Thoughts on Psychology
Amy Nelson, Editor
A wildlife biologist I interviewed for Leaf Litter a few years ago confided that he once contemplated suicide because he just couldn’t bear the constant sense of loss and hopelessness that came with his job. My memory of that conversation came immediately to mind when Erica Robak, our administrative assistant, suggested that we explore the role of psychology in ecological restoration, conservation planning, and regenerative design. Erica had studied psychology in college, and was intrigued by its potential to enhance and inform environmental work.
If you have ever struggled with your own feelings of loss, frustration, anger, or despair over the havoc we humans have wreaked on the biosphere, or if you have ever tried to change public behavior to benefit the environment, you’ll want to read this issue.
As we work to restore ecosystems, conserve biodiversity, and regenerate human connections to the landscape, we know that whole systems solutions require interdisciplinary approaches. But are we including the discipline of psychology? We ought to. Not only can psychologists help us become more resilient to environmental doom and gloom so we can continue to work for a better planet; they bring unparalleled insight into the main cause of environmental degradation–human behavior.
What are the psychological barriers to pro-environmental behavior? Can people actually be motivated to act altruistically? And why is it that only one-third of the public even talks about climate change? To explore these and other questions, we turn to three psychologists whose work directly applies to the environment.
Susie Burke, senior psychologist with the Australian Psychological Society, shares insight into the biases that affect everyday decisions and behavior. She has spoken about the connections between mental health and climate change before the Australian Parliament and as part of Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project. Conservation psychologist, architect, and educator John Fraser has not only researched attitudes and behaviors related to the environment, but applied that research to projects through his non-profit think tank, NewKnowledge. He strongly encourages us to frame a positive narrative around environmental issues. Susan Clayton, who helped craft the American Psychological Association’s report on Psychology and Global Climate Change, is a conservation psychologist and Wooster College professor of psychology and environmental studies. Intent on informing efforts to enhance public engagement in conservation, she spends a great deal of her time at zoos, studying the ways in which people connect with nature.
It’s tempting to think that we understand human behavior, because, well…we are human. In her piece, Psychology & Environmental Work: Time to Test the Waters, Erica Robak tells us why it’s best to resist that temptation and instead turn to psychology to inform our efforts to promote behavior that benefits the biosphere.
As we learn from our psychology experts, it turns out it is important to our own well-being that we express the negative feelings we sometimes experience in our line of work. So in addition to providing resources on this topic and the latest news from Biohabitats, we also share some feelings. With only a little bit of arm twisting, a few Biohabitats team members got in front of the camera and expressed their feelings of fear, sadness, and ultimately, hope.
May this encourage you to do the same with your friends, family, and colleagues, and may your hope soar as we continue to work for a better planet in the coming year. Happy Winter Solstice!
Leaf Litter Talks with the Experts
Senior Researcher, Psychology in the Public Interest, Australian Psychological Society
Dr. Susie Burke, a psychologist at the Australian Psychological Society (APS), looks at ways of using psychological knowledge to enhance community well-being and promote social justice. A significant part of her work in the Psychology in the Public Interest team at APS is to examine and promote the role that psychology can play in helping us understand the causes, impacts and solutions to climate change. She produces materials for psychologists, the public and the media on a range of topics including environmental threats, talking with children about the environment, natural disasters, violence, racism, and refugees. Susie’s current areas of interest include public understandings of climate change, psychosocial impacts of climate change, communicating about environmental problems, and promoting pro-environmental behavior. Susie is the author of a series of articles, tip sheets and position statements on psychology and the environment, published on topics ranging from psychological barriers to pro-environmental behavior, environmental dispute resolution, and social dilemmas. Susie lives on the edge of the bush in Central Victoria, Australia, with her partner and three children, and we were delighted to have the chance to chat with her.
One of the conclusions of your paper “Hope, despair and transformation: Climate change and the promotion of mental health and well-being,” which appeared in the International Journal of Mental Health Systems in 2008, was that “climate change is already impacting on the social, economic, and environmental determinants of mental health, with the most severe consequences being felt by disadvantaged communities and populations.” That was six years ago. Has this impact worsened? Can you give us an example?
It has worsened. In the Torres Strait region of Australia, there are low-lying communities on a series of islands. They are now subjected to an increased threat of high tides and storm surges. These surges sweep into their community, wash through their homes, and salinate fresh water and crops. These kinds of things used to happen every few years, but with climate change, it happens on a much more regular basis. The impact this has on the community is profound.
Climate change impacts of this nature do not involve a sudden realization of “hey, we can’t live here anymore.” Rather, they involve a slow process of having your quality of life degraded over time, with increased threats of it happening again before you’ve had a chance to recoup your losses. Apart from the hardship created every time your home is messed up, crops are tainted, and infrastructure is wiped away (which then has psychosocial implications for the whole community), the uncertainty about how much longer you can live there, where you’ll go, and what you’ll leave behind takes an enormous toll. [The indigenous peoples of these islands] have a connection to place that goes back thousands of years to their ancestors. It’s not like the entire community will move to the same place and reestablish itself. So there are themes of loss, displacement, and fracturing of community.
When I talk about psychological impacts of climate change, I look at the whole spectrum, from mental health impacts, which include diagnosable mental health conditions like depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, to psychosocial impacts, which have more to do with the increase in relationship stress, family violence, to community health impacts, which are the ways in which community fabric is impacted. This example illustrates a number of those different ways that climate change can have a toll on psychological health.
Australia has so many indigenous communities living on or near the coasts, like those in the Torres Strait. In addition to the very proximal threat that sea level rise poses to their well-being, what is the impact of climate change on the psyche of someone whose world view is that of a living, breathing environment of which we humans are but one small part?
When you have people whose whole spirituality, well-being, and sense of place is connected with the land on which they live, and that land is changing, that is profoundly impactful. In 2004, the Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht coined the term “solastalgia,” which is a way to describe the grief and loss that comes when the familiar environmental markers of your home are permanently changed or lost. We can all experience that, but you can imagine that it must be much more severe for people whose very identity and cultural identity are embedded in a particular landscape. [see this paper for more information.]
Can psychology’s body of knowledge about extrinsic and intrinsic values inform our efforts to change behavior– whether we’re talking about a single action like not using fertilizer on your lawn or turning off the tap when you brush your teeth, or a major change like shifting one’s world view from anthropocentric to one that is more like the indigenous peoples’?
We are all bi-conceptual. Our values can largely be grouped into two categories: intrinsic and extrinsic. Extrinsic values are about power, status, glory, and “progress.” Intrinsic values, which are also called “self-transcendent” values, take people out of their own self-importance. They are about community–caring for others, including future generations and the biosphere. We all hold both of these types of values. What researchers are noticing is that when we promote and prime people to think about intrinsic values, particularly when they are making a decision to behave in a certain way, they are more likely to adopt pro-social (or in our case, pro-environmental) behavior.
Some psychologists and other social scientists who have been looking at the influence of values on behavior recently developed a movement called Common Cause. They are doing research and teaching about the power of intrinsic and extrinsic values to influence behavior–particularly pro-environmental behaviors. They use the words “common cause” because in their research, they have discovered that when you promote intrinsic values for one cause, like the environment, it improves people’s prosocial behavior in other causes as well. Their argument is that every time groups working to improve community well-being, social justice, poverty, or the environment promote intrinsic values to drive a desired behavior, there is a bleed-through effect on the other associated areas. So the more we promote values in our own area of work, the more we lift the possibility for positive prosocial change. Common Cause is an excellent resource for people looking to find those ways to promote intrinsic values.
What are other ways that psychology can help efforts to influence behavior that benefits the environment?
Psychology can help with the uptake of pro-environmental behavior and encouraging people to do greater advocating for policy change. A number of psychologists have been doing excellent work on this area. One who I’ve found to be particularly readable and useful is the Canadian psychologist, Doug McKenzie-Mohr. He has done a lot of work related to the psychological barriers to sustainability. Another is a social psychologist from Auckland, Niki Harré, who wrote a book called Psychology for a Better World: Strategies to Inspire Sustainability. George Marshall, from the UK, just published a book called Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired To Ignore Climate Change. He looks at reasons why it is easy to deny or minimize the reality of climate change and how to overcome that.
