The focus of Awake is to stimulate the psychological conditions which lead to sustainable behaviour. We work to increase people's level of engagement with sustainability, and their sense of power to behave in a sustainable way.
Fundamentally, increasing sustainability is a matter of behavioural change. Whether it is individuals choosing to act in a way which lightens their environmental footprint; consumers choosing to buy recycled products; executives making a stand for sustainable production methods; or politicians legislating to reduce carbon emissions; it always comes back to people thinking and acting in a sustainable way. This is why psychology, as a field which specialises in behavioural change, has a crucial role to play in the future of the planet.
The recent surge of interest and investment in sustainability has given great heart to those at the front lines of the global challenge. However, it appears that most of the focus has been on educating people of the threat, and developing sustainable technologies. While it is critical that people are aware of the issues, and have technical alternatives to our current way of operating, an equally pressing need exists for people to develop a sustainability mindset, along with the psychological skills to make pro-environment choices.
The figure below illustrates the place of psychology in creating a more sustainable society. In combination with increasing understanding of environmental issues, and providing favourable external conditions, efforts to develop sustainability need to focus on creating the psychological capacity in individuals in order to make sustainability priority.
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Key Psychological Elements of Sustainability
Research into the "psychology of sustainability has identified a number of factors which contribute to whether or not an individual chooses to act in a sustainable way. A review of this research has led Awake to identify 4 elements which are crucial to ensuring that an individual will act in a way which is in the best interests of future generations.
Self-Awareness and Alignment
Individuals with a strongly formed sense of their values, beliefs and habits are more readily able to make decisions which are in alignment with their real selves. As sustainable behaviour often involves a perceived trade-off between convenience and "doing the right thing", it is beneficial to have clarity of one’s own convictions and behavioural standards. Part of this awareness-raising also involves examining the degree to which our current habits and behavioural patterns are aligned with what we really want to create in the world. By making these connections we are stimulated to make changes to the way we operate.
In order to take action to benefit the environment, people need to feel that they can make a difference. This sense of personal effectiveness is largely a mindset - if people feel that they are powerful and can have an influence on the world around them, they are more likely to act accordingly. This observation is backed by research which has found that people who believe that their actions can bring about change (an "internal locus of control") are more likely to display pro-environmental behaviours. By developing this sense of control and personal power, people are more likely to take actions which contribute to the the greater good.
Pro-environmental behaviour often comes as at a perceived personal cost or inconvenience, and therefore requires a sense of responsibility beyond the self.
People who are willing to move beyond self interest and act for the benefit of the whole of humanity are needed in order to halt the decline of our eco-systems and increase the viability of our life on this planet. People who not only care, but act. These are people with a high level of social responsibility. Research has found that those who prioritise values of "self-enhancement (eg. power, wealth, authority) were less likely to exhibit pro-environment behaviours compared to those who held "self-transcendence values such as loyalty, helpfulness and responsibility. By supporting individuals to take a perspective beyond their own self-interest, we can go a long way towards creating a more sustainable society.
"Ultimately, sustainability will depend on changes in behaviour and lifestyles, changes which will need to be motivated by a shift in values and rooted in the cultural and moral precepts upon which behaviour is based. Without change of this kind, even the most enlightened legislation, the cleanest technology, the most sophisticated research will not succeed in steering society towards the long-term goal of sustainability"
UNESCO (2002) Education for Sustainability
"If individuals are to contribute to the solutions, they have to be able to identify both personal and structural causes, and develop their own visions and abilities to influence and change these conditions"
Jensen (2002) Knowledge, Action and Pro-environmental Behaviour
"Programmes should provide opportunities for people to develop and practise skills such as problem solving and decision making"
UNESCO (2002) Education for Sustainability
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Self-Awareness & Alignment