Psychosocial Barriers to Sustainability and Environmental Learning and Action

Psychosocial barriers to sustainability are those internal and personal barriers that stem from our beliefs, attitudes, values, hang-ups and inhibitions as individuals.

These are the barriers that show up in our private thoughts and social interactions — but you'll notice how connected they are to cultural norms and expectations, as well.

I divide these psychosocial barriers into five categories.

(Numbers in square brackets refer to the References page. Feel free to contact me if you need exact page references.)

1. Denial, Guilt and Neurobiology

In the environmental context, denial and guilt are avoidance reactions. Deep ecologist Bill Devall defines denial as "denying the human impact on the Earth or evolution" [27]. He cites Christopher Lasch who in 1984 coined the term minimal self, which, Devall says, is the defensive, contracted self primarily concerned with ego gratification and psychic survival.

"Seeing the problems of living in modern times ... the minimal self prepares for the siege, retreats to private pleasure domes, and withdraws from community service or any form of commitment to the peace movement or environmental movement," Devall says. Indeed, I remember reading about a neurobiology discovery that "the brain turns off when people cannot anticipate a positive future" [56].

Guilt becomes a barrier when it is draining and oppressive [88], when it serves as "a palliative for the conscience of the consumer class" [29], and when it takes the place of action, its source not fully recognized, as ecopsychologist Terrance O'Connor's equation illustrates: "The equation here is: doing nothing plus feeling guilty about it equals doing something. Action is called for, but action motivated by guilt may only compound the problem. We are in disharmony with the world because we are in disharmony with ourselves" [66].

According to neurologist Robert Ornstein and biologist Paul Ehrlich [67], human nature is often blamed for people not taking action on environmental problems. But, they explain, the human nervous system is to blame, because it cannot easily perceive slow changes, long-term implications, or multiple connections. Chris Argyris explains that psychologically, people don't have to pay attention to "the deeper issues until the counterproductive forces are so powerful that they inhibit even routine performance" [4].

Wackernagel and Rees believe that this "reductionist propensity to focus on mere symptoms of problems or on individual events," together with the way the human brain works, leads to the "boiled frog syndrome": "A frog placed in slowly heating water will not notice the gradual but eventually lethal trend" [93].

Al Gore writes that a sense of helplessness sets in, immobilizing people in "an imprudent hope that we can adapt to whatever changes are in store" [39], bringing us back to denial, a major psychosocial barrier.

2. Misperceptions — Or Are They "Mythperceptions"?

Misperceptions about the natural world and our place in it, held personally (as well as culturally), can block environmental action. These include the belief that we are not a part of Nature [18, 39], "as if we could assault the environment without assaulting ourselves" according to Donella Meadows [60], or that because humankind is part of Nature, anything we do is "natural" and therefore all right [47].

These misperceptions also include the belief that technology will solve the ecological problems caused by technology [68, 70], that more is always better, and that standard of living equals quality of life [29, 93]. Some people believe that progress might be causing environmental problems but don't connect progress to our constant need for economic growth [36, 54].

Meadows notes that resources are viewed as either scarce or abundant, leading to dualistic either/or solutions [60]. Rachel Carson lamented (back in the 1960s) that poisons are not deemed as poisonous as they once were, becoming "something to be showered down indiscriminately from the skies" [18].

A dangerous misperception is that we are in the midst of an information explosion when actually we are losing knowledge about the natural world at an alarming rate, "impoverishing the genetic knowledge accumulated through millions of years of evolution" [68].

Another powerful psychosocial barrier is a belief that some people (versus others) are entitled to comfort and privilege, what ecopsychologist Philip Sutton Chard calls "an egocentric sense of entitlement" [19]. Orr goes further, speaking of "ecologically slovenly, self-indulgent people" [68].

Certainly no one reading this website could be considered an ecologically slovenly, self-indulgent person — but many of us hold the misperception that human beings are not animals. Our Western religions and mythologies have somehow taught us that we are "above" the rest of Nature and don't need it.

3. The "I'm-Not-An-Expert" Barrier

Many people don't become involved in environmental issues because they believe they don't have adequate knowledge or experience. John Gaventa [38] poses several questions that point to an ideology of expertise held by many people in our culture:

  • Who has the right to define knowledge?
  • What is the relationship of 'popular' knowledge to 'official' knowledge?
  • Who produces knowledge? For whose interests?
  • What are the mechanisms of the power of expertise?

David Orr accounts for the I'm-not-an-expert barrier as an overspecialization problem, which makes ecoliteracy difficult for Westerners. "The ability to think broadly, to know something of what is hitched to what ... is being lost in an age of specialization.... To think in ecolate fashion presumes a breadth of experience with healthy natural systems, both of which are increasingly rare" [68].

4. "Bahala na" — Lack of Concern for the Future

Our shifting conception of time is becoming a barrier to environmental action. David Orr points out that civilization is changing at an unprecedented pace "as technological time is superimposed on older patterns of day and night and changing seasons" [68].

Humans' ability to respond appropriately to environmental problems, however, is not keeping pace with the overall rate of environmental change, according to Ornstein and Ehrlich [67].

Knudtson and Suzuki [51] explain that in the Native world view, consequences of human violations of the natural world are believed to be both immediate and long-term. This view contrasts sharply with personally held attitudes of waste and fatalism, as expressed in a Filippino expression, "Bahala na" ("I don't care what happens in the future, as long as I survive now") [55]. This expression might be from the Philippines, but the attitude is common far beyond that country's borders.

Of course, it doesn't help that our culture affords no legal or economic rights to future generations! Who cares about them, as long as my life is comfortable today.

5. Confusion, Fear and Disempowerment

Brower and Leon stress that confusion about the real relationship between personal actions and the environment has become a barrier to environmental action. In their view, North Americans have been left concerned yet conflicted, confused, cynical, and discouraged about environmental issues because, besides recycling, "no clear consensus has emerged about what else they should do to protect the environment" [13].

Fear serves as a barrier because an appeal based on fear — that is, an environmental message that stresses doom and gloom alone — is unlikely to be effective [Gardner, 37]. As John Button points out, when people recognize that "every little thing we do has environmental implications and repercussions" [15], they can become panicked and frightened.

Psychosocial Barriers: Confusion, Fear, Disempowerment
The resulting barrier is a sense of insignificance, resignation, pessimism and massive cynicism, according to Suzuki and McConnell [88]. Social ecologist Murray Bookchin minces no words when he insists that until the "powerless" people regain a sense of power over their lives, "nothing they change in society will yield a new balance with the natural world" [9].

Several authors note that conformity to norms discourages risk taking and the willingness to be first to make a change. Suzuki and McConnell explain the phenomenon this way: "In the cacophony of debate over the state of the biosphere, those calling for protection of species and wilderness and a different way of life are often castigated as 'eco-terrorists,' 'neo-Luddites,' 'drug-crazed hippies,' 'do-gooders' or 'antihuman preservationists,' or as being 'antiprogress,' and are labelled with many other disparaging terms" [88].

Fear of this kind of labelling certainly keeps some people from getting up the courage to adopt environmentally friendly behaviours. Certainly lack of courage is a psychosocial barrier to sustainability action.

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