If you’d asked me four years ago what an environmentalist’s job is, I would have been quick to tell you that their main responsibility is preserving nature. Environmentalists are charged with the noble task of keeping the Sierra Nevada, the Amazon rainforest, and countless other natural landforms in the world, pristine and beautiful. I would have told you that environmentalists are supposed to make sure that some land in the world remains protected from humans’ sticky fingers.
But a few years ago, my views about nature, the environment, and humans’ place within it started to change. It all started when I took a job working as an apprentice at a small organic vegetable farm in Connecticut. My three months there impacted me powerfully, and eventually led me to consider some of the deeper questions in the environmental movement regarding how humans should interact with and conceptualize nature and the environment. This summer, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to explore some of these questions through the Stanford Chappell Lougee scholarship, which funds sophomores’ independent projects in the humanities and social sciences.
My project is still very much a work in progress, but in this post I’ll try to give an account of where my idea came from, how I worked with it over the summer, and where I hope to go with it in the future.
Growing up, I was lucky enough to have parents who took me hiking and backpacking from a young age. I distinctly remember carrying Top Ramen noodles in my Cinderella backpack as a kindergartener on a family backpacking trip in Yosemite. As I got older, I started going to a backpacking sleepaway camp near Mt. Shasta, and eventually started taking my own trips with friends, experiences which solidified my knowledge of the principles and benefits of hiking in the wilderness I’d been exposed to as a child. I tried to “leave no trace” by camping away from rivers and lakes, packing out my own trash, and only using gas stoves instead of making fires. I learned to appreciate the feelings of peace and relaxation that washed over me while I traversed trails high above the hustle and bustle of human civilization.
My views about nature–and how people can and should interact with it–changed, however, during my time working at an organic farm during the gap year I took between high school and college. The fall after I graduated high school, on somewhat of a whim, I took a job as an apprentice at a small organic vegetable farm in Connecticut. Four days a week, I’d work with the crew to plant, harvest and weed the farm’s 14 acres of vegetables and flowers; the other two days I’d help sell our produce at the local farmers’ market. There, I gained both practical knowledge about how to grow vegetables, and exposure to a whole new world: that of organic and sustainable agriculture. Moreover, my views about what constituted nature–and how humans and nature are connected– transformed. I no longer saw nature as something majestic that I occasionally went to visit and marvel at. Rather, nature was right in front of my face, something I interacted with on a daily basis and depended on it for my sustenance and livelihood. Nature was something to be worked with and integrated into daily life, not necessarily put aside.
When I entered Stanford as a freshman the following year, I began to understand how my experiences fit into broader sub-sectors of the environmental movement: the wilderness/hiking/backpacking movement, and the sustainable agriculture movement. As I thought more about my experiences and the movements in general, I came to an interesting realization: people in both movements purport to have the interests of the earth in mind, and both groups see themselves as part of a solution to the world’s environmental crisis. Despite this shared goal, there seemed to be a distinct difference in how people in these movements conceptualize nature. In hiking and backpacking, and the wilderness movement that surrounds it, the emphasis is mainly on preserving the earth in its natural beauty and protecting it from human influence. In sustainable agriculture, on the other hand, the emphasis is more on understanding how humans are integrated into natural systems, and devising ways to ensure that these systems remain in balance. In my research project this summer, I sought to explore whether the differences I had observed firsthand held true in a broader context.
