How humanity saves the planet

Learned helplessness explains, more than psychological disorder, why those with high concern for the environment are not as engaged behaviorally. We learn helplessness when a problem feels too big, threatening, abstract–or remote. Abstractness correlates positively with psychological (spatial; temporal; experiential) distance.

When psychological distance is too great, our connection to things or people suffers. When we are disconnected from a situation, it holds no sway over our actions: we feel no will to improve it. The problem persists, and we lose the game.

How do we close psycho-environmental distance? Make a situation’s proximal features apparent. Show people how a global problem is local–perhaps even in their own cities. (Obviously, don’t create problems unnecessarily!)

The above is only one path to solving (e.g.) global climate change. Psychological distance can be bridged by appealing to people’s identities, foremost. These include their political values: liberals tend to show more innate concern for the environment; conservatives are moved more by appeals to, for example, purity.

Social identity is also important: when people feel part of a global collective, they are motivated to get pro environmental. Understanding the cultural psychology of motivation and behavior (conation) facilitates global sustainability. The world’s psychological diversity can then be leveraged to solve environmental problems, like climate change (or pre-societal coronavirus). Appealing to global social identification, pro-sociality (via viral altruism, e.g. social media sharing of good deeds), and distinct political values will help us understand the diverse cultural psychology necessary to leverage.

What does the “psychological diversity” just mentioned consist of? It consists of individualistic and collectivistic sociocultures, along with personality factors. Individualistic individuals are motivated more by personal belief, while collectivists are moved by social influence. Pro-environmental behavior correlates positively with the personality factors Conscientiousness, Extraversion, and Openness (e.g., appreciation of aesthetics–i.e., that of nature).

We know–further–that values, beliefs, and “norms” are important for motivating pro-environmentalism. When people believe that their values are threatened, they become more likely to defend what they cherish. For many of us, this is the natural environment.

I’ve performed case studies of important environmentalists in Rachel Carson, Al Gore, Greta Thunberg, Wangari Maathai, and Chico Mendes. By focusing on how they have led their lives in inspiring and self-actualizing ways, I determined what made–and, in Al and Greta’s cases, makes–them unique leaders. My efforts fill a gap in environmental psychology, but this is not the only gap that exists. It will be up to us moving forward to uncover the specific links between the actions taken by an exemplary few with the global plan to preserve the natural environment.

It is up to all of us to do this!

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