Why do so many people say they are all for protecting the environment
, yet live environmentally irresponsible lives? This is an issue that Professor Joan Freeman addresses in a chapter she wrote on Psychology for the Sake of the Environment
, appearing in the book, Natural Resources, Sustainability and Humanity
(A, Cunha, A. & Chakrabarti, R, Editors). In this piece, Dr. Freeman looks at a variety of psychological techniques that can be used to influence positive change in terms to attitudes and behavior regarding environmental issues.
Scientific and personal beliefs on environmental issues around the world have become a hotly debated issue. “Scientists,” says Dr. Freeman, “generally work at two ends of the spectrum. At one end there are “hard” scientists (physicists, chemists etc) and at the other end the ‘soft’ scientists (anthropologists and psychologists etc). Yet workers at the two ends of the spectrum do overlap to work together. The ‘hard’ scientists investigating climate change in the physical world constantly present overwhelming evidence of the steady destruction of the earth’s bounties. They measure what it is happening and offer reasons why. “Soft” scientists of the psychological world show that if there is to be a positive change people can no longer see themselves as passive spectators of uncontrollable forces, but argue that they must take responsibility for the welfare of the planet.”
Dr. Joan Freeman, PhD is the author of the book, Gifted Lives: What Happens When Gifted Children Grow Up? She is a Fellow of the British Psychological Society, which has also honored her with a Lifetime Achievement Award for her work with the gifted and talented. She is the Founding President of the European Council for High Ability and the author of numerous books and papers on the subject of gifted children. On a side note, I want to say that her work with gifted learners is a must read for anyone wanting to better understand the mind and actions of high ability learners. You can check out a series of posts I wrote titled Gifted Children: What Happens When They Grow Up to find out more.
So who actually pays attention to details regarding serious environmental concerns, particularly those which require longer range planning? The answer may surprise you. Freeman writes:
“In the more developed parts of the world, concepts such as sustainability and biodiversity along with aiming to be ‘green’ have become part of everyday conversation, and almost a social norm. But this does not include everyone. In Britain, for example, those most likely to make positive ecological changes to their life-styles are aged over 65, live in rural areas or are of a higher social class (Survey for the Environment Food and Rural Affairs Department, Nov 2007 Tinyurl.com/ypzenk). These data show the need to involve younger people, those in cities and the less well informed.”
So what can be done, if anything?
The tricky part in attempting to get people to change is that you cannot expect people to change just by asking them to. In a recent discussion I had with Dr. Freeman, she indicated that she began to think of young people’s attitudes toward pressing concerns of the day a long time ago when she published, “Young People's Attitudes to Nuclear War,” in the International Journal of Adolescence and Youth, back in 1991. What she found was that, “The higher the intelligence of the youngster the more likely they were to be concerned about nuclear disaster.” “Recently,” says Freeman, “I started out working on attitudes of the gifted towards climate change but broadened it to include everyone.” But for as hotly as environmental topics are debated from our own dinner tables to greater public and political platforms, they have a way of slipping under the radar, surfacing for a bit, and then disappearing from public consciousness once again – until a next dramatic event takes place. Reminds me of Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point. In spite of and , perhaps, because of the complexity and difficulty, Freeman believes that psychology should play a role in guiding positive, clearer and more comprehensible perspectives on environmental issues.
Paying More Attention
Part of the job involves getting people to change from passive, part-time, spectators of uncontrollable environmental forces into active green tenants on the planet? How? Not easily.
Wouldn’t it be nice, for example, if people’s good behaviors could be instantly rewarded – or punished as we have done here in much of the U.S., for example, with fines for littering. Some of us can remember what it was like before, witnessing all too many individuals just roll down their car window and let almost anything fly. I live out in the Berkshires, so I know littering is still a problem – but much, much less, at least in my neck of the woods, than years ago.
Issues of climate change, however, are different, of course, “more complicated,” says Freeman. “The problems are in deeply entrenched habits of thought, notably in the concepts of time and space, which are extremely difficult to reach and change. Of itself, longer-term thinking and planning is much harder to do than producing a short term reaction. In climate terms, greenhouse gases have such a long life that to control them means planning for hundreds not tens of years. What is happening to the climate now has come from actions taken by past generations, and the long time-lag ahead means that any benefits of people’s current efforts will not be seen until long after the present population is dead.”
Then, people say one thing and do another. They will say they are for pro-active, positive environmental change, then as Freeman points out, “get in their big gas-guzzling cars.”
What makes change so difficult?
One thing that makes change difficult, according to Professor Freeman, is that good information regarding environmental issues is not always at hand. So it is often hard to know what to pay attention to. Without good information, things can get pointless. She gives an interesting example, citing David McKay, a physicist at Cambridge University, who has attempted to explain things in normal language (McKay, 2009). Says Freeman: McKay points out, for example, how well-meaning media which urge the public to change their behavior can even be misleading:
“... the idea that one of the top ten things you should do to make a difference to your energy consumption is to switch off the phone-charger when you are not using it. The truth is that leaving the phone charger switched on uses about 0.01 kWh per day. This means that switching the phone charger off for a whole day saves the same energy as is used in driving an average car for one second. Switching off phone chargers is like bailing the Titanic with a teaspoon.”
Okay, then what do you do?
Freeman suggests pursuing a better understanding of the issues and more public cooperation: “Although, as McKay says, the effect of a single individual’s actions in saving energy will not make any difference to the whole world, the effect of many millions saving energy could be significantly effective. For example, switching from gas-guzzling to fuel-efficient cars in the US alone would nearly offset the emissions generated in providing electricity to 1.6 billion people.”
Citing R.S. Nickerson’s Psychology & Environmental Change, Freeman writes, “Environmental psychology has moved fast from a focus on the built environment at the end of the 20th century to that of the natural environment. Most particularly, it is attempting to understand the way we live socially, which affects who we believe we are and what we are entitled to.”
She suggests what can be done is to help people move from denying problematic environmental issues and being apathetic toward them into taking more positive action.
In my next post, we will take a look at exactly how. Dr. Freeman addresses some pertinent questions and carves a path to wider and positive perspectives on environmental changes and our feelings and responses to them.
- Why do people behave inconsistently from one situation to another?
- How do people translate their feelings and beliefs into actions?
Freeman, J. Young People's Attitudes to Nuclear War, International Journal of Adolescence and Youth, 2, 237-243. (1991).
Freeman, J. “Literacy, Flexible Thinking and Underachievement,” In D. Montgomery (Ed.), Gifted, Talented and Able Achievers. Chichester: Wiley. (2008).
Freeman, J. Gifted Lives: What Happens When Gifted Children Grow Up. Brighton: Routledge. (2010).
MacKay, David J.C. Sustainable Energy - Without the Hot Air. Cambridge: UIT. (2009). Download free on http://www.withouthotair.com/download.html
Nickerson, R. S. Psychology & Environmental Change. New York: Lawrence ErlbaumAssociates. (2002).