What do conservation and behavior change mean to you? | NAAEE

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What do conservation and behavior change mean to you?

Is it as simple as turning off the lights when you leave the house? What do these terms mean to you as an individual, and what do they mean to you as a member of a community?

Personally, it's a matter of habit. My behaviors often don't align with my values until I learn to do things a different way and do them that new way from now on, like composting, riding my bike, and even expressing what I know about conservation in conversations or debates with friends and family. As a member of my community, I see conservation and behavior change in a practitioner light: I look around and think 'why do people act that way, or this way? And how could we change that or encourage this?'

Conservation and behavior change is something that has a very different meaning for everyone. For me personally, it means actively using resources in a way that is not wasteful, reusing items when possible, recycling everything that can be recycled. Making purchases based on a sustainability mindset. There is a recent trend that has sparked my interest, and that is "going off the grid." Now, I don't claim to know everything there is about this concept, but my very basic understanding of it is that of a living sustainably. I believe that this can be done, and if done properly, exemplifies the concepts of conservation and behavior change.

Values and life goals are the aspects of people's identities that reflect what they deem to be desirable and worth striving for in life. Substantial research demonstrates that values and life goals are higher-order motivations that organize the more specific attitudes and behaviors that constitute many aspects of people's day-to-day lives. Cross-cultural studies attempting to categorize the content of people's values and goals have identified around a dozen sets of values and goals that consistently emerge across nations. Among these values and goals, one set of aims has been consistently associated with more negative attitudes and behavior towards non-human nature; the relative importance individuals place on wealth, rewards, achievement and status. For example, studies show that to the extent people endorse these self-enhancing and materialistic values, they report engaging less often in positive environmental behaviors. Experiments using game theory simulations of natural-resource management further support these results; groups of experimental subjects who score relatively highly in materialistic goals are found to exploit simulated forest resources at intensive and ultimately unsustainable rates. Finally, data at the national level also demonstrates negative associations between environmental behavior and these same values; even after controlling for gross national product (GNP), countries in which citizens places a stronger priority on values such as wealth, achievement and status were found to have higher per capita CO2 emissions.

Another defining feature of a person's identity is his or her "social identity", or the groups to which that person feels he or she belongs. Classifying oneself as more similar to others on some dimension (e.g. race, sex) leads to the creation of both 'in-groups' and 'out-groups'. An extensive body of social psychological research demonstrates that people typically treat others in ways that enhance the standing of their 'in-group' relative to their 'out-group', helping to explain the widespread phenomena of stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination. Some researchers, drawing on research concerning values and pro-environmental behavior, have extended the concept of social identity to include a person's sense of belonging in nature.

Much as with aspects of social identity, an environmental identity offers a sense of association and belonging to a group. To the extent that people consider themselves part of nature, or see nature as part of their in-group, research shows that they also exhibit more positive environmental attitudes and behaviors. For example, one large cross-cultural study of residents in 14 countries found that connectedness to nature emerged as one of the strongest and most consistent motivational predictors of pro-environmental behavior.

In contrast, the tendency to define humans as an 'in-group' which excludes nature is a consequence of a perceived split between humans and non-human nature. It seems that it leads to a heightened indifference to the suffering of both individual non-human animals and the destruction of the non-human natural world (including other species and ecosystems). Human attitudes towards other animals offer a particularly clear example of the human tendency to display prejudice towards non-human nature as an 'out-group.'

Evidence for prejudice towards non-human animals comes from a variety of sources. For example, following a long-established tradition for studying how people categorize human personality types, one study asked experimental subjects to rate themselves, someone they liked or someone they disliked on a series of English nouns that can be used to describe people. Analyses showed that underlying all of these ratings was a single dimension ranging from socially acceptable to socially unacceptable, and that a remarkable number of the nouns used to describe being socially unacceptable were animal words (for example, 'weasel', 'dog', or 'pest'). Other studies similarly show the tendency to associate out-groups with animals, documenting that experimental subjects reported that members of their in-group are more likely to experience uniquely human emotions (like remorse, affection, pride and conceit) than are members of the out-group; such findings suggest that people deny out-group members some level of humanness by presuming that they exhibit a lower level of emotional development, comparable to that of non-human animals.

