Establishing Environmentally Sustainable Practices through Community Engagement: A “Greener” Approach to the “Wicked Problems” of Industrialization

Photograph of two women holding produce

by August Hoffman, reposted with permission from The Community Psychologist

In their insightful essay addressing the problems between existing empirical research and how effective policies are used in disseminating information to the public, Bogenschneider and colleagues (2019) argue that a more effective strategy in communicating research to policymakers should include a more salient and engaging process that allows them to “identify their purpose for using research” (p. 792). In other words, if we wish to incorporate sound research into legislation to help protect the finite resources of the natural environment, we need to create more interactive and tangible opportunities where policy makers and legislatures can see (and experience) the importance of environmentally responsible behaviors.

Alan Kazdin (2009) has identified several central themes (i.e., social issues, education, business, and health care) that have influenced empirical research in modern psychology, and has suggested that researchers extend their areas of focus to more pressing and potentially catastrophic events facing communities today, such as climate change, health care, and overpopulation. More importantly, Kazdin illustrates the urgent need for policy makers and legislatures to address the impact of environmentally sustainable behaviors and “wicked problems” (p. 342). There are several characteristics and defining variables that are associated with wicked problems, but what makes them particularly difficult to address is their insidious nature where there is no single cause of formulation of the problem itself and the need for multiple stakeholders (i.e., corporations or even governments and countries) to work cooperatively to make any meaningful change. Additionally, global environmental problems such as climate change and carbon emissions involve complex entities such as cultural values (i.e., why are these issues important to various groups), politics, and economic fluctuation that require policy systems to provide accurate information to different populations within society to facilitate a more intentional environmentally responsible response to these problems. Stuart Oskamp (2002) has identified specific causal factors that are associated with making positive changes to environmental problems. Some of these include the fact that people are creatures of habit or “inertia” (p. 177), egoism and selfish behaviors, a sense of “learned helplessness” where repeated past behaviors resulted in failure to make positive environmental changes, and a belief that modern technology can solve all global problems with little individual effort.

Clearly, the largest obstacle to make positive environmental changes may be a combination of simply learning to change our own individualistic lifestyle and adapting a more community-oriented and prosocial approach to environmentally sustainable behavior. This may mean participating in the use of public transportation, organizing community development programs that clean up parks, rivers and public areas and establishing more community gardening programs that teach residents the benefits of healthier eating through organic gardening practices. Natural outdoor environments such as community gardens, labyrinths, and sensory gardens can play in important role not only in improved psychological and physical health, but can also serve as a place where ethnically diverse groups (i.e., refugees) can participate in traditional practices that maintain ethnic heritage and culture (Hartwig & Mason, 2016). Psychologists can help shape more pro-environmental behaviors through their collaborative work with policy makers in writing legislation that identifies how specific lifestyle changes and business practices can in fact make positive changes to the environment. As Schmuck and Vlek (2003) have noted, psychologists need to develop a more futuristic vision (i.e., “look over the fence”, p. 68) that impacts community growth and development and familiarize themselves with the specific types of environmental problems that impact their community. The first step in promoting a healthier and sustainable environment is through a collaborative approach where science practitioners, policy makers and community residents understand how their individual behaviors impact our own community.

August John Hoffman is a Professor of Psychology at Metropolitan State University. He can be contacted at:

Bogenschneider, K., Day, E., & Parrott, E. (2019). Revisiting theory on research use: Turning to policymakers for fresh insights. American Psychologist, 74(7), 778-793.

Hartwig, K. A. & Mason, M. (2016). Community gardens for refugee and immigrant communities as a means of health promotion. Journal of Community Health, 41, 1153-1159.

Kazdin, A. E. (2009). Psychological science’s contribution to a sustainable environment. American Psychologist, 64(5), 339-356.

Oskamp, S. (2002). Environmentally responsible behavior: Teaching and promoting it effectively. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, 2(1), 173-182

Schmuck, P. & Vlek, C. (2003). Psychologists can do much to support sustainable development. European Psychologist, 8(2), 66-76.

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