Research Summary

Conservation behavior can defy traditional predictors

Traditional variables expected to predict pro-environmental attitude and behaviors relating to estuary health prove to be insignificant

The Journal of Environmental Education

One of the goals of environmental education (EE) is to provide environmental knowledge and instill pro-environmental attitudes and behaviors in students with the hope that they will drive positive conservation outcomes. As a result, a great deal of research has been devoted to understanding what factors impact environmental knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors. Time spent in nature and exposure to nature during childhood are two factors that have been linked to pro-environmental attitudes and behaviors. This study aimed to build on that research to understand how those variables and others impacted the knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors of individuals living by an estuary with increasing water quality issues. This exploratory research utilized a survey to investigate the estuary-friendly attitudes and behaviors of individuals who lived around the Indian River Lagoon in Florida.

The Indian River Lagoon (IRL) is a highly, biodiverse estuary located on the Atlantic coast of Florida. The estuary stretches across five counties with 1.7 million residents and is important for the local economy. However, water quality concerns have grown as algae blooms and fish die-offs have become more common. Due to the improvements to wastewater management, the primary source of nutrient pollution is from non-point sources such as residential lawns, meaning that individual behaviors have the largest impact on the estuary water quality. Local governments have placed restrictions on fertilizer use on lawns and created campaigns to increase awareness of water quality issues while promoting behavior change. There had also been a lot of attention placed on the ecological health of the estuary leading up to and at the time this research was conducted.

This research was conducted in partnership with the Indian River Lagoon National Estuary Program (IRLNEP). The survey used in this research was designed based off interviews and focus groups with IRLNEP staff, regional environmental educators, and other stakeholders. It was thoroughly tested between March 2017 and May 2018. The survey was distributed between December 2017 and March 2018 through three different organizations: 1) the Brevard Zoo; 2) a nature center in the south of the lagoon; and, 3) the St. Lucie Country utility provider. Each organization used different methods to attract their respective communities to voluntarily complete the survey, which was distributed via email and garnered a total of 1,008 responses.

The survey included questions in a variety of formats, each aimed at illuminating different aspects of each participant’s background. Questions measured: current environmental behaviors, childhood experience in nature, knowledge of IRL, and environmental identity. Current environmental behaviors were measured by asking participants to identify how often they engaged in specific lagoon-related activities (never, rarely, seasonally, monthly, weekly, or daily). To evaluate childhood exposure to nature, the survey asked when participants had their first significant experience in nature, measured in different 5-year increments from birth to 26 years or older. Lagoon knowledge was measured through five multiple choice questions. Environmental identity was measured through an 11 item Environmental Identity scale. Attitude towards the lagoon was measured through questions that asked respondents to rate the importance of the lagoon. An analysis was run to determine which variables predicted 1) concern for the wellbeing of the lagoon, and 2) pro-environmental behaviors related to the Lagoon (e.g., having a rain barrel, properly disposing of leaves, voting for politicians who focused on lagoon heath).

The data showed that participants thought that the estuary itself and taking steps to improve the health of the estuary were both very important. Participants also generally had high environmental identity scores. A significant experience in nature during childhood (age 0-15) and frequently spending time in nature were linked to higher environmental identity scores, though those who had first influential experiences later in life also had high environmental identity scores as well. The analysis of demographic-based questions revealed that 71% of participants were white, 61% were female, 40% were retired, 92% lived in Florida year-round, and 70% did not depend on the lagoon for their livelihood. Most participants reported frequent outdoor activities (“almost daily” was 59%) but directly interacting with the lagoon was slightly less frequent. Interestingly, there was no significant difference in concern for the lagoon based on how frequently residents interacted with the lagoon. In fact, many factors that may be expected to influence attitude towards the health of the lagoon (lagoon knowledge, frequency of time spent in nature, or demographic differences such as gender, ethnicity, or income level) did not have an impact. Similarly, the data showed no relationship between the examined variables (environmental identity, childhood connection to nature, lagoon knowledge, and demographics) and lagoon-friendly behaviors.

This study had a few limitations. Although the sample size was large, the survey was voluntary and distributed through environmental organizations, suggesting the participants likely cared about the lagoon. Therefore, the sample is not generalizable to all residents around the lagoon. In addition, the extensive media attention and awareness campaigns focused on the estuary had led to an increase in general concern. Regarding the survey responses, it is difficult to collect accurate data about a participant’s childhood experiences and how those experiences impact actions that happen years later. The responses were also self-reported, making the responses subject to a participant’s potentially biased self-perceptions.

Participants who were impacted by nature for the first time in adulthood had the same level of concern and participation in lagoon-friendly behaviors as those exposed to a significant nature experience in childhood, so the researchers suggest environmental programming should also focus on adult audiences. Concern for the environment and willingness to engage in pro-environmental behaviors can be established at any age. The researchers were surprised that many variables such as childhood exposure to nature, time spent in nature, time spent interacting with the lagoon, lagoon knowledge, and demographic factors did not predict for lagoon concern or lagoon-friendly behaviors. The researchers hypothesized it has become a cultural norm within the local community to care about the lagoon and act on that concern, likely due to the lagoon’s heightened media attention and the community’s social dynamics. Therefore, the researchers suggested that environmental educators should consider how to impact the culture and social norms of whole communities, rather than focus on individuals.

The Bottom Line

One of the goals of environmental education (EE) is to improve environmental knowledge and instill pro-environmental attitudes and behaviors. This exploratory research utilized a survey to investigate the lagoon-related knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors of individuals who lived around the Indian River Lagoon in Florida, which has had increasing water quality issues. The survey was voluntarily completed by 1,008 individuals who lived around the lagoon. The data showed that concern for the lagoon (attitude) and participation in lagoon-friendly behaviors was not predicted by traditionally influential factors, such as time spent in nature, childhood exposure to nature, or demographics. The researchers suggested that pro-lagoon attitudes and behaviors may have become a social norm in the region. The researchers recommended that practitioners consider how to impact cultural norms of whole communities instead of targeting individuals, and to target adults as well as children in EE efforts.