In thinking about how to address environmental challenges, many people overlook the relevance of psychology.
But whether we focus on causes of the problems or on their consequences, people are relevant: human behavior, human attitudes, human well-being, and human interactions.
The field of conservation psychology has arisen in an attempt to integrate and publicize the psychological theory and research that are relevant to understanding and promoting the connections between humans and the natural world.
The goal of conservation psychology is not only to study the interdependence between humans and nature, but also to encourage a healthy and sustainable relationship. Conservation psychology includes contributions from all the subfields of psychology: e.g., clinical psychologists can explore the therapeutic effects of exposure to nature, in general and for troubled populations in particular;
developmental psychologists look at the significance of early exposure to nature on the formation of an enduring environmental empathy and ethic;
cognitive psychologists research the ways in which we perceive environmental changes and threats;
physiological psychologists investigate the impact of environmental toxins on behavior and brain function; and
social psychologists study the role of nature experiences within a social context, and ways in which social factors promote or inhibit pro-environmental behavior.
Human behavior—how we reproduce, consume, and utilize geographical territory—has contributed to global climate change, desertification, pollution, and the loss of biodiversity, and human behavior will have to help us mitigate and adapt to these problems. Thus the involvement of behavioral science is critical.
Attitudes that are insufficiently invested in nature are often suggested to be the reason why people don’t engage in the kinds of sustainable behaviors that are needed. But it would be wrong as well as simplistic to infer that people don’t care about nature. Indeed, surveys show that people place a very high value on nature and often accord it moral and/or spiritual significance.
Thus, Conservation psychology can help to understand the complex sources of environmental attitudes and behavior.