Over the years, I have given numerous presentations, and one of the most useful things I try to do is make [human] cognitive biases explicit. I try to help people see that our brain simplifies a lot of incoming information so that we can function in an over-stimulating world. Some of these biases are not very helpful in terms of pro-environmental behaviors. For example, we have a bias to pay attention to things that are here, now, and for sure. This often translates into doing things that give us a short-term gain rather than a delay in gratification and a long-term gain. One of the problems with climate change is that the behaviors we’re asking people to do have gains that are in the future and are only achievable with a collective effort to reduce consumption and carbon emissions.
Another bias that hinders us is the status quo bias. We are more inclined to go along and make decisions sticking with the status quo because it is familiar and easy. Often, what we need to do is break out of the status quo and come up with completely new ways of doing things, but that involves more effort.
One of the other things I find quite fascinating that comes out of decades of social psychology research is the power of social norms. We know from research that just providing people with information about what they should do that would benefit the environment, like reducing consumption of energy, does not necessarily change their behavior. Rather, the biggest influence on behavior is other people. So the more people are able to model the behavior you want others to do, the more success you’ll have in getting people to change behavior. Psychologists have done experiments in restaurants, for example, where they’ll get some patrons to compost their food [waste] in compost bins in the restaurant. They found that signs at the table with information about why composting is good for the planet didn’t work nearly as effectively as having patrons model that behavior.
We’re very easily influenced by the behavior of others. That’s one reason why it’s so important for our leaders to show good stewardship on the environment, promote other leaders who do the same, and not emphasize those who don’t. Talking about how many people are not taking action can actually make inaction the norm. It’s more important that we talk publicly about how many people do believe that climate change is real and urgent (e.g., 73% in America; 88% in Australia), and about the millions of people all around the planet who are taking positive action to reduce carbon emissions and protect the environment. Then, that behaviour becomes the norm, and even more people will join in, because people love to fit in and be normal. Jon Krosnick, a Stanford professor of communication and of political science, who conducts survey research on how people view climate change, does some of the best quality research in this area in America. (Comparable Australian research is done by Professor Joseph Reser and his colleagues.)
In 2010, with your input, the Australian Psychological Society (APS) issued a statement on Psychology and Climate Change. One of the aims of the statement was to “foster the development of national and international collaborations … inside and outside of psychology.” The American Psychological Association has a Task Force on the Interface Between Psychology & Global Climate Change. What other national communities of psychologists are trying to integrate psychology into efforts to solve environmental problems?
That American Psychological Association Task Force has produced one of the most useful summaries of the ways in which psychological science can contribute this area. Psychologists for Social Responsibility has a branch that is campaigning around environmental issues. Here in Australia, the Australian Psychological Society has been involved, as a founding partner, in the Climate and Health Alliance, which is a part of the Global Climate and Health Alliance. This alliance includes psychologists and other social scientists, but also doctors, hospitals, and all types of health care workers. Their mission is to advocate for good policies on climate change. In July of this year, the International Congress of Applied Psychology, which is held every four years, had the largest number of papers from environmental psychologists than ever before.
Other than that conference and the Global Climate and Health Alliance, have there been any efforts on an international level to collectively push for more involvement by psychologists in addressing challenges like biodiversity loss and climate change?
Recently, a new field of study has emerged called Conservation Psychology (Saunders, 2009). Conservation psychology is the scientific study of the reciprocal relationships between humans and the rest of nature, with a particular focus on how to encourage people to care about and take care of the natural world. It is an applied field that uses psychological principles, theories, or methods to understand and solve issues related to conservation. Collectively, any activities that support sustainability, either by reducing harmful behaviors or by adopting helpful ones, can be called conservation behaviors. As well as a field of study, conservation psychology is also an actual network of researchers and practitioners who work together to understand and promote a sustainable and harmonious relationship between people and the natural environment. This field of conservation psychology is also a possible way to mobilise other disciplines within psychology towards sustainability issues.
Many psychologists working in this area have connections the International Symposium on Society and Resource Management. And there are many journals that they contribute to, like Society and Natural Resources, and of course, the Journal of Environmental Psychology, Environment and Behavior.
Nearly two years ago, you represented the Australian Psychological Society and presented a submission in response to a federal parliamentary inquiry into “Australia’s Biodiversity in a Changing Climate.” Thinking back to that day, what was the most important thing you wanted to communicate?
I wanted to communicate that psychologists and other social scientists have a valuable contribution to make to discussions about climate change and environmental threats. Solving climate change requires profound changes of behavior at all levels of society—individual, group, and organizational. Social scientists are experts in human behavior and they absolutely need to be at the table in developing policies that the public will act on.
Another point I wanted to make was that biodiversity is incredibly important for human well-being. Healthy ecosystems make an essential contribution to our quality of life. Biodiversity, even in an urban environment, plays a key role in proper mental functioning. Healthy biodiversity and flourishing natural environments carry a symbolic message that we live in a naturally ordered world of beauty, inspiration, hope and meaning. This is even more important in a troubled and changing world.
There is a lot of research that looks at the sense of restoration (renewal of depleted psychological resources) that people get when they spend time in a natural environment, or in ‘green spaces.’ As we go through each day, our capacity to direct attention and ward off distractions, diminishes with use. Psychologists have found that being in a natural environment, like walking in the bush, or spending time in a park, allows that capacity [to focus attention] to rest and be restored. They call the quality of being in nature “fascination.” Natural environments, which are non-linear, varied, and have many aesthetically pleasing stimuli, attract and hold our attention effortlessly. Spending time in an environment that does not require reliance on directed attention allows us to rest the inhibitory mechanism on which directed attention depends and so to recover the capacity to direct attention.
The restoration that comes from time spent in natural environments includes reducing stress, improving attention, improving cognitive abilities, and the ability to reflect. Numerous studies have demonstrated that contact with natural environments offers a relatively effective way of obtaining restoration from stress and mental fatigue compared to ordinary outdoor urban environments. Indeed, research shows that the more biologically diverse the ‘green space,’ the greater its psychological value .
Has anyone looked into the restorative power of biodiversity with regards to Alzheimer’s or dementia?
I wonder. I did just hear about some work in UK with dementia patients, where they were getting them to walk barefooted, and found that it seemed to improve not only their balance, but their well-being. Apparently there is something about the sensory information associated with having your feet and toes spread on the ground.
Can you share an example of a situation in which an Australian government agency or private entity has successfully integrated psychology into any projects aimed at enhancing resilience in both ecosystems and human communities?
A colleague of mine, Professor Helen Ross, has done an interesting project on how to develop community resilience in rural Queensland communities. She blends key environmental psychology ideas about the ways in which people interact cognitively and behaviorally with physical environments, and how those natural, farmed or built environments enable or constrain people’s opportunities She sees social resilience as how individuals, communities and societies adapt, transform, and potentially become stronger when faced with environmental, social, economic or political challenges. This definition recognizes the synergistic relationship between people and the environments in which they live and derive livelihoods.
In an article which appeared this summer in the Sydney Morning Herald, you were quoted as saying, “… many people in the field of climate change are distressed–highly distressed–and it can have a significant psychosocial impact on their wellbeing.“ You also discussed the risk of disengagement. John Fraser’s studies have shown that having a community of support and opportunities to express negative feelings contributes to resilience among environmental workers. Would you agree? What tips would you offer environmental workers?
I couldn’t agree more. Even though there isn’t much empirical evidence available examining the mental health effects of working in the environmental field on the enormous challenge of climate change, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to raise our concerns about how distressing this work can be. This is particularly the case for us in Australia at the moment, where the Abbott Government is winding back many of our existing climate policies, and severely dragging its feet on emission reductions and the transition to a zero carbon economy.
I agree with [Dr. Fraser] that one of the most important ways to keep your spirits up and motivation going is to associate with other people who are also taking effective action on climate change. Not only do likeminded people give us support and ideas, but we also get a good sense of group efficacy when we work with other people on joint projects. Getting some ‘wins,’ and then celebrating those wins, is enormously important. Be emotionally honest. It can be helpful to acknowledge your fears, anger, guilt, and distress, as well as your own tendencies to ignore, deny, or minimize the threats. Talking about this also helps others to identify and acknowledge similar reactions in themselves. And finally, don’t forget to spend time in nature!
