The Salience Impact: Environmental Experience and Identity

A few weeks ago, I was sitting in my office on campus, searching for poems to share with my Ecopsychology students. My goal was to find some literature that could bring the nonhuman natural world to the forefront of the mind in a way that data, charts, and statistics do not. In my search, I came across “In Memory of Wolf Number 832F” by Diane Lechleitner, published in 2013 in the literary magazine Canary.

The poem is a beautiful one that intimately suspends the reader with a wolf over several seasons, “She sniffed for mice in April meadows…” and, she “turned in circles on icy nights to burrow in the snow.” The poem carries the reader closely into the daily life of a wolf, until, at the end of the poem, the “whiff of men” and “gunsmoke” indicates the death of the wolf, by the hand of human hunters.

wolves-221304_1920-pixabay-WikiImagesWhen I came across Lechleitner’s poem, I thought it would be effective in increasing the salience of the nonhuman natural world in my students. I settled on that idea, closed my Internet browser, and finished some other tasks. After lunch, I returned to my work on the Ecopsychology course and I realized that I had not saved the link to the poem. I opened my Internet browser, scratched my head to remember the poem’s title, and typed in “wolf 832F”. The search did not bring me to the poem, but rather to a 2012 news article by Nate Schweber from The New York Times. The news article was about the Wolf 832F, the alpha female who lived in Yellowstone National Park and ran a pack known as the Lamar Canyon pack. She was famous. Tourists loved her. A hunter had shot her. She was 6 years old.

I sat back in my chair, stunned. The facts from The New York Times flowed into the unfolding of my understanding, merging into the emotional opening the poem had provided. I had known nothing about Wolf 832F an hour before. And now, I felt devastated. The intimacy of the poem, coupled with the recognition of the concrete reality of her existence, was powerful. I cried. Not out of a vague sense of the hunting of wolves and destruction of their habitat, but out of a grief for this wolf. This wolf who had been hunted, and with whom I had turned in circles on icy nights in the winters. I was connected to this wolf.

A feeling of emotional connection with the natural world is an important predictor of how we will care for it.

Having an emotional affinity toward the natural world is directly linked with behaving in ways that are environmentally protective (Kals, Shumacher & Montada, 1999). Because development of this emotional affinity is prompted by direct experiences with nature (Kals, Shumacher & Montada, 1999), it follows that a lack of direct experience with nature inhibits development of this affinity. And thus, inhibits our desires to act in ways that preserve and protect it.

With 54.5% of the world’s population living in urban areas (United Nations, 2016), the downstream risk of limited direct interaction with the natural world is quite real.

Regenerative development projects do wonders to reawaken our recognition of interrelationship between the natural world and ourselves, urban citizens. Organizations like Regenesis and the Cottonwood Institute serve to link people with the understanding that ecological systems are foundational to our lives as human beings; these and similar programs raise our environmental awareness.

My experience with Lechleitner’s poem and Schweber’s news article gives me hope, too. As a psychologist interested in promoting behavior change, I am concerned with how our self-identity shapes our behavior. One of the biggest predictors of how we will act in ways that protect our natural environment is what psychologists call our environmental identity (see Clayton & Opotow, 2003). Environmental identity is a part of our overall self-concept, “a sense of connection to some part of the nonhuman natural environment, based on history, emotional attachment, and/or similarity, that affects the ways in which we perceive and act toward the world; a belief that the environment is important to us and an important part of who we are” (Clayton, 2003, p. 45-46). The concept is explored at length in Clayton and Opotow’s (2003) text Identity and the Natural Environment.

Research on environmental identity demonstrates that the degree to which the natural world is integrated into our self-concept affects how much we value the natural world for its own sake (i.e., ecocentrism), how frequently we behave in environmentally responsible ways (e.g., turning off lights), and how much we value social justice related to environmental issues and morality, including the belief that we should care for the environment for future generations (Clayton, 2003).

Our environmental identity, like many aspects of our identity, is shaped heavily in childhood. The location in which we grow up can have a big impact on the development of this aspect of our identity.

