The psychology of sustainability

Many of us acknowledge wanting to do something about climate change, but there are various reasons why we feel stunted in our ability to help. Professor Niki Harré examines the psychology of sustainability, how we can start making changes and keep ourselves motivated.

IT WAS IN 2006, after attending a series of seminars and workshops, that psychologist, Professor Niki Harré, became increasingly aware of climate change as an issue that “is about all of us right here and right now”.

A year later, she published her first book on the topic in collaboration with Professor Quentin Atkinson, a colleague in the School of Psychology. Carbon Neutral by 2020: How New Zealanders Can Tackle Climate Change covered solutions from specialists across a broad spectrum of subjects who were grappling with climate change in their own fields.

Fast forward to 2020, and Niki believes that we’ve made limited progress in changing how we use physical resources but have achieved a huge change to our collective attitudes to climate change. “There’s almost nobody now who isn’t aware of this issue and that is very hopeful,” she says.

Most of us agree that climate change is something our species has exacerbated and that it’s something we’re worried about. Many of us will own a keep cup, refillable water bottle and do our best to recycle. However, these can seem like token gestures when the planet is on the line. How do we encourage more of us to adopt sustainable practices?

Professor Niki Harré
Professor Niki Harré

Stop the press – creating positivity and hope

Melting glaciers, unstoppable bush fires and waterways full of plastic – media outlets are full of daily horror stories about the effects we are having on our planet. This constant negative messaging can easily overwhelm even the most positive person.

This year, with the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic and its daily presence in news cycles, the impact of news on our mental health has become undeniable. Niki, who has been researching the psychology of sustainability for over a decade, says we are caught in an “apocalyptic double play. We are told both that the planet’s being ruined and that nobody’s doing anything about it. This becomes paralysing. What’s the point in taking action if most people are ignoring the problem?”

She explains that the key to combatting this paralysis is motivational hope. One way of creating motivational hope is to pass on stories that offer practical, evidence based information instead of catastrophic clickbait. Niki urges us to question how passing on the latter will help build constructive responses to the issue.

She suggests that we reframe the way we think about climate change. “Yes, there’s lots happening to the physical planet, but all over the world politicians, corporations and community groups are responding to this issue.”

In Aotearoa most of us have heard of the Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand, School Strike 4 Climate Action NZ and Extinction Rebellion NZ, but there are also countless community organisations in our own backyards taking collective action.

“Change is more likely to occur as increasing numbers of people are unhappy with business as usual.”

Professor Niki Harré

The benefits of collective action

All this activity doesn’t mean there is no place for us in the movement for change. Ultimately, the real issue is whether we want to take part.

Niki uses the example of elections to explain: “Years ago I came across research about the reason people vote in general elections. It isn’t because they think their vote makes a difference. It’s because they want to be part of the process.”By taking action on climate change you’re a participant in a crucial collective movement, even if your actions are insignificant by themselves.

At the moment, Niki is particularly interested in core human values and how we put them into practice, how to create sustainable organisations and how to inspire activism and keep it going. As part of her research, Niki runs workshops with community groups and schools.

For the past 13 years she has been part of a project at Western Springs College/ Ngā Puna O Waiōrea in Auckland to help the school create and sustain a sustainability culture. She and Dr Daniel Hikuroa, from the Department of Māori Studies in the Faculty of Arts, also recently ran a five-week workshop with 23 community participants focused on identifying shared values and practicing them in their communities.

She says that there are many ways to feel part of the sustainability movement. If you’re uncertain of what to do, Niki encourages us to examine our own lives. “Think about your context, your interests and capacities, how much energy you’ve got. If your contribution is to try protect the Māui dolphin, thank you. If you make art installations that draw people’s attention to climate change, thank you.” All action is a step in the right direction.

Once you’re taking positive action, it starts to become easier to make more environmentally friendly decisions. She explains: “For those of us who are increasingly aware of these issues, environmentally friendly decisions start to be compelling, simply because they feel right. I very rarely drink coffee from a disposable cup, for example. I’m not doing that to make a change. I now look at the cup and think I’m drinking from a piece of rubbish. Why would I want to do that?”

Professor Niki Harré

How to provoke change

Niki acknowledges that many people are frustrated by the slow speed of change, but also says that this frustration is useful. “Don’t try and get rid of the frustration. It’s a frustrating situation. Change is more likely to occur as increasing numbers of people are unhappy with business as usual.”

She believes that we are in a better place in Aotearoa since the Climate Change Response (Zero Carbon) Amendment Act 2019 was introduced. Passing this Act with cross-party support means that climate change has become “socialised”. Niki uses a topical example to explain: “Jacinda Adern talks about having socialised masks. What she means is we’ve now got enough people wearing them and who are ready to wear them, that we can mandate masks on buses, for example. Social readiness almost always has to proceed legislative change.”

Even though we now have a social readiness to take action on climate change, there will always be a relative, work colleague or neighbour who is sceptical. Niki says that nagging them is probably a waste of your time and may damage the relationship. “There’s a big difference between bullying or bossing people into change and setting up structures that encourage change. It’s like riding a wave. You don’t have to boss people into getting on the wave. You just have to constantly stay on the wave yourself and draw attention to it.”

It’s encouraging to be reminded that we’re not alone, and that our actions – individual or collective – can influence others. Niki says that it all comes back to positivity and hope. “Human beings have to be able to imagine something better. Positivity makes us broader thinkers. If you have positivity and hope, and you feel like others share your core values, then you can cooperate.”

We may not all agree on what action to take on climate change, but we can probably all agree that the world would be a better place with more hope.

Sustainable Development Goals
Sustainable Development Goals


This article appears in the December 2020 edition of inSCight, the print magazine for Faculty of Science alumni. View more articles from inSCight.

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