Research Summary

Significant life experiences on the formation of environmental action among Chinese college students

How Significant Life Experiences Impact Environmental Action

Environmental Education Research

Understanding how to engage young people to address environmental problems is critical to resolving environmental issues. By exploring what events have most impacted the younger generation, it may be possible to encourage more people to have those experiences and create a more activist public. Environmental citizenship is of particular interest in China as the country faces many issues related to contamination and little is understood about how significant life experiences have impacted those who are engaged environmental citizens. This study investigated what types of significant life experiences that influenced young adults in China to take environmental action. The authors use a definition of environmental action that emphasizes participants’ concrete attempts to solve environmental issues rather than examining everyday environmental behaviors.

To analyze factors that may predict environmental action among young people in China, the researchers conducted a two-phase study. In Phase 1, the researchers surveyed 34 environmentally active Chinese citizens ages 19 to 35. The questions in the Phase 1 survey were open-ended and asked respondents to identify significant life experiences that led to their engagement with environmental action. Phase 2 used the significant life experiences identified in Phase 1 to analyze how much each type of life experience led to personal environmental action. Phase 2 was a close-ended survey of approximately 600 Chinese college students from seven major Chinese cities. For each university, the researchers sent an online survey to students majoring in biology, environmental science, and economics. The first part of the Phase 2 survey asked participants to self-assess their levels of environmental action. The rest of the survey involved questions that assessed the influence of significant life experiences on the formation of environmental action.

Data from Phase 1 was analyzed using 20 different significant life experience categories. In Phase 2, the researchers conducted statistical analyses to predict levels of environmental action based on participants’ significant life experiences. Phase 2 participants were then assigned numerical environmental action scores (based on their self-reported levels of environmental action) and categorized into different stages of environmental action. Environmental action stages range from a “pre-contemplation” stage for those with the lowest score, to an “action” stage for those with the highest scores. Assigning participants to different stages allowed the researchers to rank the participants in terms on an environmental action spectrum.

Results showed that participation in environmental organizations (through events or social networks) was one of the most influential factors for environmental action. This finding resonates with similar research in the U.S. While formal education at the college level was shown to have a significant influence on environmental action, formal education at the primary and secondary school level was not shown to be influential. Phase 1 participants most frequently mentioned experiences in nature during preschool and primary years as an influencing factor. But for participants in Phase 2, natural experiences during preschool and primary years ranked fifth in terms of the most influential factors determining environmental action.

This study is limited by the fact that the sample group in Phase 2 was not representative of the general population in China: all 600 participants were college-educated biology, environmental science, or economics majors. Additionally, all the data in this study was self-reported, which can lead to self-assessment biases and inaccuracies. Since this study was particularly focused on the Chinese context, the findings may be different in other locations. Finally, only a fraction of the reasons that different people take environmental action could be explained using all the life experiences investigated in this study.

Environmental action is influenced by a combination of life experiences; no particular life experience was significantly more influential than others in this study. The authors recommend a focus on education, particularly college but including all forms and levels, to help encourage environmental action. Similarly, natural experiences at all ages, starting in childhood and through adulthood, seem to promote environmental action. Encouraging young people to engage with environmental organizations significantly contributes the likelihood that they will become engaged environmental citizens.

The Bottom Line

To encourage environmental behavior among future generations, we must first understand what prompts people to take environmental action. This study analyzes the types of significant life experiences among Chinese young adults that lead to environmental action. Results show that engagement with environmental organizations, formal college education, and experiences in nature are three of the most important life experiences that lead to environmental action. To help youth and young adults develop into environmental leaders, practitioners should facilitate opportunities that involve formal environmental education at the college level, engagement with environmental organizations, and experiences with nature.