It seems that there is a continuum between indifference to the suffering of individual animals and indifference to the loss of entire species or destruction of ecosystems, and that both these attitudes are driven in part by a tendency to see non-human nature as the ultimate out-group. The tendency to define non-human nature as an out-group frustrates the emergence of a stronger connection to nature, which is known to be associated with more pro-environmental behavior.

A third aspect of human identity concerns how humans attempt to manage threats to their existence, their self-esteem and the integrity of their identity. These threats often create emotions - such as anxiety, guilt and existential angst - which are not only unpleasant to experience in their own right, but can also interfere with people's psychological functioning. Thus, people use an extensive array of psychological strategies to help them remove thoughts and feelings about anxiety-producing situations from awareness and to protect their identity (their sense of who it is and what kind of a person they believe themselves to be).

There seems little doubt that awareness of the scale of environmental problems that humans confront can lead people to experience a sense of threat. Anxiety, guilt (a kind of moral anxiety) and threats to self-esteem can also result when people recognize their own complicity in exacerbating environmental problems. The impossibility of physical escape from environmental problems certainly propels some people to change the way that they live (in order to minimize their own environmental impact) or to engage in direct political action. But at the same time, many others deal with awareness of environmental crises through psychological coping strategies that either fail to motivate pro-environmental behaviors, or that actually undermine such behaviors. The psychological research suggests five different categories of such strategy:

1. Strategies for diversion. When confronted with environmental problems people may attempt to supplant the anxiety-arousing information with other material. For example, research has found that individuals may seek to: (i) limit their exposure to potentially anxiety-producing information; (ii) keep their thoughts in the present; (iii) do something in order to temporarily displace their feelings of hopelessness by taking action - irrespective of how environmentally insignificant that action may be; or (iv) seek pleasurable diversions.

2. Strategies for reinterpreting the threat. A second common set of strategies seeks to diminish the unpleasant emotions arising from environmental damage by re-interpreting the situation so as to render it less threatening. This might be attempted through: (i) relativization, which entails claiming that the ecological problems facing humanity really are not as pressing as often claimed; (ii) denial of guilt; and (iii) projection, which involves denying one's own complicity and apportioning blame on others.

3. Strategies for indifference. Another class of strategy for coping with the fears and anxieties brought about by environmental degradation is 'apathy'. Psychotherapists have long recognized that if a person believes that there is no hope of overcoming a problem, a good way to protect oneself is to adopt an uncaring approach: if the problem is not felt to be personally important, it poses less of a threat. Unfortunately, of course, apathy tends to reinforce behavioral choices that exacerbate environmental problems.

4. Orienting towards materialistic goals. Many empirical studies show that, when briefly reminded of their own mortality, people strive to enhance their self-esteem. In a consumerist culture, this means that people will orient towards self-enhancing, materialistic values (which, as we've seen above, are environmentally destructive). Research studies confirm this tendency.

5. Denigrating the out-group. Threat is one of the key factors that promotes in-group bias and out-group prejudice. Research shows that people become especially negative towards animals and the natural world when reminded of their own death. Moreover, and consistent with our suggestion that antipathy to non-human animals is a particular instance of antipathy towards non-human nature, these effects of mortality awareness extend to attitudes towards nature and wilderness.

While each of these 5 coping strategies seems to help lower levels of stress from threat and environmental problems, they also fail to encourage engagement in pro-environmental behaviors, and may often lead to an increase in environmental impact.

What are some means of better managing these three aspects of identity mentioned above in order to help elicit more pro-environmental behaviors ?

I. Removing iatrogenic effects. In medicine, iatrogenic effects are said to occur when a doctor inadvertently exacerbates a medical condition in the course of treating it. In a parallel fashion, some conservation campaign tactics commonly deployed by the environmental movement practitioners may inadvertently serve to reinforce environmentally problematic aspects of identity and thus operate, overall, to exacerbate environmental problems.

II. Disabling ways that society encourages problematic aspects of identity. Human identity is formed in part through social and cultural context. Environmental organizations could therefore attempt to address and 'disable' those features of society that currently promote environmentally problematic aspects of identity.

