Moral High Ground: Claimed

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Looking at this picture may make you a better person.

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.

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4 thoughts on “Moral High Ground: Claimed”

  1. “Once upon a time, a boy hit on me on a dating site because I’m an environmentalist”

    Are you sure that was the reason? Sounds like a strange reason to hit on a girl. How do you know he still thinks you are a nice person?

  2. Please don’t tell me that a group of researchers tested the effects of “exposure to nature” by putting some people in an artificially-lighted room buzzing with electronics and showing them POWERPOINT SLIDES of butterflies! Gimme a break.

    Have you read the full report yourself?

    1. Hi Jennifer! It’s been so long! I miss being able to comment on your blog, btw.

      Umm, well, yes, they did–but as part of an overall research strategy/area that includes trying to determine what happens to people when they spend time outside in nature. The thing is, when you have a bunch of people wandering outside at a park, it becomes difficult to isolate “nature” as the important factor (maybe it’s fresh air, exposure to sunlight, being around certain other people, quiet, free time/leisure, etc.). You’d have to have people outside at a park (and measure their levels of happiness/altruism before and after) and then have a control group of people outside at the same location but without any nature in it–and as you can imagine this is difficult to do.

      So you get two different kinds of studies, that try to tackle it from different angles. 1: people outside at a park vs. people outside at other locations, with all the caveats that go along with it (but which nonetheless do show a significant effect from being in natural vs. built settings), and 2: people in a highly controlled environment, one with images of nature and one with other images (but then it’s not really “nature” and you have a whole other set of caveats). Neither are ideal but in combination you can start to put a case together. Does that make sense?

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