President & CEO, NewKnowledge
“Johnny” Fraser is a conservation psychologist, architect, and educator. His research focuses on how our experience with media and community influences learning, attitudes, and motivations for engagement with solving the problems that face society. Johnny began his career as an architect specializing in zoos. His curiosity about how zoos could best further their conservation missions by changing people’s attitudes toward the environment ultimately led him into the field of conservation psychology just as it was emerging. He has been an active member of the community of conservation psychologists ever since. In addition to his work as President and CEO of NewKnowledge, a New York-based think tank, Johnny holds adjunct faculty positions at Hunter College of CUNY’s graduate program in Animal Behavior and Conservation, Columbia University’s Center for Environmental Research and Conservation, Canisius College, and Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis’ Department of Earth Sciences Center for Urban Health (IUPUI). He holds the California Academy of Sciences appointment as Associate Editor/Operations for Curator: The Museum Journal and serves as a founding editorial board member for Museums & Social Issues. He is also a Research Scientist with Columbia University’s Earth Institute.
What is conservation psychology, and how does it differ from environmental psychology?
Addiction to the overconsumption of resources is a challenge. Conservation psychology seeks to support the population getting itself in a place that it can survive with our environment. Environmental psychology tends to focus on what we gain from interacting with nature. Conservation psychology, in contrast, asks, “What is it going to take to motivate people to change their behaviors that are causing degradation of the planet?” Conservation psychologists recognize that this is problematic for people, it doesn’t take just convincing everyone to do the right thing; sometimes you can use other techniques.
Your nonprofit think tank, NewKnowledge, provides research, program and organizational support, learning tools, training programs, etc. that all aim to “expand programs in ways that increase social knowledge, positive lived experiences, and ecological harmony.” Tell us a bit about the work of NewKnowledge.
We are a trans-disciplinary group of social scientists who focus on how people get engaged in positive social change. Our work is about more than just health or the biosphere. We try to look at the combination of health and the biosphere to understand more clearly the nature of human experience and the core motivations for positive change.
[In working toward this goal] we try to find the sweet spot in the middle of a few different disciplines. I’m a conservation psychologist, but we also have a biodiversity scientist, James Danoff-Burg, who focuses on the marrying of ecological and human systems. He’s currently doing research on how to best use drone technologies to detect how potentially endangered birds are using areas where land managers wish to treat their land.
Your research was recently used to help develop a more positive framing for a PBS environmental documentary film, Becoming California. Tell us about your work on that project.
Our role on that project was to serve as external researchers/evaluators. The producers asked us, “What is the baseline for Californians’ understanding of the environment?” We realized that it was important to talk to PBS viewers, so we began by doing a study of PBS viewer behavior in documentaries. In looking at their responses to our storyline surveys we were able to identify some core things that limit people’s willingness to tune in. One was [the perceived politicization of the topic] based on the language used. Fox News watchers were more likely to say “If it’s a story about California’s environment, I’m not going to watch it. If it’s a story about California’s nature, I will.” We also found that conservative voters are self-editing what they watch because they’re fed up with being told they are bad people.
So we suggested [to the producers] that we look at positive psychology, frame the language of the film around possible futures, and focus not on what everyone has done wrong, but what people are doing right. In the third act of the documentary, the producers really took our advice to heart. They found a scholar in Arizona who spoke about reconciliation. They were able to illustrate positive social groups who were acting to make the world a better place. We are in the middle of post-viewing surveys now, but pilot testing showed that the film is being positively received. We also have a paper out in the Journal of Mass Media and Journalism. It’s pretty darned exciting for me, as a psychologist, to know that there has been media produced that can build on theory we suggest.
Our readers are not documentary film makers, but their work does involve communicating with clients, partners, and often the public. Are there lessons they can learn about communication from that project?
I think everybody who works on environmental issues can take a lesson from this project. We have got to start talking about what we are doing well. People are drawn toward affection, love, and affirmation. When you do something and receive love, you’ll want to do more. As long as we keep telling people how bad they are we are never going create an environmental ethic people will want to go toward. You can look at temperance movements around the world and see that the more we talk about how bad people are, the less successful we are as a campaign. We need to change our whole narrative around environmental issues to something that is about doing things with people we love for things that we care and believe in.
Many experts we have interviewed for Leaf Litter have commented on the need to remove disciplinary silos. Your research has appeared in a wide variety of journals related to many different disciplines. Could psychology be the link that connects disciplines engaged in climate change and the protection and restoration of biodiversity?
Psychology is one way of seeing; it’s about the mind and mental process. It works really well when partnered with other disciplines. But I don’t think conservation psychology is the link. It is just a part—albeit an important part—of the whole process. Understanding mental process is central to causing social change, but understanding sociological measures lets you see migration and how adoption of innovation happens. NewKnowledge is an anti-silo organization. When we look to add a staff member, we literally ask, “What’s missing? Who is not at the table?” One of our first hires at NewKnowledge was a sociologist. We have three anthropologists on staff whose ability to decode cultural narratives [bias and myth embedded in visual communication] is much stronger than mine.
I don’t want to say that psychology is the solution. The real key is being willing to know what you know and be able to ask what you don’t.
Your paper “Teaching the Public to Sing,” which appears in the fall issue of the Journal of Land Use and Environmental Law, explores the lack of public discourse related to climate change. As you point out, lack of discourse equals no action and no policy change. Can you talk about the social norm of silence, and the role that plays in the lack of discourse? (Note: a slide show related to this paper can be viewed here.)
We’re really pleased with that study that we did in collaboration with Dr. Janet Swim’s lab in the Psychology Department at Penn State University. What we know is that a dominant culture tends not to talk about its core values or concerns, and people will not bring up topics that they find contentious unless they feel threatened.
People who are in denial about climate change go through the same pre-contemplation and contemplation phases one goes through with any negative diagnosis. If I were to tell you that you have cancer, you will go through a variety of mental processes that start with denial, diversion, and blame. It is very hard to get to acceptance. When you tell people who firmly and adamantly believe the world is stable and unchanging that the world is actually changing and it’s because of what they did, they will go through the same mental process. Changing behavior would mean changing everything they value. If they’ve been investing in corporations that have been making them lots of cash, and if they believe their freedom is at the wheel of a car, they have a lot of cultural baggage they have to change, and asking people to do that is hard. The denial side [of climate change] has a vested interested in making sure everything they hold dear is not disrupted.
In that study, we also talked to people [who were concerned about climate change] about what they thought others thought about climate change. What we found was that people automatically assumed they were aberrantly more concerned than others, which tells us that [awareness of climate change] is stressful. This built on work we were doing on environmental trauma in another paper, Sustaining the Conservationist, [Note: this research and topic are discussed further in this interview.] which demonstrated that understanding climate change is a dangerous, toxic kind of knowledge. Having to live with that means we carry a sense of loss and change that is irreconcilable and big, and that’s a lot of emotional work we’re asking people to do.
So some people who are highly engaged and fully understanding what is happening with the environment are moving in that path. Then we have folks who don’t want to go in that direction because it’s just ugly. Either way, silence is part of the bigger story of trying to come to terms with something that really looks dangerous and scary. I don’t think that’s unfair. Humans have ways of managing trauma, stress, and difficult issues and one of them is to not talk about it.
Your results suggested that “conservative political ideology was more aligned with lack of acceptance of the science behind the human causes of climate change than rejection of the existence of climate change.” Does that tell us anything about how scientists communicate?
It really does. [People who espouse a conservative political ideology] have to find flaws in the system. They know something is changing, and if they can assign it to something they can’t control, then it’s easier to deal with and they don’t have to change their behavior. They say, “I can accept climate change, but I can disagree with the science.”
We have a problem in the U.S. of distrust of science because there is a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of science. Science is often reported as fact (“Scientists now know that…” or “Scientists say…”) rather than something that is building on prior knowledge (“Scientists suggest that there is overwhelming evidence that a problem is occurring.”)
I also find that scientists tend to seek regulation rather than trusting that the public can make a good, reasoned decision. A challenge with regulation is compliance, and if people don’t comply, you have to police. That’s one of the reasons it’s so easy to vilify the EPA: they’re perceived as a policing body. We want the EPA out of our hair, and the EPA is like, “We don’t want to be in your hair! Quit toxifying the planet and it won’t be a problem.” Creating police doesn’t always work. But helping people to come to reasoned decisions and understand the nature of science by using basic principles of empirical evidence…that is a different way of talking.
Sometimes issues of moral decision making are not science topics. Behavior change involves making moral decisions. If it’s endangered species protection, for example, we’re deciding we’re going to preference one species over the other. I know from work I did with the Wildlife Conservation Society that we humans will preference mammals, and things we find aesthetically pleasing. We’re going to preference eagles and bears, and we’re not going to do a whole lot for slime mold and banana slugs. We enter into an area where people are trying to apply both humanities and science rules.