III. Activating healthier aspects of identity. While thus far we've been focused on those aspects of identity that contribute to environmental degradation, there indeed are aspects of human identify that can promote environmental sustainability and conservation. Thus, environmental and conservation organizations might work to encourage those aspects of identity that can serve as 'antidotes' to the environmentally problematic ones.

Shifting values and life goals.

- regarding: Messages from environmental and conservation organizations. --> Unfortunately, rather than working to decrease self-enhancing, materialistic values known to be associated with environmental degradation, some environmental campaigns probably serve to reinforce such values. Indeed, the modern environmental movement is dominated by the perception that the environment is an economic resource to be exploited. Consider, for example: 'the business case for sustainable development', 'payment for environmental services', 'the three pillars of sustainable development', or 'green consumption'. To the extent that each of these concepts - all mainstays of much environmental campaigning and conservation education efforts - are emphasized, the environmental movement and conservation education efforts serve to reinforce the self-enhancing, materialistic values that are associated with more environmentally destructive behaviors. Environmental organizations and conservation organizations need to examine the values and goals reflected and encouraged by their communications and education campaigns so as to diminish the extent to which they reinforce these values and goals. What's more, a growing body of research (from the perspective known as 'self-determination theory') suggests that appeals to such self-enhancing, materialistic values can actually undermine people's motivation for engaging in pro-environmental behavior over the long-term.

Policy approaches for reducing the social modeling of materialistic, self-enhancing values

There are ways in which environmental organizations, in concert with other groups, can decrease the extent to which society at large reinforces and encourages materialistic, self-enhancing values. A variety of options are available in this regard, but here we will 'briefly' focus on two.

1. Tackling advertising. Advertisements and marketing are prominent means by which materialistic, self-enhancing values are encouraged: underlying most advertising is the implicit proposition that purchase of a product of service can confer happiness or self-esteem. Moreover, government policy on advertising often operates to extend the reach and dissemination of these implicit messages. Environmental organizations can begin to address these dynamics by developing and distributing educational materials that help individuals (in particular children) to 'deconstruct' advertisements and recognize the techniques of persuasion deployed. They could also campaign for restrictions on advertising in public spaces, outright bans on advertising to children (who are particularly susceptible to the persuasive techniques that advertisers use), and taxes on advertising.

2. Redefining progress. Environmental organizations could support the development and implementation of new measures of national progress. Current measures (such as gross domestic product) probably reinforce materialistic values - particularly given the prominence that they are currently accorded in political debate. Many alternative indicators (such as Redefining Progress' Genuine Progress Indicator and the New Economics Foundation's Happy Planet index) have been proposed that introduce a wider range of values into public debate about national performance, and thus place less emphasis on environmentally problematic materialistic values.

Encouraging self-transcendent values and intrinsic goals

Another approach is for environmental organizations to encourage values that are psychologically opposed to self-enhancing, materialistic values. Cross-cultural research shows that the goals of financial success, image and popularity cluster together, implying that if one of these extrinsic or materialistic goals is prioritized, people also tend to prioritize the other extrinsic, materialistic goals. This same research also helps to identify a set of goals that are antagonistic to such materialistic goals. These goals, labeled "intrinsic", include the pursuit of self-acceptance (trying to grow as a person), affiliation (having good interpersonal relationships) and community feeling (trying to make the broader world a better place). Because it is psychologically difficult for individuals to pursue both intrinsic and materialistic goals simultaneously, one approach to diminishing the power of self-enhancing and materialistic goals is to encourage people to place greater priority on goals such as self-acceptance, affiliation and community feeling. Interestingly, research shows that when people focus on such intrinsic goals, they also engage in more positive environmental behaviors. (Are you starting to see a relationship to the current national political divides and debates?!)

