Therapy to Help the Environment

When our hearts are in the right place, psychology can help change behavior.

Posted Aug 11, 2013

China, which I have been fortunate to visit several times, presents many contrasts with the US. Some are good, some are neutral, but environmentally there are a lot of negatives. The last time I visited I was particularly conscious that I couldn’t trust the tap water. What most struck me this time, on my return to the US, was the surprise of a blue sky. In Chengdu, where I was staying, as in most big Chinese cities, the sky is perpetually hazy from a combination of weather and air pollution.

I suspect most of us who have the benefit of a clear sky, or clean tapwater, would do a lot to keep them, and most who don’t would do a lot to get them back. So why don’t we? I offer this example because it clearly identifies the major problem that underlies unsustainable behavior. It’s not that people don’t value a clear sky. It’s not that we don’t know the causes of air pollution. It’s more like unhealthy eating: we lack self-control; we privilege short-term outcomes over the long-term; we don’t know how to change, or we doubt our ability to do so.

Protecting the environment is often about changing behavior, not attitudes. Perfect

solutions may be difficult, but there are clear ways to improve behavior. Psychologists have a lot of practice helping people to make changes that they want to make, like quitting smoking, preserving a marriage, or resolving conflicts without violence. We need a similar program to facilitate sustainability.

Ah, you may say, but people want to quit smoking because there are personal benefits. Well, research suggests there are personal benefits to sustainable behavior. Saving energy saves money. Rejecting materialism makes people happy. According to research by Markowitz and Bowerman, most Americans actually believe we should all consume less. Why not use psychology to help them do it?