Taking the Environment as an Issue of Adolescent Moral Development

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Taking the Environment as an Issue of Adolescent Moral Development

By Tobias Krettenauer

Climate change, water and air pollution, loss of biodiversity, urban sprawl … Many people have heard about these pressing environmental issues. Why do they care? Humans have a biological propensity to affiliate with nature (aka biophilia) - similar to empathic feelings we share with others. Also, many feel it is not right for the winner to take all (re: dictator game) and leave behind a depleted planet for future generations. Cross-cultural research with children demonstrated that even 1st Graders take a strong moral stance toward protecting the natural environment, regardless of their socio-economic and cultural background [1]. Children do not think it is okay to engage in actions that are harmful to the environment no matter whether these actions are common practice in a society or authorities explicitly permit them. How about teenagers?

The age period of adolescence has been described as a "time out" in the human relationship with nature [2]. While children and adults across cultures prefer natural environments over urban settings, the opposite applies to teenagers. Teenagers seem to be too busy growing up to develop much interest in their natural environment. Previous studies in the US and in Israel documented a decline in pro-environmental behaviors over the adolescent years [3, 4].

This study seeks to better understand the cognitive and emotional factors that account for the decline in pro-environmental behaviors in adolescence. Based on a sample of 325 Canadian adolescents from three different age groups (early, middle, late adolescence), the study demonstrates that the majority of teenagers actually do consider everyday environmental behaviors such as energy conservation, waste reduction and recycling a moral issue (see Figure). That is, they do not think it is okay to engage in these behaviors even if others do. This tendency is strongest with regard to recycling (81.7% of participants tend to think this is a moral issue) and less strong for energy conservation by driving the car less (51.8%). At the same time, however, older adolescents tended to view pro-environmental behavior as less obligatory (prescriptiveness judgment) and considered not engaging in these behaviors more acceptable if this was common practice in a country (universality judgment). In line with these tendencies, self-reported pro-environmental behaviors significantly decreased from early to late adolescence. Older adolescents engage less often in energy conservation, for instance, by walking, using public transportation or by turning off lights at home, they recycle less and they are less involved in environmental protection by properly disposing hazardous household waste. Two major factors were found to account for this age-related decline: First, older adolescents consider pro-environmental behaviors more a matter of personal choice than younger teenagers. Secondly, they feel less emotionally connected with nature, that is, they report less enjoyment of being in nature and less engagement with nature.

Without any doubt, the question of how societies can promote more sustainable life-styles in future generations is of pressing importance. Educators started to develop many initiatives and programs to foster environmental awareness and sensitivities in children. The research reported in this study reminds us not to forget about adolescents. Adolescents need to be provided with the opportunity to meaningfully engage with nature. They need to be encouraged and supported when taking a moral stance towards protecting the natural environment - for the sake of their own well-being and the benefit of future generations.

Tobias Krettenauer is professor for developmental psychology at Wilfrid Laurier University, Ontario, Canada. He earned his PhD from the Free University in Berlin, Germany. He has conducted many studies on moral development across childhood, adolescence and adulthood.






[1] Kahn, P. H. (1999). The human relationship with nature. Cambridge: MIT Press.

[2] Kaplan, R., & Kaplan, S. (2002). Adolescents and the natural environment: a time out? In P. H. Kahn & S. R. Kellert (Eds.), Children and nature: psychological, sociocultural, and evolutionary investigations (pp. 227–257). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

[3] Negev, M., Sagy, G., Garb, Y., Salzberg, A, & Tal, A. (2008). Evaluating the environmental literacy of Israeli elementary and high school students. Journal of Environmental Education, 39(2), 3–20.

[4] Wray-Lake, L., Metzger, A., & Syvertsen, A. K. (2016). Testing multidimensional models of youth civic engagement: Model comparisons, measurement invariance, and age differences. Applied Developmental Science, Advance online publication. DOI: 10.1080/10888691.2016.1205495

[5] Krettenauer, T. (2017). Pro-environmental behavior and adolescent moral development. Journal of Research on Adolescence. Advance online publication. DOI: 10.1111/jora.12300