Environmental organizations often retreat from highlighting intrinsic goals, but the could work to make them a legitimate part of public debate. To do so would serve to promote the positive environmental responses associated with such goals. At the same time, environmental organizations can also work to help strengthen the causal link between pursuing intrinsic goals and making behavioral choices consistent with these. Two approaches may help in this regard:

1. Social support. Social support groups have been used to help people live more in concert with intrinsic and self-transcendent values. For example, 'simplicity circles' - groups of individuals who meet regularly to discuss the attractions and challenges of trying to reduce their consumption - provide a place to share information and to learn new skills that can help people enact their intrinsic, self-transcendent values.

2. Implementation intentions. Research shows that people are more likely to behave in ways consistent with their stated goals when they have previously developed a very concrete 'if-then' statement that helps them both to identify situations where the goals is relevant, and to engage in an appropriate behavioral response. Implementation intentions seem to help people 'automatize' their behavior so that they do not have to exert extra cognitive effort in thinking about what to do when a crucial choice arises. Some researchers have begun to apply this method to environmentally relevant behaviors with good success.

Addressing in-groups and out-groups

A great deal is known about effective means of reducing prejudice and discrimination based on race, gender and sexual orientation. Because the literature tends to suggest that such interventions will also work for a variety of out-groups, some are becoming optimistic that such interventions will also help to address prejudice towards non-human nature.

- regarding: Messages from environmental and conservation organizations -->

The tendency of many environmental (and conservation) organizations to take a narrowly anthropocentic perspective (asking 'what can nature do for humans?') probably serves to strengthen conceptions of non-human nature as an out-group, and to frustrate the emergence of environmental identity. This anthropocentrism notably also gives rise to tension between the environmental movement and the animal-welfare movement. Many environmentalists and conservationists dismiss animal-welfare organizations as 'sentimentalist' - precisely because they challenge the in-group/out-group distinctions between humans and other animals. This tension is particularly evident where an abundant species is culled for economic, or recreational reasons.

As well as serving to strengthen in-group/out-group distinctions between humans and non-human nature, narrowly anthropocentric messages may also confuse those members of the public who are motivated on empathic grounds to engage with both animal welfare and environmental issues.

The activities of conservation organizations may also inadvertently serve to frustrate the emergence of environmental identity, through the 'objectification' of non-human nature. The perception that humans are separate from nature is likely to be heightened both by conservation activities that frame the natural world as something that does not include humans (or from which humans must be excluded) and by campaigns that serve to reinforce an instrumentalist view of nature (that is, a view which holds that nature exists solely as a source of raw materials for human activities). Unfortunately, current approaches to conservation may tend to lead to one or the other outcome; either through the development of protected areas that effectively exclude people, or through community-based conservation projects that, unless carefully developed, can lead to the commodification of nature.

Rather than emphasizing the need for nature either to be 'left alone', or to be exploited commercially, environment and conservation organizations might place greater emphasis on the type of 'relationship' that conservation programs help to establish between local people and non-human nature. Such an alternative approach to conservation could embody an acknowledgement that biological diversity is linked with cultural diversity, and that sustaining both is necessary for both ecological and cultural well-being. This is a perspective that, in WWF-UK's experience, is often already expressed amongst communities in the fiels, although it rarely features in political debate in national capitals.

Reducing prejudicial messages in the social context

While it appears that humans have a natural tendency to categorize individuals on the basis of their sex or race, it seems that the attitudes people form towards those in different categories are to a large extent learned. Among the messages people sometimes learn to support prejudice are 'legitimizing myths' that serve to justify attributing lower status to particular groups of people. It is important, therefore, that where they are based on factual misrepresentations, these legitimizing stories are rebutted, particularly in the education of children. By analogy, environmental organizations could examine the legitimizing myths that justify exploitation of non-human nature (such as the perceived necessity of animal-based protein in a healthy diet) and could stimulate debate about these stories, particularly amongst children. Environmental education programs could also be designed to encourage children to explore and discuss instances where commercial messages, news reporting or government communications reinforce the objectification of nature.

Activating positive social values

Studies find that empathy and egalitarian values are consistently associated with lower levels of prejudice towards a number of different types of human out-groups. Humans can be encouraged to empathize with non-human nature. In one study, participants were shown pictures of wild animals suffering and asked to either remain objective or take the animal's perspective. Those induced to feel more empathy later expressed significantly higher levels of concern for all living things.

