Does Interaction with Nature Effect an Eco-Friendly Lifestyle?
Table of Contents
Throughout history, humans have had an intimate relationship with nature, most obviously depending on it for subsistence. As modern society emerged, industrialization freed many people from their direct reliance on nature for subsistence. With increasing urbanization post-industrial revolution, human civilization started insulating itself from its ecological roots, creating a distance between human society and the natural environment. While industrial processes catering to urban consumption do depend on natural resources, the urban consumer is oblivious to this. This distance causes a romanticized conception of nature as a peaceful, idyllic place, as opposed to the busy hustle of the city. In urban settings, people-nature interactions have fundamentally shifted from direct consumption to a more seemingly mutualistic relationship where people actively seek out interactions with nature for recreation and relaxation. (Keniger, et al., 2013)
People engage in activities involving interactions with nature to find an escape from the tiring reality of urban environments and refresh their minds. Research suggests that interacting with nature improves cognitive abilities and can also help with depression and stress. (Berman, et al., 2012) Interaction with nature has also proved to be helpful in raising one’s morale and self-esteem. (Keniger, et al., 2013) A meta-analysis by Kapaldi, et al. (2014) suggests that people who are more connected to nature tend to be happier. Businesses around the world have cashed on this opportunity by investing in ecotourism, building nature-themed parks, resorts and vacation spots, and constructing residential and office complexes with a view of nature. Even governments have endorsed activities of ecotourism as not only a way of stress relief but also as a way to protect nature by improving awareness and generating revenues for local communities and public conservation activities.
Such endorsement by governments needs to be examined critically since existing research shows that the benefits of ecotourism are outweighed by its ecological costs and can have a detrimental impact on local ecosystems and communities. According to a study by Karanth and Defries (2010), ecotourist projects hardly employ locals and use massive amounts of local resources such as water and firewood that are stripped away from local dwellers and wildlife. A study by Naidoo and Adamowicz (2005) shows that the revenues generated by ecotourism are insufficient to sustain and manage ecologically sensitive areas.
While existing literature suggests that ecotourist activities broadly have a negative impact on the natural environment, there is also research that shows that interaction with nature has positive effects on people’s attitudes towards the environment. For instance, a study by Hosaka et al. (2017) suggests that childhood nature experiences have a vital role in shaping affective attitudes towards various types of wild animals. Experiences in nature are positively associated with stronger pro-environmentalism, such as emotional affinity toward nature (Kals, et al. 1999), willingness to conserve biodiversity (Soga and Gaston, 2016), willingness to pay for the conservation of urban green spaces (Lo and Jim, 2010), and pro-environmental attitude. Barton, et al. (2016) found an increase in adolescents’ connectedness to nature after a wildness expedition. Evans, et al. (2018) conducted a longitudinal study in which they found that one of the main predictors of young adults’ environmental attitude was time spent outdoors during childhood. Overall, existing literature suggests that there is a positive relationship between interactions and experiences in nature and pro-environmental attitudes.
Contrastingly, some studies show that the relationship is inverse. People who feel more connected to nature are more likely to engage in activities involving nature. Bjerke, et al. (2006) noted that people with stronger environmental beliefs reported a higher preference for activities like scenery photographing and mountaineering. Similarly, a study by Lin, et al. (2014) found that people who are more environmentally conscious were more likely to spend time in parks, gardens, and their yards. This makes us question whether the relationship between interaction with nature and environmental attitudes is positive, inverse, or just correlational.
Studies in consumer behaviour and marketing research have shown that environmental awareness and positive attitudes towards the environment do not necessarily imply environmentally friendly behaviour. Heo and Muralidharan (2017) suggest that millennials are more environmentally aware than other generations, but they have trouble converting this awareness into actual behaviour. This makes us rethink the way we associate interaction with nature to an eco-friendly lifestyle, as there is a gap between environmental awareness, attitudes, and behaviour. This study aims to bridge this gap by attempting to establish a direct relationship between a person’s interaction with nature and the eco-friendliness of their lifestyle. And to understand if interaction with nature directly influences a person to lead an environmentally friendly lifestyle.
Impact of Nature: Hypothesis
The interactions of this study are only the ones for recreational purposes. Consumptive, exploitative and other forms of interactions are not covered in this.
