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Psychology Subdisciplines:

History of Psychology
Research Methods
Motivation and Emotion
Individual Differences
Social Psychology
Mental Health
Environmental Psychology
Conservation Psychology

Conservation Psychology Image of Plant Pushing Up Through PavementConservation Psychology

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Lecture/Discussion Topics Class Activities Multimedia Resources Suggested Readings for Students References Cited in this Section Lecture/Discussion Topics

What Is Conservation Psychology?

Within the last four years, a new label has caught on: Conservation Psychology. It may well prove to be a useful meta-label that will encompass all of the disparate environmentally related work by psychologists. Like the discipline of conservation biology, conservation psychology is conceived of as psychology with a conservation agenda-- that is, psychology for a sustainable future (Saunders, 2003). The first conservation psychology textbook was published by Susan Clayton and Gene Myers in 2009 (Clayton & Myers, 2009).

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Can Psychology Help Save The World?

Susan Clayton and Amara Brook (2005)-- and many others of us-- think it can and it will! Top down change alone (e.g., in the form of environmental and social policy) is not going to move the world in a sustainable direction. The transition will require a shift in individual values and behaviors at the grassroots level. Granted, people's behavior is constrained by legal and economic structures, but even people who have the ability to make more earth-friendly choices often fail to do so. In this way, the environmental crisis comes down to the behaviors of individuals. As the social science most focused on individual behavior, psychology is destined to play a valuable role in our sustainable future.

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What Is "Sustainability"?

Students are bound to have heard the term "sustainability," but they may not have a solid grasp of what the concept means-- in fact, the experts don't entirely agree. Students will have some sense that a sustainable future is one that is less consumptive than the present. They will likely describe the importance of alternative energy sources. Sustainability means much more than these things, however. An accessible model consisting of four principles for sustainability can be found on the website for the Natural Step, an organization that works with businesses to promote socially, economically, and ecologically sustainable practices.

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Reviewing Psychology Literature On Environmental Issues

We have embedded a plethora of research citations in this manual, but our reference list is by no means exhaustive. Have students pick an environmental issue (e.g., recycling, energy conservation, wildlife protection) or a specific journal (e.g., Environment and Behavior) and conduct a literature search to find recent publications that apply psychology to the environment. A simple assignment is to compile citations and abstracts; a more in-depth assignment is to write a paper in the form of a literature review that summarizes and compares a limited number of the references they find. In-class presentations are a good way for students to hear about the breadth of current environmentally related psychology research.

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Reading Ishmael As A Conservation Psychologist

Daniel Quinn's 1992 novel Ishmael: An adventure of the mind and spirit was the winner (chosen from more than 2500 entries) of Ted Turner’s "Tomorrow Fellowship," awarded for a work of fiction offering positive solutions to global problems. Ishmael is a silverback lowland gorilla who adopts a Socratic approach to teach humans about ecology, life, and freedom. Both Sue Koger and Cay Anderson-Hanley use this novel with their psychology students. Koger suggests the following questions as the basis for a conservation psychology class discussion about the book:

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Reflecting On My Ecological Footprint

Mathis Wackernagel and William Rees (1996) coined the term "ecological footprint" to describe the impact of an individual human or group of humans on the earth based on their consumption of resources including water, energy, food, space, and various materials. The measurement of ecological footprint is used to estimate the amount of resources and space that would be needed to sustainably support a given lifestyle on a global scale (i.e., how many planets we would need for every individual to live a lifestyle with a particular ecological footprint). Environmental educators and advocates use the ecological footprint as a heuristic tool for raising awareness and inspiring lifestyle change among individuals. Have students take the ecological footprint quiz online and write a reflection essay.

Questions for consideration in the essay or class discussion:

To solidify personal involvement in this issue, students should include a pledge form describing what they will do to personally reduce their footprints and how progress will be monitored.

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Thinking Globally, Acting Personally

For this project, students individually examine one or more of their environmentally relevant behavior patterns and attempt to become more aware, document, and change the behavior. To help students select a behavior that will have significant impact, have them read Gardner & Stern's (2008) short list of effective action to curb climate change for inspiration. Because this list applies to households, students may need to adapt for their college living circumstances, but just looking at it will help dispell some common misconceptions (e.g., that recycling is the most effective action an individual can take). Students may also feel inspired by perusing this list of personal sustainability actions [list contributed by Professor Shawn Meghan Burn].

It is important to provide clear guidelines for students to follow as they embark on their behavior change project.. Follow these links to access instructions for this kind of activity from Christie Manning, Sue Koger, and Laurie Hollis-Walker. Also, see the Appendix: Self Change Project in Scott, Amel, Koger, & Manning (2015).

