A New Take on Measuring Environmental Views

A New Paradigm

Trees in forest

For social scientists, measuring opinion is a precise scholarship, an invaluable tool that must evolve and modernize if research is to advance. But this is no easy task. Opinion scales must have uniformity and wide acceptance, so studies can be compared and combined. Change is a challenge.

Researchers at the Sustainability Solutions Initiative are at the forefront of such change, scrutinizing methodology and forging new paths.

In a paper published in the July issue of Environmental Education Research, SSI’s Sustainable Behavior team leaders Caroline Noblet, Mark Anderson and Mario Teisl question the full efficacy of the long-held gold standard for measuring personal views on the environment – the New Ecological Paradigm or NEP. Researchers have used this scale for decades to suss out individual stakeholder beliefs on numerous topics such as: the state of natural resources; an individual’s relationship to the natural world; and their sense of whether people have abused the earth, improved it or something in between. Noblet, Anderson and Teisl, however, thought something was missing from the accepted format.

The missing factor: broad ecological perspective. Researchers wanted to be able to measure stakeholders’ views on nature simply for nature’s sake. They suspected the NEP was missing the mark.

Noblet, Anderson and Teisl tested their theory on three different stakeholder audiences: a random sampling of Maine citizens, SSI researchers, and a group of stakeholders participating in two different environmental conferences. In analyzing results, the researchers found that using the NEP to measure ecological perspective resulted in instability. Drawing on previous research and their statistical results, the three concluded that results within specific population groups should be more similar than they were. The results led them to question the reliability of the NEP as a metric for capturing ecological worldview.

The team has formulated an updated scale that adds a new component to the paradigm toolkit, one designed to capture broad ecological perspective. Participants are asked to suspend thoughts of their direct needs and consider nature simply for it’s own sake. Stakeholders are asked to read a statement and record their opinions on a scale from “agree strongly” to “disagree strongly.” The statement reads, “Nature is valuable for its own sake, even if humans get no goods or services from it.” They called it the Environmental Motivation Scale. It was developed in partnership with Shannon McCoy, Assistant Professor of Psychology at UMaine and researchers from Florida State University.

Using the newly conceived scale as its baseline, the team conducted a large survey designed to measure the opinions and behaviors of Maine stakeholders. The survey, sent to 8,000 Mainers, examines views on renewable energy technologies, energy efficiency programs, conservation and the influences of different institutions such as the state of Maine, local government, nonprofits and other bodies. One of the most important elements being assessed is an individual citizen’s sense of personal power in creating a sustainable future and the role of prior behavior on future sustainable behavior. For example, if a person conserves heating energy does he or she feel entitled to use as much electricity as desired? The survey is the first by the University of Maine team to incorporate the new scale and will be compared to a 2010 survey that used the old paradigm. Results are being analyzed for publication.

The Sustainable Behavior team is part of SSI’s Knowledge to Action Collaborative

Supported by National Science Foundation award EPS-0904155 to Maine EPSCoR at the University of Maine.

Noblet, Caroline L., Anderson, M., & Teisl, M. F. (2013). An empirical test of anchoring the NEP scale in environmental ethics. Environmental Education Research, 19(4), 540–551. doi:10.1080/13504622.2012.704899