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date: 06 March 2021

Conclusions: Directions for the Future

Abstract and Keywords

This final chapter builds on the preceding ones to review the current state and future prospects of environmental and conservation psychology. Areas of shared coverage and common interest are identified, including an emphasis on interdisciplinarity, applicability, and person-in-context and a set of key theories that are utilized by many of the authors. Some directions for methodological development are identified. I conclude that environmental and conservation psychology represent different but interdependent and highly overlapping approaches to the study of people in environments.

Keywords: theory, health, social justice, education, methodological issues, conceptual integration, future directions


Environmental psychology stands in an interesting place. On the one hand, the environmental challenges facing society have led to greater recognition of the significance of environments in determining individual and societal well-being. On the other hand, researchers around the globe express concern that the field has not established a firmer foothold (e.g., Reser, 2008; Sautkina, 2008): there are few degree-granting programs in environmental psychology, it is often unrepresented in undergraduate curricula, and many professional psychologists know little about it as an area of study. As described in the introductory chapter, increased awareness of environmental issues and their psychological components has stimulated research and led to the publication of a number of new journals. Conservation psychology arose in response to this increased sense of urgency around maintaining a healthy natural environment. How will the emergence of this new field affect the existing one? Will it increase the visibility and effectiveness of environmental psychology, or will it lead to fragmentation and marginalization?

This handbook has reviewed an extensive array of research. In addition to describing current work in environmental and conservation psychology, it was hoped that a working definition of conservation psychology and the way in which it intersects with environmental psychology would emerge from a survey of the relevant literature. With a wide range of topics and literature reviewed, the chapters present a wealth of information about current research and theory. It is impossible to provide a comprehensive review, and much relevant work is excluded; even so, the coverage provides an important picture of both the present and future state of these related areas of study. This concluding chapter will describe some of the common foci and emerging themes and questions. I close with a discussion of the future relationship between environmental and conservation psychology.

(p. 674) Shared Coverage

Reading from beginning to end of this volume—should anyone do this—reveals some areas of repetition; there are topics or research that appear in more than one chapter. This overlap among the chapters is a sign of strength. It indicates, firstly, that researchers are relying to some degree on a shared, integrated set of knowledge that can be considered core to environmental and conservation psychology. It also illustrates a degree of interdependence among the topics that makes it impossible to fully partition the research into mutually exclusive categories or chapters. The shared knowledge includes several theories that are commonly utilized, as well as research addressing specific topics that are broadly relevant. Together, these provide a core “canon” that helps to define the field and, indirectly, provide an argument for the existence of the field of environmental and conservation psychology as a distinct focus within the broader discipline.

Major Theoretical Perspectives

Ecological Perspective

Ecological theory focuses on the person and the environment as an interdependent system. It emphasizes the individual as an active perceiver, stressing that the meaning of an environment is found in the way that it affects its occupants, and occupants perceive the environment as it enables them to function within it (Gibson, 1979). This is a profoundly innovative theory, and although it is a theory of perception, it is fundamentally associated with environmental psychology because it insists on the relevance of the environment. At its core, it invalidates the generally accepted distinctions between subject and object, and between perception and reality. Rather than conceptualizing the environment and the individual as independent entities that exert influence on each other, it describes reality as a set of relationships: attributes of the physical environment are defined with reference to attributes of the perceiver, and individual experiences (both mental and behavioral) are shaped and constrained by the environment in which they occur. Thus the study of psychology has to be the study of a person within an environment. Although the ecological perspective is explicitly utilized primarily by those chapters involved with environmental perception, its emphasis on dynamic, nested systems is relevant to research on all of the topics covered here, as is further discussed below.

Social Psychology

Many environmental and conservation psychologists come out of a social psychology background, which shares with environmental psychology an emphasis on factors external to the individual. Thus, it is not surprising that a great deal of social psychological theory is utilized in the research and discussed in this volume. In particular, these chapters have made extensive reference to theories of attitude-behavior relationships, such as Stern et al.’s (1999) Value-Belief-Norm (VBN) theory. There is a rich history of research within social psychology on predictors of attitude change and on the relationship between attitudes and behavior. Conservation psychologists draw on this research to understand how people might be led to develop more pro-environmental attitudes and, more important, how and when such attitudes might lead to more sustainable behavior. VBN theory integrates individual and social factors, along with the cognitive element (beliefs) that has typically been the focus of public educational interventions. Additional perspectives from social psychology emphasize other social constructs, such as stereotypes and identity, as both causal agents and potential consequences of environmentally significant behaviors.