An online survey was conducted since the restrictions on movement imposed by the government to control the spread of COVID-19 made it almost impossible to conduct fieldwork and in-person surveys. As such, an online survey comprising 20 questions was carried out, in which 150 students from colleges across India participated. The survey had two sections, one to assess the degree and frequency of the person’s interaction with nature, and another to understand the eco-friendliness of their lifestyle. To calculate participants’ interaction with nature, they were asked questions about how frequently they visited ecotourist sites, how much time they spent on activities involving nature, how frequently they visited parks, gardens and zoos, and their perception of the aesthetic value of the environment. To calculate the eco-friendliness of participants’ lifestyles, they were asked about their frequency of air travel, means of transport, waste management, conscious purchasing, and spreading environmental awareness.
Coding the Data
Most of the survey questions were of a multiple-choice type, and a few of them were in the form of checklists. I did not use a Likert scale since it has the potential to bias the results towards more moderate options. Apart from that, the nature of the questions asked in this survey demands a multiple-choice type since the Likert scale might make the options seem reductive and confusing (Bishop and Herron, 2015). But due to the reliability and convenience of the Likert scale in data analysis, the data collected from the survey was converted to a Likert scale. Consecutive numeric values were assigned to each of the options for every question. The questions were grouped into two sets, and the numeric values of the chosen option for each question in the set were summed to derive the two main variables. The two variables are called ‘Total Interaction Score (TIS)’ and ‘Lifestyle Score (LSS).’ The formulae used to compute the values of these two variables are described in figure 1. TIS is the predictor variable, and LSS is the outcome variable. After computing the TIS and LSS values for every participant, a dataset with just these values was created: the age of the participant and the level of the participant’s environmental education.
I exported the dataset to RStudio and ran some statistical functions to understand the data. I used the ‘mean’ function to calculate the mean value of each of my variables. I used the Shapiro-Wilk normality test to see whether the values of my variable follow a normal distribution. I used scatter plots and density plots for a visual representation of the data. I use Spearman’s rank correlation coefficient and linear regression analysis to analyze the statistical relationship between variables.
All the participants of this survey were in the age range of 17 to 30 years. Almost half of them were 20 to 21 years old. The mean age of the participants was 21.87 years. This is because this survey was targeted towards college students and was shared only on college forums. All the participants of the survey belong to urban and semi-urban backgrounds and do not have any direct consumptive relationship with nature. Some of the college participants of this survey belong to are Ashoka University, Delhi University, Azim Premji University, National Institute of Fashion Technology, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, National Law University (Vishakhapatnam), and Hyderabad Central University. Though I have included any questions to assess the participants’ economic background, all the participants study in reputed colleges across India. 6% of the participants are research scholars who perform fieldwork in natural environments.
The values of TIS range from 8 to 24, averaging at 14.61, while the values of LSS range from 18 to 40, averaging at 28.83. This shows that most of the participants interact with the environment at a moderate rate and have a moderately eco-friendly lifestyle. To see if the values of TIS and LSS are normally distributed, I used the Shapiro-Wilk normality test. The value of TIS is not normally distributed, but the values of LSS are. The distribution of the density of this data can be seen in Figure 2. It is important to test if the data follows a normal distribution to use an appropriate statistical method to analyze it.
The scatter plot in Figure 3 helps us visualize the relationship between TIS and LSS. The scatter plot has a slight positive slope implying some amount of positive relationship between TIS and LSS. While Pearson’s correlation coefficient is the most convenient method, it cannot be employed in this case since the data is not normally distributed. The data also appears to follow a monotonic relationship. So, I used Spearman’s rho coefficient to calculate the correlation between TIS and LSS. The rho (correlation coefficient) estimate is 0.4349 with an insignificant p-value of 2.66e-08. This shows that there is a moderately positive correlation between TIS and LSS.
Through the correlation analysis, we observed that there is a positive correlation between TIS and LSS. To test if these variables have a linear relationship, i.e., the value of LSS changes corresponding to the change in the value of TIS, I used linear regression analysis. The t-statistic and the model t-statistic are larger than the confidence interval of 1.96, indicating that it is not purely a chance event. Both the p-values are smaller than the significance level of 0.05, which means that the linear model is statistically significant. This lets me reject my null hypothesis. You can see the complete summary of the linear regression in Figure 4.
