Environmental Psychology and Sustainable Development : Expansion, Maturation, and Challenges

Text-only Preview

Journal of Social Issues, Vol. 63, No. 1, 2007, pp. 199--212
Environmental Psychology and Sustainable
Development: Expansion, Maturation, and Challenges

Robert Gifford?
University of Victoria
In this summary article, some advances of, the potential for, and challenges faced by
environmental psychology as a contributor to sustainability science are outlined.

In its first 40 years, it has evolved from a discipline primarily—but never solely—
concerned with proximate architecture to one that adds concern with larger-scale
issues, particularly sustainability. This growth of interest has in turn led to in-

creased interest within it in public policy, technology, cooperation with other
disciplines, multilevel analyses of problems, the ingestion of new ideas, and con-

cern with the health of the biotic and ecological world. Some challenges are that
the central proponents of “sustainability science” itself have not acknowledged

environmental psychology as a potential contributor, the field is comparatively
young, that it needs to explore biotic and ecological issues more, needs to help
discriminate facts from nonfacts about environmental problems, and needs to warn

sustainability science about the daunting task of overcoming environmental numb-
ness and self-interest in individuals. Nevertheless, there is hope: sustainability

scientists, including environmental psychologists, may be Adam Smith’s “invisible

I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read,
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed,
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:

?Corresponding concerning this article should be addressed to Robert Gifford, Department of
Psychology, University of Victoria, P.O. Box 3050, STN CSC Victoria, B.C. V8W 3P5, Canada
[e-mail: [email protected]].
C 2007 The Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues

Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1818
Shelley’s famous poem usually is interpreted as decrying the folly of arrogance
about one’s accomplishments. Today one also may read his lines in environmental
terms. Those “boundless and bare/lone and level sands” drowned not only the
huge statue of Ozymandias (who is presumed to be, in the current nomenclature,
Rameses II), but entire ancient cities in North Africa. According to Fairfield Osborn
(1948), whose book, Our Plundered Planet, may have been the first to sound the
alarm about environmental degradation (14 years before Rachel Carson’s more-
famous Silent Spring), those cities were built on agriculture; they once were the
fertile “garden of the Roman Empire” (p. 111). Almost 60 years ago, Osborn was
documenting the same kind of widespread destruction as the new United Nations
Environment Program’s atlas, “One Planet, Many People” (June, 2005). Without
using the word, sustainability was the theme of Osborn’s groundbreaking book.
As he concluded, after documenting the widespread destruction of the natural
environment that he could already see in the 1940s, long before all that has occurred
in the last six decades, we “must temper [our] demands . . . and conserve the natural
living resources of this earth in a manner that alone can provide for the continuation
of . . . civilization” (p. 201). Given what has happened since Osborn issued his
warning, as documented in the UN atlas, one must wonder whether humans today
are any more ready to establish a sustainable planet than the ancients who left the
sea of sand that drowned their cities.
Environmental psychology began in earnest in the late 1960s with the recogni-
tion that the physical context of human behavior is important. This was important
within psychology, because until then the physical setting had largely been ig-
nored. Nevertheless, many early efforts seem, from this vantage point 40 years
on, to have lacked a sense of urgency or gravitas. Many studies, including some
of my own, were innocently conducted in an atmosphere of playful intellectual
curiosity, at the proximate level, rather than with any desperation at the state of
the world. Fairfield Osborn’s important book seems to have escaped notice by
psychologists, but something happened in the middle 1980s, perhaps spurred by
the cumulative cries from Rachel Carson (1962), Greenpeace, beginning in the
early 1970s, and the Brundtland Report (WCED, 1987). For some environmen-
tal psychologists those cries changed everything. Problems at much larger scales
came into sharper focus. Instead of trying to understand territoriality in the office
or values as they influence the perception of landscapes, the goals of some became
trying to understand and solve resource dilemmas, traffic problems, urban blight,
and crimes against nature.
The articles in this special issue serve as a collective document of this trend.
Environmental psychology has always laid claim to a rather broad palette, but these