I’ve been working for the past 11 years with Poet’s House [a private non-profit poetry library]. In one experiment we explored how poetry placed strategically in zoos might change what people see. We found that people said, “This is why I come to the zoo.” They don’t come for science, or to be told what bad humans they are; they come to reset their nature barometers.
People do want to have sense of affinity with nature. It’s very consistent with what E.O. Wilson said about biophilia. There is an environmental sense in us, and people want to explore it. But that is a humanities exploration, not a science exploration. And that is okay. It’s okay to talk about things you love and show your passion for, say, a species at risk. A dolphin researcher will argue his brains out about what the dolphin can do intellectually and cognitively. But if you talk about the dolphin drive, he’ll move completely away from the science and go straight to moral decision making and what rights we accord to other high intellectual capacity mammals. We need to think through the morality as opposed to arguing the science.
Your research suggests that a barrier to motivation to talk about environmental issues is the perception that impacts are “geographically and temporally distant” and that in terms of worrying, priority is given to more proximal concerns like one’s job, finances, family. How do practitioners and educators make climate change more personal without freaking people out?
Keep it small and proximal. Too often, we talk about things that are far away and distant, like “By 2050, the climate is going to be radically different.” Most people in America don’t even have a 401K plan! Making it proximal means talking about things that need to be done urgently, immediately, and within one’s capacity. Think locally. Generate influence in places that are close to heart and close to home, and think about other social problems your program can affect. For example, what if a church said, “Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could get energy independence at lower cost than paying to the grid?”
Here is a real example: the Sustainability in Prisons Project. This program creates quarantined facilities for breeding endangered, extirpated species in prisons by prisoners. Seven days a week, these prisoners have a job where they are sustaining living beings, building skills, and seeing a future world that is going to be better because of their actions. This is a great example of good conservation psychology. It’s taking the time to help build skills for someone who has not had the opportunity before, and taking advantage of our prison system as a learning environment and a place where moral and ethical values about protecting and saving can be developed. Once these prisoners have paid their debt, we need to [be better about] giving then employment opportunities in conservation so they can do something positive for the environment.
There is no reason we environmentalists cannot be thinking at this scale. Our own morals are getting in the way of our ability. We want everybody to think like us, so they can make decisions like us. Instead, we need to realize that we share basic moral principles, and there are different paths to moral decision making that can all lead to a better environment.
In “Teaching the Public to Sing” you conclude that it may be more effective to encourage those already concerned about climate change to engage in discourse, rather than try to increase concern among the general public. I believe Leaf Litter readers are important members of that public choir. What advice do you have for them in how to “sing” effectively?
Talk to solutions; not identification of the problem. There are solutions before us. We need to talk about what we can achieve together. We’re clever. Humankind has succeeded in dominating the planet because we can delegate responsibility to good thinkers and act on their best ideas; we can innovate, and trust others to innovate alongside us. Our conversations about climate change don’t need to be about the science. They need to be about helping the planet to handle the change that’s coming.
We need to be strong like a sapling–not to stand up to the storm, but to bend and allow it to pass. That’s what we need to think of in terms of our language and in terms of how we build resilient communities. If we have healthy and cared-for populations, they can build a healthy and cared-for biosphere.
In your paper “Sustaining the Conservationist,” which appeared in Ecopsychology, you share the findings of two studies you conducted to explore whether environmentalists, conservationists, and environmental educators may suffer from a subtype of acute stress and posttraumatic condition. To set the stage for a brief discussion of the psychological toll of being an environmental practitioner very much aware of human caused environmental degradation, tell us about the Cassandra Complex and “solastalgia.”
In 2003, the Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht coined the term “solastalgia,” which is [a sense of melancholy brought on by the feeling that] nature is leaving you. The Cassandra Complex [which comes from Greek mythology] is the scientist’s voice that says, “I have the ability to see the problem before me, but I am cursed so that no one will believe me.” In an editorial in Conservation Biology, [Retiring Cassandra. Conservation Biology, 17,1473-1474) Kent Redford [of the Wildlife Conservation Society Institute] and M.A. Sanjayan [of The Nature Conservancy] said that we need a new narrative for the environment that is not so Cassandra-like.
We referenced these terms in our study because not only are they both present [among environmental workers], but we also saw that the more isolated an environmental worker feels, in terms of the environmental values they perceive their workmates and families have, the more likely they are to experience deleterious effects.
But let’s not say we’re all screwed. What we see is a need in the community to be a lot more positive with one another, and to hear and respect the pain that we carry in our hearts. If it is heard and respected, and we don’t just tell people to suck it up, we’re going to be in much better shape. You can’t just suck it up.
Over generations, we have developed skills for mourning. There is ritual related to loss and mourning. We say this should be an important part of environmental work. We need to start creating the spaces and opportunities to share our feelings and talk them through so we process them appropriately. When I work with conservation organizations, we actually have a moment of mourning, where we have to accept the loss and acknowledge the pain. I have given talks and literally had senior scientists come up to me afterwards in tears. It’s hard, because people are hearing their inner feelings as valid—and valued–often for the first time. That is a big step forward.
Did your research really show that persistent exposure to negative environmental narratives and situations may ultimately put environmental workers at risk of PTSD?
It’s not exactly correct, but it’s close. We see is a co-predicting variable: persistent awareness and a sense of isolation. If you feel that your awareness of environmental issues is more acute than that of your family, immediate co-workers, and others in your social support network, you are more likely to exhibit symptoms that look like and map against PTSD.
What are some of those symptoms?
Persistent nightmares about loss; ears ringing; feelings of overwhelming sadness, isolation and loss. It often plays out in terms of anger, so you see increased aggression. If you want some examples, just read Gorillas in the Mist, and look at some of Dian Fossey’s behaviors.
There is a level of serious, debilitating anger that can simmer in meetings [among environmental workers], even when we’re trying to do the right thing. Even internally, our meetings [at NewKnowledge] can have elevated emotions that wouldn’t happen if you were, say, an ice cream manufacturing company. Other organizations that work on challenging issues, like children’s AIDS, have practices for helping their social workers talk through the emotions of what they see every day. We don’t have that in environmental work, and that is something we need to pay attention to.
You express caution regarding the use of the nature experience in healing those suffering emotionally over the plight of the world. Talk about that.
Spending time in nature is restorative, but it is also spending time with the victim of violence. We know that it is a trigger. When you deal with something like PTSD, you avoid the trigger as you talk it through. You allow the person to contemplate the trigger, and process their reaction to it. When you start by taking people out in nature, you are taking them to the trigger, so your clinical practice isn’t following what is done for other kinds of trauma. I’m not saying don’t take people out in nature. We just have to be very cautious.
In addition to having social support and the opportunity to share/express feelings with people who share our values, what else can help to build resilience in people who work on environmental issues?
Learn to be soft, to bend and accept change as it happens. Trying to be mindful personally, but also to manage with compassion. Celebrate the joy. A lot of us who work on the environment tend to deny our own joy. We need to look back on what we have accomplished and say, “Holy cow. That was amazing.”
People may be bitching and moaning about climate change, and complaining about how people are acting in negative ways toward the biosphere, but we are in the best of all possible times for solving environmental problems. We have the willpower, and we are on a planet that is completely interconnected, and have the ability to use our social connections to advance an issue. Just last night on our blog, James Danoff-Burg in our office posted the latest on his drone studies in San Diego. Another friend on Facebook said, “Hey, we can use this for whales on the East Coast.” I replied, “call me!” People are throwing themselves into solutions; they’re trying all sorts of new technologies, and it’s happening so quickly. When we see all the good that’s happening around us, it’s really a wonderful time to be alive!
Whitmore-Williams Professor of Psychology, The College of Wooster
Susan Clayton is the Whitmore-Williams professor of psychology and chairs the program in environmental studies at The College of Wooster. Her research aims to understand the ways in which people relate to nature, as well as to investigate broader issues of identity and justice. She is on the editorial boards for the Journal of Environmental Psychology, Social Justice Research, and PsyEcology. She was recently elected as future president of the Society for the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI). Susan is also a Fellow of the American Psychological Association (APA), the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI), and APA’s Division 34, the Society for Population, Environment, and Conservation Psychology, of which she is a former president. Her publications include Conservation Psychology: Understanding and promoting human care for nature, which she co-authored (a second edition is currently in press), and the 2012 edited volume, Oxford Handbook of Environmental and Conservation Psychology, which she authored. You can learn more about Susan’s work by watching the video we’ve included in the Resources section of Leaf Litter.
