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By Associate Professor Joseph Reser FAPS, School of Psychology, Griffith University and Emeritus Reader in Social and Environmental Psychology, University of Durham

At a point in time when the APS is putting the environment on the priority action agenda, it is worth asking what has happened to the field of environmental psychology in Australian psychology education and training. This matter and question has a particular currency and relevance given the publication of the Carrick Institute Teaching Psychology report (Lipp et al., 2007), the recent formation of an expert group to review Australian psychology training, and of course, the political saliency and indeed critical urgency of the unfolding climate change challenge and its multiple and far reaching impacts.

What is environmental psychology?

Environmental psychology is an area of psychology which places particular emphasis on people-environment interrelationships and transactions. It is a well-established area of psychology which has been going strong since the late 1960s, with specific environmental psychology journals, courses, textbooks, handbooks, web sites, and postgraduate programs. The Annual Review of Psychology has published seven reviews of environmental psychology since 1982 (e.g., Sundstrom et al., 1996), with each review documenting burgeoning interest and developments in this field. Areas of specialisation within environmental psychology and bridging to other disciplines include environment-behaviour studies, urban and regional planning and design, environmental evaluation and impact assessment, environmental perception and cognition, environmental stress and adaptive responding, restorative environments, measuring and monitoring environmental perceptions and responses, place attachment and identity, clinical environmental psychology, disaster preparedness and response, conservation behaviour and sustainability initiatives, the effects of climate, ergonomics and behavioural design, and natural resource management.

The coverage of environmental psychology in Australian education

Undergraduate subjects in environmental psychology have been taught in Australia from the mid 1970s, with such offerings available at institutions such as the Australian National University, the University of Adelaide, the University of Queensland, the University of Sydney, the University of Melbourne, and James Cook University. Additional programs which subsequently launched environmental psychology subjects included those at Edith Cowan University, Curtin University, and Southern Cross University. Postgraduate supervision in an ‘Environment, Behaviour, and Society' program was also available at the University of Sydney within the Faculty of Architecture, Design and Planning, where several staff members are environmental psychologists. While environmental psychology clearly has never been a widely available subject offering across psychology programs, it is noteworthy that during the 1980s and 1990s there were periods when environmental psychology was taught in approximately 20 per cent of psychology programs in Australia.

The current situation for environmental psychology in Australia, however, is looking increasingly dire. It would appear that there are now very few Departments or Schools offering such a subject at an undergraduate level. Of the 37 Australian universities currently offering at least a three-year sequence of psychology units accredited by the Australian Psychology Accreditation Council (APAC), only two universities would appear to presently offer an environmental psychology subject - the University of Melbourne and Southern Cross University (Lipp et al., 2007)! A fourth year directed reading subject in environmental psychology is offered on an occasional basis at the University of New England. A spectrum of environmental considerations may of course also be covered within the subject matter of ‘contemporary issues' in psychology programs, but such parenthetical coverage, where it exists, cannot in any adequate way address the history, scope, and diverse content of environmental psychology as a field.

Explanations and implications

Why has this happened? There are many reasons. At the same time that environmental psychology was becoming a much better known field of psychology and a prospective employment and career niche in North America and Europe in the 1980s, Australian departments had already embarked on a widespread streamlining of the psychology curriculum which concentrated on ‘core competencies', offering fewer elective subjects within or outside of psychology, and maximising their own Effective Full-Time Student Units. Much of this was simultaneously driven and rationalised by increasingly prescribed APS Accreditation Guidelines (e.g., Lipp, 2007). This made it harder to introduce and ultimately retain a continuing subject in environmental psychology, and many psychologists on department committees debating the merits of such a subject were simply quite unfamiliar with what this field of psychology covered.

As well, of course, other departments and schools, such as geography and environmental studies programs, deemed ‘the environment' as their exclusive domain. At the same time, and of equal importance, was the fact that there were few trained environmental psychologists in Australia, or psychologists with some training and/or experience in this area who were able and/ or motivated to teach such a course. Other arguments in a more global context include the reality that the environment is implicitly a core consideration across all areas of psychology (and therefore should be an integral consideration in all psychology subjects and not a stand alone subject), and the fact that the breadth and scope of environmental psychology overtax the seemingly necessary limited focus of a ‘discipline' of psychology and raise the spectre of a yet more fragmented field and profession (e.g., Sime, 1999; Stokols, 1995).

Is this current ‘state of the environment' in the Australian psychology curriculum a real problem, a crisis situation? This is arguably a very consequential crisis and crossroads for our discipline and practice, as well as for the environment. The absence of such a subject, and/or the non-availability of a staff member with this background or expertise, means that students are not exposed to this important domain of psychology, they are very unlikely to undertake projects or develop an interest in this area, and they will graduate with very little by way of an environmental or ecological literacy or competency as psychologists. The social and contextual realities are less formal, but very consequential. Students will be far less likely to be discussing a particularly salient issue raised in an environmental lecture over coffee, they are less likely to browse the science or environmental shelves in the bookstore, or pick up that climate change or environmental management book, or even to see a connection between their chosen discipline and larger environmental considerations. This situation also means, of course, that there will be very few if any environmental psychologists coming through psychology programs in Australia, with the most obvious consequence of this being that there will be few prospective staff members with developed interests or expertise in environmental psychology or environmental issues.

The ‘state of the environment' in Australian psychology, 2008

Where does this leave us? Psychology as a discipline and profession is based on the premise that behaviour is a function of individuals perceiving, experiencing, and interacting with their physical and social environment. Psychology has also been, to date, a crucial bridging discipline between the natural and social sciences, between the social sciences and the health sciences, in part because of this focus on better understanding the nature of people-environment transactions and experience, of quality of life and quality of environment. The multiple and profound challenges of environmental degradation and climate change make this current neglect of the environment in the psychology curriculum particularly tragic and anomalous, and completely out of touch with student interests, professional needs, graduate opportunities, and planetary sustainability requirements.

The crisis is not simply the seeming demise of environmental psychology as an available subject, but what this reflects and portends with respect to a foundational construct and framework, and indeed the sustainability of a credible discipline. Important considerations and tensions here clearly relate to the conflicting pressures of a curriculum covering core professional competencies and corresponding accreditation requirements on the one hand, and the need for contemporary and socially relevant psychology programs that cover not only the diverse compass of psychology but areas of shared interdisciplinary relevance in the natural and social sciences and humanities. The current ‘state of the environment' in the psychology curriculum contrasts sharply with a pressing need for psychology and social science graduates with environmental expertise and more applied, interdisciplinary, interests - in environmental and natural resource management, urban planning, environmental impact assessment and evaluation, and across multiple government, NGO, and private sector institutions and agencies. It is instructive that psychology is a crucial but typically missing disciplinary player in climate change mitigation and adaptation initiatives in Australia. ‘Being useful', at the table, and making a much-needed contribution requires that psychology programs become far more serious about the environment.

The author can be contacted on jreser@bigpond.net.au.


Lipp, O.V., Terry, D.T., Chalmers, D., Bath, D., Hannan, G., Martin, F., Farrell, G., Wilson, P.H. & Provost, S. (2007). Teaching psychology: Learning outcomes and curriculum development in psychology. Strawberry Hills, NSW: The Carrick Institute for Learning and Teaching in Higher Education.

Sime, J. (1999). What is environmental psychology? Texts, content and context. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 19, 191-206.

Stokols, D. (1995). The paradox of environmental psychology. American Psychologist, 50, 821-837.

Sundstrom, E., Bell, P.A., Busby, P.L., & Asmus, C. (1996). Environmental psychology. Annual Review of Psychology, 47, 485-512.