Psychology and Sustainable Development
articles demonstrate the recent growth of the field as it applies to sustainability. For
example, as will become clear, the very idea of sustainability has been expanded
beyond resource management (see also Vlek & Steg’s introduction to the present
Seven Themes that Have Been Developed
Seven themes that have always been part of environmental psychology have
been expanded enormously in recent years, and these may be identified in this
new set of articles: (1) interest in public policy, (2) a concern with technology, (3)
connection with other disciplines, (4) multilevel analyses, (5) the incorporation of
new ideas, (6) a focus on sustainability, and (7) scientific interest in the biotic and
ecological world.
First, early studies in environmental psychology often—but certainly not
always—were apolitical. The new environmental psychologists, as represented
by the authors in this special issue, are sustainability- and policy-oriented. Their
position is reminiscent of conclusions about risk perception from the many studies
directed by Paul Slovic (e.g., 1996), which have repeatedly demonstrated that ex-
perts and laypersons do not assess environmental issues in the same way, but that
lay assessments are no less important than expert assessments. The perspectives
and involvement of everyday citizens must be an essential part of policy mak-
ing; laypersons, in general, are more likely to be those who live and work in and
with the results of policies, and their views, although usually less empirical and
number-based than those of experts and policymakers, often are rooted in greater
local experience; see also Bonnes, Uzzell, Carrus, and Kelay (this issue). To be
fair, this trend has been increasing in most jurisdictions at least since the 1960s,
and usually is at least a pro forma part of decision making in many places. How-
ever, serious failures still exist, and advocacy of greater funding for environmental
psychology to understand the public participation process and to facilitate it in
particular situations is an important policy goal in itself.
Miedema (this issue) emphasizes the objective aspects of noise, while not
neglecting the role of nonacoustical factors. The intriguing idea of creating noise
maps reminds one of the pioneering work in the 1960s of the soundscape ideas
of Schafer and colleagues (e.g., Schafer, 1968, 1969), who railed against noise
pollution and have tried for almost 40 years to protect and preserve traditional
and quieter urban sounds. This has been sustainability in its conservationist mode,
battling against the seemingly ever-rising volume of noise and the destruction or
drowning of traditional sounds (such as bird songs, nonelectronic foghorns, and
church bells) by the ever-upwardly mobile economic engine (which inevitably
seems to require more noise). The advances described by Miedema are those in
which annoyance curves are actually measured and plotted. One suspects that
such graphs and figures, even based, as they are, on subjective assessments, will
be more effective with policymakers than will the more artistic cris du coeur of a

composer like Schafer. Annoyance curves look more like science (which they are,
of course).
In another example, G¨arling and Schuitema (this issue) survey research on pol-
icy measures designed to manage traffic. They classify such measures as coercive
and noncoercive. Although many would favor the use of noncoercive measures
on ethical grounds, the evidence suggests that, unfortunately, coercive methods
work better. However, drivers tend to be self-interested and they tend also to be
voters. Thus, coercive measures that can be evaded, will be. Voters often will re-
ject coercive measures, again presumably out of self-interest, without devoting
much concern to the common good. Politicians may be cool to coercive measures,
because they have an eye on the next election. The role of environmental psychol-
ogy in this conundrum is to conduct research aimed at understanding which kinds
of coercive measures, presented in which manner, and implemented according to
which schedule, might be accepted by voting drivers. One thinks of the slow but
steady, and generally effective, antismoking campaigns of the last several decades.
There is hope, but understanding the average driving voter requires quality research
by environmental psychologists.
Environmental psychologists share an interest in modeling with scientists in
some other disciplines. By turning the policy issue upside down, some are ex-
amining the effects of policy strategies, rather than conducting studies that are
meant to inform policy. Jager and Mosler (this issue) are among those who use
models to understand the outcomes of different policy choices. This form of active
modeling offers the attractive advantage of trying out various policies before they
are implemented and understanding why they might or might not work, thereby
potentially avoiding expensive mistakes in policy making. As Jager and Mosler
point out, modeling can also be used to train policymakers. The very act of mod-
eling encourages the idea that many policy alternatives exist, when often only a
few may occur to a policymaker.
Rather than using active modeling with simulated actors, other environmen-
tal psychologists have proposed comprehensive models as heuristic frameworks
in which the goal is to stimulate research in field or experimental settings with
actual individuals. The growth of extended models (e.g., Bamberg & Schmidt,
2003; Heath & Gifford, 2002, 2006, among others) that began with Schwartz’s
norm-activation theory (Schwartz & Howard, 1981) and Ajzen’s (1991) theory of
planned behavior, toward models with more variables that better explain behavior
and behavior intentions are examples of this. My own efforts in this area include
attempts to build a general model of social dilemmas (Gifford, 2002a, in press),
which may be the key metaphor for sustainability. In this model, geophysical
conditions and policies combine with technological, interpersonal, and individual
factors to influence sustainability-related decision making by individuals and or-
ganizations, which in turn influences outcomes for the decision makers, the larger
community, the resource in question, and the ecology connected to the resource.

