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Perceiving resilience: understanding people’s intuitions about the qualities of air, water, and soil

Terre Satterfield, Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC
Mary B Collins, Department of Environmental Studies, SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, Syracuse, NY
Barbara Herr Harthorn, Anthropology, UC Santa Barbara, CA; Center for Nanotechnology in Society, UC Santa Barbara, CA


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Social-ecological-systems (SES) scholars have called for increased elaboration of the social dimensions of natural systems. Although a strong body of research explaining adaptive or maladaptive resource use exists, the integration of knowledge related to values, perceptions, and behaviors is less developed. Perceptions are particularly useful when one seeks a broad-scale view of the judgments that people implicitly or more automatically make in relation to nature and/or how people might rapidly and intuitively interpret the meaning of ecological status and change.
Environmental perceptions are also distinct from the longer tradition of direct elicitation of environmental values as related to reported environmental behavior; and from understanding of perceived environmental health risks. Empirically, we thus explore what an architecture of environmental perceptions might be. Our goal is to advance an SES-relevant focus on the qualities that people intuitively assign to air, water, and soil in general and in particular. Initial qualities were first developed using mental model interview responses, which were then converted to psychometric rating scales administered across two surveys: an initial pilot survey and a large-scale follow up survey. In the pilot study, four factors—resilience, tangibility, complexity and sensory—emerged as primary (n = 697). In our large-scale follow up (U.S. nationally representative sample, n = 2500) we retested the two strongest factors (tangibility and resilience) within specific ecotypes or contexts (forests, rivers, oceans, deserts, urban, and rural). Resilience emerged a particularly powerful component of environmental risk perception, a factor comprising four attributes: recovers easily from human impacts, self-cleaning with time, mostly pure, and easy to control. Results suggest a greater mandate for explicit understandings of the intuitive foundations of perceived environmental risk as might explain environments we regard as vulnerable or resilient, healthy or not.

Key words

environmental attitudes and values; environmental intuitions; perceived environmental impact; perceived environmental risks; perceived resilience; social-ecological systems

Copyright © 2018 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article  is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.  You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087