Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Sustainability Research

I have been meaning to give a better description of my research here, so here is a good summary from my thesis abstract and info I put together for the Rotary district conference.

Awareness and concern about environmental issues has grown rapidly in recent decades. In 2004, 57% of Australians age 18 and over (8.6 million) stated that they were concerned about environmental problems. However, I'm not convinced that awareness is enough because relatively little action is being taken individually or collectively to solve environmental problems. Out of those 8.6 million people concerned about the environment, only 13% formally registered an environmental concern (via a letter, telephone, demonstration, signed petition or some other means), and 29% donated time or money to protect the environment. But 65% of people with environmental concerns took neither of these actions (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2004).

What is needed, I would argue, is widespread "ecological literacy" as a handful of well trained environmental professionals will not be enough to effectively "manage" the planet. It is the collective impact of all of our actions that lead to depleted resources and global warming. So by ecological literacy, I am referring to not only knowledge and awareness, but skills and ability to take action based on one's knowledge. That is what is lacking. Beyond awareness, people need concrete examples of how to minimize their impacts on the environment as well as institutions and infrastructure that support and encourage a sustainable lifestyle.

My research is looking at ecological literacy within the university setting, which is often referred to as Education for Sustainability. At a basic level, I am looking at whether undergraduates at the ANU are familiar with the concepts of environmental sustainability, if they have heard about the concept in their coursework, and whether they think that it is relevant to their lives and field of study. And further, I am looking at what factors lead them to environmentally responsible behavior. Is hearing about environmental issues in a classroom enough to make them take the bus to campus or buy locally grown food? I am guessing that hearing about environmental problems is not enough by itself, but it is of course, the beginning of ecological literacy.

As a bit of background the ANU along with hundreds of other universities worldwide have signed the Talloires Declaration, a ten point action plan on how to move toward becoming a more sustainable campus. One of those points is to educate students about the concepts of sustainability.

In order to see if this is happening, I've just completed a survey of undergraduates at the ANU and while I don't have answers to all of my research questions yet, here are some of the interesting preliminary results. 73% of respondents think that all students should be exposed to the concepts of sustainability through formal education but, only 28% think that there is adequate teaching of such issues in their coursework. This represents a great opportunity for universities, as institutions that educate society's future leaders, to increase the awareness, knowledge, and technologies to create an environmentally sustainable future.

The more I read about these issues, the more I think that I should become an environmental psychologist because these behavior change issues and how people become good environmental citizens are so interesting! I'll be working on this thesis until February and I'm about halfway through the essay at the moment....its going really well!


  1. Psychologist or Sociologist? Group dymanics to make things happen or individual actions?

  2. That's awesome Jen! Awareness and implementation of concreate ways to help the environment...that IS what we need. Good job! Good luck writing!