Psychological Dimensions of Environmental Risks

PsySRWithout a healthy environment people and communities can’t be psychologically and physically well. Yet human behavior is so threatening environments around the world that we are now putting at risk not only our well-being but also the future survival of our water, land, air, animal, and other vital environmental resources.

Of primary concern is global climate change, which through higher atmospheric temperatures from human-generated carbon emissions is altering Earth’s weather patterns, sea levels, and growing cycles in ways that jeopardize all of life.

We are facing other unprecedented ecological degradation of our own making: air, land, and water pollution; deteriorating fish stocks and damaged coral reefs; species extinction; and vanishing forests are some examples. We are also rapidly depleting our supplies of fossil fuels, which afford us our current lifestyles but which are the main contributor to climate change and ecosystem harm. This paradox bespeaks soaring doubt about our unsustainable behavior for the planet even as we consume ever more fossil fuels.

Meanwhile, environmental problems are not fairly distributed, as the poor and people of color in developing nations experience them more frequently and severely. So environmental degradation intersects with injustice, sowing seeds for conflict.

PsySRPsySR is acutely concerned about environmental conflict. The ongoing battles in Darfur, for instance, have killed and displaced hundreds of thousands in part because of fighting for scarce water and other natural resources. Other conflicts that have involved declining environmental resources include the fighting between India and Pakistan, ongoing Israeli responses to the Palestinians, Rwanda’s genocide, and China’s aggressive dominance over Tibet. To be sure, these conflicts themselves often further degrade the environment, deepening the harm for those already facing the injustices of human violence and oppression.

The environment, though, also has been used as a peace building tool. In such places as the border regions of Iran and Afghanistan, South Africa, and the Nile River Basin (including such countries as Ethiopia, Eritrea, Egypt, Kenya, and Uganda) efforts have been underway to help people work together to solve common water, land use, and other environmental problems that have contributed to their conflicts. Much hope resides in using our human-made environmental maladies to make peace and justice bloom anew.

Ultimately, when human beings cannot depend on stable, consistent, nurturing environments, their emotional, mental, and behavioral functioning are impaired. Air pollution, for example, not only causes physical illness but also causes stress, fear, depression, lack of trust, and interpersonal conflict. Climate change will only exacerbate those responses. And even seemingly small environmental losses, such as the loss of local wilderness and green space to urban dwellers, significantly harm the psychological well-being of millions around the world.

Thus, long-term peace, justice, and overall human wellness depend on environmentally sustainable cultures and policies that promote them. As psychologists and other mental health professionals, our work in this arena is to discern how human behavior is harming the environment and creating mental stress and conflict, educate others about this and what they can do to prevent or limit it, and practice environmental awareness and sustainability in all that we do. Moreover, it is incumbent upon our profession to be involved in shaping environmental policies and practices that are most healthy for people and the planet.

Specific examples of contributions psychologists can make to this vital “environ-mental” work include the following:

  • Help people identify their cognitive errors about climate change and environmental degradation that prevent pro-environmental action.
  • Work with individuals, groups, and communities to understand the psychological implications of our damaging environmental behavior and develop ways to deter and cope with the harm.
  • Enable people to feel despair and grief about our environmentally harmful actions and harness those feelings to motivate behavior change.
  • Work with organizations, including nongovernmental organizations, businesses, and government entities, to infuse the ecopsychology perspective into their practices and to alter how they conduct themselves for the benefit of people and the planet.
  • Focus specifically on local and federal legislation that addresses climate change and other environmental risks to ensure it recognizes the psychological repercussions for citizens and works forcefully to prevent or limit harm.
  • Address community, national, and international assumptions, procedures, laws, and treaties regarding resource use, pollution, sustainable technologies and practices, and environmental justice to bring the voice of the psychological perspective to these issues.
  • Coordinate with other mental health professionals and existing environmental organizations to build an environ-mental movement for behavior change and sustainability locally, nationally, and globally.
  • Work with media, in all its various forms, and use social marketing methods to broadcast the message of environmental risks to humanity’s psychological well-being and to provide tools that help people change their behavior toward the environment.
  • Conduct research that clarifies the relationships among people; their feelings, thoughts, and actions; and their environments to inform all of this work with evidence-based practices.

PsySR's Program on Climate Change, Sustainability, and Psychology is engaged in some of the projects described herein to address the highlighted issues. More information about the program and its projects is available HERE.