Evolutionary Theory

Explanations based on an evolutionary perspective suggest ways in which different abilities and tendencies were likely to have been selected for during an environment of early adaptation. This perspective, which is increasingly influential on the field of psychology in general, has been particularly important in environmental and conservation psychology since the development of E. O. Wilson’s biophilia hypothesis (Kellert & Wilson, 1993). The suggestion that humans have an innate, inherited tendency to have an emotional response to elements of nonhuman nature both suggests testable research hypotheses and provides a broad justification for research focused on the natural environment. The evolutionary perspective, if taken seriously, should stimulate research designed to investigate the genetic links behind responses to natural environments. However, we must be cautious about committing the naturalistic fallacy; even if the biophilia hypothesis were true, it does not by itself provide an argument for protecting natural environments.

Attention Restoration Theory

This theory, which describes nature as particularly useful in helping people to restore diminished (p. 675) attentional resources (Kaplan, 1995; Kaplan & Kaplan, 1989; Kaplan & Berman, 2010), has been influential in both documenting and partially explaining the benefits of natural environments. Grounded in controlled experimental research, Attention Restoration Theory (ART) incorporates psychological phenomena from attention and self-regulation to stress and social interactions. Particularly relevant to this volume is the way in which ART links internal cognitive processes to individual well-being and, by implication, to a healthy natural environment.


Questions of health and well-being, both individual and social, are central to psychology as a discipline. One of the contributions of environmental psychology has been to draw attention to the impacts of physical environments on well-being, as is exemplified in the chapter by Brown and Werner. In fact, as described by Fornara and Andrade, some of the first studies in the field of environmental psychology concerned the influence of physical attributes and design features of psychiatric hospitals on their inmates. The rise of conservation psychology reflects not only an increasing concern for environmental health, but also an emphasis on its interdependence with human health. Not all of the chapters highlight health to the same extent, but together they illustrate a range of ways of thinking about health, and include both positive and negative environmental impacts. Awareness of these impacts, in turn, provides an anthropocentric motivation for concern about the well-being of the natural environment.

Environmental Benefits

The evidence for positive psychological effects of nature is growing. The chapters by Staats, Russell, and Wells and Rollings most explicitly describe the results of this research, which has demonstrated that exposure to elements of nature can have positive impacts on cognitive performance, affective state, and social relations. Discussion of this research can also be found in almost all of the chapters on specific environments: even within workplaces, health care settings, or correctional institutions, elements of nature can benefit the occupants. In addition, many of the other chapters feature the possibility of more diffuse or indirect environmental benefits: on sense of self, for example (Clayton; Corral-Verdugo; Myers). The chapter by Vining and Merrick, though not specifically about health, suggests the possibility that epiphanies might also be considered as contributing to human well-being and that nature has some beneficial effects that are harder to quantify than enhanced health or increased longevity. Suedfeld, too, describes the possibility of positive effects from even stressful natural events, and Brown and Werner remind us that the physical environment can have aesthetic as well as functional value.

Environmental Disbenefits

The environmental movement was largely prompted by disbenefits: evidence for the harmful effects of a polluted environment. While environmental toxins in the air, soil, and water remain a concern, Stansfeld, Clark, and Crombie’s chapter focuses on the effects of an often-overlooked type of pollution: noise. Frequently all of these environmental disbenefits result reciprocally from harms that human behavior has inflicted on the environment. The chapter on climate change discusses what may be the most significant impact humans have had and are having on the environment by increasing the emission of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, and details some probable negative impacts on humans. Even well-functioning environments, however, can have negative effects on human health, as suggested by Lindell in his chapter on response to environmental disaster and by Suedfeld’s chapter on extreme environments. One of the defining characteristics of nature is that it lies outside of human control. It is misleading and disingenuous to imply that there is a perfect relationship between human and environmental health.


