Thursday, 22 March 2007

Environmental Strategy

I've just finished reading the consulation draft for Exeter's Environmental Strategy. You can too, if you want; just click on the picture. Given it is a government document, I'm pretty impressed with it. It's readable, comprehensive, and ambitious in its plans. The areas where it seems to really be on target are taking centralized, concrete actions. For example, the Council is installing 6 wind turbines on it's offices, along with photovoltaic solar cells, and fitting in green biomass generators at many of the public schools; all city documents will be printed on 100% recycled paper, printed with non-toxic inks; informal city gardens will be landscaped with native plants, grown locally and organically; fertilizer and pesticide use by the city will be heavily reduced; the old shipping canal's locks will be retrofitted with micro hydropower generators; all timber used by the City will be either reclaimed or from sustainably farmed European forests; all bricks will be reclaimed from old sites. There are 60 pages of recommendations like this, all with completion dates and where the funding will come from (most are self-funding; the green power will pay for itself).

Here is where it falls short: communication and public behavioural change. Helping the environment requires action on many fronts: technological adaptations, governmental support, and public awareness, to name a few. But all of these mean little without a change in public behaviour. Everything the Council is doing is terrific, but it is small pertaters without public change as well. This is where social psychology comes into play. Awareness is not the same as behavioural change. There is actually very little relation between the two, as countless psychology studies have found. Knowing doing. For example, the UK government gives money away to people to insulate their homes and take various green actions. It's very easy to get this money, and most people know this resource is available. Yet, they do not act on it. Paradigms and public behaviours must change, and actually affecting these changes is by far the weakest point for all organizations concerned with protecting the environment.

The research I'm doing is aimed at figuring out how these changes in behaviour come about, and understanding which paradigms work and which do not. I'll be doing some studies over the summer with the City Council, and have three that I am now doing in the University. Of course, I'll just be scratching the surface, but it really is surprising that most public awareness/behaviour campaigns are designed intuitively, rather than actually being based on empirical evidence or psychological theory. Without evidence and theory, it's all just shots in the dark. Even if something works, we will not know what, or how. To their credit, the City realizes this is a problem, and is eager to work on it. I'm pretty eager too. Research can be surprisingly exciting, and these projects will be a lot of fun. I'll continue to post updates as they progress.

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