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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Behaviour Change for Sustainability - Where’s the Dilemma?

"Many of the decisions we make regarding our environmental footprint could be considered “social dilemmas” A social dilemma involves a decision in which personal benefits must be weighed up against the collective benefit.

The most famous illustration of this idea as it relates to the environment is the “Tragedy of the Commons”, described by Garrett Hardin in 1968. Hardin discussed the situation in which a farmer who grazes cattle on commonly shared land can benefit greatly through adding another cow to his herd. However, if every farmer did the same thing, then environmental degradation would be accelerated, thus reducing the overall viability of farming the land for all those concerned. This dilemma can be seen playing out with a number of ecological decisions we face every day, such as transport choices, pollution and waste management. Do we “go out of our way” to choose a more environmentally friendly option, the benefits of which may be a drop in the ocean in a distant time and place?

When we are faced with such a social dilemma, there are a few things which influence the likelihood that we will act in the common interest rather than self-interest.

Firstly, the size of the affected group makes a difference. If we perceive that a selfish decision will affect our immediate group or community, then we are more likely to consider their interests. This would appear to support the idea of local control and accountability for resources, meaning that the impact of decisions people make is more observable and salient.

People will also act more in a pro-social way if they have strong ties to the community, and intend to be part of that community for some time. For instance, Mark Van Vugt, a leading researcher in the social dilemmas field, found that community identification was a significant factor in water conservation, in situations where water use had no financial implications. He makes the important point that “community identification processes will only kick in when there is a direct threat to the community and there is no personal incentive for cooperation”. This implies that building community cohesion is especially important in conditions where it is difficult or undesirable to regulate or incentivise the preferred behaviour. Van Vugt goes on to describe some of the characteristics of community cohesion, such as having positive community exchanges, trust, community pride, and a shared identity.

The other aspect to consider when viewing pro-environmental behaviour as a social dilemma is the extent to which personal gain is truly at odds with the collective good. Perhaps the idea of self-sacrifice has been overstated, and we have overlooked the positive benefits to oneself of choosing behaviours which take into account broader values than economics and convenience.

It is interesting to note that the literature in this area almost always considers a behaviour which is undertaken for the benefit of society as one which has lesser personal benefit. But, as previous issues of WakeUp Call have discussed, there are some very real benefits to individuals who choose to make decisions for the good of the collective. Not least of these is the intrinsic satisfaction gained from “doing the right thing”. A fuller acceptance of such benefits to the individual may go some way to changing the perception that what is good for me and what is good for the environment are mutually exclusive things. Instead of grappling with the question of “shall I look after myself by choosing the cheapest copy paper, or look after the planet by buying recycled?”, perhaps the situation needs to be reframed as “I’m going feel better and in integrity if I pay a bit more for the recycled paper, and the planet will benefit” – end of dilemma.

Of course economic incentives and regulatory efforts will always be important in order to encourage this state. Beyond the hardcore green fanatics, many people will be more easily encouraged to act on the personal benefits of an environmentally friendly option if the economic premium is within a certain pain threshold. But equally, we should not write off the potential for people to do the right thing for benefits beyond money, especially with a little assistance to see those benefits. With that in mind, here are a few ideas for tipping the balance towards behaviours which benefit the community, the planet, and the self.

· Take a localised, community approach to sustainability efforts, so that people can contribute and feel a sense of control over their destiny more directly
· Highlight the impact of action, or inaction, at a local level. People will be more compelled to act in the community interest if they can see the effect in their backyard
· Focus on building community cohesion as a vehicle to support pro-environmental behaviour (as well as lots of other positive outcomes)
· Articulate and promote the benefits to the self which result from acting in the best interests of the collective and the planet. Don’t always assume a playoff between self-interest and community interest
The closer we perceive the alignment between our self-interest and the interests of the community and the planet, the closer we will be to transitioning to a sustainable society."

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+