Consideration of environmental benefits and disbenefits leads to a recognition that these are not distributed equally, and that there are social justice implications to their allocation (Swim et al.). Conflicts arise when people perceive an unjust distribution. This injustice may arise from a lack of concern for the benefits or disbenefits experienced by an out-group—a lack of concern that arises from disparities in social power and from the dynamics of group identities. Opotow’s chapter is eloquent about the mechanisms behind this sort of social injustice, and Clayton describes some of the political and psychological issues surrounding identities. However, injustice may also result from a failure to consider different sources of environmental value, or from disagreement about what values should be prioritized. Thus, different human values (cf. Steg & deGroot) and even the question of nonhuman values (Syme & Nancarrow) are also relevant. Conflicts involving imbalance of power are not always easy to (p. 676) solve, but they are easy to think about. Injustice can be a powerful motivator of action, as people seek to change their own environments. Conflicts involving different conceptions of value may be intractable, and require creative management, in which the competing positions of all stakeholders coexist in uneasy tension, rather than resolution (Samuelson & Barratt).


In a narrow sense, education involves the transmission of knowledge and the development of competencies, traditionally in a formal learning environment. This continues to be an area of interest for environmental and conservation psychologists, who have given a great deal of attention to the environments that best facilitate learning (Sanoff & Walden) and to the types of competencies that might be required for environmentally literate citizens (Wals). In a broader sense, however, education may include attempts to modify attitudes and behavior, as discussed by Gifford and Sussman and by Schultz and Kaiser. Education can occur outside the traditional classroom, in informal learning environments and throughout the life span, which may be particularly likely to foster affective and behavioral responses (Chawla & Derr). Place-based education can both incorporate and foster the emotional ties of place attachment to encourage education that has emotional strength and significance.

Although education has more typically been considered an attempt to transform the individual and maximize his or her potential, education has always also included an element of socialization into societal standards. It has a strong prescriptive component, indicating the ways in which people should behave and the things they should know. Thus, the growing governmental emphasis on environmental education is of interest not only because of its potential impact on students but also because of what it shows about societies’ expectations for their citizens, which are changing to reflect the new environmental conditions that societies face.

Common Themes

In addition to shared content, a number of shared themes can be seen to emerge from these chapters. These themes suggest a common set of understandings about the ways we should be thinking about environmental and conservation psychology, as well as indicating new ideas and hypotheses to direct future research.

The Need for Methodological Precision

As seen in Table 34.1, many of the chapters refer to the need for careful measurement and rigorous methodology. Several authors (e.g., Clayton, Gifford, Heft, Korpela, Lindell) point to inconsistencies in the ways that terms are used and defined. Attitudes, values, emotions, and identity are all terms that are sometimes used loosely. If psychology is to be taken seriously as a science, its methodology must be clear and precise. This does not imply exclusivity; a single attitude scale does not have to “win out” over competing scales, nor must a single measure of environmentally responsible behavior be used in every study. Rather, it requires that we think carefully about the measures we use, what they are measuring, and whether they are appropriate for a given study. It also suggests that we should rely more on established measures, when they have been carefully validated, rather than developing ad hoc new measures that offer no distinct advantage. Although qualitative methods will continue to be important in describing specific environments and individual experience, we can endeavor to identify the important attributes of these phenomena in order to make comparisons and enhance generalizability.

The Importance of Scale

Psychology encompasses many different levels of analysis, from intra-individual to interpersonal to group to societal, but does not always integrate them. Many of the authors examine phenomena at multiple scales. Some (e.g., Brown & Werner) explicitly describe these as micro- or macrolevel perspectives, referring to aspects of the environment that characterize a specific individual’s experience as contrasted with those that characterize a neighborhood, community, or society. Fornara and Andrade, utilizing the language of Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) systems theory, include a “meso” perspective describing the interactions and relationships among microsystems. Others avoid specific terms, but nevertheless incorporate different levels of analysis. The chapter by Bonaiuto and Alves provides a useful example of the way in which common themes can be explored from the home to the neighborhood, outdoor urban spaces, and finally the city overall. Such an exploration more fully illuminates people’s experience of their environments as well as expanding our understanding of the way such phenomena as segregation and activities emerge at different scales.

