People’s behaviors and choices create the sustainability-related challenges we face today. People’s behaviors and choices will provide the solutions. Sustainability is about people. Students of sustainability need a firm grasp of human motivations, learning styles, and the constraints to behavior change. The discipline and profession of psychology provide expertise on these topics. Three examples serve as illustrations:
Climate Denial: Numerous deep and complicated reasons exist for why most people don’t act on the threat of climate chaos. Even well-informed, politically-progressive people tend to avoid thinking about climate because they feel helpless to act or, if living in a developed country, feel guilt over their lifestyles being the cause.
Six Americas: Americans fall into 6 groups when sorted by our concerns about climate change: alarmed (12%), concerned (27%), cautious (25%), disengaged (10%), doubtful (15%), and dismissive (10%). The Six Americas do not differ demographically, but are dramatically different in their beliefs and actions, as well as their basic values and political orientations. The best ways to communicate and engage people in climate-related topics depends upon which group they belong to. Know your audience.
Limits of Information: Those of us in the business of education tend to overestimate the power of information. The same can be said of many efforts to motivate behavior change towards sustainable lifestyles. “If people understood the situation like we do,” I often hear activists say, “then they will …” consume less, weatherize their homes, turn off lights, ride bikes, and so on. Alas, the power of information is limited and carefully crafted behavior-change programs must account for values, identities, norms, and other dimensions of people’s psychology.
Specializations within and outside of psychology provide access to tools and avenues for exploration. Check out a few of them: Conservation Psychology, Sustainability Psychology, Environmental Education, and Human Dimensions of Climate Change.
R. Bruce Hull, IV, Ph.D. is a professor in the College of Natural Resources at Virginia Tech practicing social ecology. His work focuses on healing forests fractured by pressures of urbanization and globalization. He is author and editor of over 100 publications, including two books: Infinite Nature (Chicago 2006) and Restoring Nature (Island 2000). He serves on the editorial advisory board for Gale’s GREENR environmental and sustainability studies web portal.