers. In previous work we found 46% of children have a low connection and 18% a strong connection with nature. It may well be those supporting the climate action are part of this group, but we don’t have the data to know. However, because of the differences above there won’t be a perfect correlation between connection and climate action. Further, despite the large and impressive numbers at many climate strikes, it represents a small proportion of the teenage population. There are increasingly levels of concern about the environmental crises, but most are not acting on that concern. By increasing connection to nature it’s likely that there would be more people supporting climate action and undertaking pro-environmental behaviours.
So why the teenage dip? Again there’s been little specific research, only recently have a number of studies identified the dip in UK, Canadian, Australian and Chinese populations. However, we know that adolescence is a time of many developmental changes, including the development of self-identity. Identity formation sees childhood characteristics merge with emerging adolescent traits, and consists of a series of stages alongside coping with, for example, physical growth, group acceptance, love, and career choices. It may be that during this time nature, and one’s connection with it, loses importance (there’s a lot going on), but also that the climate movement is a group some (including the less connected) identify with and want to be part of.
Let’s hope more join those demanding climate action, to help bring about the urgent action required and also to help create a vision of new relationship with the natural world where a good life is defined by living in greater harmony with nature, rather than consuming the resources produced by exploiting and damaging the environment.