Psychology for Sustainability
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Psychology for Sustainability

Britain A. Scott, Elise L. Amel, Susan M. Koger, Christie M. Manning

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eBook - ePub

Psychology for Sustainability

Britain A. Scott, Elise L. Amel, Susan M. Koger, Christie M. Manning

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Psychology for Sustainability applies psychological science to so-called environmental problems that manifest when human behavior disrupts and degrades natural systems. Drawing on environmental psychology, ecopsychology, conservation psychology, and related disciplines, the authors provide an extensive review of relevant theory and research in a lively and easy-to-read style.

This edition represents a substantial revision and expansion spurred by a burgeoning body of research and by global ecological, political, and social developments. Particular attention is paid to environmental justice and collective action for systems change. More than one-third of the content is entirely new, and there are more than nine hundred new references. This edition also features a new full-color design and over two hundred full-color figures, tables, and photos. Timely topics include climate change, biodiversity loss, environmental racism, Indigenous perspectives, social media, and COVID-19 and other pandemics. Content retained from the previous edition has been updated throughout.

The twelve chapters are organized into four parts:

  • What on Earth Are We Doing includes a prologue on psychology as a sustainability science, followed by three chapters that provide an overview of the ecological crisis and its historical origins, and a vision for a sustainable future.
  • Psychology for a Sustainable Future encompasses five chapters on research methods, theory, and findings pertinent to understanding and shifting unsustainable behavior.
  • What's Good for the Planet is Good for Us includes two chapters that address the reciprocal relationship between planetary and human health.
  • Being the Change We Want to See introduces two new chapters to inspire readers to take what they have learned and apply it as changemakers in the world. The first is about collective action for systemic change. The second presents a positive psychology perspective on how to tackle the ecological crisis in a way that promotes wellbeing and resilience and is personally meaningful and fulfilling.

Carefully tailored to the length of a standard college semester, Psychology for Sustainability is essential reading for courses on sustainability across disciplines. It will be invaluable to people outside academia as well, including policymakers, legislators, and those working on sustainable communities. The text is also supplemented with online resources for instructors.

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What on Earth Are We Doing?

The goal of this first section of the book is to familiarize readers with the current ecological crisis and its origins and to provide a vision for a sustainable future. The Prologue introduces readers to the concept of psychology for sustainability. Chapter 1 reviews some of the principal ways humans are living unsustainably; it serves as a primer on environmental science. Chapter 2 contextualizes the current ecological crisis with a historical survey of relevant cultural, technological, economic, social, and political developments; it represents environmental studies. Chapter 3 presents foundational principles grounded in ecology, followed by examples of behaviors and systems compatible with these principles; this chapter is an introduction to sustainability.

Growth in Green Psychology

The theme of this book is that all so-called environmental problems are actually human behavioral problems. Ecological systems generally don’t have problems in and of themselves; the problems stem from people’s behaviors as consumers, corporate decision makers, city planners, and governmental legislators. Ecologically incompatible beliefs, values, and actions are ultimately responsible for the rapid deterioration of the natural systems on which every creature depends for survival. This means that these problems require more than just technological solutions. Individually and collectively, we need to make changes in how we satisfy our needs and fulfill our desires, how we express ourselves and our values, how we participate in our communities, how we experience our relationships to nature, and even, perhaps, how we understand the meaning of our lives.
Until fairly recently, psychology’s relevance to sustainability was not obvious to most people. One reason for this was the failure to recognize that environmental problems are actually human behavior problems. Another is that the discipline of psychology is commonly misunderstood. A predominant stereotype of psychology is that it’s all about mental healthcare. Many psychologists are, indeed, trained professionals who provide services to support mental and behavioral health. But a good number are researchers who spend their time studying what makes people tick. Psychology is the science of behavior and mental processes.
As you will see throughout this book, basic psychological knowledge about human thinking and behavior can be leveraged to solve the behavioral challenges associated with current environmental crises. Many individual theories and concepts are relevant (e.g., Schultz, 2014; van Vugt et al., 2014), and in combination, they can serve as especially powerful interventions (Nielsen et al., 2020). Some of the ideas you will read about come from researchers working in traditional subdisciplines of the field, such as social and cognitive psychology, and some come from psychologists who focus exclusively on the interaction between humans and the natural environment.
The earliest psychological research specific to environmental issues dates back to the late 1960s, with the emergence of environmental psychology, an interdisciplinary field that examines human interaction with the physical environment, broadly defined to include both natural and built settings and elements (Gifford, 2014). Much of the work of environmental psychologists is not related to sustainability per se, but among the research topics that are, some are obviously relevant (e.g., people’s preferences for particular wild landscapes), while others are less directly related (e.g., the impact of industrial noise on cognition).
The 1990s witnessed the birth of ecopsychology, a perspective that focuses on mental health aspects of the reciprocal relationship between human and nonhuman nature. A fundamental premise of ecopsychology is that living physically separated from the rest of the natural world, as people in industrialized societies do, is psychologically dysfunctional. This may explain elevated rates of common problems like depression, anxiety, substance use and addiction, and other compulsive behaviors (such as shopping and checking texts). In addition, ecopsychologists recognize that many people experience ecoanxiety, personal distress when witnessing environmental degradation and contemplating the future of our planet. Ecopsychology aims to recognize, repair, and restore the primal connection between people and the planet (Fisher, 2013; Hibbard, 2003; Doherty, 2009). Traditionally, ecopsychologists have tended to be therapists rather than researchers. You will learn more about ecopsychology in Chapter 11.
Psychological research specifically focused on environmental sustainability has boomed since the turn of the 21st century. Researchers from a variety of backgrounds have joined forces under the banner of conservation psychology, defined as the “scientific study of the reciprocal relationships between humans and the rest of nature, with a particular focus on how to encourage conservation of the natural world” (C. Saunders, 2003, p. 138). Conservation psychologists subscribe to the scientist–practitioner model, in which rigorous research is accompanied by active application toward solving real-world problems. This is akin to how conservation biologists work with an eye toward protecting species and their ecosystems. Conservation psychology overlaps to some degree with environmental psychology but is distinct in its explicit mission to study human interaction with the natural environment for the purpose of advancing sustainability.
Before we delve into the wonderful world of psychology, in the first three chapters we look at the current state of the ecological crisis, explore how we got there in the first place, and propose a vision for a sustainable future. This background will enable you to more fully appreciate the vital role that psychology can play in addressing unsustainable lifestyles and systems.