Levels of analysis apply not just to research but also to individual perceivers, who may think primarily about their own outcomes and well-being (p. 677) (p. 678) or about the outcomes and well-being of the larger group. Justice is one construct that can appear very different at an individual level than a more collective level, and have different implications for actions: government policy may seem more suited to maximizing collective justice, while individuals may be primarily motivated to achieve personal justice (Syme & Nancarrow). Perhaps the individually focused bias toward an assessment of their own personal outcomes could be overcome by providing them with social norms that emphasize the way society has collectively chosen to act. Individuals are shaped by their cultures, and the tendency to take an individual or a collective perspective is clearly stronger in some societies than others (Milfont).

Table 34.1 Directions for Future Research


• Increase use of transactional perspective.

• Develop more integrated, overarching theory, for example, explaining health effects of nature.

• Include more focus on positive psychology, for example, the possibility of positive effects of extreme environmental events.

• Integrate work from different areas of psychology and from different disciplines, for example, utilize organizational psych and group psych frameworks to evaluate environmental activism.


• Increase reliability and validity in measurement, for example, of exposure to noise.

• Include more types of measures, including behavioral and observational measures.

• Develop better environmental assessments, for example, their psychological resources and how they are used by children; ways of assessing residential environments; specific features that are preferred in environments.

• Develop better assessments of individual competencies and experiences, including criteria for assessing quality of life, sustainability competence.

• Use qualitative research to develop typologies: of environmental emotions; of responses to disasters; of environmental conflict resolution cases.


• Increase usage of techniques such as fMRI, physiological arousal, and hormonal measures.

• Conduct more longitudinal studies, for example, of decisions about the allocation of environmental resources, of noise exposure.

• Conduct more qualitative research, for example, on children’s experience.

• Conduct better controlled studies on the impacts of environmental variables, that allow us to partial out the effects of socio-demographic variables and other confounding factors.

• Incorporate different subject samples, such as policy makers, non-Western samples. Pay close attention to socio-demographic variables that may moderate responses to environmental conditions.

• Make more extensive use of multilevel modeling, mediation, and moderation analyses. For example, how do the activities people engage in moderate or mediate the impacts of their environments?

• Consider multiplicative effects of various environmental stressors.

• Conduct multi-case comparisons of naturally occurring events, such as environmental conflicts and arguments made about environmental justice, to generate hypotheses about important variables.


• Utilize affordances to promote environmentally sustainable behavior; health.

• Apply results of wayfinding research to aid in environmental navigation.

• Apply results of justice research to guide environmental policy.

• Apply results of emotion research to promote environmentally sustainable behavior.

• Apply results of research on restorative environments to design of homes and public places.

• Increase outcomes assessment, evidence-based design, and post-occupancy evaluations. Think about how to make research available to designers and to the public and how to motivate them to access it.

• Increase participatory planning, for example, in cities and schools.

• Think about the different needs of different users of specific environments, such as health care environments.

• Encourage increased access by researchers to correctional environments. Encourage the managers of these facilities to think beyond reduced aggression to consider the possibility for positive impacts of the environment on inmates.

• Consider the phenomenon of environmental epiphanies when managing natural places for human leisure.

• Consider potential impact, as well as feasibility, of change when researching pro-environmental behaviors and interventions designed to increase them.


Studying behavior in an environmental context is challenging, because it pulls against the goal of attaining experimental control. Although a great deal of psychological research has attempted to isolate the person from social and physical factors in order to draw generalizable conclusions about human functioning, environmental psychology questions the validity of this approach, arguing that people react to and interact with specific environmental contexts. However, contexts incorporate not only physical components, which tend to be relatively static, but also dynamically changing social components. Acknowledging the complexity, specificity, and relevance of the physical environment should not require ignoring the complexity of individuals; individual differences in responses to environments are important to recognize while studying those environments.

