What are we waiting for? 

A contribution by the social issues team

In the July Issue of InPsych we highlighted the urgent need for people to participate in solutions to the many complex environmental problems facing our planet. In this issue we begin a regular column on environmental issues. Here we will continue our conversation about why the environmental crisis should be a particular concern for psychologists, and what we can do.

Psychologists have a central interest in the wellbeing of individuals and communities. As people's awareness of the threat of climate change increases and they begin to experience the scarcity of valuable resources like water, fuel etc, psychologists have an important role to play in helping people cope with increased levels of anxiety and uncertainty, and adapt to changes.

Increasingly, too, pressure will be placed on people to reconsider their lifestyle choices, and these pressures will not just be economic, but also social. Our current Western worldview of self-interested materialism and economic growth is unsustainable both environmentally and socially. Psychologists have a leading role to play in promoting the greater benefits of community values, social cohesion, and sustainable development, both for our personal wellbeing and for the benefit of the environment. (See the Wellbeing Manifesto www.wellbeingmanifesto.net for an example of a socially progressive model for Australia). Indeed, over-consumption (and other environmentally irresponsible behaviours) may well come to be regarded as anti-social behaviours!

Psychology can also play an important role in the development of environmental programs designed to directly influence behaviour change and increase pro-environmental behaviours. Each What are we waiting for? column will inform readers of some of the psychological research being done in the environmental field, and end with a practical tip for pro-environmental behaviour change that we can all do. Many people are already engaged with the problems, and working hard for sustainable solutions. By modeling the required changes, psychologists can lead the way for others. What are we waiting for?

Lessons from the literature: psychology, wellbeing and the environment

According to McKenzie-Mohr (2000), environmental campaigns to inform and change the attitudes of the public often have little effect on people's behaviour. His work emphasizes the importance of identifying barriers people perceive to engaging in behaviour, and designing programs that remove barriers to behaviour change. The four steps involved in his community-based social marketing methods for promoting sustainable behaviour are: uncovering barriers and selecting behaviours to promote; designing a program; piloting; and evaluation. McKenzie-Mohr identifies a variety of effective 'tools' for promoting behaviour change, which are found to most effective when used in combination with one another. These tools are the use of commitment, prompts, norms, communication and incentives. McKenzie-Mohr's excellent website http://www.cbsm.com attempts to make psychological knowledge more accessible to the public, and allows easy access to relevant information for fostering sustainable behaviour.

McKenzie-Mohr, D. (2000). Promoting sustainable behaviour: An introduction to community-based social marketing. Journal of Social Issues, 56 (3), 543 - 554.

Tips for a sustainable future.

  • Sign up to green energy.

The human activities responsible for climate change include burning fossil fuels (oil, natural gas, coal) for heat, transportation and electricity and from deforestation by burning (which both releases carbon dioxide and reduces the number of trees available to remove CO2 from the atmosphere.) The scientific consensus is that it is necessary to make cuts of at least 60 per cent in emissions by 2050, (and thus fossil fuel use) in order to avoid catastrophic climate change impacts.

Most energy providers now offer their clients the option of purchasing electricity that is produced from 100 per cent renewable sources - thus reducing greenhouse gas emissions to zero. Usually, all you need to do is phone your energy provider and ask to switch over onto green energy. You may have to pay a small premium to purchase green energy, which varies depending on what combination of wind, hydro and solar power you request. Usually this is a small price to pay for reducing your greenhouse gas emissions to zero.

Once you've converted, let your friends and family know what you've done, and why.