Although there would of course be both philosophical and practical difficulties in seeking to attribute equal rights to humans and non-human animals, much can be learned from work on discrimination towards human out-groups. Recognition of the inherent value of nature is likely to generate environmental dividends analogous to those achieved through increasing the prevalence of egalitarian values amongst humans. This might be achieved through approaches such as 'value confrontation' (making explicit the disparity between a person's values and his or her behavior) - particularly, in working with groups who already have some contact with the non-human natural world in a non-exploitive way (for example, gardeners, ramblers, or pet owners), but who do not consistently express an environmental identity in their behavioral choices.

Improving contact between species

Clearly the mere fact that two groups are in contact with each other will not be sufficient to reduce prejudice. However, under certain conditions of 'optimal contact', the evidence shows that it is possible to: (i) reduce the anxiety associates with meeting others different from oneself; (ii) create empathy for out-group members; and (iii) lead people to recategorize in-groups and out-groups into a "we" identity.

Substantial creativity and flexibility are probably required to adapt the principles known to promote optimal contact, so that these can be applied to human-nature interactions. At one level, there are opportunities for virtual contact, and well-produced films, books and video games could help promote a stronger sense of connection to nature. But these are unlikely to substitute for real-life contact.

In the longer term, childhood experience will be important. Unfortunately, at present 'environmental education' tends towards the quantification or objectification of nature. Instead, what is necessary are opportunities to 'experience' nature so that adolescents leave formal education equipped with a conceptual framework that enables them to relate to their own experiences of nature, a vocabulary with which they feel comfortable in discussing their relationship with nature, and educational experiences that lead them to identify nature as something in which they are immersed even in an urban environment (for example, through the air they breathe, the water they drink and the people they encounter). The environment is not someplace we go, it's where we live and who we are.

The strongest impacts of optimal contact are likely to be created through approaches to wilderness experience that build on the techniques of ecopsychology, though programs that attempt to provide this have yet to become fully integrated into the strategies employed by mainstream environment and conservation organizations. WWF-UK, however, has used such techniques in its Natural Change Project, a process of personal transformation and reflection through nature-based workshops that was conducted for participants in Scotland drawn from the business, education, arts and charitable sectors. The project adapted and incorporated techniques from Joanna Macy's 'the work that reconnects', a program of group exercises that are designed to provide opportunities to share personal responses to the condition of the world, and to promote empathy with other living things.

Approaches to coping with fear and threats

As noted above, when reminded of environmental threats and of their own death, people often respond in ways that are environmentally problematic. An understanding of how psychotherapists approach the treatment of their clients who experience threats tot heir identity could help to provide strategies for environmental organizations to respond to such challenges. Note, though, that in drawing attention to the value of understanding psychotherapeutic approaches, it is not intended to suggest that these responses to environmental threats are abnormal: they are probably deployed by everyone - environmentalists and conservationists, of course, included. Drawing on the approach a psychotherapist might take in engaging with an individual client, we can explore three steps that could be used to inform environmental and conservation communications and campaigns targeted at larger numbers of people.

First, environmental organizations should be alert to instances where people and organizations engage in coping and defense mechanisms that are known to diminish positive environmental behavior. Environmental organizations can then 'gently and empathically' draw attention to the existence of these strategies. An understanding of effective behavior change strategies suggests that it will be ineffectual to bemoan public apathy or to admonish individuals for deploying particular coping mechanisms. A better approach would acknowledge the emotions underlying the coping strategy, and respond to these empathically. By intervening in these ways, environmental organizations can state truths that often remain unspoken - global warming "is" frightening, and people often do feel hopeless - and thus build rapport and trust with their audience.

After identifying a maladaptive coping strategy, the next task for a psychotherapist is to help clients express whatever feeling underlies the strategy, no matter how unpleasant it might be. Similarly, environmental organizations can help people to 'express' the emotions that they feel about environmental destruction. Empirical studies, and decades of clinical practice, suggest that in order to help activate positive environmental behaviors, environmental organizations will ultimately need to develop approaches that help people express the fear, anger, sadness, angst of sense of threat that many are probably already experiencing (whether consciously or otherwise). Opportunities to deeply explore thoughts and feelings associated with death might help in this regard. Although, as mentioned previously, brief reminders of death can lead people to orient towards the materialistic values that promote environmental degradation, other studies have shown that a more sustained, reflective meditation on the feelings aroused by thoughts of death can actually 'decrease' the materialistic strivings known to be associated with environmental degradation.

