I graduated college in 1982 convinced that the environment needed saving. There were already scientists warning of the global warming that would occur early in the next century if we did not curb our fossil fuel habit. As a budding psychological scientist, and full of the piss and vinegar of youth, I was certain that my arsenal of psychology concepts and research methods could be used to promote the attitudes and behaviors supportive of environmental sustainability. I chose a graduate school where I could do this kind of work.
The focus of my early graduate school research at Claremont Graduate University involved the using the principles of persuasion and social norms in two field experiments designed to increase a community’s participation in a curbside-recycling program. But it was a lonely road. While my graduate advisor Stuart Oskamp shared my interests, in general, the discipline of psychology and my peers did not. Even the field of environmental psychology was less concerned with the natural environment than it was with the built one. Meanwhile, outside the psychological world, caring about the natural environment remained the domain of environmentalists and earth scientists who were generally disdained as eco-nuts.
As my career developed, my work diversified to include the application of psychology to a variety of human behavior problems. Periodically, I would pursue environmental projects with the help of interested students and sometimes with USDA Forest research scientist and friend Patricia Winter. I began writing for Psychology Today, hired to focus on environmental topics. I ended up writing on a variety of applied social psychology topics due to my wide interests and due to my growing helplessness about the state of the environment.
If you read my environmental blog posts it is evident I have become increasingly pessimistic about environmental sustainability. The dystopian future arising from environmental degradation portrayed in science fiction seems like a real possibility and I am glad I won’t be around to see the worst of it (although I am sad that others will). As I have written before, the psychological knowledge that was once the source of optimism is now a source of pessimism. There are so many psychological and social forces operating against environmental sustainability. We tend to underestimate environmental risks because we have a hard time imagining them actually happening or we deny or repress them because they are too scary. When making decisions, we tend to emphasize the present and under-weigh future consequences.
There is the unrealistic optimism that prevents action as people optimistically assume that technological solutions will save the day. The tendency for people that acknowledge environmental risks to assume that they and the ones they love will be unaffected reduces many people’s motivations to act. Ignorance about the environmental impacts of human actions maintains an eventually unsustainable status quo. Social norms stigmatize environmental concern and foster materialism and consumptive behaviors. Barriers in public, private, consumer, and organizational settings make it difficult to act proenvironmentally. Competing attitudes, like a desire for convenience, interfere with sustainable environmental choices. Some sociopolitical identities trump environmental concern and action, while others prioritize different issues.
A hawk attacked me in my neighborhood recently. One of my sisters (the one that is “spiritually inclined”) suggested that it must mean something. “What could it mean beyond the fact that human settlements are encroaching on their habits and she was defending the eggs in a nearby nest,” I wondered in my mildly concussed state. But being literally hit upside the head by a hawk does serve as a wake-up call of sorts. Perhaps I need to do more than give money to environmental organizations, live my personal life in environmentally sustainable ways, and take comfort in my past contributions to psychological science and practice related to sustainability. Maybe I need to get over my pessimistic environmental funk and get back to actively realizing the promise of psychology for saving the environment that called to me so long ago.