What on Earth Are We Doing?

Biology’s Bottom Line: Carrying Capacity
Our Ecological Footprint
Material Goods
Disrupting the Balance
What will your future be like? If you are like most people, you have hopes of a happy life with family and friends. You desire good health and a comfortable place in which to live. You expect to own more—and better—things than you currently do. You plan to travel. And, of course, you assume you will have easy access to basic necessities like electricity, heat, food, and water.
Yet you might also have a notion, ranging from an inkling to a grave fear, that this scenario is threatened, that your future might not be so rosy. If this has not occurred to you, just skim the local, national, and world news with your eyes peeled for stories about nonrenewable energy, toxic pollution, species extinctions, water shortages, dying coral reefs, overflowing landfills, plastic gyres in the oceans, and a changing climate. As you educate yourself, you will begin to realize that many aspects of modern lifestyles simply cannot be taken for granted or maintained long term. The sobering fact is that because of the way many of us are living, we are severely compromising planetary resources, and consuming them too quickly and carelessly to keep demand in balance with the supply. If Mother Earth were on social media, she’d tweet #WTFpeeps?!
Large surveys suggest that a lot of people are aware of these problems. For example, the most recent Yale survey on Climate Change in the American Mind, found that more than 70% of Americans believe global warming is happening; about the same number think it will cause harm to future generations of people and to other species; 50% think it is a threat to their families or local communities; and 45% think it is already hurting people in the United States (Leiserowitz et al., 2019). But just knowing about the problems doesn’t mean people are ready to take action (see Figure 1.1).
Figure 1.1 Readiness to change.
Figure 1.1 Readiness to change.
Source: Adapted from Amel, Manning, and Scott (2009)
These days, more people are doing little things such as recycling their newspapers, bottles, and cans, but when it comes to the big picture, most people generally behave according to established habits. A vague sense of pessimism about the future coexists with a business-as-usual attitude. For example, despite the fact that about two-thirds of Americans say they are “worried” about global warming (Leiserowitz et al., 2019), many people continue to routinely drive rather than walk or bike, take vacations across the country and around the world, heat their homes to a cozy 72 degrees, use dryers instead of clotheslines, throw usable stuff away, buy new stuff, and try not to think about the fact that the planet cannot possibly support all of this for much longer.
Not surprisingly, people have difficulty contemplating planetary collapse. We find it too depressing, too overwhelming, perhaps too terrifying. So we turn our attention to present concerns such as family obligations, work or school, and paying bills. Such a response is understandable and consistent with an evolutionary perspective. Human perceptual systems evolved in an environment where threats were sudden and immediate; our ancient ancestors had no need to track gradually worsening problems that took many years to manifest. As a result, the human species is shortsighted and has difficulty responding to potentially catastrophic, but slowly developing, harmful conditions. Rather than working to prevent crises, people have a strong tendency to delay action until problems are large and readily apparent, at which time they attempt to respond. Unfortunately, by then it may be too late.
Despite such hardwiring, the human species is capable of dramatic and rapid cultural evolution, as the pace of the agricultural, industrial, and technological revolutions reveals. For example, as undergraduates, the four of us authors used typewriters for papers, after spending hours searching printed publication indexes to find citations for journal articles that we had to track down in the stacks of bound periodicals. Now, it feels normal to us to use online databases with full-text and cloud storage. The point is, humans are quick to adapt. The human capacity for rapid change could reverse current ecological trends.
Many people reassure themselves that technological fixes will save the earth, but while technological and engineering expertise is certainly needed to reverse ecological damage—just as such knowledge was used to produce it—the problems that threaten the survival of life on this planet are too huge, too complicated, and too urgent to be solved by advances in technology alone. Human beings have always altered their physical environment in order to survive, but the pace and scale of current environmental change knows no precedent. And the longer people wait to take action, the worse the problems will become. Most importantly, pinning hopes on technology misses the primary cause of the current predicament and the crucial tool for lasting solutions: human behavior.
You probably are somewhat familiar with the contemporary ecological crisis. Still, to provide a foundation for the rest of the book, the following sections describe several of the big issues confronting humanity. The scope is limited in the interest of space but should give you at least some idea of the challenges that lie ahead.


It may surprise you to learn that the first scientific calculations of global warming due to human emissions of carbon dioxide were published back in 1896 (Weart, 2017). In 1914, the North American passenger pigeon was declared extinct due to hunting, yet this species had once been so abundant that flocks blackened the entire sky as they took hours to pass overhead. By the 1930s, the negative health effects of new toxic substances such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were being reported in factory workers and confirmed in laboratories (Versar, Inc., 1979). Indeed, for more than a century, scientists have documented anthropogenic (human-caused) threats to the survival of the biosphere, a term coined in 1875 to mean the entire global ecosystem and all of its inhabitants.
As you will read i...

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