For Earth Week we’ve decided to look below the surface of environmental attitudes and examine some of the deeper world views that shape how people perceive nature itself. Today we look at how Americans conceptualize the “balance of nature.”
Some Americans think the balance of nature is very stable, while others think it is very delicate, or alternatively, random and unpredictable. Differences in these underlying mental models about the balance of nature are related to more specific beliefs about particular issues. For example, people who believe nature is very stable tend not to believe that global warming is happening, while people who believe nature is delicately balanced are much more likely to believe that global warming is happening.
- Americans are most likely to think nature’s balance is “somewhat stable” or “random and unpredictable.”
Respondents were asked to choose among the following statements regarding the balance of nature (the percentage of Americans who chose each response is in parentheses):
Which of the following statements best represents your understanding of the balance of nature?
“Nature has a delicate balance. Small changes can cause environmental disasters.” (23%)
“Nature has a very stable balance. Large changes will not have a lasting impact.” (6%)
“Nature has a somewhat stable balance. Small changes will not have a lasting impact, but big changes can cause environmental disasters.” (41%)
“Nature has a random and unpredictable balance. We do not know what will happen.” (30%)
Four in ten Americans (41%) believe nature’s balance is “somewhat stable” – that small changes don’t have lasting impacts, but big changes can be disastrous. Three in ten (30%) believe nature is random and unpredictable. One in four (23%) think nature’s balance is “delicate” – that small changes can cause environmental disasters. Least commonly, 6% of Americans think nature’s balance is “very stable” – and even large changes will not have a lasting impact.
- Most Americans who think nature has a delicate balance believe global warming is happening, while most Americans who think nature is very stable believe global warming is not happening.
Mental models of the balance of nature are strongly related to beliefs about the reality of global warming. The great majority of Americans who think that nature has a delicate balance believe that global warming is happening (83%). On the other hand, most of those who think nature has a very stable balance do not believe that global warming is happening (53%).
- The environmentally “Disengaged” are most likely to think nature has a random and unpredictable balance.
In a 2015 report
, we identified nine segments of the American public based on their attitudes towards environmental issues, how they viewed themselves in relation to the environment, and how they responded when scientific and religious views about the environment came into conflict. The nine segments ranged from the “Liberal Greens” on the more environmentally-conscious side to the “Conservative Browns” on the anti-environmentalism side.
Among the nine groups, Liberal Greens (48%), followed by the Outdoor Greens (42%) were the most likely to think nature has a delicate balance. Conservative Browns (23%) were the most likely to say that nature’s balance is very stable. But perhaps most striking was that among the “Disengaged” – those who are most apathetic about environmental issues – about six in ten (59%) think that nature is random and unpredictable, greatly surpassing any other group. Among their defining characteristics, the Disengaged are the only segment among the nine who are majority non-white. They also have the lowest incomes and educational attainment of the nine groups.
People’s underlying assumptions about the balance of nature likely influence many of their subsequent judgements about the reality and gravity of different environmental issues. Some reason that if nature is inherently stable and able to withstand the influence of any human activities, then most environmental “problems” aren’t problems at all. Others start from the assumption that nature’s balance is very delicate, thus the slightest human intervention can lead to cascading disastrous consequences. Others assume that nature is just random and unpredictable, so human activities have unknown impacts on a chaotic world. And finally, some view nature as having threshold effects – that nature is resilient to a limited degree, able to absorb and withstand some human impacts. But once those limits or thresholds are exceeded, disastrous environmental problems can occur.
These differences in people’s underlying assumptions about how nature works can lead them to very different conclusions about the current state of the environment and what, if anything, we should do about it. This research suggests that educating people about how humans can disrupt the balance of nature and that many of the impacts are well understood and predictable by modern science could help lay the foundation for more constructive discussions about how to address environmental issues.
This analysis comes from a nationally representative survey on the environment conducted in November, 2014 by the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and the AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. A longer report is available online
, where you can find other interesting results such as the relationship between household income and people’s conceptions of the balance of nature.
Happy Earth Week everyone!
Anthony Leiserowitz, Ph.D.
Director, Yale Program on Climate Change Communication
School of Forestry & Environmental Studies
Please note that this survey, conducted in November 2014, found that 56% of Americans at that time thought global warming is happening. Our most recent survey in November 2016, however, found that 70% of Americans think global warming is happening. Opinions have changed since 2014, but the underlying relationship between public mental models of the balance of nature and beliefs about global warming is unlikely to have changed much.