Visions of nature are the subject of much philosophical and policy debate. The present paper focuses, however, on the visions of nature held by people not professionally involved in the issue, namely those of the general public. These visions constitute the democratic basis of environmental conservation and the frame for effective two-way communication between professionals and communities on nature protection and management. It appears that the general public in Europe and the USA has developed a strong general ‘biophilia’ (nature-friendliness). One indicator of this is that in quantitative research, 70–90% of the population recognize the right of nature to exist even if not useful to humans in any way. In qualitative research settings, lay people reveal a remarkable richness and depth of views and experiences of nature. A quantitative survey on images and values of nature, and a qualitative study consisting of in-depth interviews on the relationship between childhood experiences in nature and adult visions of nature were conducted in the Netherlands. A factor analysis revealed a classification of types of nature, which included ‘wild nature’, ‘arcadian nature’, ‘penetrative nature’ and other such images that, with wild nature in the lead, were ascribed a smoothly decreasing degree of naturalness. Asked to rank the values and functions of nature, the top three were formed by the value for human health, the intrinsic value and the value for future generations. In the qualitative interviews, indications were found that more intense childhood experiences with nature could be associated with later ascription of a high degree of naturalness to wild nature, and less intense experiences with later ascription of a high degree of naturalness to arcadian nature. Many significant experiences took place beyond the reach of parental supervision. Findings such as these are of obvious relevance for environmental education and the design of ‘experiential nature’ in and around protected areas. Social science research concerning nature protection is often triggered by frictions between local people and protected area authorities. Such situations tend to be dominated by the airing of grievances, demands for economic compensation and so on, and these then also tend to dominate the research findings. Taking place away from these specific hot spots of conflict, social science research of the types discussed in this paper shows that many non-conflictual lines of communication are open for nature protection agencies.
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