The world is hurtling toward massive environmental problems like biodiversity loss and a changing climate.  At the same time, human-centered problems like poverty, inequality, and racism continue to impact societies around the world. Now more than ever, how we perceive the relationship between humans and nature has consequences for the planet and the people on it.

In our recent research, we explored how people's beliefs about the human–nature relationship motivate them to act in ways that benefit humanity and the natural world.

Is Nature With Us, or Against Us?

Zero-sum beliefs about nature and humanity assume that any gain in people's lifestyles comes at the expense of the natural world, and vice versa. That is, it is impossible for both nature and humanity to thrive together. People who hold these zero-sum beliefs think that addressing issues like climate change requires sacrifices to their lifestyles.

In contrast, positive-sum beliefs assume that humanity and nature can thrive together. People who endorse this worldview believe that it is possible to address both humanitarian and environmental issues so that both human societies and the natural environment can flourish.  Whether people hold zero-sum or positive-sum beliefs about nature and humanity should affect people's willingness to address human and environmental challenges.

To test this idea, my colleague and I surveyed over 1900 adult Australians in three studies. We first created a reliable and valid measurement tool to assess zero-sum beliefs about the relationship between humans and nature. In the second and third studies, we used this tool to predict engagement in prosocial behaviors directed toward other people (such as donating to humanitarian charities or helping a stranger in need), and the natural environment (such as recycling or participating in pro-environmental protests).

People with zero-sum beliefs about the relationship between humans and nature engaged in fewer prosocial behaviors—both toward human others and toward the natural environment. That is, zero-sum beliefs were a barrier to prosocial action, regardless of whether that behavior primarily benefitted humans or benefitted nature.

People who endorsed zero-sum beliefs were also less likely to see themselves as a member of the natural world or as a member of all humanity. That is, people with zero-sum beliefs did not see themselves as connected to human and non-human others. Perceiving the self as part of a larger whole, whether that includes nature or other humans, motivates behaviors that consider and benefit these (natural or human) others. Furthermore, an expanded sense of self is linked to well-being and life satisfaction.

A Barrier to Be Overcome

In sum, zero-sum beliefs about nature and humanity inhibit people from engaging in prosocial behaviors, such as helping people in need or protecting the natural environment. Understanding how to dismantle and overcome these zero-sum beliefs could have positive downstream effects for both human societies and the natural world.

Education, communication, and messaging strategies may help people shift from zero-sum to positive-sum beliefs about nature and humanity. Public figures could talk about issues like climate change and intergroup relations in ways that emphasize their positive-sum aspects and downplay the zero-sum aspects of the human-nature relationship. Shifting from zero-sum to positive-sum beliefs could alter human behavior in ways that benefit both our natural and human worlds, enabling both to flourish.

For Further Reading

Chen, D. & Pensini, P. (2024). The development of the Zero-Sum Beliefs between Nature and Humanity Scale. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 94, 102247.

Pamela Pensini is a teaching associate at Monash University, Australia where she studies the human relationship to the natural environment and its impacts on human functioning and pro-environmental behavior.