Anne Else: Environmental action starts in the mind

Tuesday, July 2, 2019 - 11:54am

In our current political climate, environmental issues typically fall along party lines. Stereotypically, liberals tend to adhere to environmentally friendly policies and climate change awareness, while conservatives do not embrace these issues in their platforms. While the politics of sustainability is definitely affecting the way people view climate change and personal habits, there is also a basis of psychological factors that can determine a person’s view and use of these methods and policies. 

I recently watched an episode of the critically acclaimed HBO show “Big Little Lies,” which was heavily centered around the theme of environmental consciousness. It depicted a young girl in second grade who suffered from a panic attack that stemmed from fear of climate change. She was extremely worried that the world would end after she was taught about startling environmental facts from her teacher. Her reaction to climate change was full of anxiety and fear, which could make it difficult for viewers to understand that real change is possible.

This portrayal of the effects of climate change on the mind made me think about how our psychological state might affect how passionate we are about making changes. Even more, the way we are taught about these truths can affect our view of the world. If we are simply given staggering facts about the dying planet without any suggestions for how to make it better, our view of the world could become hopeless and scary.

If we can look at the horrors that happen in the world through a mindset of hopefulness and willingness to change, then maybe it would be easier for everyone, no matter their political affiliation, to combat these issues together. Viewing climate change with extreme denial or fear will clearly affect one’s desire to help in healing our Earth.

New research has delved into the basis of the psychology of sustainability. As we know, human behavior is what has affected the planet in the first place. Therefore, psychologists purporting changes in human behavior and psyche are what will drive motivation and participation in sustainable practices and advocacy. A research project from Minnesota Pollution Control Agency presents helpful plans for sustainability based on psychological changes. They explain that a key way to increase sustainable behavior is to make it a “social default.” Humans tend to look to others for social cues and information. Thus, if leading an eco-conscious lifestyle by reducing carbon footprints and spreading eco-friendly information was the norm, sustainability would increase dramatically, which can be done by getting to know neighbors’ habits and views on the environment. This will help make positive and inclusive conversations about environmental change more common. 

So how can we implement these positive ideals into upcoming generations? Journalist Barbara Malt says universities should include more environmental psychology classes to educate students on the impact of human behavior. This type of hybrid class would allow students to find relatable coursework and information on how we can change our psychological outlook on our planet. She concisely explains why this subject intersection is necessary, stating, “Because human behavior is at the root of these environmental problems, science and technology alone cannot create the solutions we need ... To create solutions, there must be a belief in the need for change, the will to make and sustain change, and effective means of creating change.”

This type of environmental teaching will give young adults a sense of understanding and confidence in how to make significant and positive impacts on the future of our ecosystems; it should extend to all years of schooling and be taught in a positive and action-oriented light. (If you’re interested in this topic, University of Michigan is offering a psychology and environment cross-listed course this fall titled Behavior and Environment).

Thankfully, the field of environmental psychology is growing. Their specialized research focuses on human reaction to different environmental issues and phenomena. The American Psychological Association lists a few ways that these psychologists are applying their knowledge to the real world. They “conduct research on messages that motivate people to change their behavior, spread the word about environmental solutions, uncover why people may not adopt positive behaviors, encourage people to rethink their positions in the natural world, and help clients to live more sustainable lives.” 

Some people might not want to buy into the advantages of living a sustainable life and choose to ignore environmental politics and action. This viewpoint can also be explained through psychological terms that Steve Taylor, psychologist and professor at Leeds Beckett University in the U.K., suggests. The psychological explanation of why people are able to continually ignore detrimental environmental changes and not feel bothered to change is because of the presence of “ego-separateness.” This includes an overly intensified sense of independence and individuality, which allows some people to feel disparate from nature and wildlife.

The results of this individualistic mindset are people do not feel responsible for their planet or the vast lands covering it. There is a lack of “duty to preserve (nature’s) harmony.” This psychological understanding of people who do not support eco-friendly endeavors makes sense to me when I examine the extremely individualistic tendencies of Western countries. America, in particular, stereotypically values individual achievements and the ability to be independently successful as our most important characteristics. This could very well be fueling the uniquely American ability to consistently ignore environmental issues.  

Take a few environment courses to solidify your knowledge in the subject, talk to your housemates or neighbors on their views and habits, allow for environmental love to be normal and appreciated. Understanding our own psychological barriers will help us attain sustainable mindsets that will assist our futures and our homes. For the future of our families, friends and foes, we must get past our individualistic cultural values and find ways to help environmental causes. 

Anne Else can be reached at aelse@umich.edu.