Psychology and Sustainable Development
Second, technology is a concern of many environmental psychologists; it is
the 200 kilogram gorilla that cannot be ignored, and it evokes very mixed feelings.
Some view technology with suspicion, while others subscribe to the optimistic
belief that it can help achieve the goals of sustainability. Technology was called
“the new social disease” in an early special issue of this Journal (Frank, 1966).
Fairfield Osborn, the prophet, also was skeptical. Speaking of soil and agriculture
issues, he said, “Technologists may outdo themselves in the creation of artificial
substitutes for natural subsistence, and new areas . . . may be adapted for human use,
but even such . . . developments cannot be expected to offset the terrific attack upon
the natural life-giving elements of the earth” (1948, p. 201). This suspicion may be
justified when the marriage has been hastily arranged or imperfectly consummated.
Besides failing to replicate natural conditions, some technology in use during our
daily lives is associated with noise (Miedema, this issue), pollution of the air,
water, and land, and contributions to global warming, not to mention very serious
consequences to the welfare of humans and other animals. For example, about
1.2 million people (and many more millions of animals) are killed each year by
cars (World Health Organization, 2003), not to mention the many others killed
by machinery, poisons, and other products of technology. This does not include
the enormous numbers of injuries, and gradual or delayed health effects (e.g.,
cancer) that are less clearly or directly attributable to technology and its products.
However, estimates have been made for some causes: for example, air pollution
kills about 800,000 people each year (Kenworthy & Laube, 2002), and of course
most air pollution is caused by technology in one form or another.
Of course, technology has another side to it and, as Midden, Kaiser, and
McCalley (this issue) clearly show, environmental psychology must deal with
technology because it is very unlikely to go away. It will not disappear because,
despite the deaths, injuries, and health problems technology causes, it undoubtedly
has improved the quality of life for millions of other people, particularly when one
thinks in terms of decades and centuries past. Assuming that individuals have the
motivation and appropriate skills, technology in the service of energy conservation,
for example, certainly can contribute to environmental sustainability. Many new
technologies with the capacity to enhance sustainability are introduced every year
(the skeptic may wish to point out that these announcements usually receive more
attention than does the harm caused by technology). However, Midden et al.’s
quite valid point is that the mere introduction of some new technology does not
guarantee that it will be accepted and used by citizens. Thus, policies aimed at
facilitating the use by citizens of salutary technology must be encouraged, and the
basis for such policies lies with research by environmental psychologists, whose
job it is to understand why and when technology is accepted or not by citizens.
Third, collaborations between pioneers in environmental psychology and re-
searchers from other disciplines, such as geography and architecture, have ex-
isted from the field’s earliest days. The collaborations between Robert Sommer,