What is the state of the science today on the connection between a healthy environment and human health and well-being?
We have pretty good evidence that there is a connection at all kinds of levels. We have not yet gotten enough specificity, however, when it comes to understanding how much exposure is needed to make a difference and what counts as nature. Is it good enough to have a picture of a forest in your room, for example?
What is the best way for people to find research related to this connection?
A lot of people in different professions are recognizing that they need to learn from other specialists, but finding information is not always easy. There are, however, an increasing number of journals that are problem-focused (climate change, sustainability, etc.), rather than disciplinarily based, so that is one place to look. Social media is another. There are certain organizations that try to make their information available to a wide audience through news feeds on Twitter and Facebook. The Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues is a great example. Their goal is to publicize good, solid psychological research that is relevant to social issues.
You are a member of the American Psychological Association’s (APA) Task Force on the Interface between Psychology & Global Climate Change. In 2009, you and other task force members presented a report to the APA which considered psychology’s contributions to climate change by addressing six specific questions. One of the questions explored was “What are the human behavioral contributions to climate change and the psychological and contextual drivers of these contributions?” What can psychology tell us about the drivers of consumption?
Psychologists have been examining this question for decades, which is a long time in this area. There are different kinds of behaviors [related to consumption]. Some involve deciding to do less—to curtail one’s own use of resources. Others are about choosing different kinds of behaviors—walk rather than drive, or eat organic food, for example. Others involve one-time decisions, often about a purchase of some technology.
Different factors affect those behaviors. Certainly there are stable, long-term influences on our behavior, such as values, knowledge (understanding environmental challenges and how your behaviors relate to those challenges), and one’s own sense of a personal involvement with the natural world. But in any given instance, the things that are more important [in influencing behavior] are very immediate, like incentives (the costs or benefits of certain behaviors), prompts, and reminders. Design of the physical environment can be very important. For example, if there is a recycling bin right next to the mail room, you’ll recycle your mail. If there isn’t one, recycling will drop down. One of the strongest impacts on behavior is social modeling—what you see other people doing.
John Fraser used the phrase “human addiction to overconsumption.” Should practitioners of conservation planning, ecological restoration and regenerative design think of themselves as interventionists? If so, what wisdom can they take from psychology as they try to break people of this addiction?
People often wonder why people do things that harm the environment. Thinking of environmentally harmful behavior in the same way we think of personally harmful behavior, like smoking or overeating, can be useful. Many people want to quit smoking, but need help to do it. Many people might want to behave in a more environmentally sustainable way, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to do.
Here’s one example of what we can learn from the models of clinical intervention. [In the late 1970s, researchers] James Prochaska and Carlo DiClemente at the University of Rhode Island came up with the Stages of Change Model, which addresses this question: “Where is the person in terms of considering a lifestyle change?” Assuming that a change is desirable, how is a person thinking about this change? Have they just started thinking about it? Do they recognize a change needs to be made? Maybe they vaguely know that they need to make a change but they have no plan yet. Perhaps they’ve already made the change but they need encouragement to help sustain it. Understanding where people are in terms of thinking about a desired change affects they way you try work with people.
The aim of the APA Task Force report was to engage psychologists in the issue of climate change. Has there been progress in this regard in the five years since the report came out?
Yes. There has been a lot more research, a few new journals, and in existing journals, there has been much more research on this topic. There is definitely room to continue to progress, but psychologists now have a much greater awareness that this is a topic that is relevant to them, and that they should be involved with it. This past summer, I was involved with another APA report on the psychological impacts of climate change. The fact that the APA chose to co-sponsor this effort [along with ecoAmerica] shows how important this issue is to them as an organization.
An increase in research is great. What about the amount of collaboration between psychologists and those working in other disciplines on this issue?
There is a growing awareness that this is an issue that requires people to cross disciplinary boundaries. It’s difficult to have an objective assessment of this, but I see many more examples of multi-disciplinary working groups that are designed to address specific challenges. I see this particularly in the UK and Germany, where there are even government sponsored institutes or working groups.
For example, the European Commission recently sponsored a conference on “Renaturing Cities: Research and Innovation Policy Priorities for Systemic Urban Governance,” held in Milan, Italy. The UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has a Social Science Expert Panel to advise them on projects to protect the environment. I also see it in my own experience. People who are not psychologists have reached out to me, and I have participated in a number of workshops designed to bring together people from different disciplines. For example, I was invited to be part of a group from the education field that was defining what environmental literacy might mean. A biologist colleague of mine reached out to me because she wanted to understand more about the psychology behind how people react to biodiversity in an urban context. We have been working together on that project for a few years.
Can you tell us more about that project?
We are working within zoos, because in urban settings, zoos typically offer opportunities for urban residents to confront nature and learn about biodiversity. We’re looking at what happens in the course of a zoo visit and how that could be made to be a more effective way of reaching out to people and engaging them with the issue of threats to biodiversity.
Speaking of zoos…in your paper, “Psychological science, conservation, and environmental sustainability,” which appeared in the journal Frontiers in Ecology last year, you highlighted the “Seal the Loop” program, initiated by Zoos Victoria (a zoo-based conservation organization in Australia), as an example of a successful collaboration involving psychologists and conservation professionals. Can you tell us a bit about this program, and how psychology is being applied to it?
My co-author, Carla Litchfield, was personally involved in that program, which attempted to apply important psychological principles toward participation in a conservation initiative [preventing seal deaths resulting from entanglement in discarded fishing line]. The idea was to get people to properly dispose of fishing line. In the zoo setting, they used the emotional hook to generate an empathic reaction to seals. This then motivates them to care more about this issue. [The project also involved the installation of 184 disposal bins near popular angling spots along Victorian beaches and waterways.] They also monitored the program carefully to assess its effectiveness. So psychology was involved in this project in three ways: thinking about the role of the emotional response to the seal and how that could be a selling point for changing behavior; thinking about making the desired behavior very public so that it becomes the norm; and assessing the program scientifically.
The paper in Frontiers in Ecology includes principles for effective application of psychological science in conservation and sustainability. One of those principles is to “work with architects and engineers to develop and test simple design modifications.” Can you elaborate?
There is a “human factors” approach, which asks: what physical changes can you make in the built or designed environment that might reduce people’s energy use? For example, can make stairways more inviting so people choose them over the elevator? These things do not have an effect in and of themselves, like energy efficiency, but they affect human behavior. They encourage people to behave in a way that reduces the use of natural resources. I have seen some green design criticized for focusing on the way the site was constructed but not focusing enough on the way it is actually used.
Susie Burke of the Australian Psychological Society, talked about the importance of appealing to intrinsic values when it comes to behavior change to improve the natural environment. You, too, say (in the same article) that “Changing people’s minds may not be necessary. Rather, given that most people value the natural environment, effective behavior change may only need to highlight these values.” Can you talk about the psychological evidence that people actually care about nature and really do have motivation that is pro-social and transcendent?
People often have an unduly pessimistic view of human nature. There are plenty of examples—with regard to environmental issues and in other domains—showing that people often act very altruistically for reasons other than self interest. There are many surveys in which people talk about how important the environment is to them, Willett M. Kempton (1995) found that most Americans viewed nature as having a moral component, something that has also been suggested by P.H. Kahn’s research. The Yale Project on Climate Change Communication has data showing overall support for environmental protection. These articles [also address this issue]: Markowitz, E.M. (2012). Is climate change an ethical issue? Exploring young adults’ beliefs about climate and morality. Climatic Change, 114, 479-495. Markowitz, E.M. & Bowerman, T. (2012). How much is too much? Examining the public’s beliefs about consumption. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, 12, 167-189.
When asked, people often say that taking care of the environment is a moral issue. They recognize that it’s not just discretionary; it’s a responsibility. A lot of my own work has to do with people’s sense of personal relationship with the environment, and I tend to find high levels of people saying, in a variety of ways, that the environment is important to them, and that if they weren’t able to spend time in nature, they’d feel like something was missing in their lives. There is also interesting research on people’s experience of awe and transcendence. Those sorts of experiences seem to be more likely to occur in natural settings, and they involve strong, powerful, emotional responses. [SEE the section entitled “Wild Nature and Spiritual Experience” in Susan’s book CONSERVATION PSYCHOLOGY: Understanding and Promoting Human Care for Nature] Recent research has actually suggested that in some cases, nature can actually inspire people to act better. It brings out the best in us and encourages people to be more altruistic, for example.
