Psychology Research for Environmental Policy

By Marchi, Sergio | Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science, July 1997 | Go to article overview

Psychology Research for Environmental Policy


Marchi, Sergio, Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science


The democratic process imposes an ongoing requirement on political practitioners to understand and keep track of the links between information, knowledge, attitudes, and behavior. These relationships are critical across the full spectrum of national public policy. Whether the issue be immigration, finance, health, or social programs, a crucial part of the challenge facing governments today is to engage public support. An understanding of the ebb and flow of individual and collective attitudes vis a vis specific issues, and the mind-sets associated with various options, is crucial. Nowhere is this more dearly demonstrated than in environmental affairs. Social psychologists have defined "attitude" as a predisposition to a specific kind of behaviour. By that definition, the awakening of environmental activism began in the 1960s with an attitudinal revolution. It was sparked by growing concern about local problems and propelled by articulate warnings, notably from Rachel Carson in Silent Spring. We see, in retrospect, that it predisposed the generation of the 1960s to embrace environmental activism. Since the 1960s, throughout the democratic industrialized world, public awakening to environmental danger has consistently been the catalyst for environmental policies and programs. Thirty years ago, these dangers were hard to miss: darkened skies, foul-smelling emissions, smog, polluted beaches, and other forms of damage. Since then, many less visible, more complex, and longer-term problems have emerged: toxic chemical pollution, acid rain, climate change, and depletion of the ozone layer are some of the most serious. We have changed our emphasis, as well, looking not only to cleaning up yesterday's problems, but to preventing tomorrow's, and doing so in a way that balances environmental, economic and social concerns so that today's developments do not endanger tomorrow's world. Communicating this concept, sustainable development, is one of the greatest challenges facing governments today. Essentially, it means bringing public awareness and understanding into step with the changing realities. Environment Canada's Action Plan for the years 1996/97 to 1999/2000 focusses on goals that are indispensable to achieving a healthy environment. One of them is "promotion of environmental citizenship and building greater public awareness and support for the environment". If we are to fulfill this responsibility effectively, we must improve our understanding of the forces that shape attitudes and, ultimately, environmental behaviour. Specifically, we must learn more about the processes by which information influences attitudes about the environment and how attitudinal change translates into changed environmental behaviour. We must base more of our decisions on empirical data and on ongoing, systematic targeted psychological research. We do not have this guidance now. Our access to psychological analysis and research-based evidence about environmental attitudes is limited, for the most part, to information and data generated through public awareness monitoring, including regular studies commissioned by Environment Canada. There are gaps in our understanding of many critical areas. We know enough, however, to realize that the questions to which we need answers are complex, and that attitudes are not conveniently polarized between villains and heroes or even between proponents and opponents of environmental protection. Researchers and polling research organizations analysing the attitudes of Canadians to environmental issues paint a picture of diverse and not entirely separate zones of opinion -- to use their terminology, "fragmented psychographic segments". These range, pole to pole, from committed proponents of environmental protection to outright anti-environmentalists, with a wide group of intermediate attitudes in between. Across this spectrum there are also wide variations in what people are concerned about. Among atmospheric environmental issues, for example, ozone depletion currently ranks far ahead of climate change in the hierarchy of Canadian public environmental concerns. …

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