Humphry Osmond, and Kiyo Izumi in the 1950s (Sommer, 1983), or between Ray-
mond Studer and David Stea (1966) in the 1960s come to mind. However, now,
as may be seen (e.g., Schoot Uiterkamp & Vlek, this issue), fruitful collaborative
work is being done in sustainability research, including some collaborations that
represent new bridges. This trend has been influenced, one suspects, by policies at
national and international grant agencies that, for better or worse, virtually require
interdisciplinary collaboration.
Still, most observers would agree that it can be fruitful for research teams
that are able to grapple successfully with the inevitable differences in disciplinary
cultures. Schoot Uiterkamp and Vlek’s article describes five instances of collabora-
tions and is particularly valuable for its advice about the practicalities of engaging
in multidisciplinary studies. One suspects that, in terms of influencing policy, col-
laborative efforts not only have face credibility based on the very breadth of their
approach, but also success legitimately based on the increased validity of policy
suggestions that emerge from studying a given problem with multiple valuable
Fourth, environmental psychology has expanded from the proximate level,
with a focus on individuals and small groups, often in laboratory settings, to the
serious consideration of sustainability at larger levels of analysis, and in areas of life
beyond resource management. For example, the selection by Van den Berg, Hartig,
and Staats (this issue) expands the concept of sustainability to the urban level. In
extending the notion of sustainability from its resource-oriented base to quality-
of-life considerations, Van den Berg et al. argue for policies that would bring
nature into cities as a way to achieve a balance between the seemingly unstoppable
and rapid urbanization of the world, and the mental and physical health benefits
of being-in-nature. Environmental psychologists thus challenge urban planners
and city governments to find ways to increase the amount of greenery in urban
designs, as they also seek to increase economic benefits, improve transportation
efficiency, and provide affordable housing. Others have gone further, investigating
the psychological aspects of global warming (e.g., Heath & Gifford, 2006; Nilsson,
2004) or the looming global water shortages (Gifford, 2002a).
Bonnes et al. (this issue) combine and expand upon the themes raised by Van
den Berg et al. Once again the level of analysis is urban, and the topic is expert
and lay perspectives on natural elements of cities. Bonnes et al. remind researchers
that before assessments made by any person (expert or not) are considered, the
criteria upon which those assessments are based must be considered. Different
criteria can easily cause disagreements not only between experts and laypersons,
but also within those two groups. The neglect or manipulation of criteria can cause
assessments to veer off into inappropriate territory, which may then lead in turn to
unsustainable policy decisions. No one would claim that assessments by members
of the public always reflect sustainability (cf. G¨arling & Schuitema, this issue,
on the self-interest of car drivers, described earlier, for example), yet the voice of

Psychology and Sustainable Development
the people must be heard. The role of the environmental psychologist in public
policy can be three-fold: helping to educate the public where that is appropriate
and necessary, using the vast experience of psychology in general for gathering
policy-supporting information from citizens through interviews and surveys, and
serving as mediator between the sometimes less-than-articulate public and the
sometimes over-confident, arrogant expert or policymaker.
Fifth, one sees an expansion of environmental psychology through the inclu-
sion of theoretical perspectives from other disciplines. For example, the article by
Lindenberg and Steg (this issue) urges the consideration by environmental psy-
chologists of goal-framing theory, which was developed in part from a sociological
perspective. In proposing that sustainability-related decisions are made from a mix
of multiple hedonic, gain, and normative goal frames, Lindenberg and Steg remind
us that social-cognitive influences are important for sustainability science, despite
being ignored in some quarters (e.g., Clark & Dickson, 2003). As should be clear
by now, humanity cannot move far toward the dream of sustainability without
understanding how individual citizens think and understanding their motivations
and goals. However, given that this is not clear in all quarters, environmental psy-
chologists have the separate task of educating experts in other fields, as well as
policymakers, about this reality.
Gattig and Hendrickx (this issue) bring perspectives from economics and be-
havioral decision theory into the mix. Discounting the tendency to reduce the
importance of an outcome with greater “distance” (temporally, socially, geograph-
ically, and probabilistically), is seen to be an important component of thinking
about sustainability-related thinking. Fortunately, environmental problems appear
to be less subject to discounting than some other matters. Although they incor-
porate some concepts from economics, Gattig and Hendrickx demonstrate why
using those concepts in the same way that traditional economists do could lead
to ineffective policies. “Rational” discount rates are not the same as those of the
public, which, to its credit, seems to discount environmental impacts less than in
other domains.
Sixth, although sustainability originally referred to resources in the minds of
some environmental psychologists (including that of this writer), and that research
continues at the theoretical level (e.g., Jager & Mosler, this issue), others are
acknowledging and accepting the broader concept of sustainability outlined in the
Brundtland Report (WCED, 1987). The WCED definition of sustainability may
be utopian, but that is not to say that it should be ignored in the pursuit of goals
to which most humans would subscribe. One invaluable advance in the WCED
definition of utopia is that, unlike virtually all previous utopian visions, it includes
resource costs and conservation among its goals. An important contribution of this
special issue is its convincing expansion of the sustainability construct to include
quality of life. This is particularly clear in the articles by Van den Berg et al.,
Miedema, and Bonnes et al. in this issue.

