This Surprising Factor Is The #1 Indicator Of Environmental Engagement. Why This Matters

January 23, 2023

As someone who has dealt with trauma, I’ve consistently searched for ways to cope. Being an animal lover, I was drawn to a vegan and an environmentally friendly lifestyle at a young age. What I didn’t realize, however, was how these things overlap.

A recent study by the University of Colorado at Boulder and Loyola University shows a link between childhood trauma and public environmental engagement. The data indicates that those who experience trauma early in life, such as poverty, hunger, loss of a family member, or bullying, are more likely to engage in public-facing “green behavior” as adults. These behaviors include volunteering for an environmental cause, donating money, or writing letters to public officials.

a Black woman activist and a middle-aged Asian man at a table discussing issues.

Alternatively, other factors are linked to private “green behaviors,” such as reducing waste, recycling, conserving resources, and more. Early childhood experiences in nature, for instance, often correlate to positive environmental attitudes. However, the study states that childhood trauma is the only factor related to public-facing behaviors.

These findings, published in Scientific Reports, introduce a new way of looking at trauma. While there are plenty of negative effects of trauma (like depression, anxiety, aggression, and even physical health problems), adverse experiences in early life often lead to higher levels of empathy, compassion, and emotional intelligence. Psychology Today states that those who have survived difficult events are often more willing to reach out to others who are struggling. It makes sense for this compassion to extend into environmental matters. Perhaps traumatized individuals are more motivated to prevent others from suffering. “It could also partly be a coping mechanism, to attempt to keep bad things from happening to other people or living things,” said lead author Urooj Raja, a 2021 doctoral graduate of CU Boulder.

Of course, not all environmental activists have experienced trauma. So what else influences a “green” attitude? Unfortunately, according to Forbes, environmental knowledge alone is not linked to action. Other factors that are associated with green behavior include cultural values, government intervention, and social interaction.

According to the Association for Psychological Science, different factors motivate individuals from different backgrounds. Cultural values influence every aspect of life, and environmental engagement is no different. People from individualistic cultures are more likely to be motivated by personal concerns, for instance, while those from collectivist cultures are more motivated by social norms. It is important to understand the intersection between culture and worldview.

Government intervention also plays a role. Research in the Journal of Environmental Management shows that “in the absence of government regulation, residents have little motivation to actively choose green consumption.” Instead, a combination of government subsidies and penalties is most effective in motivating residents to make environmentally friendly choices. The Journal of Environmental Management also states that interactions between residents can influence behavior patterns. Having a greater number of neighbors following government policies pushes more residents toward environmentally friendly practices.

If you too have struggled against trauma, knowing that negative events have also empowered you to care about the environment may be a powerful tool in your self-healing.

Also by Cassidy: Vegan Tofu and Vegetable Quiche

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Photo: Monica Melton via Unsplash

Cassidy Klingman
Cassidy Klingman is a writing student who loves words, cats, and vegan baking. Her Instagram account is @cassidyklingman.

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