Fostering sustainable behavior

Published: Thursday, January 18, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 17, 2007 at 11:09 p.m.
I have a confession to make. When we moved to Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada, in 1993, I bought a composter for our backyard. During our first summer and fall in our new home my wife and I fed the composter diligently.
However, by January a snowdrift three feet deep stretched from our back door to the composter. I started off the month with good intentions, shoveling a pathway or trampling down the snow with a pair of winter boots that reached nearly to my knees. But by late January, when the temperature dropped to minus 20 F, I had had enough, and despite my good intentions, the organics ended up in the garbage can at the curbside.
My environmental transgressions extend beyond seasonal composting. During the spring, summer and fall I bike to work. However, in the winter, which in Fredericton stretches from November through to early April, I take the taxi.
Walking to work takes approximately 40 minutes, and I would rather spend that time with my family. And there is no direct bus route from our house to the university, making it slower to take the bus than it is to walk. While I am concerned about the possibility of global warming, my behavior for six months of the year is inconsistent with my concern.
The above anecdotes illustrate the challenges faced in making our communities more sustainable. Composting can significantly reduce the municipal solid waste stream, but only if people elect to compost. Mass transit can reduce carbon dioxide emissions, and urban air pollution, but only if people leave their cars at home and take the bus instead.
People play an equally critical role in many other sustainable activities. Programmable thermostats can reduce home heating and cooling costs, and also carbon dioxide emissions, but only if people install and program them. Water efficient toilets and low-flow shower heads can significantly reduce residential water use, but only if people buy and install them. The purchase of environmentally friendly products can significantly affect our environment, but only if people elect to alter their purchase habits.
Most programs to foster sustainable behavior rely upon large-scale information campaigns that are usually based on the perspective that changes in behavior are brought about by increasing public knowledge about an issue; and by fostering attitudes that are supportive of a desired activity, like recycling. Such programs attempt to alter behavior by providing information, through media advertising, and frequently the distribution of brochures, flyers, and newsletters.
Unfortunately, numerous studies show that education alone often has little or no effect upon sustainable behavior. Here is one example: Households that volunteered to participate in a ten-week study of water use received a state-of-the-art handbook on water efficiency. Despite great attention being paid to its preparation, it was found to have no impact upon consumption.
While environmental attitudes and knowledge have been found to be related to behavior, the relationship frequently is weak or nonexistent. Why would attitudes and knowledge not be more strongly related to behavior?
Consider the two anecdotes with which I began this article. I am supportive of both composting and alternative transportation. and I am relatively knowledgeable on both of these topics. But in both cases, another factor - inconvenience brought on by winter - moderated whether my attitudes and knowledge were predictive of my behavior.
Too little attention has been paid to ensuring that the programs we implement have a high likelihood of actually changing behavior. The cornerstone of sustainability is the implementation of programs that are effective in changing people's behavior. If we are to make the transition to a sustainable future, we must concern ourselves with what leads individuals to engage in behavior that collectively is sustainable, and design our programs accordingly. Simply providing information will not lead the public to adopt activities that move us toward a sustainable future.
Doug McKenzie-Mohr is an environmental psychologist and author of the book "Fostering Sustainable Behavior." He will be lecturing at the Downtown Public Liberary today at 7:30 p.m.

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