You advise conservation practitioners not to rely on intuition and assumptions when it comes to human behavior, but to access relevant psychological research. Are there common misconceptions about human behavior that are made by conservation practitioners? What are they?
My context for this is a perception, and it may be unfair in some cases, but I feel like very informed scientists, who would never think of making assumptions about other species without testing them, somehow assume that they don’t need evidence to jump to conclusions about human behavior. We think we know about humans, but we don’t.
The most broad misconception people fall prey to is the idea that human behavior is rational. People are motivated by things that might involve a careful cost/benefit analysis (economics, time, etc.), but most of the things we do, we do automatically, without even thinking about them. We do them out of habit, or because other people are doing them. Recognizing the sources of influence on human behavior that are operating outside rational awareness is important.
In the policy arena, there is an assumption that the best way to motivate people is to provide financial motivations. Sometimes financial motivations can actually be counterproductive, by changing the way people think about an issue. When you encourage people to think about the financial side of something, they may stop thinking about the moral or ethical side. So stressing money can have a reverse effect from the one intended.
In addition to being aware of those major misconceptions, can you offer any other pointers to help people avoid paradoxical effects like that?
Be aware that people do not like to be told what to do. Any attempt to change behavior that too overtly controls their behavior may have a backlash effect by motivating people to resist. A colleague of mine gave an example. When recycling was instituted in his community, people went to great lengths to not recycle, and to demonstrate that they were not recycling, because they didn’t like the idea that they were being forced to do something. By now, recycling is the norm, so we don’t see that.
Sometimes actions that are designed to address a problem can actually motivate people to behave in a way that makes the problem worse. When people think a problem is being taken care of, they may think they don’t have to do anything about it, and they may behave in a way that increases the problem. A classic example is when an extra lane is added to a highway. That usually ends up making traffic worse because people think “Oh, there are more lanes now, so I can definitely take the highway!”
One of your suggestions for fostering more collaboration among behavioral and natural scientists is to craft papers written for a broad audience and for cross-disciplinary, problem-focused workshops and conferences. Are there any particular conferences you’d recommend our readers check out?
As part of a collaborative project with the APA and ecoAmerica, you recently co-wrote a report on the physical, human, and mental health impacts of climate change. (Beyond Storms & Droughts: The Psychological Impacts of Climate Change) Can you talk us through the graphic that appears on pg. 12 of the report? (Note: a webinar on this report is available here)
A lot of people don’t think of climate change as having psychological impacts. What we were trying to show in the report and with this graphic was how psychological impacts do happen, and how we know what they are. It is difficult to point to a specific [psychological condition] and attribute it to climate change. What we have to do instead is take the physical impacts we know climate change will have based on what the climate scientists say. These are things like flooding, drought, wildfires, and change in temperatures. Then, we ask what are the effects of those physical impacts will be. We look at both community and societal basis, in terms of infrastructure. That includes things like food production, energy, and transportation networks—the kinds of things the Pentagon [looks into]. In fact, the U.S. Department of Defense recently released a report about threats to infrastructure that will result from climate change, and why it’s relevant to national security. Based on those kinds of one-level-up effects, we look at how they might affect human psychology, well-being, and social interactions.
We didn’t make a hard and fast defining line between physical and mental health, but clearly some effects are more physical and some more mental. They both occur within this context of community/societal health, and they are interdependent. Mental health impacts, like depression, anxiety, strains on social relationships will certainly be affected by physical trauma, community impacts like increased violence and social instability.
Seeing all of these impacts—from increased toxicity in poison ivy to increased domestic abuse–in one image was very powerful.
Those are such specific things, but they do help you think about climate change in a different way.
How can knowledge related to the psychological impact of climate change help inform the work of our readers, many of whom are practitioners in ecological restoration, conservation planning, and green design?
The ways in which green design is defined can vary greatly, so it’s hard to make a blanket statement, but the knowledge that changing climates are going to have psychological impacts can provide the extra motivation or impetus to think about ways to address them in design. There is some evidence that green design can compensate in some ways to lack of access to nature and might actually motivate people to feel more connected to the natural world and therefore possibly motivate greater concern. This evidence of the psychological impacts of climate change can be a motivating factor for design. It may also suggest some possible things to include as part of design. With ecological restoration, for example, it might lead a designer to think about ways to incorporate community participation. Depending on what the restoration is designed to do, that may make it more effective with more community buy-in, but it can also be helpful to the community to feel like they are doing something positive [in the face of climate change]. Giving people a sense that there are ways to address environmental problems can help combat the hopelessness that many people feel.
The goals of the paper were not only to prepare planners, policymakers, health officials, but to “bolster public engagement around climate change.” John Fraser discussed the need to make climate change a more proximal concern without completely freaking everyone out or paralyzing them. Is this an attempt to do that? Are psychological impacts something more people can more readily imagine or relate to?
Absolutely. That was very much part of what motivated the report. We know that climate change can seem like a very distant issue for a lot of people, and we know that personal relevance makes people pay attention more. To gather this information in one place and be able to show, through specific cases and narratives, that climate change is happening now and is going to affect people like you, helps bring it to the front of the mind and makes it easier for people to relate to it.
Given what you do, you are not only aware of the degradation we humans have caused to the environment, but the many psychological barriers to necessary behavior change. What keeps you from throwing in the towel? How do you stay hopeful?
There are certainly times when I feel pessimistic, but for me, it comes down to creating meaning and purpose in my life. Think about the things we can do as individuals, and the opportunities we have to do things we think are important. Those same opportunities exist for us as a society, to re-examine our priorities and redesign the standard operating procedure. Bad things happen, but the process of working on something that is important can give you a profound sense of purpose that can counteract pessimism and hopelessness.
By Erica Robak
In a commencement speech given several years ago, novelist David Foster Wallace told a story about two young fish swimming along one way, who encounter an older fish going the other way. (Stop me if you’ve heard this one). The older fish says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” One younger fish looks at the other and says, “What the hell is water?”
As proud possessors of giant frontal lobes, capable of self-reflection and awareness of the world around us, it can be easy to assume that we understand how our minds work. But being a fish who can’t see water has its drawbacks. For decades, economists operated on the basic assumption that when shopping, humans will logically and objectively weigh all available evidence, and arrive at the decision with the highest “expected utility,” (sounds fun, right?). Many of us can probably guess from personal experience that this model doesn’t predict the market terribly well. Or at least it doesn’t for me. I can tell you with full confidence and absolutely no shame that I didn’t impulse-buy eight packs of Oreos because I believed they represented the highest expected utility.
After a little digging, psychologists found that our decision-making is influenced by a number of rather irrational factors. For instance, many of us engage in magical thinking (think: wearing a lucky pair of socks because you know it will help your team win). And still more common is the phenomenon of cognitive dissonance, which happens when we do something that isn’t consistent with how we think (think: someone who wants to get in shape but who also hates exercise, eventually convincing themselves that fitness culture is just a soul-sucking racket designed for the exclusive purpose of making people feel bad about themselves). That is not to say we make decisions thoughtlessly. On the contrary. In the process of making every day decisions, we evaluate whether or not a behavior is ethical or matches our personal values. We make decisions that could hurt people, or jeopardize our happiness in the future if we don’t get them right. A decision about how we behave can represent the core of who we are, and yet researchers have found that our moral centers can be manipulated using magnets (really: http://n.pr/1AmFMke). This is not to reduce the essence of who we are as a species to so many ferrous metal shavings to be moved around at the whim of any passing magnet, but what it does mean is that there is a certain power in understanding the influences and forces that impact our thoughts and actions.
These forces can end up having some very concrete consequences. We are all aware that human factors have created much of the environmental mess we find ourselves in today. But it’s not as though people intentionally set out to do harm to the environment. So what are the forces influencing environmentally destructive behavior, and how can we best combat them?
Fortunately, there is a powerful resource available to help answer this question, and it’s not our own gut instinct. It’s the field of psychology. Psychological research can show us, for example, that if we want to promote pro-environmental behavior, we’d better be ready to take into account factors like convenience, ease, and comfort. Psychology can also help us understand why it’s so difficult for some people to grasp their impact on the environment.
