It is undeniable that human interaction with the planet has caused irreconcilable damage. Statistics released last year revealed that in the previous 30 years, approximately 30% of the world’s natural environment was destroyed. This damage has been a direct result of persistent seeking and use of the earth’s natural resources. Environmentalists and the more earth-conscious of us have for a long time maintained that our current resource needs exert our means. Nevertheless international governments that depend on a consumer spending frame of mind, have been slow to react to the unprecedented demise of natural resources and the irreversible damage that this has done to the wider environment. Given that psychology is ultimately defined as the study of human behaviour, a branch of psychology termed, you guessed it, environmental psychology has emerged in order to enhance and encourage understanding about the effects of our environmental behaviours.
As mentioned, overconsumption of materials is one of the more pressing environmental concerns of late. Research suggests that there are two significantly potential ways in which psychology might address this immediate issue – adaptation or mitigation. Both adaptation and mitigation rely on changing behavior and thankfully psychology is equipped with a number of tools that may help to facilitate this. These tools include a distinct understanding of what maintains and changes a behaviour as a well as an understanding of what underlies attitude formation. Attitudes and behaviour share a symbiotic relationship in that one can influence the other. They can also be manipulated using principles from behavioural psychology which are now well-understood.
For instance, consider interventions that have been employed to target household energy consumption. Psychologists have found that people will reduce their energy use when there is some incentive to do so. People will also reduce their household energy use following feedback about how much they are consuming. Voluntary behaviour change interventions such as these can be easily implemented and can have a very real effect on how individuals behave. Unfortunately these measures generally tend to rely on public policy changes and as already outlined, governments and large corporations are heavily influenced by affluence inertia and thus will not always support psychological solutions for sustainability.
Nevertheless some progress has been made. One area in particular in which psychology has contributed significantly to sustainability has been in the area of education. A number of educational programs that are informed by environmental psychology now exist, ranging from preschool to corporate. Many of these programs aim to educate children about a number of environmental issues in order to aid them in making informed decisions regarding their environmental behavior. They can also help to demonstrate to individuals that reinforcement can come from avenues external of consumptive behaviours. This method of early intervention can influence how that child will think and behave about the environment throughout their development. Therefore, while there are some constraints facing psychology in terms of what it can do for the environment, there are some very practical and beneficial things that the discipline can contribute to developing a more sustainable future.
For further information regarding psychology and sustainability, see here.
Ms. Niamh Allen, M.A. B.Sc.