The bulk of research in environmental psychology could probably be characterized as representing an interactional or organismic perspective, in which people and environments interact but can be identified as independently existing components. The transactional approach, going further, portrays people as embedded in physical and social contexts (Altman & Rogoff, 1987; Heft, 2001). The focus of analysis is an event, characterized by interactions and relationships among people, environments, and processes. It is distinguished from a perspective that focuses solely on the person or characterizes the person as separable from his or her environment. Thus, places cannot be defined without considering the perspective of the people occupying those places. The effect of environmental stimuli cannot be separated from their interpretation by the perceiver; noise, for example, is defined not by its attributes of volume or pitch but by the fact that it is unwanted. Disorderly neighborhoods may be disliked because they are seen to indicate a social threat, the risk of crime. Time is also an aspect of these contexts, which function dynamically to maintain some level of stability and equilibrium.

Temporal Dimension

Time is important to consider as an aspect of values, outcomes, and behaviors. Steg and deGroot identify the temporal dimension as particularly important in determining which of multiple valued outcomes will be prioritized. Individuals who take action to promote environmental sustainability are by definition oriented toward the future to some extent, placing greater value on future outcomes than on present comfort, while those who live an unsustainable lifestyle are more focused on the present or the past. Similarly, Syme and Nancarrow note that definitions of justice can vary depending on the time frame that is used to evaluate the distribution (p. 679) of costs and benefits. Cultures differ in their temporal orientation (Milfont); what social and psychological factors promote a future orientation? Does temporal discounting relate to social discounting? It is not just individual perceptions that assign different values to the same outcome at different points in time. As Schultz and Kaiser point out, even the determination of a behavioral outcome as good or bad varies over time. The importance of temporal change is particularly highlighted in the chapter by Swim, Markowitz, and Bloodheart: not only does the significance of an environmentally relevant behavior change over time, but behavior changes also are part of an ongoing process rather than a one-time phenomenon. Longitudinal research that examines behavior change over time would answer important questions about how changing one behavior leads to, or inhibits, other behavioral changes.

Perceptions of change over time are also fundamental to how the public responds to climate change. What is the role of the temporal dimension in environmental perception, aesthetics, or wayfinding? How do seasonal changes affect environmental preferences? How does the flow of information as we move through an environment influence our perceptions? Gibson (1950) described the phenomenon of optic flow, demonstrating that the change in visual input over time has informational value; recent research on the auditory looming effect (e.g., Neuhoff, 2001) reminds us that environments are perceived through multiple sensory channels. From a systems theory approach, environments are defined by their history as well as by their attributes at a given point in time.

The issue of dose-response relationships, that is, quantifying the level of exposure to environmental attributes that leads to a particular outcome, also concerns time, because duration is one determinant of the overall level of exposure. People who spend a few hours seated next to a potted plant may be getting the same dose of nature as people who spend a few minutes driving through a stand of trees. Questions about the experience of individuals with different levels of mobility, raised by Moser, relate to time in that people who traverse the city more extensively or more frequently are exposed to it for greater lengths of time. In the 1987 handbook, Proshansky encouraged greater attention to change over time, and that suggestion is implicitly or explicitly echoed in the current handbook.

Individual Versus Collective

Research on the commons dilemma has been a feature of work on environmental sustainability since Garrett Hardin wrote about it in 1968. A situation in which individually rational decisions to exploit a shared resource result in collective harm is all too applicable to environmental problems, such as the collapse of fish populations, the destruction of the rainforest, and a shortage of fresh water. The key point of this work has been the difficulty of getting individuals to act to protect collective resources. In all of these social dilemmas individuals are asked to modify their own behavior—for example, to use fewer resources—not primarily because of its practical implications for them personally—in most cases, we will not perceive significant restrictions on our own access to these resources—but because of the consequences for the societal collective. Thus, as Steg and deGroot argue, people need to be able to prioritize collective over individualist values.

Increasingly, researchers in the area of pro-environmental behavior have recognized that in many cases it can be conceptualized as a type of altruistic behavior, motivated by the same desires to promote the well-being of others that prompt other types of helping (cf. Corral-Verdugo, 2010). But as Batson has argued (e.g., Batson, Ahmad, & Stocks, 2004), empathy can encourage a focus on another individual that actually inhibits the achievement of justice. Whether altruistic impulses are channeled toward pro-environmental behavior or are more specifically focused on ameliorating the suffering of a specific individual or animal may depend on the extent to which people are able to adopt a collective rather than an individualistic perspective. Cultural differences in individualist or collectivist orientation demonstrate that collectivism does not automatically lead to more pro-environmental behavior, but they also provide fertile territory for further examination of the relationship between collectivism and environmentalism.