Often, psychological research will illuminate a quirk of human behavior that may be surprising. For instance, the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona used to post signs that informed hikers that many people had picked up pieces of petrified wood during their visit, which has caused tremendous harm to the forest. These signs did nothing to deter people from collecting pieces of petrified wood. Psychologists found instead that this reinforced a perceived social norm for collecting wood (“everyone is stealing, so I can too.”). On the other hand, signs that simply read, “Please don’t remove the petrified wood from the park, in order to preserve the natural state of the Petrified Forest” were far more effective. This is just one of the ways that psychology can help projects flourish by garnering pro-environmental behavior and support from a community.
Even on a small scale, as in the example above, good design comes from a full understanding of its intended users, and like it or not, these users include human beings. When we consider design options for a stream or wetland yes, we’re serving the earth and other species, but it is an unavoidable fact that we are users who can either foster or counteract positive strides toward conservation and regeneration in developed and wild spaces. As someone who has studied psychology and works at an environmental firm, it is fascinating to see on a daily basis how psychology is already informally involved in many projects. A plan to improve stormwater management on a university campus is crafted with student enrichment and education in mind. When a project affects a community, the people of that community are included the process.
Studying psychology can sometimes feel like studying the currents. They are invisible, yet hugely impactful. And they change. Imagine sailing without understanding what a current is or how it functions. The same goes for navigating a project from inception to completion. Psychology has so much useful information at its fingertips, and while it certainly does not have the answers to all our questions, it can go a long way to building a better, more self-aware, evidence-based environmental practice.
Mentioned in/related to Leaf Litter Talks with Susie Burke
Fritze JG, Blashki GA, Burke S, Wiseman J. Hope, despair, and transformation: Climate change and the promotion of mental health and well-being. International Journal of Mental Health Systems. 2008 Sep 17;2(1):13. doi: 10.1186/1752-4458-2-13.
Hartig, T. & Staats, H. (2003). (Eds.). Restorative environments: special issue. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 23, 103-170.
Fuller, R.A, Irvine, K.N., Devine-Wright, P., Warren, P.H., & Gaston, K.J. (2007). Psychological benefits of greenspace increase with biodiversity. Biology Letters, 22, 3(4), 390-4.
Green, D., King, U., & Morrison, J. (2009). Disproportionate burdens: the multidimensional impacts of climate change on the health of Indigenous Australians. Medical Journal of Australia, 190, 1, 4-5.
Reser, JP, Bradley, GL, Glendon, AI, Ellul, MC & Callaghan, R 2012, Public risk perceptions, understandings, and responses to climate change and natural disasters in Australia and Great Britain, National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility, Gold Coast, 298 pp.
Ross, H., Cuthill, M., Maclean, K. Jansen, D. and Witt, B. (2010) Understanding, Enhancing and Managing for Social Resilience at the Regional Scale: Opportunities in North Queensland. Report to the Marine and Tropical Sciences Research Facility. Reef and Rainforest Research Centre Limited, Cairns (186pp.).
Harré, Niki. Psychology for a Better World: Strategies to Inspire Sustainability. 2011. University of Auckland.
Marshall, George. Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired To Ignore Climate Change. 2014. Bloomsbury, USA.
Studies related to nature and psychological restoration
Mentioned in/related to Leaf Litter Talks with John Fraser
Fraser, J., J. W. Baxter, J. White, R. Gupta, and V. Yocco. Conversion aversion: environmental learning and PBS viewer preferences. Journal of Mass Communication and Journalism 4: 225. doi:10.4172/2165-7912.1000225.
John Fraser, Victor Pantesco, Karen Plemons, Rupanwita Gupta, and Shelley J. Rank. Sustaining the Conservationist. Ecopsychology. June 2013, 5(2): 70-79. doi:10.1089/eco.2012.0076.
Swim, J.K., Fraser, J., & Geiger, N.A. (2014). Teaching the public to sing: Use of social science information to promote public discourse on climate change. Journal of Land Use and Environmental Law.
Swim, J.K., & Fraser, J. (2014). Zoo and Aquarium Professionals’ Concerns and Confidence about Climate Change Education. Journal of Geoscience Education, 62, 491-501.
Redford, K., Sanjayan, M.A., Retiring Cassandra. Conservation Biology, 17,1473-1474
Mentioned/related to Leaf Litter Talks with Susan Clayton
Clayton, S., Manning, C. M., & Hodge, C. (2014). Beyond storms & droughts: The psychological impacts of climate change. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association and ecoAmerica.
Clayton, S., Litchfield, C. & Geller, E.S. 2013. Psychological science, conservation, and environmental sustainability. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 11: 377–382. http://dx.doi.org/10.1890/120351
Clayton, Susan and Gene Myers. Conservation Psychology, Understanding and Promoting Human Care for Nature. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.
Kahn, P. H. (1999). The human relationship with nature. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Kempton, W., Boster, J., & Hartley, J. (1995). Environmental values in American culture. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Markowitz, E.M. (2012). Is climate change an ethical issue? Exploring young adults’ beliefs about climate and morality. Climatic Change, 114, 479-495.
Markowitz, E.M. & Bowerman, T. (2012). How much is too much? Examining the public’s beliefs about consumption. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, 12, 167-189.
Swim, J.K., (Chair), Clayton, S., Doherty, T., Gifford, R., Howard, G., Reser, J., Stern, P., & Weber, E. (2009). Psychology and Global Climate Change: Addressing a multi-faceted Phenomenon and St of Challenges. A Report by the American Psychological Association’s Task Force on the Interface between Psychology and Global Climate Change.
Zhang JW, Piff PK, Iyer R, Koleva S, Keltner D. An occasion for unselfing: Beautiful nature leads to prosociality. Journal of Environmental Psychology. 2014; 37:61-72.
Integrated water strategies being applied at the district-scale
Hassalo on 8th, a four-block urban redevelopment project located in Portland, Oregon’s Lloyd EcoDistrict, is poised to be one of the nation’s first sustainable urban developments to reuse 100% of its wastewater. A decentralized wastewater treatment and reuse system, which is currently under construction, will divert all of the wastewater generated within the development’s three buildings from Portland’s sanitary sewer system, which has capacity issues. When fully operational, the system will treat for reuse over 20,000 gallons per day for toilet flushing, irrigation, and cooling tower makeup. Treated wastewater not reused in the buildings or landscape will be used to recharge groundwater. Not only does this project reduce potable water demand, it also minimizes flows to the municipal sanitary sewer.
Improving ecology & access to the Baton Rouge Lakes
In the 1930s, as part of a Works Progress Administration project to bolster the economy after the Great Depression, a cypress-tupelo swamp in the Bayou Duplantier in Baton Rouge was dammed and timbered, leading to the transformation of the swamp into a series of lakes. The lakes, which span 275 acres and connect Louisiana State University with the surrounding neighborhoods, have become a key feature of the LSU campus, an important recreational asset, and a favorite site for birdwatching. They also happen to provide important remnant habitat for such birds as cormorants (Phalacrocorax sp.), herons and egrets (Ardea sp. and Egretta sp.), ibis species (Eudocimus sp.), wood ducks (Aix sponsa), and American white pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos).
Due to issues of eutrophycation after years of sedimentation and nutrient accumulation from urban stormwater runoff and natural accumulation, the lakes are in need of restoration and a master plan to guide ecological enhancements and improvements to the lakes as an open space asset. The Baton Rouge Area Foundation has hired a team led by SWA to develop a master plan for ecological enhancements as well as improvements to the lakes as an open space asset. As part of the master planning team, Biohabitats is working to ensure that the lakes’ ecology is seamlessly woven into design concepts aimed at creating a sustainable and resilient open space destination. Thus far Biohabitats has examined the ecological conditions on site, as well as data from prior planning and assessment work. Biohabitats recently presented a summary of the ecological conditions to the Master Plan Advisory Committee and participated in a public design charrette where neighbors and other interested individuals were invited to “build their own parks” after hearing about the ecological context and challenges faced at the lakes.
From gravel ponds to habitat!
