Initial Publication Date: October 5, 2019

The Psychology of Sustainability and Lessons from a Tiny Island

Debbie Sturm, James Madison University

In March of this year I attended a conference in Edinburgh, Scotland centered around sustainability assessment within universities. It was a tiny conference, with just about 25 attendees and presenters, yet the message was consistent: there is an urgency to helping our younger generation develop the knowledge, awareness and skills to meet this changing planet. As a counselor with a profound interest in the psychology of sustainability, I also deeply believe that we need to provide our students the reflective experiences to understand how people make decisions, how change happens, how change fails to happen, what keeps people in denial, or, worse, what causes resistance to science.

So, after eating all the fish and chips I could find and exploring some pretty fantastic Scottish Lochs, I returned to my own institution feeling inspired and full of ideas. After all, a group of 25 people committed to sustainability education and assessment locked in a room for three days with a spectacular view of Arthur's Seat will undoubtedly move a person to want to see change.

Instead of change, I realized how my own system was pretty deep in those very things: how decisions are made, how change happens (or doesn't), where resistance or hesitation or the old "we've tried that before", and all those barriers. How do we prepare our students for their very real complicated future if we are so hesitant to change?

For the past five years I have taken students to the tiny Mediterranean island nation of Malta, population 400,000 on a 9-mile by 13-mile rock in the sea. We study the psychology of sustainability and environmental advocacy. We work with nearly two dozen tiny NGOs trying to move stubborn people in a stubborn culture that wrestles with scarcity of resources yet can't seem to pass on the opportunity for growth, development, and endless catering to tourism. My students are mostly young women from a variety of majors. They share a passion for nature and adventure. They care about the planet. But that might not quite be their biggest priority as they approach degrees in education, accounting, computer science, engineering, psychology, and others. But when they leave Malta, all they can talk about is how important it is to be able to understand – as the Maltese put it – "the mentality" because without the ability to understand and shift the mentality, change cannot happen.

My students are beyond inspired by the people who work for the NGOs. The Maltese passion for their tiny rock and their heritage is intense and emotional and the students all integrate that into their own points of passion. The students learn quickly that teachers, engineers, computer programmers, and government employees can feel so deeply about their "place" that they walk away from traditional jobs to rescue sea turtles, conduct clean-ups, organize tree planting and removal of invasive species, and lead walks into the remaining untouched natural landscapes. Some things are bigger than "careers" they have been taught to pursue.

So what am I trying to say? I feel deeply drawn to sustainability education even though I have always felt a pathway through the sciences was not available to me. More than ever, however, I recognize that the human dimension is critical. If only we still lived in a world where science and data spoke clearly and compellingly enough to enable change! But right now we do not. And I believe psychology, really understanding, reflecting upon, and navigating the human mind, belief system, and relationship with change, is a necessary direction. I loved the several essays that mentioned sense of place. And I would add place attachment, ecological identity, and ecological self to those wonderings. How do we help students connect on a deeply personal level to sustainability and STEAM and geosciences and more? How do we help them understand the barriers the human psyche creates and defends and how to navigate them? I think these are becoming critically important questions and, frankly, thrilling opportunities.

For the past five years I've watched my Malta girls stand on the edge of a cliff they have only just met and be overcome with a desire to protect it. I've watched them get tearful as a young woman tells the story of the plight of the Maltese honey bee and how overdevelopment is hurting their families and their hives. They've pooled their spare euros so we can help purchase a "hedgehog crossing" sign even though none of them will likely ever return to Malta. And maybe they'll never even see a hedgehog! But it all mattered to them enough in that moment to be moved.

We can learn some pretty amazing things in school. But to me, I just continually wonder: how deeply can we feel them so that they become a part of who we are?

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