The relationship between the environment and human psychology is age-old, yet encouraging populations to alter their behavior to become “green” is another challenge altogether. To address this challenge, the field of ecopsychology is increasing in relevance and demand, not only in universities, but in business and popular culture.
The term “sustainability” in many ways echoes ecopsychology and is commonly used today as a tool to relate to, acknowledge and ultimately mitigate, climate change. But what does it actually mean? Oftentimes, it comes down to marketing. Many businesses and universities now have a sustainability coordinator on staff to help manage recycling and compost programs and “sustainability” pops up on many present-day products from food to laundry detergent.
Sustainability often addresses the need to mitigate climate change while ultimately maintaining our current economic relationship with existing resources on Earth; it does not necessarily aim to decrease demand of resources or change our inherent driving behavior, for example. Sustainability exists in such a way to be environmentally conscious while not entirely shocking the economic system — and in some cases even prolonging it, as seen with the Prius Fallacy and Jevons Paradox.
In many instances, it’s an economic issue with an environmental impact. In other words, very few people will choose to go cold this winter in an effort to be green, but they may take action to ensure their house is energy efficient, thereby demanding less energy and saving money in the process. It’s also important to note that the term sustainability is used predominantly from an anthropocentric standpoint taking into account existing — mainly western — ways of life; poorer cultures are often by default sustainable given they typically demand less.
While arguments exist about the ultimate impact of sustainability, the shift is a necessary one, particularly given Americans demand roughly 25% of the world’s fossil fuel resources. Doug McKenzie-Mohr, a prominent environmental psychologist, highlights the sustainability trend and breaks down what we can do every day to combat climate change in our homes and offices, but is this behavior modification enough to make a dent in looming climate catastrophe? And what does it take to make humans truly alter their behavior?
Sustainable behavior impediments can typically be boiled down to: commitment, affordability, convenience and incentives. Humans, at least the populations Dr. McKenzie-Mohr has studied, tend to default to the lowest common denominator of behavior when it comes to environmentalism. Of course, this isn’t to say there aren’t personalities who go above and beyond for the greater good, but overall, unless regulated to do so, or cajoled by neighbors or friends, most people will resort to the path of least resistance. Knowing this intrinsic behavior trend, Dr. McKenzie-Mohr is able to extrapolate on how to best create systems whereby these same individuals could easily do their part to create a more sustainable, healthy and balanced planet.
One example is recycling. Initially, in the 1980s, recycling was seen as a confusing burden to the majority of consumers. Today, however, the mere act of recycling, sorting out plastic from paper and glass from cardboard, is now viewed as commonplace and requires little thought. Most U.S. cities have recycling facilities in operation.
So, how did this behavior change happen? Interestingly, Dr. McKenzie-Mohr cites community influence and social norms coupled with municipality engagement. If a person sees their neighbors, family members or friends recycling, they may begin to question their own behavior and adapt accordingly.
Energy efficiency and renewable energy is another example. Today, consumers have a multitude of product options from CFLs to energy-saving Energy Star appliances, but, as Dr. McKenzie-Mohr points out, there remains a disconnect between awareness of the the product’s existence, where to get the rebate for the product and the technicalities of product installation. These barriers may seem trivial, but they can lead to a significant delay in action. It’s therefore key to not only increase awareness of energy efficiency products, but to educate the consumer on proper follow through behavior and resources to ensure the true benefit is achieved.
All of this can seem somewhat daunting, particularly applied on a global scale. However, through altered aggregate consumer norms and lifestyle changes, our relationship to the planet, while complex, can improve. In fact, it’s been shown that the more one demands and the more stuff one has, the more depressed that person is. And while being sustainable in everyday life isn’t necessarily the answer to climate change, it plays an important role and is better than the alternative: doing nothing.
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