Childhood trauma, according to new study published in Scientific Reports, may lead to an individual volunteering, donating money, or contacting their political officials about environmental concerns later in life. The CU Boulder and Loyola University study is one of the first in the United States to link childhood trauma with adult civic and environmental action. It also discovered that persons who travelled and had experiences in nature as children were more likely to report engaging in private “green behaviour” as adults, such as recycling, driving or flying less, and taking shorter showers, in addition to those who had childhood trauma.
“We set out to explore reasons or motivations why someone would get environmentally engaged versus not and experiencing childhood trauma emerged as a really powerful motivator,” said lead author Urooj Raja, who earned her doctorate in environmental studies at CU Boulder in 2021.
The researchers conducted a survey in 2020 using a nationally representative sample of roughly 450 U.S. individuals as part of Raja’s PhD dissertation to evaluate two forms of environmental participation. Hours per month committed to an environmental protection cause, such as sending letters to elected officials or contributing time and resources to an organisation, were used to calculate public civic involvement. Green conduct in the private sphere was defined as self-reported measures taken by individuals or families to lessen their environmental effect.
Previous research has shown that people who witness natural disasters as children are more likely to become involved in environmental causes as adults, but these new findings show that any type of childhood trauma is associated with increased interest in both private and public environment engagement as an adult.
This suggests that there may be something about a formative, bad experience that leads individuals to interact with environmental concerns on a public or policy level, rather than just adopting green behaviour.
“It suggests that there could be another way of looking at trauma,” said Raja, who is currently an assistant professor in Loyola University Chicago’s School of Communication. While the researchers are unable to pinpoint why having traumatic experiences earlier in life increases the chance of being actively involved in environmental concerns, they do note that prior research has linked trauma to a high feeling of empathy, and empathy with green conduct.
According to Raja, it might also be a coping technique to prevent unpleasant things from occurring to other people or living things.
Environmental Engagement Motivators
Disengagement—the reasons why individuals do not act on serious environmental issues—has received a lot of attention in this field of study. Raja’s team sought to know: What motivates those who do participate? Raja began by interviewing 33 persons who are deeply involved in environmental concerns. She noticed that many had suffered from childhood trauma.
“It emerged as a very powerful piece of why people wanted to and became engaged with environmental work,” said Raja.
Second, they collected survey data from around 450 U.S. citizens who self-reported spending five hours or more in the previous month working on environmental issues.
They answered a series of questions about themselves, including their current civic engagement and green behaviour, formative childhood experiences (for example, gardening, swimming in a lake, or going on their first hike in the woods), and traumatic childhood experiences (living in poverty or experiencing hunger, not having a safe home environment, losing a parent or sibling, dealing with health issues, or enduring sexual harassment, assault or bullying).
The data demonstrated that early outdoor experiences, travel, and trauma were all predictors of later-life private, green conduct. Only childhood trauma, however, was shown to be strongly related with public, political participation. When compared to other formative life experiences, trauma had the greatest influence on predicting green behaviour.
Several studies, including work by Louise Chawla, professor emerita in the Program in Environmental Design, have demonstrated a substantial correlation between childhood travel and wilderness experiences and pro-environmental views and actions later in life. According to the latest poll, these sorts of early experiences continue to predict green behaviour among people today.
“This is another data point that supports the value of creating opportunities for people to connect with nature, and the importance of those experiences for cultivating a society that protects the natural resources that we all depend on,” said Amanda Carrico, co-author of the new study and associate professor in CU Boulder’s Department of Environmental Studies.
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Carrico, a certified environmental psychologist who teaches climate change courses, has seen that many students and professionals in the area struggle not just with the weight of their job, but also with the experiences that may have brought them to it.
“It’s emotionally intense and exhausting,” Carrico said, stressing that individuals working on climate change mitigation are frequently part of communities directly touched by its expanding effects. “You’re talking about a community of people that seem to be carrying other kinds of emotionally complex burdens.” According to the authors, the findings only underscore
the need of those involved in public-facing or civic environmental activity having access to resources and assistance.
“People, in their own words, have said that we need better resources,” said Raja. “Making the link between adverse childhood experiences and the need for more resources for people that do this type of work is an important first step to making that happen.”