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Psychology, Sustainability, and the need for change


Psychology is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as the science of mind and behaviour. It could be of an individual or a whole group. When we talk about sustainability and building a world that aims for the highest possible standards of sustainability, psychology can be a vital link to achieving this.


Essentially, fixing human behaviour and mindset first should be paramount in our quest toward a sustainable planet. Sustainability in behaviour goes hand in hand with a sense of responsibility for nature and people around oneself. Should we require laws to prevent us from littering or should a sense of hygiene and community responsibility be fundamental to just living a good life? Infusing true sustainable values and behaviour into kids from a young age is highly recommended for a cleaner, healthier, and altogether holistic development of communities, and in-turn, countries. Similar to a building, if the foundation of an idea or a movement is weak, the entire structure will more than likely not be able to withstand the test of time. Sustainability works similarly. Without introducing the concepts of sustainability and nature conservation into the current education systems, and giving it at least equal importance as the industry building subjects like math and science, especially in developing nations, the inevitability of a future with mediocracy is a very probable outcome.


Psychology, and its various facets, have tremendous potential in uncovering hidden methodologies to develop sustainable behaviour and mindsets among individuals. Granted the potential is much higher for young minds as compared to older and already moulded mindsets, but it is still very much possible. The end goal should be the overall well-being which is only possible if humans are in total sync with nature. A paradigm shift is thus necessary if we are to adopt psychological models of sustainability into our societies. Let us take an issue that plagues today's 'modern' India and numerous other nations. Garbage and its proper disposal. The below picture gives a good representation of a psychological problem facing the country's population.


This picture was taken in the city of Jammu, India. Here, an empty garbage container can be seen just pleading for people to throw garbage into it and yet all the trash is thrown around it except where it needs to be. The initiation just requires one or two people to throw garbage on the road and as soon as a small pile starts to develop, it is certain that the pile will grow larger by the hour because people just don’t have the concept of community cleanliness and hygiene. Additionally, the attitude of 'it is someone else's job' or 'who cares' is not only seen here but is present in most developmental problems. Of course there are municipal shortcomings such as severe lack of disposal locations, lack of community clean-up campaigns, inconsistent garbage pickup, etc, that add to the problems but at the end of the day, the problem needs to be fixed at the end where the action occurs while the externalities are also addressed. Following the principles of Root Cause Analysis (RCA), if we were to draw out a simple 5-Why, it would look something like this.



Now, the real concern isn't that the garbage was thrown on the street but that it was thrown next to a perfectly capable disposal mechanism. It did not require extraordinary effort to put it where it belongs, but just a sense of responsibility. Here then is the crux of the problem, a lack of sense of responsibility. A concern that 'we' are responsible for the cleanliness of our streets, or that we are responsible for our actions. The consequences of this are multifold. The garbage, allows diseases to spread, it affects the general cleanliness (aesthetic, odour), it blocks off road areas, pollutes the underground water supply (where ever extensive garbage is dumped), plastics can cause issues to animals, impacts tourism, and overall shows a lack of care or responsibility towards the environment and especially one another. Finally, since majority of the Indian population is young, it is highly likely that they follow in these footsteps which their future generations will also carry forward. How can one expect sustainable behaviour from someone without this very sense of responsibility.


Though this is a very simple 5-Why analysis for the scale of the problem, it can be seen that to really destroy this problem at the source, we have to implement measures that fix the psychology (habits and mindsets) of people. This will require extensive investments into integration of environmental and behavioural psychology program bottom-up for the kids and also community campaigns to instil this sense of responsibility. Band-Aids such as fines, shaming, and governmental support and interventions will work to a certain extent but beyond that, it is essentially individual sense of responsibility that requires acute psychological/behavioural interventions at an early age to resolve completely.


A combination of top-down and bottom-up approaches would be the best way to have a wholesome solution to this problem. The government can incorporate essential learning and behavioural programs as part of the curriculum, along with levying and enforcing fines for those who litter. A strengthening of the municipality with new equipment and schedules is also needed to maintain the cleanliness. At the end of the day, the communities should themselves feel responsible for cleanliness of their neighbourhoods as there are the main stakeholders. They can run cleanup drives and educational campaigns and enforce strictness through a hired guard to whom the community pays a salary from a clean-up fund that would need setting up. Everything boils down to having a sense of responsibility which will also eventually lead to building better habits. With the tens and thousands of issues that the government of the country as dense as India focuses on, some essentials are always going to be missed. Hence the communities should be the prime custodians in this and take charge. A prime example of this is seen in the forests of the Himalayas where the villagers are themselves the custodians of the groves and work together to prevent misuse by assigning a guard for monitoring as well as enforcement of the rules and regulations.With complexities facing societies in countries as diverse as India, a lot depends on how much the government and the citizens can work together to solve such problems that shouldn’t even exist in the first place.

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