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Dark green humility: religious, psychological, and affective attributes of proenvironmental behaviors

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Through a novel survey instrument, we examined traits and characteristics that various scholars and observers have averred promote or hinder proenvironmental behaviors. We found that those who hold anthropocentric and monotheistic religious views, and express low levels of environmental, religious, and cosmic humility, are less likely to engage in proenvironmental behaviors than those who maintain views, or express affinity with affective traits, values, and spiritual understandings, that are ecocentric, Organicist/Gaian, pantheistic, animistic, and that in general reflect humility about the human place in the world.

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  1. Boivin et al. 2016; Harari 2015; Martin 2005; Martin and Klein 1984; Diamond 1972; Diamond 1975; Dinerstein et al. 2017; Losos, Ricklefs, and MacArthur 2010; MacArthur and Wilson 2001; Meine, Soulé, and Reed 2006; Noss and Cooperrider 1994; Quammen 1996; Soulé 1986.

  2. Marsh 1970 [1864]; Ponting 1992; Lockwood and McKinney 2001; Harari 2015; Williams 2003.

  3. Harris 1965; Harris 1966; Reichel-Dolmatoff 1971; Reichel-Dolmatoff 1976; Reichel-Dolmatoff 1996; Steward 1972 [1955]; Steward 1977; Lansing 1991; Lansing and Kremer 1995; Posey and Balée 1989; Posey 1999; Posey and Plenderleith 2002; Nelson 1999; Gadgil et al. 1993; Williams and Baines 1993; Ellen et al. 2000; Messer and Lambek 2001; Stepp et al. 2002; Laudine 2009; Kimmerer 2013; Whyte 2013; Whyte 2018; Nelson and Shilling 2018.

  4. Subsequent studies to the abovementioned comprehensive review even found that the proenvironmental exhortations by Pope Francis I have had little effect on Catholics (Li et al. 2016), and Christianity is not becoming more environmentally friendly despite the ardent environmentalism of the few (Konisky 2018); while Wexler (2016) examined a variety of religiously enjoined practices common in the world’s predominant traditions that are environmentally harmful.

  5. Today, Animism “commonly refers to perceptions that natural entities, forces, and nonhuman life-forms have one or more of the following: a soul or vital lifeforce or spirit, personhood (an affective life and personal intentions), and consciousness, often but not always including special spiritual intelligence or powers” and it often “enjoins respect if not reverence for and veneration of such intelligences and forces and promotes a felt kinship with them” (Taylor 2010, 15). Despite great diversity and generally speaking, cultures commonly called “indigenous” have such perceptions and values (Taylor et al. 2016). See also Harvey (2006, 2013).

    Organicism “understands the biosphere (universe or cosmos) to be alive or conscious, or at least by metaphor and analogy to resemble organisms with their many interdependent parts,” and often, “this energetic, interdependent, living system is understood to be the fundamental thing to understand and venerate” (Taylor 2010, 16).

  6. For more on these three domains of individual action and how they relate to sustainability/unsustainability, see Hawken (2017). For a focus-group-based study undertaken in the UK on pro-sustainable behavior choice, see Axon (2017).

  7. We use the description “control group” here lightly. As should be clear, this was not an experimental design. We use it simply to convey that we targeted two groups of people: (1) those we had reason to believe were actively interested and involved in sustainability related initiatives and endeavors and (2) ordinary people who we had no reason to think were particularly interested or involved (though they certainly might have been).

  8. For a qualitative psychological study on motivating factors for residents living at Ecovillage Ithaca in NY and how such residency allows for the practice of sustainable behaviors, see Kirby (2003).

  9. With inferential statistics, researchers use a small sample population to make inferences about larger populations to which the sample groups belong. Statistical analysis known as the Pearson correlation examines whether two variables are correlated: in other words, it examines whether two variables tend to change together in either the same or opposite way. (In our study, we are examining whether there are positive or negative correlations between the scales we developed for our survey instrument.) A positive correlation of 1, for example, means that for every single (1) unit increase in variable A, there is a single (1) unit increase in variable B, whereas, a negative correlation of − 1 means that for every 1 unit increase in variable A, there is a 1 unit decrease in variable B. The likelihood, or probability, that the identified correlation will reflect the larger population, which for practical reasons could not be sampled, is reflected in a “p” or probability score; when relationship found in smaller samples to be highly or very highly likely to reflect the larger populations that the study seeks to illuminate, then it is deemed “statistically significant.” “Statistical significance,” put differently, refers to the level of confidence researchers have that the relationships they have found in their sample populations will reflect the larger populations. This level of confidence, or “probability” the findings are accurate and not due to chance variability or some unknown confounding variable, is expressed in “p” scores: specifically, p < 0.001 means the researcher is 99% confident, or if p < 0.0005, 95% confident, that the correlation found would apply to the larger populations which the sample was used as a basis for making such inferences.

    Of course, the aphorism “correlation does not equal causation” applies here and no causative claims are being made herein.

  10. Independent-samples t tests, which compare the difference in the data variability between the two groups, were run to show that these means were significantly different from each other.