When summer arrived, I decided my best bet was to start out broad and investigate how history and culture affected what people meant when they talked abut nature. I checked out stacks of books on everything from biblical conceptions of nature to John Muir’s influence on the environmental movement to Wendell Berry’s agrarian philosophy. I spent my days in the library working to uncover some of the historical and cultural bases of our conceptions about nature. Our view of nature, I learned, had gone through a plethora of changes. In fact, the word itself, as Raymond Williams famously wrote, is quite possibly one of the most complicated words in the English language (see “Ideas of Nature” in Problems of Materialism and Culture, 1980 for more on this). Perhaps my most interesting find was that nature has not always been glorified as something beautiful and majestic as it is today in the United States and much of the Western world. In fact, as Roderick Nash points out in his excellent 1967 book Wilderness and the American Mind, for a very long time nature was seen as something scary and dangerous–something to be overcome. Cities, and civilization in general, were seen as the antidote to turbulent, untamed nature. It was only after the Romantic period, and John Muir’s environmental writing and activism in the early part of the 20th century, that some people came to see nature as beautiful, majestic, and, in some cases, an antidote to the problems of civilization.
After this initial, general phase of research, I decided to narrow my question by picking a discipline and a method. After a lot of deliberation, I chose to situate my research in psychology, and use surveys as my primary methodological tool. My hope was that a psychological perspective would help me to gather data that could be extrapolated to understand a phenomenon in a broad context. And by collecting opinions as well as demographic data in my surveys, I could test for correlations and relationships that I might not be able to find if I had relied only on interviews or archival information.
In the second phase of my research, I explored how people in the Bay Area involved in each of the movements described above thought about nature. I wanted to see whether there were nuanced differences in the environmental attitudes of these two groups of people, despite their common concern for the environment. In other words, I wanted to test whether my initial observation about different orientations in the environmental movement held true for individual people. With the help of my advisor, Professor Greg Walton in the psychology department, I designed a short pencil and paper survey that consisted of a series of statements designed to tap the two different attitudes toward nature I had observed through personal experience. I also included a general scale of environmental concern, as well as a series of demographic questions. In July and August, I distributed the survey to volunteers at community workdays at two Bay Area sustainable farms, as well as to hikers at two Bay Area trail heads.
After entering and analyzing my data in a statistical program, I was pleased to find that my results mostly supported my hypothesis. Volunteers at the sustainable farms were significantly more likely than the hikers to agree with statements that supported the view that humans and nature are fundamentally interconnected and are part of one and the same holistic system. This difference held even when accounting for general level of environmental concern, knowledge about sustainable agriculture, and demographic variables such as age, gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, etc. In other words, my data showed that the one factor affecting people’s support for this “integrated” view of humans and nature was their experience volunteering at an organic farm that day.
The farm volunteers and the hikers were equally likely, however, to support statements that supported a view that sees nature as something pristine and that should be left untouched. In other words, the farm volunteers agreed with both ways of looking at nature (humans as integrated with nature, and humans as separate from it), whereas the hikers only agreed with the view that humans were separate from nature. There are many possible explanations for this, one of which could be that the “separate” view of nature is a fairly old and culturally ingrained attitude within the environmental movement, and thus likely to be held by anyone who considers themselves a part of this movement. The “integrated” or “interconnected” view of humans and nature, on the other hand, is much newer and thus only likely to be adopted by those who have specific experience, even if just a small amount, with the practice of sustainable agriculture.
There is still much more work to be done with this project, and I’m looking forward to exploring these questions in the future, perhaps in the context of an Honors Thesis or a graduate program. One question that remains in my mind is how these two views impact people’s environmental behaviors: I want to know whether people are more likely to engage in certain types of behavior depending on which view they espouse. I’m also curious about how these two views might affect people’s opinions on specific environmental dilemmas. In other words, can a person’s view on nature predict their view on say, a county water allocation issue? Another question I’m interested in is how these two views on nature manifest themselves in environmental education programs, and whether the orientation of a program affects the learning or behavior outcomes of the students involved.
All in all, my summer was an incredible experience. I had the unique opportunity to turn a question stemming from personal experience into a full-fledged research project, which I hope will be able to serve as a springboard for future endeavors that will get me just a little bit closer to understanding the fascinating human-nature dynamic.
Caroline Hodge is a junior interested in agriculture, environmentalism, and majoring in psychology. She is currently studying abroad in India.