Welcome to the February 2009 Wake-Up Call, Awake’s monthly newsletter for research and news about behaviour change for sustainability.
To view this newsletter as a webpage, click here
In this edition of Wake-up Call…
· Feature Article – Where’s the Dilemma?
· Upcoming Workshops – Cultivating Sustainability in Australia
· 60 seconds with… Dr Lauren Rickards from RMCG
· Interesting Article of the Month – Who Composts?
· Festival Report – Awake at the Sustainable Living Festival 2009
· Exercise of the Month – Making it Real
Many of the decisions we make regarding our environmental footprint could be considered “social dilemmas” A social dilemma involves a decision in which personal benefits must be weighed up against the collective benefit.
The most famous illustration of this idea as it relates to the environment is the “Tragedy of the Commons”, described by Garrett Hardin in 1968. Hardin discussed the situation in which a farmer who grazes cattle on commonly shared land can benefit greatly through adding another cow to his herd. However, if every farmer did the same thing, then environmental degradation would be accelerated, thus reducing the overall viability of farming the land for all those concerned. This dilemma can be seen playing out with a number of ecological decisions we face every day, such as transport choices, pollution and waste management. Do we “go out of our way” to choose a more environmentally friendly option, the benefits of which may be a drop in the ocean in a distant time and place?
When we are faced with such a social dilemma, there are a few things which influence the likelihood that we will act in the common interest rather than self-interest.
Firstly, the size of the affected group makes a difference. If we perceive that a selfish decision will affect our immediate group or community, then we are more likely to consider their interests. This would appear to support the idea of local control and accountability for resources, meaning that the impact of decisions people make is more observable and salient.
People will also act more in a pro-social way if they have strong ties to the community, and intend to be part of that community for some time. For instance, Mark Van Vugt, a leading researcher in the social dilemmas field, found that community identification was a significant factor in water conservation, in situations where water use had no financial implications. He makes the important point that “community identification processes will only kick in when there is a direct threat to the community and there is no personal incentive for cooperation”. This implies that building community cohesion is especially important in conditions where it is difficult or undesirable to regulate or incentivise the preferred behaviour. Van Vugt goes on to describe some of the characteristics of community cohesion, such as having positive community exchanges, trust, community pride, and a shared identity.
The other aspect to consider when viewing pro-environmental behaviour as a social dilemma is the extent to which personal gain is truly at odds with the collective good. Perhaps the idea of self-sacrifice has been overstated, and we have overlooked the positive benefits to oneself of choosing behaviours which take into account broader values than economics and convenience.
It is interesting to note that the literature in this area almost always considers a behaviour which is undertaken for the benefit of society as one which has lesser personal benefit. But, as previous issues of WakeUp Call have discussed, there are some very real benefits to individuals who choose to make decisions for the good of the collective. Not least of these is the intrinsic satisfaction gained from “doing the right thing”. A fuller acceptance of such benefits to the individual may go some way to changing the perception that what is good for me and what is good for the environment are mutually exclusive things. Instead of grappling with the question of “shall I look after myself by choosing the cheapest copy paper, or look after the planet by buying recycled?”, perhaps the situation needs to be reframed as “I’m going feel better and in integrity if I pay a bit more for the recycled paper, and the planet will benefit” – end of dilemma.
Of course economic incentives and regulatory efforts will always be important in order to encourage this state. Beyond the hardcore green fanatics, many people will be more easily encouraged to act on the personal benefits of an environmentally friendly option if the economic premium is within a certain pain threshold. But equally, we should not write off the potential for people to do the right thing for benefits beyond money, especially with a little assistance to see those benefits. With that in mind, here are a few ideas for tipping the balance towards behaviours which benefit the community, the planet, and the self.
· Take a localised, community approach to sustainability efforts, so that people can contribute and feel a sense of control over their destiny more directly
· Highlight the impact of action, or inaction, at a local level. People will be more compelled to act in the community interest if they can see the effect in their backyard
· Focus on building community cohesion as a vehicle to support pro-environmental behaviour (as well as lots of other positive outcomes)
· Articulate and promote the benefits to the self which result from acting in the best interests of the collective and the planet. Don’t always assume a playoff between self-interest and community interest
The closer we perceive the alignment between our self-interest and the interests of the community and the planet, the closer we will be to transitioning to a sustainable society.