Psychology has been called a “hub” discipline, straddling the border between natural and social science (e.g., Clay, 2011). This position makes it easier for psychologists to engage in productive dialogue with a variety of other disciplines, looking outward beyond psychology to incorporate information from chemistry and biology, to sociology and political science, and even the arts and humanities. All these perspectives are valuable in attempting to understand something as complex as an environment and the ways in which people interact with it. Interdisciplinarity implies not just combining the input of different disciplines, but also working (p. 680) collaboratively with other disciplines to solve problems that can’t be encompassed within the scope of a single discipline. Environmental psychologists have traditionally interacted with architects and design professionals to create environments that better suit human needs and capacities. They have worked with educators, addressing both the context and the content of the educational process, while also providing expertise for many other applied projects. With the development of conservation psychology, there is a new emphasis on communication with biologists (to design effective conservation plans), sociologists (to understand social impacts of environmental issues), and policy makers in order to better understand, and more effectively address, the ways in which people and the environment affect each other. Interdisciplinarity is increasingly common in scientific research, and for environmental and conservation psychologists, the ability to work with other disciplines is key.


One of the key tenets of environmental psychology is that relationships between people and their environments are bidirectional. The fact that environments affect people means that research applications are important. The fact that people affect environments means that research applications are possible. The applications of environmental and conservation psychology are extensive. Some of the applications are designed to address specific problems, such as providing healthy workplaces, successful schools, or functioning prisons. Others intend to address more global social problems, such as sustainability and climate change. Several of the chapters remind us that many problems can only be managed, rather than solved. Some sources of environmental conflicts reflect incompatible goals and values (Samuelson & Barratt). Climate change cannot at this point be avoided; people will have to adapt. These chapters also highlight a frequent gap between research and its application. Researchers working in these fields need to give careful consideration to the best ways to communicate their results to practitioners, as the final step in the research process.

Considerations for the Future

The authors of this handbook were asked to end their chapters by identifying future directions for the field. The specific research questions are left mostly to the individual chapters, but Table 34.1 groups their more general suggestions into three separate categories: methodological concerns, theoretical concepts, and applications. Clearly the authors see great potential for the applications of this research. There is much scope for existing research to inform the design of buildings, programs, and policies. Researchers might also benefit from considering potential applications while designing their studies, including concerns of feasibility, impact, and dissemination of the results to those who can make use of them (Schultz, 2011).

The suggestions also reflect awareness that there is room for improvement in the methodology as well as for the development of more integrative theory. Research in conservation psychology, in particular, has not emphasized the theoretical richness that has been found in environmental psychology. Although by its nature it is more problem-oriented, it would do well to learn from the insights provided by systems theory and consider the multiple, nested levels of influence that are involved in any specific event. For example, research that is focused on addressing a specific problem related to sustainable behavior often tries to extrapolate from research in different contexts; this runs the risk of erroneously assuming that people and patterns of behavior can be isolated from their environments and simply transferred from one to the next.

Finally, some of the authors’ suggestions anticipate the changes that lie ahead. These changes will include new developments in technology, new models and structures for society, and alterations in the natural environment.

Changing Technologies

Brain Research

Advances in neuroimaging and our understanding of brain processing allow a new window on the ways in which people perceive and respond to their environments. Changes in brain activity are no more “real” than other types of changes, but data reflecting brain activity have several advantages. In some cases they can show more subtle effects, because there are some neurological responses to stimuli that are never expressed as overt behavior and because neurological responses are not for the most part affected by self-presentational concerns. Results from fMRI studies, in combination with a growing understanding of neuroanatomy and how the brain is organized, can also help us to understand what certain effects or differences “mean.” For example, there is a great deal of research on gender differences in spatial abilities. Research using neuroimaging techniques can illuminate the extent to which these differences might really represent different strategies, or attentional tendencies, rather than abilities.

