Humans and Conservation


Conservation Psychology. Understanding and Promoting Human Care for Nature. Clayton, S., and G. Myers . 2009 . Wiley-Blackwell , West Sussex , United Kingdom . 264 pp . US$59.95 (paperback) . ISBN 978-1-4051-7678-1 .
Healing Spaces. The Science of Place and Well-Being. Sternberg, E. M. 2009 . The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press , Cambridge , MA , and London , United Kingdom . 352 pp . US$27.95 (hardcover) . ISBN 978-0-674-03336-8 .

We live in challenging times. Global warming is upon us. Ecosystems have been degraded to the point that many no longer contribute life-preserving functions. In a considerable number of places, biodiversity is in freefall. We are rapidly depleting our supply of oil and fresh water.

It is almost a cliché to note that each of these challenges stem from human behavior—from our efforts to meet our needs and desires. In our quest to satisfy ourselves, we have dramatically degraded the health of ecosystems and in doing so we have put our own health at risk.

While recognizing this reality, David Orr (Orr 2008) argued on these pages that we should turn to the discipline of human psychology for solutions. Psychology's mission, after all, is to understand human behavior and to promote human well-being. Yet, with some notable exceptions (e.g., Oskamp 2000; Stern 2000), traditional psychology has done little to arm us against the sea of troubles we are facing with respect to the environment. Within psychology, however, an emerging subdiscipline—environmental psychology—offers both theory and evidence that can help guide us to a more sustainable, healthy future.

Environmental psychologists have achieved insights regarding the conditions under which individuals are likely to engage in proenvironment behavior. Some important findings demonstrate that vague, broad motivational messages have a little impact (De Young 1993) and that motivating people to engage in proenvironment behavior by providing strong external rewards does not lead to permanent changes in behavior. When the reward is withdrawn, the behavior diminishes (cf. Vining & Ebreo 2002). Recent work demonstrates that durable behavior change results when the motivations are multifaceted (De Young 2000; McKenzie-Mohr 2000) and relatively weak (Boyce & Geller 2001), the information presented is vivid and specific, and the context supports exploration, participation, and social exchange (Parnell & Larson 2005).

In Conservation Psychology Susan Clayton and Gene Myers have synthesized four decades of theory and research into a useful and engaging volume that sheds considerable light on our relationships with the natural world and our capacity to behave in ways that promote sustainability. Their goal has been to understand the interdependence between humans and nature and to examine insights from rigorous psychological research that can be used to lighten our impact on Earth.

The challenge of promoting more sustainable behavior is substantial. Clayton and Myers demonstrate that human behavior has multiple causes, “many of which are irrational and/or outside conscious awareness.” They show that people often do not know what is good for them, that even when they do know, they may not act on that knowledge, and that knowing the facts about why one should behave in a specific fashion is seldom enough to affect behavior.

They also show that human behavior is malleable—it is susceptible to change. The challenge thus becomes understanding the conditions under which humans are likely to act in a reasonable fashion and then finding ways to create those conditions in our daily lives. At the time that Conservation Psychology went to press, such a framework had not been published in the psychological literature, but one now exists and is well worth reading (Kaplan & Kaplan 2009).

Clayton and Myers’ book is organized in three sections, each of which people interested in conservation biology are likely to find stimulating and useful. The first concerns the theoretical foundations that underlie the relationship between environmental settings and people. In this section they address ways in which places have psychological significance for people. The second concerns specific places in which individuals experience nature and the benefits that derive from these experiences. The final section examines practical ways to promote conservation. In this section they review findings related to behavioral interventions, community-based conservation programs, and environmental education. The book concludes with a hopeful argument that human behavior can be a profound source of solutions to the considerable environmental challenges we face.

Conservation Psychology includes a complete bibliography and a helpful glossary. It will serve as a useful textbook, introduction to the field, or inspiration for new research. I imagine many readers of Conservation Biology will appreciate it and Clayton and Myers for their care and craft in writing it.

In Healing Spaces Esther Sternberg describes the power of places—from walking along the ocean's edge, to viewing an urban green space out your window—to promote health and healing. She also examines the salutary benefits of meditation, prayer, and exercise. Sternberg's motivation in writing this book stems from a desire to stimulate the development or redesign of homes, hospitals, neighborhoods, and workplaces so that they promote health. It is a noble desire.

Healing Spaces is an outstanding example of the emerging trend in nonfiction literature to present ideas in a fashion that is as close to being a novel as possible. This approach seeks to communicate information through a story that unfolds, or in the case here, through many stories that unfold. In keeping with this trend, Healing Spaces does not have a preface or introduction that describes the argument the book will make or in which the theory that underlies the book's orientation is described. It simply jumps immediately into the story.

At any point along the way, Sternberg's skill as a writer comes through. It is effortless to read her and a pleasure to be taken along with her on journeys through neuroscience, architecture, and medicine. Reading such a book while on vacation, with a cup of something hot to drink, and a lot of time to allow the patterns to emerge could be an enjoyable experience.

But if you seek an overview of the relationships between environments and human well-being, with a clear description of the theories that motivate questions and explain results, this is not a book to put at the top of your list. For me, the lack of a conceptual framework was a source of frustration.

These books provide readers with an overview and considerable details of an emerging discipline within psychology that can help them address a range of issues related to sustainability. Readers will also see in these works invitations to collaborate with environmental psychologists to determine the conditions under which humans are likely to engage in behaviors that help sustain natural systems. Questions in several domains are pressing. To what extent might new knowledge in conservation biology be employed by urban designers—and embraced by citizens—that will preserve productive ecosystems? How might biologists, psychologists, and the media team up to stimulate behavioral change intended to mitigate the impacts of climate change? To what extent might individuals engage in more proenvironment behavior if they learned to see the consequences—in the environment—of their typical patterns of behavior and consumption? What environmental cues would ecologists suggest might be most effective to explore? What environmental settings are likely to bring out the best in people? Addressing these and other questions will tap into the interconnectedness of humans and the environment and provide a rich source of potential solutions to the sea of troubles we face.