<< Return to InPsych February 2008

The regular Saving the planet column has a new format for 2008. This year, the column will examine how different specialisations in psychology can contribute to public understanding and action on environmental concerns. In this edition, we take a look at the relevance and importance of the field of community psychology, as communities around the world rise to the challenges of finding solutions to changes in their local environment.

Community psychology harnesses the power of many to address environmental challenges

Community psychology has greater relevance than ever in these days of adjusting to rapidly changing climates, norms, and lifestyle expectations. Community psychologists have an important role to play in helping communities to navigate the many changes that are required in this transition from a high to a low carbon way of life.

Community psychology is broadly concerned with engaging with others to understand, manage, reduce and prevent the social, material and environmental causes of distress. Community psychology makes use of various perspectives within and outside of psychology to address issues facing communities, the relationships within them, and people's attitudes about them. Community psychologists seek to understand and to enhance quality of life for individuals, communities, and society. Their approaches prioritise collaborative, inclusive actions that promote social justice and wellbeing.

Areas of interest in relation to environmental concerns include community resilience, environmental attitudes and concerns, community involvement and engagement in community and local environmental decision making, and disaster preparedness.

Example 1: Drought

The unpredictability of Australia's climate poses real challenges for farming practices that were developed based on the relative predictability of a European climate. More recently, policy has been moving towards accepting drought as a reality, rejecting
the notion that it is a natural disaster in favour of an approach based on risk management. The focus is increasingly on how to help Australian farmers and the broader community to live with the vagaries of an uncertain climate (Botterill & Fisher, 2003). However, the level of public debate during a drought event suggests that this policy approach has not been widely understood or accepted. Media reporting of drought rapidly adopts disaster-related language, and the organisation of relief appeals reinforces the impression that drought is an aberration rather than an increasingly normal part of Australia's climate patterns.

Community psychologists have an important role in working with farming families and communities during periods of drought. Stress and depression can cause farmers and rural residents to be at increased risk for substance abuse problems, farm accidents, injury and suicide. Flow-on effects can include conflicts with spouses and poor parenting practices that may cause problems for children and young people in school achievement, peer relations, antisocial behaviour, self-confidence, depression, and substance abuse. Some rural communities can even be expected to experience social disintegration, and some to completely collapse.

Learning how to manage stress and increase resilience in rural and farming communities is important, especially during tough times such as drought, let alone permanent climate change. These are slow onset crises, and people might not recognise that
their individual problems are linked to a community wide stressor. Raising community awareness of support options during severe and prolonged droughts that deplete community resources needs special attention.

Example 2: Sense of community and the National Landcare Program

The National Landcare Program initiated in 1989 is one example of a social coalition approach to community problem solving around matters of place and environment. Through community development activities centred around social interaction with colleagues and neighbours (Millar & Curtis, 1997), projects were organised aimed at preserving and reclaiming waterways, forests and grasslands. The central tenet of the Landcare movement was that residents should be the people setting priorities for natural resource management in their localities. In this way, both the physical environment and the sense of community of participants are improved. But when questions began to be raised about the willingness of residents to volunteer, community psychologists demonstrated a significant link between Landcare volunteers' identity and attachment with their communities and their motivation to participate (Pretty, Bramston, & Zammit, 2004).

This research points to the importance of attending to the complex relationship between community and place in terms of building the social coalition for care and maintenance of the social and natural resources of rural and remote Australia. The APS-commissioned paper Psychological sense of community and its relevance to well-being and everyday life in Australia (Pretty, Bishop, Fisher & Sonn, 2006) expands on the relevance of people's sense of community and place to efforts to promote a sustainable natural resource management agenda.

Community psychologists in this example could use their practical skills in coalition building to support the popular Landcare movement. They were able to use their research skills to illustrate how the sense one has of one's community is related to behaviour to protect and restore the ecology that supports it. Helping people to articulate their attachment to ‘their place', however they construe it, might actually mobilise them to nurture and protect it.

Example 3: Community consultation and problem solving in Western Australia

Over the past twenty-five years, rapid urban and regional development has placed great strain on Australia's fragile environment and scarce water resources. The current proposal to pipe water from northern Victoria to Melbourne highlights the political tensions between rural and urban inhabitants around issues of managing natural resources. In response to these challenges, WA community psychologists have established an enduring relationship with the CSIRO involving community and industry consultation and problem solving. Bishop and Syme (1992) and colleagues proceeded to develop models for community psychologists as participantconceptualisers and social change agents, in contexts as diverse as forestry and land use, urban development on the rural fringe, and the impact of the mining industry on Indigenous communities.The CSIRO work focuses on the social psychology of natural resources management. Community psychology principles, theory and methods are used to incorporate stakeholder definitions of fairness and equity in policies, negotiation and decision making on water allocation and re-allocation (Syme, 1995).

Undertaking this ‘frontier' work demands a willingness to take risks and tolerate ambiguity beyond the parameters of traditional scientist-practitioner or even applied psychology models, and has led community psychologists to develop models of uncertainty
and acceptable risk when communities are involved in decision making in such volatile contexts, with far-reaching implications for all concerned. In other words, community psychologists can help governments and the people within the communities to weigh up the risks of doing something against the costs of doing nothing about environmental challenges on the local and global horizon - and to come up with solutions that are both socially just and environmentally sustainable.

These three examples illustrate the ways in which community psychologists work at multiple levels to address environmental challenges. Psychologists working in rural settings with drought-affected families might be drawing on individual counselling or clinical skills, but they take full account of the prevailing social context and the community strengths and resources available to these families. Helping communities and groups to work together across often conflicting interests is a practical way to promote collaborative and equitable win-win solutions to the management of finite natural resources. And using practice-based, grounded and theoretically supported research to inform public policy responses to the new challenges presented by climate change means that we stand a better chance as a society of surviving, together as a global community.

Heather Gridley FAPS and Dr Susie Burke MAPS
Public Interest Team
National Office


Bishop, B. & Syme, G. (1992). Social change in rural settings: Lessons for community change agents. In D. R. Thomas & A. Veno (Eds.), Community psychology and social change: Australian & New Zealand perspectives (pp. 93-111). Palmerston North, NZ: Dunmore Press.

Botterill, L.C. & Fisher, M. (2003). Beyond Drought: People, Policy and Perspectives. Melbourne: CSIRO Publishing.

Miller, J., & Curtis, A. (1997). Moving farmer knowledge beyond the farm gate: An Australian study of farmer knowledge in group learning. European Journal of Agriculture Education and Extension, 4, 133-142.

Pretty, G. H., Bramston, P., & Zammit, C. (2004). The relationship between sense of place and the subjective quality of life of rural Australians. Australian Journal of Psychology Supplement, 56, 215.

Pretty, G., Bishop, B., Fisher, A., & Sonn, C. (2006) Psychological sense of community and its relevance to well-being and everyday life in Australia. Australian Psychological Society Ltd.

Syme, G. (1995). Community acceptance of risk: trust, liability and consent. In P. Heinrichs & R. Fell (Eds.), Acceptable risks for major infrastructure (pp. 31-40). Balkema, Rotterdam.


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