Seventh, and finally, some environmental psychologists have proposed that the
field expand this focus on sustainability to problems in the nonhuman biological
world (e.g., biodiversity and zoos, Plous, 1993; or endangered species, Cvetkovich
& Winter, 2003) and larger ecological problems, such as global warming (Heath &
Gifford, 2006; Nilsson, 2004), or the looming world water crisis (Gifford, 2002a).
Some environmental psychologists who perceive these as the most important prob-
lems have felt strongly enough to try to establish a subdiscipline, conservation psy-
chology (Saunders & Myers, 2003), which shows their determination to evolve and
expand toward problems they perceive as urgent. Because sustainability certainly
includes issues related to flora and fauna, research and theory on the nonhuman
world might have been included in this issue, had there been space for it.
Growth and Maturation
With expansion in these seven themes that bear on sustainability, environmen-
tal psychology has evolved and matured. If the field is to have the kind of effects
on the real world that it has always sought, it must move toward a more serious
engagement with policymakers. Green and green-leaning politicians now exist in
much larger numbers in many countries, and these legislators both want and need
quantified, substantiated information that they can use to enact more enlightened
legislation. Because much in the way of needed change will occur (or not) at the
level of individual citizens, environmental psychology is essential. Environmen-
tal psychologists may serve as the key link between individuals—their traditional
level of analysis—and policymakers, in the sense that they can help evaluate the
acceptability of the proposed structural changes, as well as assess the impact of
these changes on the behavior, well-being, stress, and quality of life of individuals.
This increasingly mature environmental psychology is ready to supply studies
that “make a difference” in the real world (cf. Gifford, 2002b for a survey of some
classic exemplars from earlier forms of environmental psychology). This special
issue offers many samples of this new, sustainability- and policy-oriented maturity.
One form of maturity that may be observed is the growth in influence of
sustainability research outside North America, particularly in western Europe.
This special issue is a testament to the growing leadership of theoreticians and
researchers in the Netherlands, Germany, France, Spain, Italy, and the UK. Al-
though some western Europeans (e.g., Tommy G¨arling, Terence Lee, and David
Canter) have been active in environmental psychology from the very start, one
senses that in terms of numbers and new approaches, there is an important shift
in the balance from the days when, in this Journal’s pioneering consideration of
environmental psychology (1966, volume 12, number 4), every author worked in
the United States, and sustainability received almost no mention.
One senses that sustainability research by environmental psychologists in the
United States currently is relatively less vibrant, perhaps dampened by funding

