There are many ways in which psychologists can contribute to fostering a sustainable environment. Indeed, psychologists have an ethical responsibility to ‘their clients, the community and society at large’. We can take responsibility for protecting and enhancing community wellbeing through active engagement to limit the causes and effects of environmental damage and climate change, and to help individuals and communities to adapt to those effects.
Think globally, act locally, respond personally.
Responding personally includes feeling, thinking and doing. It includes actively thinking about the problems, reflecting on your own emotional response to climate change, facing your deep fears, understanding fully the threat that climate change and other environmental threats poses to yourself, the future, and the planet, and deciding that these threats are real and worth acting on. Then, of course, are the actions. These include important lifestyle commitments that people can undertake, like transport choices, energy efficiency, food choices, resource use, conservation activities, environmental activism. When you make pro-sustainable behaviour choices you are helping to establish important norms, signalling your values to others, and becoming a more credible advocate for environmental issues.
Keep improving the sustainable features of your office/workplace, like purchasing green power, installing energy efficient appliances, reducing air travel. Advocate for pro-sustainable changes within your university, professional organisation, workplace, APS member groups. Share your knowledge and concerns with colleagues. Adopt personal sustainable workplace practices like taking public transport to work and going paperless. The staff at the APS National Office, for example, have established a green team to explore ways of making a more sustainable office.
Seek educational and teaching opportunities to communicate psychological science’s role and areas of contribution. Teach within psychology or in other disciplines, about the fundamental connections between human behaviour and the environmental crisis. Find formal ways to teach within course curriculum, or provide guest lectures, presentations, public talks about psychology and sustainability.
Work through your own thoughts and feelings about climate change so that you know where you stand. Seek peer consultation to discuss these issues in relation to your practice and process your feelings (and get PD points at the same time!). With greater awareness of your own concern about bigger-than-self issues like environmental threats, you are better able to be present, non-judgmental and helpful to people expressing their own concerns.
Be aware of environmental threats as a legitimate set of concerns for clients. Consider that these issues are unique and unprecedented; rarely have we been confronted with threats of such magnitude, together with so much denial about the threats. For some, these concerns are an existential issue, and tap into fears about the future, anxiety about bringing children into the world, safety and security, and our own place in the world. For others, climate change may already be impacting on their lives via natural disasters, financial problems, or livelihoods.
Be prepared to draw out these bigger-than-self concerns with clients, to invite them to face such fears, to chip away at the extrinsic, materialistic values, and encourage the switch to intrinsic ‘care’ values.
Climate change offers research and practice challenges for all psychologists. In every area of psychological science there are opportunities to research environment related issues. Some examples include the relationship between PTSD and memory, impact of trauma on children's development, community resilience, heat stress and cognitive performance, relationship between temperature, aggression, and conflict, benefits of restorative environments, adapting to lower levels of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, transition towns, sustainable consumption, heat stress and the elderly, effects of vicarious distress related to environmental threats on general wellbeing.
There is great scope for different areas of psychology to work collaboratively together on climate related issues. There is also a need to work in inter/transdisciplinary modes with other disciplines and professions such as educators, environmental scientists, engineers, architects and planners. We need to seek out and interact with other professions and let them know what psychology can contribute. Students can seek supervisors who are interested in working on environment related projects.
Join in the policy development process at whatever level suits you: workplace, neighbourhood, profession, state, national, global. Engage with the policy makers to provide them with quantified, evidence-based, substantiated information about how they can build and enact environmental policy that will create a more sustainable society.
Many psychologists contribute their psychological knowledge and skills to environmental groups. Some join local climate action groups, some join regional, national or international environment or sustainability groups. Some psychologists are even involved in setting up study groups and support groups to help themselves and other engage with environmental issues and overcome denial.
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