A Culture Of Sustainability – Bridging The Gap Between Science And Practice

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A Culture Of Sustainability – Bridging The Gap Between Science And Practice

Category:Behavior Change,Climate Action,Climate Change,Environmental Psychology,Petra Hurtado,Sustainability Tags : 

Author: Petra Hurtado

Last week, the Sustainability and Social Science Research Symposium took place in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Over 80 researchers from around the globe (mainly from U.S. research institutions) gathered at the University of Michigan to discuss one of the currently most pressing topics: climate change and sustainability. The diversity of the participating experts, including researchers from social sciences, psychologists, urban planners, engineers, anthropologists, and many more disciplines, shows the multidisciplinary nature of this issue.

University of Michigan Union in Ann Arbor

University of Michigan Union in Ann Arbor

Different disciplines define the problem in different ways, as Richard Norton from the University of Michigan said: “It is a problem of communication for ecologists, a problem of individual behavior according to psychologists, and a problem of the incentive structure according to economists,” and so forth. Systems thinking is needed to understand the interactions between different components, the interrelations between different fields, the diverse perceptions from different experts, and potential solutions on global, national, regional, local, and individual scales. Kaitlin Raimi, University of Michigan, explained during her presentation how important it is to get rid of the feeling of superiority of everyone’s own knowledge and view of the world in their disciplines in order to find interdisciplinary solutions to tackle climate change.

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No matter what discipline we were coming from, throughout the symposium, the consensus was that the problem can’t be solved by simply offering new technologies that may solve the symptoms, but don’t get to the root causes of the problem. A simple change from conventional cars to electric cars and from conventional light bulbs to LED lighting can only be a part of a bigger solution. People have to change their behavior and their lifestyles if we want to preserve a livable planet Earth for future generations. We need to create a “culture of sustainability” as discussed by Professor Robert Marans, University of Michigan. He started a tremendous effort with the SCIP program and created a culture of sustainability on the university campus in Ann Arbor, making academic operations more sustainable.

But how can we create this so urgently needed culture of sustainability on a global scale? The sustainability crisis we are in right now is not due to a lack of knowledge. However, only because we know what would make the world more sustainable, does not mean we change our everyday lives. The American psychologist and behaviorist B. F. Skinner already said in his studies of the 1970s and 1980s that environmental knowledge does not correlate with environmental action. Only because we know we should recycle our trash, use less energy at home, and ride our bikes instead of driving to decrease environmental pollution, does not mean we are going to do it.

Christie Manning, a psychologist form Macalester College, made the point during the symposium when she said in her presentation: “This is not an environmental problem. It’s about human behavior; so it’s a human problem.” For her research, she was using Construal Level Theory in order to explore the “perceived psychological distance of climate change, empathy toward victims of climate change, and people’s willingness to take action”. Being perceived as an issue of “spatial, temporal, social, and hypothetical distance, climate change obviously does not have the cognitive ingredients for action.”

Liberty Street, Ann Arbor

Liberty Street, Ann Arbor

Dealing with a phenomenon people can’t capture as an immediate threat (even if it is happening right here in this very moment) and the fact that people’s actions are mainly based on emotions and not necessarily on knowledge, Adam Zwickle, Michigan State University, took this issue one step further. He asked the question if we are in the midst of an emerging paradigm, that is, the formation of a new interdisciplinary field: “sustainability science”. In his work, he explored how we can measure sustainability attitudes, knowing that apparently the pure knowledge about sustainability needs is not effective. If knowledge does not play a role at all and won’t be enough to make individual behavior change, maybe it is time to move away from “individual thinking” and lift the issue up to a national or even global level the way it was done during Paris COP21 and other global efforts.

However, if we want policy makers to address this issue in the right way, we need to find suitable instruments to communicate it to them effectively. As Richard Norton said: “We know what the problem is, why don’t we just go and tell policy makers.” So why do we struggle when it comes to bridging the gap between science and practice? Why do we struggle communicating something so obvious in effective ways? Alexander Maki, Vanderbilt University, said in his presentation meta-analysis might be the best instrument to improve environmental policy. From his experience with policy makers, he knows all they want is numbers. Providing numbers to back evidence and to recommend best practice makes it easier for them to communicate the need for change. Working more with quantitative analysis as they do in natural sciences might be helpful for social sciences to become more credible.

As an urban planner who has worked on both sides, science and practice, I suggested my 5 A Planning Approach as part of the solution during my presentation. If knowledge about sustainability issues doesn’t motivate people to change their behavior and policy makers don’t know how to communicate and implement scientific findings effectively, maybe we have to change the built environments we live in in ways that invite people to live sustainable lifestyles automatically. By making sustainable alternatives available, attractive, accessible, and affordable and raise the awareness (5 A’s) of the advantages of choosing the sustainable options over the unsustainable ones, people may understand that choosing the sustainable option benefits themselves in their own self-interest and not just some global phenomenon too hard to grasp.

In addition to the built environment, sustainable behavior happens within norms and a cultural environment. Richard Norton said it is not always just about people’s self-interest. “We are more than just economic actors. […] Sustainability is culturally dependent.” A project conducted by the Environmental Defense Fund adds an interesting aspect to the issue of cultural perception of sustainability: Rainer Romero-Canyas explained that the social identity plays a tremendous role when it comes to the question of climate change. In his project, he used quotes on the importance of climate action and presented them to politically conservative oriented people in different ways: the same quotes as quotes by democrats, as quotes by republicans, and as quotes by fictitious Canadian politicians. Most of the time during this experiment, the affiliation to a party was more important than the content of the message. The findings of this project tell us: “De-identification with the messenger is part of the problem, but also the solution: We have to bypass the bias so information matters.”

During the symposium in Michigan, global knowledge sharing, inspiring research discussions, and presentations on research findings resulted in a wealth of information on how to tackle climate change with different approaches in different disciplines and best practices on how to effectively communicate them to the public and to decision makers. After three days, we all agreed that the problem can only be solved holistically if science and practice come closer together not just answering the question of “what shall we do?”, but even more importantly answering the questions on “how?” and “who?” (Richard Norton).

Science alone won’t change things. We can keep gathering facts, but we still need to find suitable processes for dissemination and ways of how others can digest the wealth of information. I liked the way Edgar Cardenas from the University of Michigan put it: “Scientists are not solving problems, but they manage problems.” We provide the contents, and what we need are processes to communicate them effectively to bridge the gap between science and practice.

Therefore, the wealth of knowledge exchanged during this symposium shall not stay in Ann Arbor in the beautiful historic buildings of the University of Michigan. Quite the opposite, most of the presenters also prepared papers on their topics that will be published in the Handbook of Sustainability and Social Science Research (Springer). The book is currently under peer-review and is expected to come out sometime in 2017. We will announce the publication here at Urban Breezes – so stay tuned!

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1 Comment

Helen Santiago Fink

May 26, 2017at 11:03 pm

Well written, informative article. Yes, climate change is a human problem and one that warrants desperately a multi-disciplinary and multi-sectoral approach to change the trajectory of increasing carbon emissions, particularly in the US. Change in individual and societal behaviors is essential – now!

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