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Monday, April 5, 2010

Behaviour Change for Sustainability - Don’t Give Up

"If an animal feels a sense of failure every time it tries to help itself, pretty soon it gives up, even when presented with future opportunities to progress. This is the conclusion from the studies which gave rise to the term “learned helplessness”. In these studies, dogs were given mild electric shocks (back in the 60’s, rules around ethical treatment of animals were more liberal!), with no chance to escape them. When they were later given the opportunity to escape the shocks by jumping over a low fence, most had become so conditioned to be helpless that they stayed put.
It is common to hear people say “what’s the use, the problem is too big for any of us to solve”, in response to big environmental issues such as climate change. Is this an example of learned helplessness developing in society in response to environmental challenges? Looking at some of the key indicators of learned helplessness may help us recognise if this is the case, and how we might support people and groups who have developed it.
According to Stipek, learned helplessness is "not trying as a consequence of a belief that rewards are not contingent upon one's behaviour". It is based on 3 key beliefs
1. Internal blaming - "It's my fault"
2. Global distortion - "It will affect everything I do"
3. Stability generalization - "It will last forever"
If we were to view these beliefs in relation to climate change, it is easy to see how they would be developed in a sizeable percentage of the population.
“It’s my fault” is a natural consequence of being told that everything we do releases greenhouse gas, and that our very existence is destroying the planet – pretty hard to argue with that one.
“It will affect everything I do” is also being increasingly emphasised in reports about climate change. Add peak oil, resource depletion and drought, and it is easy to make the leap that life as we know it is in serious peril.
Finally, the idea that “it will last forever” is virtually unquestionable. A consistent theme of every dire prediction about the future of the planet is that the changes we are witnessing are irreversible.
So it is a fairly safe bet that the conditions for learned helplessness do exist with regard to climate change, and probably environmental issues as a whole. The likely effects of this are varied. Although there is some evidence to suggest that worrying about climate change is causing some people to become depressed, this is at the more serious end of the range of possible outcomes of learned helplessness. It is more likely that the condition will impact on the way in which people behave in relation to the environment – they will give up trying to change.
There is plenty of evidence that inaction with relation to environmental issues is based on the sense that we have no control, in other words, that we are helpless. A study by Allen and Ferrand was one of a number which showed a strong relationship between the sense of control we feel, and our actions with relation to the environment.
The feeling of having no control is one of the major reasons why communicating the dire consequences of climate change needs to be considered carefully. People like to feel in control of their lives, and if they feel overwhelmed by the information they are receiving, they are likely to feel helpless and switch off. A leading researcher in this area, Stephen Kaplan, comments that “many who appear uninterested in environmental issues, may distance themselves to avoid pain, not because environmental issues are of no concern to them”.
Changing our routines and comfortable habits often requires considerable personal resources. Habits, for instance, develop to reduce the need for us to make new decisions each time we encounter a situation, thus freeing up mental resources for other things. If we are feeling overwhelmed and helpless by the challenges we face, we are less likely to feel strong enough to go outside our comfort zone and try a new behaviour which we may perceive as untested or less convenient.
In clinical settings, learned helplessness is often addressed through Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which helps to identify and challenge beliefs which are holding negative emotions in place. Although the context in which most environmental behaviour change advocates operate is vastly different, it is useful to be aware of the potential for learned helplessness, and to adapt our approach to minimise it’s likelihood of developing.
1. In communications, remember to include positive steps which people can take to address the problems. Not just as a token afterthought, but as the main call to action.
2. Provide tangible support for people to take action. Rather than just saying “this is what you should do”, an approach which guides and supports people to make change is more likely to succeed.
3. Along with individual actions, provide examples of the way in which collective actions can address the big environmental challenges, to foster a sense of hope that the problems are surmountable.
4. Provide reinforcement for changes which have been made, in order to build on people’s sense of power and control over their lives.
For a community to be engaged and empowered to change, people need to feel, at an individual level, that they have some power to influence the future – otherwise they may just roll over and accept the pain."

This article was sourced from Awake -
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+