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Saturday, May 1, 2010

Behaviour Change for Sustainability: A Matter Of Trust

From the politician promising to act on climate change, through to the door-knocker trying to convince us to sign up to green energy, a certain level of trust needs to be present in order for people to take action on sustainability issues. The very nature of the environmental problems we face means that we are forced to put our faith in the judgment of others in order to see a way forward. By and large, we can’t actually see the CO2 increasing or the Arctic ice shrinking. We have to believe what we are told.

Trust can be defined as the “willingness to be vulnerable” when the trustor is dependent on the trustee for some resources or actions. A quick look at the various situations encountered in the area of environmental sustainability shows us that, under this definition, trust is relevant. At a national level, are we prepared to commit to measures to curb carbon emissions, placing our trust in other countries to do the same? At a local level, are we prepared to pay extra for that cleaning product which says it is kind to the earth?

Lack of trust has indeed been found to be a significant barrier to people acting on climate change and other environmental issues. A 2009 paper by the American Psychological Association found that “ample evidence suggests that many people distrust risk messages that come from scientists or government officials”.

It is clear that efforts to communicate environmental issues, and more importantly to engage people in action, will be more successful if we establish trust. So what are the key elements of trust? A review of the topic by Mayer concludes that 3 elements need to be in place in order for trust to be established

· Ability – a belief that the person in question can deliver on expectations

· Benevolence – a belief that they have our best interests at heart

· Integrity – a belief that they adhere to a set of principles which we find acceptable

It is easy to see how trust can be both won and lost. For instance, if somebody trying to convince us to adopt green behaviours is not walking the talk themselves, then we are likely to question their integrity – leading to a reduction in trust. The outcry over the energy use of Al Gore’s private residence was a good example of this. Likewise, the recent questions raised over the integrity of some of the climate change data produced by East Anglia University has led to a reduction in trust in the scientific community. Most of those who have experienced this reduction in trust would not have any knowledge of the specifics of the research in question, but the perceived violation of scientific integrity is, in itself, enough to undermine trust.

This analysis of trust raises an interesting question about the persistence of skepticism about climate change. It is well documented that over 90% of the worlds climate scientists believe strongly in man-made climate change, however much distrust still exists within the general community. Usually, scientists are seen as a trustworthy profession. Many psychology experiments have shown that donning a white lab coat does wonders for establishing trust and credibility.

The answer may lie in another element of trust – perceived risk. Part of trusting involves making ourselves vulnerable. Mayer proposes that only when our level of trust surpasses our level of perceived risk will we engage in a trusting behaviour. If we are to give ourselves over completely to the most dire predictions of climate scientists, nothing short of a radical transformation of our lifestyle is required. For many, this is the ultimate risk, and therefore the threshold for trust is set extremely high. Any whiff of a chink in the armour of those we are being asked to trust is likely to be seized upon as a reason not to take risk of changing our way of life.

As sustainability promoters, there are steps we can take to ensure that we are seen as credible and trustworthy. Here are some tips for establishing trust:

· Be credible – have facts, evidence and solid arguments prepared. People trust expertise. While passion and idealism are important too, they are not enough on their own.

· Show you care – meeting people at their level and working with them, rather than telling them what to do and being condescending, will help to establish a relationship and show them that you have their interests in mind.

· Walk the talk – people need to see that you are putting your words into action, and are being transparent. Nothing undermines trust like hypocrisy."

This article was sourced from Wake-Up Call, the newsletter of the Awake organisation.
Awake provides psychology-based services to support the development of sustainable behaviour in individuals, groups and organisations. Visit for more info

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Important Lessons from the Bible

Why Jesus came:
"that the world might be saved through him"
John 3:17

Who Jesus is going to use to save the world:
"For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God."
Romans 8:19

Our role on earth:
"The LORD God put the man in the Garden of Eden to take care of it and to look after it."
Genesis 2:15

The Five Pillars of A Christian Theology of Sustainability

1. God is the creator, sustainer and redeemer of creation.

2. Covenantal Stewardship (we have a covenant with God as stewards of the earth).

3. The creation-fall-redemption paradigm (God made a good world; human failure broke the relationships between god, man and creation; Christ provides hope for all creation).

4.Bodily resurrection(we will rise with bodies, not as spirits)

5.New Creation (a new Heaven and new Earth refers to a renewal and an earthing of heaven, not starting over).

Adapted from When Enough is Enough: A Christian Framework for Environmental Sustainability, Edited by R.J. Berry, Published by Inter-Varsity Press, 2007, Nottingham p43+