(p. 681) Virtual Environments

Virtual environments enable new research approaches but also raise new research questions. What is the ecological validity of a virtual environment? That is, how effective is it in simulating a real environment, and how does it differ? In what ways do they enable us to get a better understanding of how people respond to real environments, and in what ways do they represent a new type of environment that should be examined in its own right (cf. Kahn, 2011)? The use of virtual environments could allow a degree of experimental control that has been difficult to attain, enabling laboratory-based research on reactions to natural environments, but researchers should be cautious in assuming that responses to virtual environments perfectly reflect responses in the real world.

Computer-Based Measurement

Computers allow us to easily assess reaction time in order to elucidate underlying attitudes and beliefs that are either inaccessible to conscious awareness or subject to self-censorship. Schultz’s work with the Implicit Association Test (e.g., Schultz & Tabanico, 2007) has measured the strength of the association between concepts of self and concepts of nature. How do implicit environmental attitudes and beliefs differ from explicit ones, and when is it methodologically preferable to use the former? What are new ways in which reaction time can be used to assess relevant cognitive constructs while circumventing the influence of social desirability?

Other researchers are beginning to investigate ways to study people in real time and real environments using cellular telephones or other portable electronic devices. Combined with geographic information systems software, which enables a new specificity in identifying environments, researchers have the potential to study people-in-environments in much more detailed ways than was previously the case (e.g., Lazer et al., 2009).

Changing Societies

It is unnecessary to point out that societies are changing. What may be less obvious is the way in which these changes affect, and are even defined by, the ways in which people experience their environments. One of the most dramatic changes in recent years has been the mass migration from the countryside to the city, so that the majority of people now live in urban areas (cf. Moser). Now cities themselves are changing, becoming larger and more sprawling, and arguably more like “agglomerations” of multiple distinct areas rather than places where people of different backgrounds meet together in a commonly shared public space (Moser). Migrations are also implicated in the displacement of communities from their traditional homes that is caused by climate change (Korpela; Swim et al.). So in the future group identities may be less likely to be based on shared experiences of place. The result may be a reduced emphasis on shared group identities, or it may be that group identities will be increasingly based on abstractions like ideology.

Family structures have also changed, in ways that affect people’s environmental experiences. In American families, shrinking family size has meant that more children have their own rooms. Dual-career couples result in more children spending time in day care settings at an early age. Of course, the increased reliance on information technology both at home and in the schools has specific physical implications as well as more intangible psychological consequences, many of which remain to be explored. Finally, work environments are changing: average job tenure has decreased, with more temporary and short-term jobs; telecommuting is on the increase; and more and more jobs entail hours outside of the traditional workday. These sorts of changes, simultaneously social and physical, present questions that are not only new but also pressing; research can help to understand the impact of these changes as well as to distinguish better and worse ways of responding to them.

Changing Environments

The environment itself is changing: getting warmer, more polluted, less biodiverse. A reflective environmental psychology will study these changes and the ways in which people adapt to them. We need more research that looks at the big picture: not just how people are affected by changes in ambient room temperature, by exposure to natural disasters, by the presence of plants, but how people are affected by changes in global temperature, increased frequency of disasters, desertification. An effective conservation psychology will anticipate the ways in which natural environments can be protected in the future. In terms of pro-environmental action, for example, behaviors like recycling or replacing incandescent lightbulbs with compact fluorescents may become obsolete in the Western world as recycling programs become institutionalized and incandescents are retired. What behaviors are likely to be significant 10 years from now?

(p. 682) What Lies Ahead: The Integration of Environmental and Conservation Psychology

At the broadest level, it is not possible to draw a firm line between environmental and conservation psychology. This reflects a similar inability to fully distinguish between other conceptual pairings, often presented as opposites. The distinction between built and natural environments, always questionable (where does a termite mound fit?), has become increasingly hard to maintain. Zoos, parks, and other exemplars of managed nature demonstrate that something that appears “natural” can be subject to varying degrees of human design, without losing some important attributes of natural environments. Green spaces are important components of urban environments. Green buildings and other technology designed to use fewer environmental resources are completely manufactured, but pro-environmental attitudes shape their use. At its root, the attempt to compartmentalize built versus natural environments, though it is a useful methodological shortcut, reflects a broader conceptual distinction between humans and nature that is both difficult to maintain and dangerous in its implications.

