Nature and the environment play a big role in American life. A solid majority of U.S. adults across the religious spectrum say that being outdoors and experiencing nature are sources of meaning in their lives, and most people say they have taken part in an outdoor activity such as hiking or visiting a nature spot in the past year.
Most Americans across religious and nonreligious groups also say they make efforts in daily life to help the environment, such as reducing their food waste, using fewer plastics that cannot be reused and reducing the amount of water they use. And most say that taking personal steps to conserve energy is at least somewhat important to them, both to save money and to help protect the environment.
Far fewer U.S. adults – especially in some Christian groups – say they partake in civic activities to combat climate change, such as donating money, volunteering, or contacting elected officials. And relatively few Americans – including both those who are highly religious and those who are not – see individuals’ choices around energy consumption in moral terms. For example, only about one-in-ten U.S. adults say driving a car that gets low gas mileage is morally wrong.
The rest of this chapter discusses these and other questions in greater detail.
Being outdoors and experiencing nature is a top source of meaning and fulfillment among U.S. adults
The survey asked the public about several potential sources of meaning and fulfillment in their lives, and most Americans (71%) say being outdoors and experiencing nature gives them a great deal or quite a bit of meaning and fulfillment. Of six potential sources of meaning asked about in the survey, spending time with family is the only one that provides as much meaning to a greater share of U.S. adults (83%). Being outdoors and experiencing nature is valued by more people than spending time with friends (66%), religious faith (47%), volunteer work (33%) or meditating (30%).
Two-thirds or more across religious groups say they value being outdoors, with one exception. Members of historically Black Protestant churches are significantly less likely than other religious groups to find meaning and fulfillment in being outdoors and experiencing nature, although a majority (56%) still say nature provides at least quite a bit of meaning and fulfillment.
Americans who get a great deal or quite a bit of meaning from spending time in nature are more likely than those who get less fulfillment to say they are concerned about climate change or that the Earth’s warming is caused by human activity.
About two-thirds of Americans (64%) say they have hiked within the past year. A slim majority (55%) say they have visited a nature spot, such as a waterfall or mountaintop. Half of the public says they have grown vegetables or other plants within the past year. And about one-in-five say they have been camping (21%) or hunting or fishing (20%).
For the most part, there is only modest variation across religious groups when it comes to the shares who partake in these activities, although members of historically Black Protestant churches tend to be less likely to do so.
Republicans and independents who lean toward the GOP are about twice as likely as Democrats and Democratic leaners to say they have been hunting or fishing (30% vs. 13%). Republicans also are more likely than Democrats to say they have grown vegetables or other plants within the past year (54% vs. 47%).
There is little difference between Americans who partake in many outdoor activities and those who do not in terms of their levels of concern about climate change or the share who say the Earth’s warming is caused by human activity.
Personal action and climate change
A large majority of U.S. adults say they make at least some effort to live in ways that help protect the environment, including 64% who say they do this some of the time and an additional 22% who say they do this all the time, according to a separate but related Pew Research Center survey conducted in April 2021. Smaller shares say they do this not too often (12%) or not at all (2%). Americans across political and religious lines all overwhelmingly say they try to help the environment at least sometimes.
Greater differences emerge on some specific actions people can take to help the environment. Overall, four-in-ten U.S. adults say they eat less meat to help protect the environment, but members of non-Christian religions (57%) are much more likely than Christians (38%) and religious “nones” (41%) to say they do this. Democrats also are more likely than Republicans to say they limit their meat consumption for environmental reasons (51% vs. 27%).
When it comes to other, more common efforts to protect the environment, such as reducing food waste, using fewer plastics that cannot be reused and reducing water usage, differences across groups are smaller – though still visible in some cases. For example, atheists (83%), agnostics (80%) and members of non-Christian religions (83%) are the most likely to say they have been reducing the amount of nonreusable plastics they use. About three-quarters of Catholics (74%) and mainline Protestants (76%) also report making this effort, while slightly smaller majorities of Protestants in the evangelical (63%) and historically Black (58%) Protestant traditions say the same. Also, Democrats are more likely than Republicans to say they try to use fewer nonreusable plastics.
Half of all U.S. adults say it is either extremely or very important to them to make personal efforts to conserve energy by taking steps such as limiting electricity use at home, driving less, or reducing their use of air conditioning. An additional 37% of Americans say this is somewhat important, while just 13% say it is not too or not at all important to them.
There is little difference between highly religious Americans and those with lower levels of religious commitment on this question. But there is some variation across religious groups, with members of historically Black Protestant churches among the most likely to say that making this effort is extremely or very important (68%) and evangelical Protestants among the least likely to say they feel that way (41%).
Relatedly, Democrats are much more likely than Republicans to say taking personal steps to conserve energy is of high importance to them (61% vs. 35%).
These differences extend to the reasons why individuals say they make an effort to conserve energy. Evangelical Protestants are among the most likely to say that they make this effort solely to save money (33%) rather than to protect the environment (4%), or for both reasons (43%). Majorities in all other religious groups analyzed, on the other hand, say they try to conserve energy either to protect the environment or for both reasons.
The differences by political party are especially stark: About three-quarters of Democrats say they try to conserve energy either to protect the environment (9%) or both to protect the environment and to save money (67%), compared with fewer than half of Republicans who report conserving energy for these reasons (3% and 40%, respectively). About a third of Republicans (35%) say they try to conserve energy just to save money, and an additional 22% say it is not important to them to try to conserve energy.
Fewer Americans overall say they participate in civic activities to fight climate change, according to the April 2021 survey. For example, one-in-six say they have donated money to an organization focused on addressing climate change in the past year. One-in-ten U.S. adults say they have contacted an elected official to urge action to address the issue, and an identical share say they have volunteered for an activity to combat climate change. And 6% say they have attended a protest or rally dedicated to addressing climate change.
There are some gaps on these questions according to religious affiliation. Atheists (28%) and agnostics (23%), as well as members of other (non-Christian) religious groups (29%), are more likely than Christians to say they donated money to an organization focused on addressing climate change in the past year. This is at least partly reflective of the fact that non-Christians tend to identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party, and Democrats are more likely than Republicans to report making such donations. Similarly, highly religious Americans are somewhat less likely to have participated in each of these civic activities to fight climate change.
Relatively few Americans say it is morally wrong to eat food that requires a lot of energy to produce or to drive a car that gets low gas mileage
While many Americans say it is important to conserve energy, far fewer appear to see this in moral terms. The survey asked two questions about this topic: whether driving a car that gets low gas mileage and eating food that requires a lot of energy to produce are morally acceptable, morally wrong or not moral issues.
About three-quarters of Americans say these things are not moral issues. One-in-ten say driving a car that gets low gas mileage is morally wrong, while 14% say it is morally acceptable. The figures are similar for eating food that requires a lot of energy to produce (13% morally wrong, 12% morally acceptable).
By comparison, U.S. adults are much more likely to say that having sex outside of marriage is morally wrong (49%).
Some groups are modestly more likely to see individual actions about energy usage in moral terms. For instance, members of non-Christian religions (22%), as well as atheists (23%) and agnostics (20%), are more inclined than Christians (7%) to say driving a car with poor gas mileage is morally wrong, though majorities of all these groups say it is not a moral issue. The same pattern applies to the question about eating food that takes a lot of energy to produce.
Similarly, while Democrats and independents who lean toward the Democratic Party are three times as likely as Republicans and GOP leaners to say that consuming food that takes a lot of energy to produce is morally wrong (18% vs. 6%), two-thirds of Democrats say it is not a moral issue.