Consider the impact of never playing outside on the environmental identity development of children who have limited access to the outdoors. People living in urban areas with no regenerative development (which could include 60% of the world’s population by 2030; United Nations, 2016) may have such limited access.

playground-hanging-out-trainer-young-79990-pexelsKahn (2003), interested in the impact of growing up in urban areas on environmental identity, describes findings from the Houston Child study. Most of the children interviewed said that animals, plants and parks played an important role in their lives (84%, 87%, 70%, respectively; Kahn & Friedman, 1995). Yet, in the same study, researchers learned that many children living in poorer parts of Houston did not go outside because it was too dangerous from violent human actions (Kahn, 2003). In fact, 7% of children said that human violence and drugs were the environmental issues they were most concerned about (Kahn & Friedman, 1995). Over a long enough time of avoiding the outdoors, the importance of animals, plants and parks can dissipate from the lives and identities of children.

Kempton and Holland (2003) tackle this question in their chapter Identity and Sustained Environmental Practice (in Clayton & Opotow, 2003). They point out the apparent juxtaposition between the value that many people report having toward the environment, and the lack of sustained action that many people exhibit. Values, they argue, can compete with one another. For example, a person might value animals’ lives, but also value having fashionable leather boots to feel accepted in a community or attractive to friends and partners. Kempton and Holland further posit that it is not values but identity that leads to long-lasting environmentally sustainable actions.  In other words, values compete within individuals and lead to inconsistent behavior, but identity leads to behavior consistent with that identity (Kempton & Holland, 2003). Kempton and Holland (2003) find that three factors contribute to environmental identity development: salience, identification with the world of environmental action, and practical knowledge and resources for action.

The first of these, salience, is a fascinating topic for psychologists. In the case of environmental identity, salience is felt by individuals as a type of ‘waking up’ or ‘increasing awareness’ of threats to the environment (Kempton & Holland, 2003), which often accompanies a direct experience with environmental destruction, such as witnessing the cutting down of trees in a wood one played in as a child or the visible pollution of a local river.

This salience was the impact I was seeking for my students, and what I found second-hand in the coupling of Lechleitner’s poem and Schweber’s article. From a psychological perspective, witnessing events first-hand is the most reliable way to increase salience. People who have experienced the trauma of car accidents, hurricanes, or interpersonal violence appreciate the power of first-hand experience. But from the sake of an environmental perspective, efforts related to regenerative development may benefit from both on first-hand experience, and on other, second-hand methods that can increase the salience of natural world. With half of the world’s 7.5 billion people living in urban areas, the challenge of facilitating first-hand accounts of our natural world is indeed great.  While we eagerly anticipate the moments when we can interact directly with the nonhuman natural world, maybe, just maybe, we can spend time turning in circles on icy nights with wolves in Yellowstone.


Clayton, S. D., & Opotow, S. (Eds.). (2003). Identity and the natural environment: The psychological significance of nature. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Clayton, S. D. (2003). Environmental Identity: A conceptual and operational definition. In S. Clayton and S. Opotow (Eds.) Identity and the natural environment (pp. 45-65). MIT Press. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Kals, E., Shumacher, D., & Montada, L. (1999). Emotional affinity towards nature as motivational basis to protect nature. Environment & Behavior, 31(2), 178-202.

Kahn, P. H., Jr. & Friedman, B. (1995). Environmental views and values of children in an inner-city Black community. Child Development, 66, 1403-1417.

Kahn, P. H., Jr. (2003). The development of environmental moral identity. In S. Clayton and S. Opotow (Eds.) Identity and the natural environment (pp. 113-134). MIT Press. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Kempton, W., & Holland, D. C. (2003). Identity and sustained environmental practice. In S. Clayton and S. Opotow (Eds.) Identity and the natural environment (pp. 317-341). MIT Press. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Lechleitner, Diane. “In Memory of Wolf Number 832F.” Canary, Accessed on 20 Dec. 2017.

Schweber, N. (2012, December 8). “Famous” wolf is killed outside Yellowstone. The New York Times. Retrieved from

United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2016). The World’s Cities in 2016 – Data Booklet (ST/ESA/ SER.A/392)

anna-floyd-waterfallAbout the Author:

Anna HL Floyd, PhD
Assistant Professor, Applied Psychology
College for Contemporary Liberal Studies
SEED Institute Fellow
Regis University
Faculty Bio

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