As well as the peace psychologists who attended ICAP 2010 (profiled in the previous edition of InPsych), the Congress was also buzzing with environmental psychologists from around the world. They hailed from across the Americas and Europe, as well as nearer to home in New Zealand and from around Australia. They brought information about the power of restorative environments to enhance wellbeing, such as having plants in hospitals, looking at pictures of natural scenes, and using office lunch breaks to walk along rivers or through gardens and forests. They presented studies on reducing car use, showing time pressures increase fuel use, and that pricing policies work well to encourage people to reduce mileage and speed. They explained how public attitudes on climate change and energy futures are critical to the successful implementation of alternative energy, and that public opposition can delay action. They demonstrated the importance of not just thinking globally and acting locally, but also of responding personally, so that we understand, feel, engage with, and take responsibility for the problems and solutions.

As with the peace psychologists at ICAP 2010, Susie Burke and Craig Wallace headed forth with the dictaphones switched on, and captured the thoughts of two of these prominent environmental psychologists. Of particular interest were their insights into how to be effective and heighten the accessibility of knowledge and research in this vital area of psychology, from the perspective of their own distinguished careers.

Emeritus Professor Robert Sommer

Bob Sommer is a Distinguished Professor of Psychology Emeritus at the University of California, Davis. He has been a towering figure in action research and in environmental psychology from its beginnings. He may be best known for his book Personal Space: The Behavioral Basis of Design (1969). He has been instrumental in major consultancies on responsive architecture and the design of bicycle paths, residence halls, geriatric housing, airports, offices, prisons, farmers' markets and other types of facilities.

How did you get into this work?

I was a do-gooder, I wanted to make a better world, and I felt that the mental health system needed help. I was hired as a research psychologist in a mental hospital. One strange aspect was that I noticed the physical environment. These heavy doors were banging, the smells ... they violated Florence Nightingale's first rule for a hospital to do the sick no harm. So I began working with the superintendent to improve the hospital, and we found that as we improved the physical environment, the patients improved. I became very interested in this because nobody had mentioned the physical environment during my whole schooling. No teacher had ever asked me if the chair was comfortable or the lighting was good, or whether I could even see the blackboard. I became interested in the influence of the physical environment on people's behaviour so I developed a career in environmental psychology, and helped develop the field of environmental psychology as well.

How do you make the time to do your environmental work?

The fundamental lesson of ecology is that everything is connected, so I don't see the point of separating the different parts of my life. My values dictated that my research should be something that makes a difference in the world and it ended up being environmental research. I find that I can make more of an impact there than in other areas and I work at a university that has a strong public service commitment.

I have merged the different parts of my life. I helped develop an award winning bicycle path system in Davis because I rode a bicycle. I helped the state locavores (people eating food grown locally) with community gardens and I also wrote 30 articles and a book about farmers' markets which I got academic credit for. So it wasn't about making time - I was paid to do research and I chose to do some of my research on environmental issues.

What kind of personal qualities and professional skills have been of most value to you in your environmental work?

I was very near-sighted as a child and I've always paid attention to things that were close to me, like the walls and the colour scheme. At the hospital, what was really odd was that I noticed this - other people habituated to it but it bothered me. So, being a good observer is critical to doing good field research, as is paying attention to what isn't there.

When you work with community groups or work with government agencies like the forest service, you have to be sensitive to political realities but you still have to have your internal values. I keep a journal and I write about what goes on. I get up at five o'clock in the morning and write. It's a way of making sense. I reflect on what happens. I believe in the existential notion that through action you define yourself, and the limits of what you're able to do. If you hold back you don't learn anything about yourself or the world.

I'm eager to see the limits of what I do as well, and that's taken me to some unusual places. I not only write for my fellow behavioural scientists, but I write a column for the local newspaper, I'm a bicycle path researcher, I write for a bicycling magazine, and when we worked for the tree planting groups I wrote for them. I had to adapt my style to them. I have not been as successful as I hoped to be in getting other psychologists to write for other outlets. Most write for one another. To me that is disappointing.

Another quality is willingness to tolerate messiness. I'm not a control freak, and that flexibility and willingness to tolerate not having total control over the situation is valuable. I go with nature rather than try to control it. I work on a concrete level - we get trees planted and it's pro-environmental. To talk in abstract levels about global climate change, well that's nice but let's plant more trees and get more people out of cars.

What are your current research interests?

I love to talk and write. I love doing research. I'm a people watcher, an observer. The ICAP workshop goal was to present a different model for doing research - rather than sitting around making up your own studies, it's about working with community organisations.

I like to have research where I can document whether it worked or not. I guess I am a 'quantomaniac' in trying to measure things. But not everything has been successful and I'm pretty honest about where I've failed and where I've made a difference.

What would you say to someone who wants to get into this area?

I recommend working in applied units. That's much better than sitting in your office and dreaming up your own project. In psychology, the model is usually that basic research will lead to applied research which will lead to application. That is a lie. Basic research leads to more basic research, which leads to more basic research. People have to broaden themselves and start doing collaborative research with activist groups, particularly in the environmental field. I think the greatest failing of environmental psychologists is their inability to work with Friends of the Earth, with Greenpeace, with the international environment movement. I don't know anyone here who is devoting themselves to finding out the things those groups want to know. I work with groups that are trying to improve environments and I think that's a good modus operandi.

I'd say get involved with activist groups and try to be helpful as a psychologist. You can be an activist but you have a certain set of skills as a psychologist, so put them to use.

Professor Patrick Devine-Wright

Patrick Devine-Wright (yes, truly his name - who wouldn't want to interview him!) is an Irish environmental psychologist working at the University of Exeter. A current focus of his work is researching community opposition to renewable energy projects like large scale wind farms. Patrick explores theories about place attachment and place identity, and the impact of relocation and displacement. He has found that community members who object to developments such as wind farms in their area often see these developments as threatening something that is distinctive and special about their home.

Are there ways that you see your work making a real difference in the world?

As an academic I see myself as a researcher, but more and more my research is embroiled in highly political situations, where my research is part of a political process, and interpreted differently by people with differing agendas. I still adhere to an impartial academic scientific model, but I make sure that the findings get out to a range of people. A lot of my research is about 'nimbyism', which is a pejorative label used to denigrate the opinions of people who object to things that the government or multinationals do, and to dismiss them as ignorant or selfish. I can help to introduce an alternative way of getting groups to think about opposition that can help people find an alternative way to present themselves, or help the government/multinationals to reframe how they think about objectors instead of just denigrating and avoiding dealing with them.

What advice would you give to someone wanting to get into this field?

Often, environmental psychologists investigating behaviours that make the most impact tend to look at consumption, air flights or purchase of certain products, so they explore questions about the drivers of these. I am a bit concerned about that literature, because it comes down to what individuals do in the home. The reality is that most environmental psychologists don't investigate more political forms of activist behaviour, or the individual and community acceptance behaviours that I'm looking at, which include things like signing petitions, protests, forming groups, and lobbying newspapers and politicians. These behaviours should be studied by environmental psychologists because they're affecting larger numbers of people, not just one individual in the home. Much of environmental psychology tends to retreat into that, but it may not be as relevant in the wider scheme of things.

The complete audio files of these edited interviews are available on the Psychology and the Environment website at Thanks to Susie Burke and Craig Wallace of the Public Interest team at the National Office for conducting these interviews.

InPsych October 2010