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Improving My Corner Of The World

A campus or community project examines an environmentally relevant practice of the college campus or surrounding community. It involves assessment of the situation, followed by educational and organizational efforts to work for improvement. This can be a collaborative project, conducted by a group of students from the class as well as students in other, related classes, the school’s environmental club, the community outreach office (if available), and local community groups. Projects can involve a variety of environmental issues.

Students may want to consult the "Tools for Change" wesbite for case examples of successful community projects that have involved similar steps to those listed in the guidelines.

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Website: Conservation Psychology

Carol Saunders at Brookfield Zoo has created a rich online resource for conservation psychology. According to the site,

Conservation psychology is the scientific study of the reciprocal relationships between humans and the rest of nature, with a particular focus on how to encourage conservation of the natural world. This applied field uses psychological principles, theories, or methods to understand and solve issues related to human aspects of conservation. Conservation Psychology is also the actual network of researchers and practitioners who work together to understand and promote a sustainable and harmonious relationship between people and the natural environment.

Access the site at

Websites: Educating For Sustainability

Two sites that have good materials for sustainablity educators are the following:

Websites: Resources For Green Living

Once their consciouness has been raised about the importance of individual behavioral change, students are hungry for guidance on how to begin moving in a sustainable direction. The websites listed below offer some good resources:

Film: The Ecological Footprint: Accounting For A Small Planet (2005)

In this film, co-creator of the Ecological Footprint, Dr. Mathis Wackernagel, describes the tool and why we need to make an accounting of our individual impacts if we hope to secure a sustainable future. See details on the Bullfrog Films website at

Images of U.S. Consumption

Digital artist Chris Jordan's exhibit, "Running the numbers: An American self-portrait" vividly confronts viewers with the tremendous amount of consumption and waste associated with the American lifestyle. For example, what initially looks like a version of Seurat's "Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte" but turns out, upon closer inspection, to be an image comprised of 106,000 aluminum cans, the number used in the U.S. every thirty seconds. See images from the exhibit at Chris Jordan's website.

Films To Provide An Overview Of The Environmental Crisis

Bill Moyers Reports: Earth on Edge (2001)

This two hour film is an engaging and alarming introduction to the impact of human activities on the planet. Moyers reports from Mongolia, British Columbia, Brazil, South Africa, and Kansas. This film is a good one to use in class because a discussion guide, classroom materials, and other resources are available at the PBS website. See a description and view a clip of the film at the Films for Humanities & Sciences website here.

Blind Spot (2008)

This documentary by Adolpho Doring,

establishes the inextricable link between the energy we use, the way we run our economy and the effect it has had on our environment. It takes as a starting point the inevitable energy depletion scenario know as Peak Oil to inform us that by whatever measure of greed, wishful thinking, neglect or ignorance, we are at a crossroad which offers two paths, both with dire consequences. If we continue to burn fossil fuels our ecology will collapse and if we don’t, our economy will. Either path we choose to take will have a profound effect on our way of life. [from the film website]

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Suggested Readings For Students

Clayton, S., & Brook, A. (2005). Can psychology help save the world? A model for conservation psychology. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, 5, 1-15.

Clayton, S. & Myers, G. (2009). Conservation psychology: Understanding and promoting human care for nature. Chichester, West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

Nickerson, R. S. (2003). Psychology and environmental change. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Saunders, C. D. (2003). The emerging field of conservation psychology. Human Ecology Review, 10, 137-149.

Winter, D. D. & Koger, S. M. (2004). The psychology of environmental problems. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

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References Cited In This Section

Clayton, S. & Brook, A. (2005). Can psychology help save the world? A model for conservation psychology. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, 1-15.

Clayton, S. & Myers, G. (2009). Conservation psychology: Understanding and promoting human careor nature. Chichester, West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

Gardner, G. T. & Stern, P. C. (2008, Sept/Oct). The short list: The most effective actions U.S. households can take to curb climate change. Environment. Philadelphia: Taylor & Francis.

Nickerson, R. S. (2003). Psychology and environmental change. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Quinn, D. (1992). Ishmael: An adventure of the mind and spirit. New York: Bantam-Turner Books.

Saunders, C. D. (2003). The emerging field of conservation psychology. Human Ecology Review, 10, 137-149.

Scott, B. A., Amel, E. A., Koger, S. M., & Manning, C. M. (2016). Psychology for sustainability (4th ed). New York: Routledge.

Wackernagel, M., & Rees, W. (1996). Our ecological footprint: Reducing human impact on the earth. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society.

Watson, D., & Tharp, R. (2004). Self-directed behavior: Self modification for personal adjustment. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.

Winter, D. D., & Koger, S. M. (2004). The psychology of environmental problems (2nd ed.). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

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