Once upon a time, a boy hit on me on a dating site because I’m an environmentalist. “Environmentalists are usually nice people,” he explained, and I think he still believes that. Now there’s scientific evidence for his anecdotal claim: exposure to nature makes people more generous, caring, and altruistic.*
See? I am better than you. No, wait…
Maybe it’s not that nice people care about the world and get involved in issues like environmentalism. Maybe it’s that people who spend time outside grow both to become more altruistic and more attached to the environment, and express both of those values through activism and in their personal lives.
Or maybe other recent studies are right and people who do the right green thing often offset that by screwing other people over. Of course, that study did nothing to differentiate those who act on environmental issues out of guilt vs. love, or obligation vs. desire. My guess is that those who buy recycled paper products because they love nature will not show the same behavioural patterns as those who buy them because they’re sick to death of the kids haranguing them. Much like someone who eats fruit because they like fruit will probably not eat as much cake later as someone who eats fruit because the kids are watching and the doctor’s been bugging them to lose twenty pounds. Of course this is entirely speculative.
But evidence from environmental psychology has been piling up for a few decades now: exposure to nature is good for us; or, phrased in a more evolutionarily-correct way, nature-deprivation is very very bad for us. People in hospital rooms with a view of a tree heal faster. Walking in nature is more restorative and restful than walking on a city street. No, never mind, just go read Richard Louv’s Last Child In the Woods, and if that doesn’t convince you that adults and children both need non-human nature in their lives on a regular basis, nothing ever will.
And then maybe stop trying to goad your children into behaving better by surrounding them with Proper Moral Messages in book and television form, and supplement that with a few trees and flowers. You’ve got to admit that’s more appealing than yet another half-hour show with a Very Important Lesson learned in the last ninety seconds and delivered at super-human pitch. Trees and flowers: prettier, quieter, and they make you a better parent, too.
*By the way, the author of the SciAm blog post, P. Wesley Schultz, is one of the major researchers in environmental psychology. He knows whereof he speaks.