Related distinctions, equally problematic, are often made between human and environmental health, or between psychological and social impacts. Sustainability, the currently popular term for describing the kind of society we want to see, has multiple meanings, but overall emphasizes the integration of individual, social, and environmental well-being. The increasing popularity of the concept serves as a reminder of the many ways in which they are interdependent—as do many of the chapters in this handbook. Social and environmental impacts are intertwined. People live in environments, and in the long term healthy individuals will not thrive in an unjust society or an unhealthy environment. Taking action to protect the environment may have both direct and indirect benefits for those involved.

A final distinction that this book calls into question is that between basic and applied research. Although it is tempting to characterize conservation psychology as more “applied” than environmental psychology—or perhaps as an applied branch of environmental psychology—conservation psychology, despite being driven by the goal of environmental conservation, can incorporate rich theoretical discussions that will inform efforts to promote pro-environmental behavior. A problem-based foundation can be a powerful source of hypotheses and theoretical innovations. Environmental psychology has also generated important theoretical models while also working to improve the effective functioning of specific environments. It would be difficult to characterize any of the chapters in this handbook as representing a purely basic, or purely applied, perspective.

The Role and Responsibility of Psychology

Environmental problems are human problems, not only because they are caused by human patterns of consumption and reproduction, but also because they are defined as problematic from a human perspective—the environment itself will adapt to whatever changing conditions are presented. There is a growing recognition that the environmental challenges we face must be seen as social as well as environmental issues, issues that have a direct relevance to human behavior and well-being and thus stand at the very center of psychology. As scientists and professionals concerned with human health and behavior, psychologists cannot be absent from this discussion. Swim et al. (2011) linked research on climate change to the Ethics Code of the American Psychological Association, arguing that the issue may present psychologists with an ethical obligation to be involved. We can broaden that charge to environmental problems in general: because environmental changes have profound implications for individual and social well-being, psychologists should be mindful of them and should consider what psychology has to offer.

Environmental and conservation psychology represent the evolving psychological response to these problems. What is the relationship between them? While environmental psychology represents a topical focus of study, conservation psychology is oriented toward change. Borrowing from the chapter by Schultz and Kaiser, we might talk about them in terms of intention and impact. Work is environmental psychology when its central focus is the physical environment, how it is perceived or used by humans, or how it affects humans. Work from any area of psychology is conservation psychology when it intends to contribute to a healthy relationship between humans and the natural world, or when it has that effect. Clearly there is much overlap, and research may be categorized according to its impact even when the researcher’s intention was different. Take, as an example, research on workplace design (Veitch). Optimal workplaces will promote the productivity, efficiency, and well-being of the workers, so research may include information on the benefits (p. 683) of incorporating nature into the workplace. It may also include attempts to encourage sustainable behavior in the workplace, as this will increasingly be considered part of normal workplace functioning. So, does this represent environmental psychology or conservation psychology? Both.

Environmental and conservation psychology are in a symbiotic relationship. Without environmental psychology, conservation psychology would lack the theory and the methodological tools to examine its core focus: the natural environment. Without conservation psychology, environmental psychology would lose an opportunity for relevance. In the 1987 handbook of environmental psychology, several chapters were devoted to assessing the past and predicting the future of the field. Bob Sommer laid out an agenda that encouraged environmental psychologists to examine the philosophical and moral underpinnings of the field; to conduct more research on broad issues such as resource conservation, population, pollution, and conservation of wildlife; and to address the issue of advocacy, showing a willingness to make prescriptive as well as descriptive statements. Conservation psychology may, in part, be a response to this call. Given the questions that remain unanswered about the relationship between psychological processes and the physical environment, and given the pressing need to modify that relationship in order to protect and maintain a healthy environment, the goal should be to recruit as many psychologists as possible, of all stripes and disciplinary orientations, to work alongside others interested in the human-environment nexus to confront questions and problems of common concern. (p. 684)


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