By Siv Helen Gjerstad
I went to the library the other day, looking for a new book on environmental psychology that I wanted to read. When I discovered that neither of the two copies of the book were checked out, I was happy that I could pick it up right away. But as I kept thinking about it, the fact that nobody else was reading the book was just disappointing. Why don’t we care more about the psychological aspects of sustainable transitions?
Eighty percent of Norwegians believed that climate change is caused by human activity in 2015. So most of us do admit that we are the source of environmental changes. Yet we don’t feel much personal responsibility to do anything about it, nor are we willing to make significant sacrifices to make a change.
At the Center for Technology, Innovation and Culture (TIK) we talk as if climate change and global warming is something that will have significant impact on our lives if we don’t take serious action. We talk about the policy changes that we need to make in order to be able to adapt our fossil fuel-based lifestyle to the goals of sustainable development. But do we know enough about how people react to and act upon this information about climate change, and the policies that are put in place to counter it?
Research on environmental psychology and behaviour is not a large academic field, but it is growing. The interesting thing about exploring these aspects of human mind and behaviour is that they are often less intuitive than we might think. One would assume that people who care about the environment would act more environmentally friendly, having a lifestyle with less carbon emissions than those who do not care. However, recent studies suggest that there is no link between the desire to project an environmentally friendly image and environmentally friendly behaviour. Neither energy use in travel nor consumption with significant impact on the environment seems to be affected by people’s attitudes. Denial and irrationality are important aspects of the human mind, and so we need to address them.
Another example I find interesting is how studies indicate negative spillover effects from one environmental activity to another. Festinger’s popular theory of cognitive dissonance would predict a catalyst effect between one environmentally friendly behaviour and another, but on the contrary people can actually be less prone to do more environmentally friendly measures when already doing some. It seems like instead of being motivated to adopt a more environmentally friendly behaviour profile, people feel like they contributed enough to the ‘common good’ already. Being a student at TIK and a cautious optimist I do believe that technology plays a significant role in successful sustainable transitions. That being said, it turns out that those of us who believe in new technology as the key to the reduction of carbon emissions are less willing to change our own consumption behaviour.
Most people acknowledge the fact that our behaviour is involved in climate change, yet we worried less about the greenhouse effect in 2013 than in 1989. That is a strange discovery, considering how scientific evidence has been significantly strengthened the last two decades. Psychologist and economist Per Espen Stoknes describes how information about risk, like the risk of global warming, is too abstract and too distant for us to actually be frightened, and how that impacts our willingness to adjust our behaviour.
These are just a few examples, but they illustrate how human environmental behaviour is very complex, and that it is difficult to anticipate people’s perceptions and behaviour. Stoknes elaborates on the paradox of being aware of global warming, and yet keeping up what can be considered self-destructive behaviour. He puts it very accurately: We pretend to be rational, while behaving irrationally. We need to understand the relevant psychological processes and the barriers in our ways of thinking before attempting to modify human actions. Certain measures might even have negative effects on carbon emissions, thus not knowing anything about environmental psychology may lead to ineffective measures and policy.
Though I am loath to admit it, an army of environmental psychologists is not going to save us from destroying our planet. Nevertheless, I think it is important that we take people’s behaviour and the underlying processes of that behaviour more into consideration. After all, it is nothing but human behaviour that will determine whether we succeed or fail in stopping global warming.