  11. A z-score test was conducted to determine whether the two correlations are significantly different, in the sense that one was significantly greater than the other.


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Table 2 Survey questions related to behavioral choices

Recycling paper, plastic, and/or aluminum products.

Installing water saving devices in your home.

Setting air conditioner and/or heater to conserve energy.

Installing solar panels for part of your residential electricity consumption.

Installing residential energy efficient appliances.

Purchasing sustainable agricultural products.

Purchasing local agricultural products.

Growing your own food.

Purchasing sustainable animal products (meat, dairy, eggs).

Purchasing local animal products (meat, dairy, eggs).

Being a vegetarian (not eating meat or fish).

Being a vegan (not consuming animal products).

Using and supporting public transit as much as possible (bus, light rail, heavyrail).

Paying more taxes when they are earmarked to protect the environment.

Making consumer choices that do not harm (or do significantly less harm to) the natural environment.

Purchasing carbon offsets for travel by car or plane.

Table 3 Survey questions related specifically to dietary and transit choices

Get produce directly from a local farm or CSA (community supported agriculture farm)

Eat organic foods

Shop at a farmer’s market

Walk or bike instead of drive

Carpool (automobile ride-sharing)

Use public transit (bus, light rail, heavy rail)

Table 4 Survey questions related to active behaviors related to political activism and self-education

Support environmentally concerned candidates by campaigning for them or donating money to their campaigns, where the candidate has a clear platform of environmental protection and advocacy.

Donate time or money to environmental groups

Participate in protests such as marches or boycotts or letter writing campaigns against environmentally destructive policies or practices

Read articles on sustainability and environment-related issues

Table 5 Survey questions related to how respondents would spend a hypothetical amount of money

Go on vacation, traveling more than 500 miles

Go on vacation, traveling less than 500 miles

Pay off debt (student loan, credit card, mortgage)

Invest the money (in stock market or money market account)

Use it as a down payment on a house

Install solar panels or other energy saving household systems/appliances

Buy a fuel-efficient (electric, hybrid, or gas with high MPG) car

Donate to an environmental charity

Donate to a religious organization

Bringing your clothing up to current fashion standards

Table 6 Survey questions related to species diversity

“we need this diversity to survive.”

“God said to preserve it.”

“this diversity is not important and valuable.”

“this diversity is important as a form of planetary purity.”

“it is wrong to harm this diversity.”

Table 7 Survey questions related to consuming animal products

It is a moral/ethical issue- it is wrong to mass produce/consume animals and their products.

It is a health issue- it is better for our health to not mass produce/consume animals and their products.

It is an environmental issue - it is better for the environment to not mass produce/consume animals and their products.

Table 8 Survey questions related to dark green religion

1. The biosphere is like a living being, with many parts needed for its health and survival.

2. All living things are sacred.

3. All living things should be treated with respect and reverence.

4. All living things are interconnected.

5. Human beings are kin, they are related, to all other living things.

6. Humans should not cause other species to go extinct.

7. All living things have intrinsic (or inherent) moral value.

8. All species share a common ancestor and have come into existence through the same processes.

9. Nature is full of spirits or spiritual intelligences.

10. Animals have emotions that resemble our own.

11. Sometimes, human beings can understand what animals are thinking or feeling.

12. Sometimes, human beings can communicate with animals.

13. Sometimes, human beings can communicate with trees or other plants.

14. I feel awe and wonder when pondering the world and universe.

15. I am fearful when pondering the world and universe.

16. I feel humble when pondering the world and universe.

17. I feel like I belong to nature.

18. I feel love toward nature.

19. Protecting the environment is a highly important moral obligation.

20. If people recognized their connection to nature they would do more to protect it.

21. People should strive to understand and trust in nature.

22. People should cultivate a sense of humility about their place in the grand scheme of things

Table 9 Survey questions related to various types of humility

1. I often feel humble when I think of a Higher Power.

2. God requires us to be humble.

3. Ultimately, there is a Supreme Being who gets all of the credit and glory for our individual accomplishments.

4. My Creator works through me in all my good actions.

5. I accept my total dependence upon the grace of God.

6. I often find myself pondering my smallness in the face of the vastness of the universe.

7. I often think about the fragility of existence.

8. I frequently think about how much bigger the universe is than our power to comprehend.

9. When I look out at the stars at night, I am often deeply humbled.

10. I feel awe towards the mysteries and complexities of life.

11. Humans have to learn to share the Earth with other species.

12. We should always try to be in harmony with Mother Nature.

13. I often feel in touch with Mother Nature.

14. It’s important from time to time to commune with nature.

15. Caring for humanity requires us to care about the environment.

16. I often place the interests of others over my own interests.

17. My friends would say I focus more on others than I do myself.

18. I always find myself making sacrifices for others.

19. My actions are often aimed towards the wellbeing of others.

20. I care about the welfare others, at times more than my own welfare.

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Taylor, B., Wright, J. & LeVasseur, T. Dark green humility: religious, psychological, and affective attributes of proenvironmental behaviors. J Environ Stud Sci 10, 41–56 (2020).

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