Psychology and Sustainable Development
realities that do not strongly support sustainability research. This may be partly
influenced by the U.S. failure to adopt the Kyoto accords, whereas the European
countries have all adopted the accords and are much more willing to find ways
to reduce CO2 emissions. (Canada, it should be noted, is an exception to the
U.S. trend; it has adopted the Kyoto accord, and has relatively good support for
environmental research).
This maturity in the form of an international awakening has spread far beyond
Western Europe. As editor of the Journal of Environmental Psychology, I now
receive numerous submissions from the Middle and Far East, South America, and
Eastern Europe. This is demonstrated in the striking figures (at least to someone
trained in the United States at the beginning of environmental psychology), that
in 2005 only 34% of submissions to JEP came from the United States, and so far
in 2006 the percentage has slipped to 24. Authors from 34 countries submitted
papers to the journal over this 2-year period.
Thus far, one might think that all is unadulterated progress (except for the
relative lack of interest in the United States). Unfortunately, this is not so. Several
challenges remain to darken the picture painted above.
Challenges to Further Progress
First, “sustainability science” has been defined by some authors (e.g., Clark
& Dickson, 2003) without any reference to the level of analysis employed by most
environmental psychologists. Most authors in this issue would strongly assert
that understanding sustainability and solving its problems require consideration
of individual and social attitudinal and behavioral factors. Admittedly, there is
an apparent contradiction in calling for sharp theories (i.e., theories that spawn
clear and falsifiable hypotheses) and the kind of thinking that brings together
at least some of the vast range of concepts implied by the nebulous territory
invoked by the term “sustainability.” As I have noted elsewhere (Gifford, 2002c),
the field is so young compared to biology and physics that it can be forgiven for
not yet having spawned its own Darwin or Einstein, but we need such giants.
Certainly, many environmental psychologists have begun to discuss sustainability
and to begin its study from a behavioral science point of view (e.g., many of
the authors in the present issue). For example, about 100 articles exist today in
Psychological Abstracts that have sustainab? in the title and environment? as a
keyword). Nevertheless, a scan of these articles reveals the vast majority to be calls
for research and action, or small studies in some defined context. My sense is that
no theory on the scale of, or with anything like the impact of, say Festinger’s notion
of cognitive dissonance or Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, has yet been proposed in
the environmental psychology of sustainability.
However, this is understandable. The second challenge is comparative youth.
Compared to older disciplines, such as economics and biology, environmental

psychology is an infant. If Adam Smith’s classic The Wealth of Nations (1776)
may be said to represent the birth of modern economics, then economics is almost
200 years older than environmental psychology. The age gap is even greater for
other disciplinary players in the sustainability arena, such as political science
or biology, when one considers that important thought in those fields, such that
of Plato and Aristotle, goes back many centuries. Nevertheless, environmental
psychology could use such a giant, particularly to deal with the vast and nebulous
territory covered by the term “sustainability.”
Third, environmental psychology has not yet worked hard enough on the
problem of habitat destruction and great reduction of nonhuman animal and plant
species at the hands of our species, which certainly is a central element of sus-
tainability. This is reflected in the lack of attention to this problem not only in the
articles for this special issue, but also in the general environmental psychology
literature. But in many places at the edge of the ever-growing collective human
territory on the planet, animals and plants are succumbing to development, as the
new UNEP atlas (2005) amply demonstrates. My research group recently studied
human interactions with large wild animals in a national park (Gifford, Wade, &
Jackson, 2006). Many negative encounters are caused in part by humans venturing
further into space held recently by other animals. Despite some unfortunate, literal
biting-back on the part of the animals—between drafts of this paper, a woman
was killed by a grizzly bear in the Rocky Mountains—there is never any question
which species eventually wins the battle for territory. They shoot the bears, and by
the hundreds.
A fourth challenge is to determine what is truly accurate ecological knowledge,
which sometimes differs from what laypersons and even professionals believe to
be true. The gathering of this factual knowledge generally is the province of natural
scientists, but environmental psychologists have at least two roles to play in this
evolution of knowledge. The first is to stay abreast of it, and not to endorse claims
that “the sky is falling” in places where it is not, but to be well informed about areas
in which the sky is falling. The second lies in understanding the impact on people of
both inaccurate and accurate claims. Complicating this matter of “the truth” about
whether the sky is falling is that distinct differences between disciplines exist. For
example, many economists believe that Julian Simon (1981) was essentially correct
when he claimed that those in panic about short-term environmental problems ig-
nore the long-term trends, from which he deduced that “with increases in income
and population have come less severe shortages, lower costs, and an increased
availability of resources, including a cleaner environment . . . [with] no convincing
economic reason why these trends . . . should not continue indefinitely” (p. 345;
K. van Kooten, personal communication, September 15, 2005). Economics, as a
discipline, currently has much more credibility with policymakers than psychol-
ogy, and environmental psychology remains psychology’s younger sibling. Thus,
despite assertions that environmental psychology is maturing, policymakers, at
least in many countries, do not seem to have noticed.