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Re-connecting people to the environment to bridge the mind-behavior gap

15 January 2017
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April 1993 cover of Seventeen magazine

Mariel de Jesus

In April 1993, Seventeen magazine  published an issue with the message “Save the Earth, girl!”  Seventeen was probably not the most comprehensive source of environmental information, but this was probably the single most influential magazine issue that I read that year.

Environmental awareness was high in the early ‘90s.  The Rio Earth Summit in 1992 put the health of the planet front and center, and sustainable development was on the agenda.  The mere fact that messages such as “reduce, reuse, recycle” came out on the cover of a magazine directed to an audience of teenage girls signaled the fact that the environment was everybody’s concern and that everyone had their part to play in caring for it.

Sadly, the energy and enthusiasm for the environment that was growing in the early 1990s did not translate into environmental action and behavior.  Despite the media coverage and information campaigns, being “green” was still considered “alternative” and people calling attention to environmental concerns were labeled “treehuggers,” among others.

It is now 25 years since that issue of Seventeen magazine.  Scientists are giving us all the information on climate change and the need to get on a different and more sustainable path to growth and development – but people’s attitudes and behaviors are still not changing.

There have been many environmental education initiatives and there is no lack of information and communication materials on environmental issues.  So, why is it so difficult to get people to adopt pro-environment behavior?

Clearly, knowledge and information alone do not lead to the development of environmental attitudes, nor do these cultivate a sense of care and responsibility for the environment.  This is what has come to be known as the mind-behavior gap and researchers have formulated several reasons for the disconnect between what we know and what we do.

Experiencing the environment leads to caring for the environment

Research points out the importance of learning about environmental concerns and issues in an experiential way.  Learning about environmental problems and challenges indirectly, such as in a classroom or even through reading an article, does not influence people’s behavior as much as having a direct experience of the environment and the different concerns affecting it.

The impact of direct experience on people’s behavior was seen after the flooding events in Marikina, a city in Metro Manila, Philippines after typhoon Ondoy (Ketsana) devastated the area in September 2009.  The painful and tragic experience of that disaster flooding disaster led to greater levels of awareness and engagement, as well as the development of pro-active attitudes in monitoring storm and possible disaster events.

When the link was made between flooding and improper waste disposal, local governments began to develop and enforce ordinances to ban the use of plastic bags, and the Marikina flood experience may have also driven people to adopt the use of reusable and recyclable bags in their daily life.

The difficulty with today’s urban lifestyle is that people have less and less experience of the natural environment.  Thus, it is very difficult for people to care about environmental issues.  Most young people are content to stay in an air-conditioned room all day, as long as they have a wi-fi connection.  Even relationships with others are relegated to the online world, rather than the real one.

People learn to care for something once they have experienced that learning and caring.  Without a first-hand experience of nature and the environment, it is difficult to develop a sense of care and responsibility for the environment.

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Environmental attitudes begin with family

People’s behaviors and attitudes are also shaped by family influence, social norms and cultural traditions.  If people are constantly exposed to culture that are detrimental to the environment, it will be far more difficult to change their attitudes and behaviors.  If young people grow up in families that value the environment, they will also learn how to value and appreciate the environment.  It can be as simple as teaching children to save water by turning off the taps or switching the lights off when they leave the rooms.  Giving children a sense of responsibility at an early age is important in shaping their future attitudes and behaviors.

Changing habits is a matter of personal commitment, but it is also important to create communities that will not only promote change but will also provide support.  Given the rise of social media, even online communities are important, not only to share information, but also to influence people’s actions.

Environmental educators are now exploring strategies that will help people, particularly the youth, to understand their connections to nature and the environment.  An appreciation of their relationship to the environment is thought to enhance their capacity to respond to ecological crises.  When young people realize how much of their daily lives depend on the environment, they gain a better understanding and appreciation of the environment and the bounty that comes from nature.

For instance, young people living in urban areas may think that their meals come from the supermarket and have no idea of what is involved in getting food on their tables.  Learning about this from reading, or in the classroom can be informative, but seeing agricultural communities at work will be even more significant.

Experiential learning approaches that allow students to engage with the natural environment also give them an opportunity to see the role they play and their contribution to the current ecological crises.  While this may not lead immediately to the adoption of pro-environment behaviors, it may result in a greater reflection on the choices that they make every day and an awareness of how these choices impact the environment.

We need to create more occasions and situations where people can be in nature.  Communities of practice, in real life or on social media platforms, can help motivate people to act.  Education strategies need to help people build a relationship with nature and the environment.  Without this bond, this connection, we will not feel the need to care for our common home.

Ms Mariel de Jesus is Communications Manager at the Environmental Science for Social Change, a Jesuit research and training organization in the Philippines.

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One Response to Re-connecting people to the environment to bridge the mind-behavior gap

  1. Thomas Hughson on 5 February 2017 at 8:48 pm

    Thank you for attention to the mind/behavior problem in eco-justice. Not formulated exactly in the phrase, mind/behavior problem, its reality is, as you know, part of a larger problem, not only theologically in terms of St. Paul and St. Augustine on the mind approving what in fact we do, the mind/choice problem in fallen humanity, but also sociologically in regard to altruistic values and Catholic Social Teaching (CST).

    The general mind/behavior problem with altruistic values was included in sociological research by Robert D. Putnam and David B. Campbell in American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. One finding was that positive influence on movement from altruistic mind came from being part of a small, local network of people (family, or friends, or a reading circle etc ) who met together often enough to discuss application of social values gained from church-going.

    In regard to Catholics according to the research and analysis of Jerome P. Baggett the mind/behavior problem was evident among parishioners in regard to CST. In Sense of the Faithful: How American Catholics Live Their Faith Baggett found that altruistic perspectives in CST could be gained and accepted by parishioners without being acted on. Among other factors two stood out. One was difficulty in ‘translating’ the language and categories of CST into how parishioners actually spoke and interpreted social issues, since that was not the language and interpretative framework of the media, most social analyses, and political discussion. The other was talking together together in a small group of family, friends, fellow parishioners about social justice issues in light of CST was effective in both ‘translating’ CST into an operational vocabulary and moving from mind to behavior.

    These findings indicate that participation in small group conversations or discussions with like-minded people is a positive step into effective ecological concern.

    With thanks and all best wishes,

    Tom

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