WANT TO USE THIS ARTICLE IN YOUR E-ZINE OR WEB SITE?
You can, as long as you include this complete blurb with it:
Cultivating Sustainability workshops have been scheduled for the following Australian locations and dates.
· Melbourne, Wed April 15th
· Sydney, Mon April 20th
· Brisbane, Tue April 28th
· Hobart, Tue May 5th
· Adelaide, Tue May 12th
These are public workshops with all welcome to attend.
Cost: For-profits $250pp
Individuals/Community Groups $120pp
More information, including online registration details, can be found at
Cultivating Sustainability is a 1-day workshop which provides sustainability advocates with insights, models and practical tools to support their behaviour change efforts. Anybody who has taken on the challenge of influencing others to live and work more sustainably will find this workshop a valuable addition to their skills.
Space has been left in the schedule for groups requesting an inhouse workshop in any of the locations above, which is a great option if you have a number of people wishing to attend. If you are part of an organisation, green team, or community network that would benefit from an in-house workshop, contact email@example.com to discuss.
For more information about the Cultivating Sustainability workshop, see www.awake.com.au/cultivating.html
What first got you focused on sustainability?
I was brought up by very green parents. Every school holiday involved camping and hiking to national parks and the environment soon became a love of mine.
What is the sustainable choice you have recently made of which you are most proud?
Having chooks which turn our scraps into eggs. Also, cycling to work 20km each way, which feels very virtuous on a wintery morning.
What is a less sustainable choice that you are not so proud of?
By Eddie Edgerton, Jim McKechnie, & Karen Dunleavy
Environment and Behavior, Vol. 41, No. 2, 151-169
What is it about?
This article examined the factors which influenced households to participate in a home composting scheme in Scotland.
What did they find?
The authors found that having a favourable attitude toward what composting involves, as well as strong knowledge about composting, were the 2 most important determinants of involvement. No surprises there. What was perhaps more interesting were the factors which did not predict composting participation. In particular, general environmental concern and participation in other pro-environmental behaviours did not feature as determinants.
What can we take from this?
As always, the SLF was a fantastic event. The “Feel Tent” was packed for the
Awake presentation on The Psychological Drivers of Sustainability, showing that people are
really engaged in this area and eager to take on the personal challenge of being part of the
solution. Thanks to all those who attended and participated, and to the organisers for providing
such a brilliant showcase of all things sustainable.
In addition to the presentation, I was fortunate enough to be a guest on the Radiotherapy show on 3RRR radio, which was broadcasting live from the festival. The show can be downloaded from 3RRR. (My input is in the first 11min, then the show moves onto different themes, but still very entertaining).
The feature article above discusses the idea that people are more likely to act in the common interest if they feel that the benefits will be local and visible. This months exercise asks us to have a look at some of the big effects of our behaviour towards the environment, then translate them to our backyard.
1. Write down one environmentally relevant behaviour which you are trying to promote in yourself or others (e.g. using the car less)
2. What is the long-term, big-picture effect of not adopting that behaviour (eg. global warming, rising sea levels, famine)
3. Looking at your answers to #2, what will be the impact of these changes at a local, community level (e.g. stronger water restrictions, higher prices, higher taxes, lower air quality). Have you been considering and discussing these localised effects in your behaviour change efforts?
While “think global, act local” is enough to mobilise some of us, sometimes it helps to be able to visualise the implications of our actions more vividly in order to make it more real and urgent.
The exercise of the month provides a tool to help you get engaged, inspired, aware and in action around sustainability. Feel free to use it on your own, with a friend, or in your work. If you do use it with others, please tell them where you got it!
Awake provides psychology-based services to support the development of sustainable behaviour in individuals, groups and organisations. Visit www.awake.com.au for more info
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© Awake 2009