Research Summary

The new environmental paradigm scale: Reassessing the operationalization of contemporary environmentalism

Updates to the New Environmental Paradigm (NEP) survey and comments on how the scale should be used

The Journal of Environmental Education

As the environmental movement grew throughout the 1960s and 70s, researchers sought to develop a way to measure the level of environmentalism in the general public. The New Environmental Paradigm Scale (NEP) was designed to measure the relationship between humans and the planet, and has long been the gold standard for measuring environmentalism. However, the overarching critique of the NEP scale is that it represents a particular set of attitudes, values, and beliefs that represent one’s entire environmental worldview, or how people think the world works. The survey has also been inappropriately used to determine whether an individual will carry out pro-environmental behaviors. Further, as the NEP was developed four decades ago, it does not capture the shifting relationship people have with nature, or the diversity of viewpoints on what environmentalism entails. This paper updated the focus of some questions on the NEP to better reflect modern environmental worldviews, as well as commented on appropriate uses of the scale.

Previous research has indicated that the assumptions underlying knowledge-attitudes-behavior model are flawed, and that there is no direct relationship between knowledge and pro-environmental behavior change. Encouraging pro-environmental behavior is much more complex and iterative, and may not be directly related to environmental worldviews, which is what the NEP measures. Developed by Riley Dunlap and Kent Van Liere in 1978, the NEP incorporates aspects of the field of ecology along with the idea that nature does not exist solely for the purpose of human use. The survey contains 15 questions that measure five different aspects of environmental thought. These five aspects include: (1) a belief in the balance of nature, (2) the existence of limits to growth, (3) a belief that humans are not the sole focus of existence, (4) a rejection of the idea that humans are superior to other life, (5) and the possibility of an impending environmental crisis.

The authors conducted a literature review focused around topics of disagreement within environmentalism to identify three key modern aspects of environmentalism that should be added to the NEP. They proposed that the scale should also include questions about: 1) the character of nature, 2) the role of technology, and 3) the role of society.

The character of nature is a primary factor in environmentalism, which can range from nature being viewed as delicate and limited to resilient and abundant. A high score would be associated with a view of nature as delicate and limited, while a low score would be associated with a view of nature as being resilient and abundant. The potential spectrum associated with the role of technology stretches from a high NEP score, where technology is viewed as enabling capitalism and the degradation of nature, to a low NEP score, where technology is viewed as the solution to environmental problems. The final proposed new aspect of the NEP examines the role of society in addressing environmental problems. This aspect is highly nuanced; a high score would be associated with a view assigning the blame of environmental degradation on individual self-interest and capitalism. A low score would be associated with a view that capitalism can work if the correct policies are adopted and development isn’t bad as long as it’s sustainable.

The authors emphasized that using the NEP has its limitations. Measuring any social construct requires simplification, which means that using the NEP to assess an incredibly complex concept such as pro-environmental behavior is unwise. The NEP is most suited to conduct research focused on understanding individuals’ positions on human-nature relationships rather than measuring progress towards behavior change. Grounded in existing worldviews, the data from the NEP could contribute to shaping environmental education programs that focus on building capacities to participate in environmental decision-making.

The authors recommend the incorporation of three new questions on the NEP to better reflect modern environmental issues when determining an individual’s environmental worldviews and perceptions: the character of nature, the role of technology, and the role of society. In addition, they recommend that practitioners question the assumption that knowledge gain leads ultimately to pro-environmental behaviors, which research has shown does not adequately capture the complexity of how behavior changes. Evaluators and researchers could use the NEP to identify existing worldviews among program participants and shape programs aimed at civic engagement around environmental issues.

The Bottom Line

The authors conducted a literature review to update the New Environmental Paradigm survey with three questions: 1) whether nature is delicate or resilient, 2) whether technology is enabling degradation or helping with environmental solutions, and 3) whether dominant societal patterns like capitalism are compatible with environmental sustainability. This updated instrument is likely not a good fit to measure progress towards pro-environmental behavior change, and the authors remind readers that the assumption that knowledge leads to behavior change is problematic. The authors recommend that information about environmental worldviews be used to develop environmental education programs geared towards promoting civic engagement on environmental issues.