When former US President Ronald Reagan said, “If you’ve seen one redwood tree, you’ve seen them all”, he spoke from a belief system rooted in his disconnection from the natural world.
All human communication emerges from belief systems. In the case of environmental communication, beliefs (the complex fusion of feelings and attitudes) inform how we variously see ourselves in relation to the nonhuman world.
In an age when environmental beliefs play a critical role in whether society shifts toward sustainability, it’s important to be mindful of our belief systems. Particularly important is the need to be watchful of the environmental beliefs we nourish in younger generations.
In 2011, a British study by Play England revealed that over 30% of children aged between 6 and 15 had never climbed a tree. 60% preferred to watch TV or play computer games than venture outdoors.
What beliefs are we propagating in a world where children seldom venture into the natural environment? Indeed what beliefs are we empowering in a world that now identifies “nature deficit disorder” as endemic. In his book Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv highlights the tragedy of a generation of children disconnected from the natural world.
Children are growing up in a globalised world rife with projections of environmental “doom and gloom”, a future in which Mother Nature is predicted to writhe against humanity through extreme weather events, a future diminished by human activities, a future pushed to ecological collapse and mass species extinction. What kind of environmental beliefs do these collective visions engender in young people? How do they speak to the heart and soul of human connection (or disconnection) with the natural world?
We may view the natural world as something “outside” or “inside” our sense of self. Irrespective, our environmental beliefs emerge slowly over time. As famed naturalist Wallace Stegner wrote: “Every action is an idea before it is an action, and perhaps a feeling before it is an idea, and every idea rests upon other ideas that have preceded it in time.”
As writer Julia Corbett puts its: “All environmental messages are crafted from a perspective, informed by a worldview.” Our environmental communication invariably draws upon personal relationships and life experiences that are (deliberately or otherwise) used to justify what we say and do. As Corbett highlights in her book, Communicating Nature, our environmental beliefs are as much a cultural product as they are an individual one. They are an outcome of childhood experiences, sense of place, historical and cultural contexts.
So what childhood experiences are we promoting to encourage healthy environmental beliefs? How do we advocate for a meaningful sense of place? And how can we position emerging history and changing cultures to positively influence the developing beliefs of our future citizens and leaders?
As political writer Kirkpatrick Sale says: “In its attitude to the land, and the creatures thereof, a culture reveals the truest part of its soul”. If humans are to meaningfully reconnect with each other and the Earth, perhaps the first place to explore change is in the construction of human beliefs about the natural world.
If only this were as easy as it sounds. If only it were as simple as inspiring our children to get out and about in the natural world.
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