Third, environmental and conservation organizations can help people develop coping strategies that are less likely to lead to a worsening of an individual's environmental impact. For example, 'problem-focused coping strategies' encourage individuals to actively work to change the situation that is giving rise to the source of stress. This will be difficult for global environmental challenges (like climate change), and it should be noted that whilst problem-solving strategies may promote pro-environmental behavior. they have also been associated with increased levels of reported stress from an awareness of environmental challenges. Another approach is thus to promote 'emotion-focused coping strategies' that aim to change a person's emotional reactions to a source of stress. One emotion-focused strategy that might be particularly useful for environmental organizations and conservation organizations is the cultivation of "mindfulness", or an acceptance of one's experience as it is in the moment. Not only has research shown that mindfulness is effective in reducing psychological distress, but evidence suggests that (even after controlling for the effects of subjects' values) adults who are more mindful engage in more positive environmental behaviors and have lower ecological footprints than individuals less attuned to, and accepting of, the present moment.

It is important to emphasize that it is not being suggested that there is anything abnormal about these aspects of identity. Rather, these appear to be ubiquitous aspects of the human psyche - although it also seems other, competing and more positive, aspects of identity can be brought to the fore. Of interest here, is the in the ways that the social context that we collectively create serves to accentuate those aspects of identity that, according to the research that has been presented, tend to undermine attempts to meet environmental challenges. What's more, it can be put forth that there are ways that environment and conservation campaigns and the social context more broadly could be modified to promote those aspects of identity that are associated with more pro-environmental responses.

The mainstream environmental movement and conservation efforts have rarely invested resources in examining these environmentally problematic aspects of human identity, identifying the social structures that enable and accentuate them, or working to change these structures and encourage more environmentally beneficial aspects of human identity, And yet one can propose that a successful response to today's compound environmental and conservation problems must incorporate such considerations and strategies.

Indeed, I am convinced that identity campaigning - values clarification and metacognition education hold substantial promise for enhancing the effectiveness of the environmental movement's and conservation organizations' current work, for developing strategies and new interventions, and for raising crucial questions about whether some current strategies might actually be undermining progress on us all working together to create the systemic changes that are needed.

Human identity and environmental challenges

"Identity" refers to people's sense of themselves, or who they think of themselves as being. Here, we've looked at three aspects of human identity that empirical research has shown are associated with decisions that often serve to frustrate optimal responses to environmental challenges. These are: 'people's values and life goals'; 'their differentiation of others into in-groups and out-groups'; and the ways they 'cope with fear and threats'. These three aspects of identity in no way constitute a complete list, and they may not even be the most important features of human identity involved in frustrating the emergence of proportional responses to environmental problems (behavior change). Rather, I am just stimulating further debate and wish to show what I think is the importance of considering 'identity' in environmental and conservation campaigning and education. This is not to propose that current campaigns that work on specific environmental policy changes or that attempt to motivate private-sphere behavioral change should be replaced; there is no doubt we should continue to engage on both of these levels. But identity campaigning points to the importance of carefully reviewing current strategies if these are to contribute more effectively to creating the systemic changes that are needed, and if they are to avoid iatrogenic effects. Moreover, I really thing that identity campaigning can lead to an appreciation of other new and important ways for the environmental movement and conservation efforts to engage its key audiences. We have to begin to incorporate a fuller understanding of the problems and opportunities that values and identity pose. Only then can we begin to create the systemic changes needed in response to today's environmental and conservation challenges. [I humbly took the liberty of relaying the overview document here, of the World Wildlife Federation UK's paper on "Meeting Environmental Challenges: The Role of Human Identity" I think it's worth taking a look at and wanted to share it here in response to the question on behavior change and conservation.