Graham Sustainability Institute

Understanding Diverse Views of Natural Resources

mountain sunrise

U-M Investigators

Stephanie Preston – Psychology, College of Literature, Science, and the Arts (LSA)
Colleen Seifert – Psychology, LSA
Kim Wolske – Erb Institute


Ramaswami Mahalingam – Psychology, LSA
Eytan Adar – School of Information; Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, College of Engineering

Project Summary

Many environmental organizations want to reach diverse audiences with messages of sustainability, in addition to those individuals who are already acting in pro-environmental ways. To reach diverse audiences, it is necessary for the organizations to understand the diversity of peoples’ beliefs and  to develop tailored messages. Often though, efforts to advance sustainability messages fail to inspire tangible environmental actions and behaviors because the messages are not developed for specific audiences.
The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) is interested in understanding how people think about natural resources, and how these beliefs affect motivations to act in ways that benefit the environment. Supported by the EDF, researchers designed a project to address the following questions:
  • Do people’s underlying concepts of the earth and the need to protect it differ across groups and cultures in ways that predict their pro-environmental motivations?
  • Are people’s conceptualizations of the depletion or degradation of natural resources similar across different types of resources and different cultural or social groups?
Using surveys and other social science research methods, the researchers:
  • Sampled a large number of individuals from diverse backgrounds to capture descriptive, open-ended information related to their conceptualizations of the earth and its resources
  • Used responses to create a Cross Cultural Concepts (CCC) survey instrument, which was administered and scored to classify respondents into one of a few typologies
  • Determined which typologies predict pro-environmental behavior and how typology-specific interventions could be used to motivate new or further actions.
The researchers also completed pilot work to develop Salient Resource Visualizations (SRVs), or tools to illustrate how resources are degraded and the degree to which individual behaviors affect the resources. SRVs convey information in an engaging and easy to understand way, and are most useful for concepts that are difficult to visualize, such as the number of fish in the ocean or the impact of fertilizer on water quality.
This work will allow researchers to improve predictions about how particular groups or cultures will respond to sustainability messages, and it will enable EDF and other organizations to develop more tailored interventions to achieve their desired outcomes.
The Environmental Defense Fund and Graham Sustainability Institute provided $73,339 of project funding in 2014.