In order to provide qualitative backing to my data, I interviewed 5 students who frequently engage in recreational activities involving interaction with nature. Two of the interviewees have a deep interest in trekking, one of them in birdwatching, one of them in backpacking, and the other one in wildlife photography. Three of them were from Ashoka University, one of them was from Azim Premji University, and the other was from Aditya College (Rajahmundry). All of them have replied that one of the factors that kindled their interest in the activity was the proximity to nature. They also had other factors that influenced this interest. When asked whether they consider themselves to be environmentally responsible, two of them said yes, and the remaining said that they feel they could do more. All of them mentioned that they take special precautions to not disturb the environment when they visit natural areas. All of them feel that their interactions with nature shaped their attitude towards the environment, which led to lifestyle changes. It is important to note that three of them opine that individual efforts do not make much difference in environmental conservation. (Rosa and Silvia, 2019)
86% of the participants said that they receive aesthetic pleasure from nature. Only one participant said no, and the others were not sure. More than 76% of the participants said that personal experiences played a role in shaping their interest in nature. The second highest factor was school and college education at 43%. More than 85% of the participants buy their groceries from local vendors. There is no significant correlation between the age of the participant and their eco-friendliness.
While there is a very mild positive correlation of 0.2171 between the level of environmental education and eco-friendliness of lifestyle, a regression analysis showed that there is not a significant linear relationship between them. This means that a higher level of environmental education does not lead to a lifestyle that is eco-friendlier. The scatter plot in Figure 5 shows that the eco-friendliness remains constant with an increase in level environmental education, till a point, after which it gradually rises. This is an interesting observation.
The results of this study show us that not only can my null hypothesis be rejected, but also my alternative hypothesis can be approved. This means that there is a significant positive relationship between TIS and LSS. A student who interacts more with nature leads an eco-friendlier lifestyle. These results are consistent with the existing research that I mentioned at the beginning of this report.
While cost-benefit analyses and environmental impact assessments help understand the direct impact of ecotourist activities on ecologically sensitive areas, they do not account for the change in people’s attitudes and perceptions of the environment. The influence of visiting ecotourist sights on a person’s everyday behaviour is an important factor to consider while working on policies to promote environmental awareness. While it is important to protect the integrity of the natural environment, governments should encourage activities of ecotourism to promote environmental awareness.
Administrative bodies put in so much effort and resources into developing initiatives and mechanisms to promote a sustainable relationship with the environment, but most of them fail due to the apathy of people. This study is even more relevant to Ashoka University. During my experience as a member of the Environment Ministry of the Ashoka University Student Government, I observed that several initiatives to promote sustainable consumption of resources, waste segregation, use of alternatives to single-use plastics failed because students were not willing to change their lifestyle. By promoting interaction with nature, eco-friendly attitudes and behaviours can be instilled in students. These interactions can be made part of the Environmental Studies Foundation Course which is already mandatory for all students to take.
Implications on Education
The results of this study can have significant implications on the way environmental education is designed for students. Linear regression analysis showed us that the level of environmental education did not have a significant impact on how eco-friendly one’s lifestyle is. Figure 5 shows that environmental education only starts making an impact on a person’s eco-friendliness after they have pursued an undergraduate or graduate degree in a field related to the environment. This is a real indictment of the way Environmental Studies is taught in schools. The main objective of teaching students about the environment is so that they implement such practices in life that have a positive impact on the environment and avoid those practices that harm the environment. School curricula seem to be failing in realizing this objective.
Increasing practical engagement with the environment in school curricula can have a significant positive influence on students’ attitudes and behaviour towards nature. Activities such as gardening, hiking, birdwatching, mountaineering, flower-picking, and excursions to natural areas should be included in school curriculums. These activities can not only help students relax and refresh themselves but can also help to create environmentally responsible citizens. Parents must encourage their children to take up hobbies involving interaction with nature and provide them with the required guidance and resources. This should be a part of every student’s life.
- The sample of this survey is very small, not completely random, and was limited to specific colleges due to the lack of time and resources.
- The definition of interaction with nature and eco-friendliness of lifestyle were arbitrary.
- The questions asked in the survey were not comprehensive, and there is a possibility for the inclusion of more questions.
The Way Forward
This study provides useful insights for both environmental policymakers and educators. Realizing the potential of interaction with nature to create eco-friendly citizens is important for activities of environmental conservation. This study has the potential for extension and replication. More questions can be added to make it more comprehensive. The sample size can be expanded, and the sample can be randomized to make it more authentic. Replicating similar studies in different demographic categories can give us a diverse understanding of this subject. As the discourse around environmental issues is becoming more common over time, studies of this nature become important. Understanding the psychological factors influencing people’s attitudes and behaviours is essential to a healthy participatory democracy.
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