Throughout the early 20th century, Colorado’s Cache la Poudre River was heavily manipulated for irrigation and mining, particularly in the Fort Collins area. But with two restoration projects we undertook with the City of Fort Collins now constructed, flow, fish passage, and floodplain function are returning to two degraded sites along the River. At Sterling Pond, once a gravel mining pit, wetland vegetation and riparian trees/shrubs now flourish. Now that the flood control berm has been removed, the river was able to access its floodplain for the first time in decades this spring. Where a large diversion dam once stood the Poudre now flows freely through a boulder grade control that protects a water line crossing and not only allows fish passage but recreational tubers as well. At the McMurray Natural Area, two former gravel pits with a flood control berm and little wetland vegetation have been transformed into a riparian and wetland landscape that features five types of native habitat. The Poudre River was also able to access its floodplain here this past spring as well. Both of these Fort Collins Natural Areas are well on their way to providing ecological functions that had been long lost.
Gauged-out gully gains function and ecology
Third Fork Creek is a 303(d) impaired stream which flows through the southern portion of Durham, NC. It ultimately drains to Jordan Lake, a popular state recreation area and drinking water source, with strict nutrient and sediment thresholds. In an effort to protect the lake, improve water quality in the watershed, and potentially demonstrate a new technique for managing stormwater runoff in the region, we teamed with the City of Durham and North Carolina State University to design a regenerative stormwater conveyance project on a tributary to Third Fork Creek. Stormwater runoff from paved surfaces of a city park upstream had caused severe erosion in the channel that was essentially serving as an expressway for pollutants and sediment to enter Third Fork Creek. Applying a design that utilizes both stream restoration and stormwater control measure techniques, we were able to create a naturalized channel that not only safely conveys and provides treatment for stormwater, but adds beauty and habitat. Researchers from NC State’s Biological and Agricultural Engineering department will monitor the project to gauge its effectiveness as a model for future stormwater management.
University plans to regenerate ecological connections as it grows
In the last issue of Leaf Litter, we reported on our efforts to help Rowan University, in Glassboro, NJ, plan for a significant expansion while managing stormwater and introducing more cohesion to the campus landscape experience. Working alongside partners Urban Engineers and Ayers Saint Gross, we recently completed a Stormwater Management and Landscape Master Plan for the University. The plan, which emphasizes the character and environmental performance of the landscape, includes recommendations such as new stormwater wetlands that provide needed management of large stormwater inputs while also creating new spaces for outdoor learning and passive recreation. Many of the suggested concepts serve to strengthen the University’s relationship to Chestnut Branch, which bisects the campus, while strengthening the collegiate feel of the campus landscape. We look forward to watching Rowan transform into a campus that holistically integrates future development within a network of thriving campus landscapes and high-performing ecological infrastructure.
Regenerating resilience in an urban park
The Miller Park Bird Refuge and Nature Preserve is one of Salt Lake City’s most treasured neighborhood parks. The wooded trails that wind and dip through the 8.75-acre park provide city dwellers with a rare opportunity to experience nature within an urban area. The steep-sloped riparian woodland along Red Butte Creek, which flows through the park, also provides important wildlife habitat. As with most urban streams, increased storm flows induced severe erosion of the small channel. An oil pipeline spill in 2010 upstream of the park fouled the creek bed and initiated the impetus to restore the creek in Miller Park. Using a regenerative approach, Biohabitats worked with the Salt Lake City Department of Parks and Public Lands to restore 1700 feet of Red Butte in a way that would enable it to sustainably convey stormwater while also enhancing wildlife habitat and trail safety. The design involved raising the creek bed and widening the channel to reduce stress on its bed and banks. The restoration also integrates a riffle/step/pool sequence in order to slow down, detain and treat stormwater while it hydrates the floodplain to support native riparian vegetation and greatly increase aquatic habitat. The project also included removing several exceptionally invasive, non-native tree species from the riparian corridor and replacing them with native trees and shrubs. Construction of this restoration was completed last month, and we look forward to seeing this site as it regenerates cleaner water, safer public access, and more robust wildlife habitat.
Things are looking greener at Ohio University
Working with a team led by Ayers Saint Gross, Biohabitats is providing support on the development of a master plan for picturesque campus of Ohio University in Athens, OH. We are excited to be getting started on this work, where we see great opportunities to enhance campus green infrastructure and draw connections to the gorgeous surrounding ecological resources of the Appalachians!
Ever wondered what it is like to work in a design studio alongside biologists, hydrologists, and engineers? Or what’s it like when your collaborative solutions not only work, but address the defining environmental challenges of our time? Last month, we had the chance to address these questions as Biohabitats was featured in an “Inside the Studio” session at the American Society of Landscape Architects’ Annual Meeting in Denver, CO. It was an honor to chat with students, leaders, and practitioners of landscape architecture. When video of the session becomes available, we’ll be sure to send a link.
On January 6, landscape ecologist Kevin Grieser will head to Kirtland, OH for the 2015 Northeast Ohio Regional Parks Conference.
Water resources engineer Ted Brown will be among those gathered in Frederick, MD to discuss Growth and the Future of the Chesapeake Bay January 13-14.
What are the capabilities and constraints of Low Impact Development at the small watershed scale? Ted Brown will help answer this question at The American Society of Civil Engineers’ annual National LID Conference January 17-21. Ted Brown will also moderate a session on LID-based stormwater management in a New Urbanist community.
Senior ecologist Kevin Nunnery will be on hand for the 58th Annual Meeting of the Soil Science Society of North Carolina on January 20-21 in Raleigh, NC.
Senior engineer and Cascadia Bioregion leader Pete Munoz will be in San Francisco, CA January 22-23 for Net Positive Energy and Water Conference, a gathering aimed at accelerating the global shift towards Net Positive Energy and Water buildings and communities.
This year’s Delaware Estuary Science & Environmental Summit will take place in Cape May, NJ January 25-28. If you’re planning to attend, don’t miss senior ecologist Joe Berg’s presentation on living shorelines.
On January 27, water resources specialist Darcy Turner will head to the USFWS National Wildlife Visitor Center in Laurel, MD for Monitoring for Climate Change in Maryland’s Non-Tidal Streams, a forum presented by the Maryland Water Quality Monitoring Council.
River Restoration Northwest’s 14 Annual Stream Restoration Conference will be held in Stevenson, WA February 3-6. Senior restoration ecologist Matt Koozer wouldn’t miss this one for the world. He’ll be joined by fluvial geomorphologist Ellen McClure, who will present “Stream restoration: A story of partial successes, partial failures, and how we react.”
February 8-11 will find senior ecologist Suzanne Hoehne at the Upper Midwest Stream Restoration Symposium in Dubuque, IA. Suzanne’s presentation on beavers and stream restoration, “The Original Ecological Engineer: What can North America’s largest rodent teach us about managing hydrology?” is sure to be compelling.
The International Erosion Control Association will hold its annual Environmental Connection Conference in Portland, OR February 16-18. Attendees will have two chances to see senior restoration ecologist Matt Koozer’s presentation on Large Woody Debris Habitat Structures for River Bank Stabilization in the PNW (February 16th and 18th). We’re quite certain they’ll dig it.
Two weeks ago, Time Magazine aptly named The Ebola Fighters as “2014 Person of the Year. “ Among these courageous and compassionate people include men and women who are racing to build and operate Ebola treatment centers in West Africa. One of them is our colleague, Nick Schreiner, who recently returned from Bo, Sierra Leone, where he was helping the incredible staff of Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) to establish water, sanitation, and infection control systems.
As we know, the Ebola epidemic is not over, and the need for help remains. Thus, Nick is returning to Africa later this month to continue contributing to the life-saving work of MSF. We are all inspired by and extremely proud of the sacrifices Nick is taking and the work he is doing to make this planet a better place. We hope you join us in honoring all “Ebola Fighters.” To learn more about or support MSF, click here.
In our staff meetings, it’s not uncommon for Claudia Browne to garner some kudos. The water resources specialist, mom, and leader of our Southern Rocky Mountain Bioregion office is, after all, generally awesome.But she deserves an extra shout out, as she has just earned her MS in Ecology from Colorado State University. Her thesis, “Groundwater and Surface Water Exchange along the Cache La Poudre River—Considerations for Conservation Planning” was a labor of love, and we’re happy to celebrate its delivery!
Landscape architect Michael Spina is now a licensed LA in New Jersey, which will allow him to serve the Hudson River Bioregion even more. Kudos, Michael!”
Senior ecologist and Hudson River Bioregion leader, Terry Doss will ring in the new year by taking on the role of President of the Society for Ecological Restoration’s Large Scale Ecosystem Restoration section. In this office, Terry will lead the group’s efforts to further public understanding and support of large scale ecosystem restoration while also encouraging and evaluating the development and advancement of all branches of large-scale ecosystem restoration and practice.