book review: psychology for a better world

p4bwAs a long term environmental and social justice activist, many times have I bemoaned a campaign’s seeming inability to inspire people to action. While we all have good personal reasons of our own why we choose to work for environmental justice, it’s sometimes hard to convey that to others in a way that makes them want to get involved.

It’s too easy for critics to dismiss us as starry-eyed idealists when they can’t relate to the masses of facts and doom-saying we sometimes resort to in an effort to impress others of the urgency of our cause. Where we see hope and human social change, they see entrenched human nature and inevitability that can engender hopelessness. Combine that with the daily struggle that is most people’s lives under capitalism and just getting through the day can be hard.

And let’s face it, nuclear weapons, global climate change, these are big and complex problems. They won’t go away overnight. The military, corporations and the fossil fuel industries are huge, rich and powerful. Are we not mere blades of grass standing up against a juggernaut?

Yet we continue to fight the good fight year after year. We know conquering such a massive social problem will require both an inspirational core of advocates for justice and a critical mass of people wanting change for it to happen. Why on earth do we do it?

This book by Niki Harré − an associate professor at the University of Auckland where she has taught social and community psychology for over a decade − looks at sustainability as a collective social enterprise, and effort to change society, not just solve one or two “problems”. From that angle, social psychology is invaluable. Research has a lot to tell us about how people interact and go beyond actions that are just personal, ineffectual or symbolic.

Religious groups and PR firms are leagues ahead of us in this respect: knowing how people tick and taking advantage of our natural tendencies to want to belong, to be meaningful and to communicate with others to sell a belief system or a product. We, as environmental justice advocates, are not selling people a crock, we are enjoining them to work alongside us to build a better world. It is that focus on alternatives to the way things (don’t) work now, that Harré says is the advantage that we have.

Secondly, she focuses on the positive. The half-life of plutonium, for instance, is a scary idea and a negative one that leaves us feeling hopeless. There is a strong stream of hopelessness in the environment movement that shows itself in trends like the end of civilisation movement and the likes of James Lovelock who paints a very grim picture of the future affected by climate change. It should be no surprise, given the obvious fear that Lovelock has for the future, that he would grasp at equally horrific solutions like nuclear power (Monbiot is another case in point). Fear stops people acting sensibly, to blurs the judgement, clouds the ability to reason effectively.

We need to embrace the fun and creativity in our actions, what Emma Goldman asks for in her “dancing” revolution. Research indicates that, “positive emotions make us more creative, better at sifting through complex information, more open to information that is personally threatening but potentially important, and better negotiators”.

While dry reality has its place in submissions and scientific documents, we need to be aware of how all the information we know can affect others emotionally. No-one wants to be immobilised by the terror of the next Fukushima, we need to know these things, but how do we impart that information to new volunteers and advocates?

Harré points to research that indicates that information is but one of the ways that people decide what is a right action, people look at what they have learnt, authority figures in their lives, and other people they respect, as well as the behaviour of their peers and their own sense of self-efficacy. We ourselves, with our heartfelt desire for a better world to live in, can be more persuasive advocates by being emotionally genuine that with facts alone. Empowering people to feel they can act and use their skills in engrossing tasks are better ways of embracing them into our community than expectations of sheer will power and sacrifice.

Thirdly, Harré focuses on what we know about how people change: their beliefs, their attitudes, their behaviour. It’s not about tricking people, but learning some skills of persuasion that can help a person who is somewhat rigid in their views be able to safely start to consider alternatives. This involves the psychological principle of “unconditional positive regard”. She tells us to look for out common humanity, “think of ourselves as part of a negotiation with equals”. In this respect she asks us to examine our own motivations for activism:

“[W]e are subject to all the confusion, hesitation and egoism that hold back progress on this issue. I believe that one deeply committed person can make a tremendous difference, but I also know that most of us are not that person – including me. It’s a fine balance between letting yourself and others off the hook when the going gets tough, and being unrealistic about what is manageable. I finally came to accept my own and others’ limitations as eco-warriors when I discovered fascinating research on how willpower appears to operate like an energy source – each of us only has a limited amount and we can use it up.”

Important words for those of us who have suffered the guilt of burn-out.

Harré offers us some practical suggestions in chapter 2. She reminds us to stop fighting battles we can’t win and learn to know when to let go: “A consequence of this approach is letting go of those people who are way out of reach. Some people are, and will remain, resistant to sustainability. Maybe your neighbour really will be the last person in the world to give up driving his V8 to the corner store for a bottle of French mineral water.” We put a lot of energy into trying to persuade these kind of people, they are obvious. Less obvious are those who ‘sit on the fence’.

Harré ends the book with some very practical tasks and worksheets for assessing your own and others capacity at personal, local and community levels.

This book walks the talk on truly wanting to help people use the information learned by psychology to create a better world. Harré has written a book that is freely distributed, well referenced, easily accessible and eminently useful. Take an empowering journey into psychology, read this book!

You can order the book for $15 − or download it as a free PDF − at psych.auckland.ac.nz/psychologyforabe…

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