Encouraging Environmental Behaviors Requires a Targeted Approach

Boyes, E., & Stanisstreet, M. (2012). Environmental Education for Behaviour Change: Which actions should be targeted?. International Journal Of Science Education, 34, 1591 - 1614.

Research over the past 50 years has failed to provide evidence for a strong link between a person's attitudes toward the environment and his or her willingness to act environmentally. Yet most studies have tended to focus on individuals' general feelings toward the environment. This study focused, instead, on specific environmental attitudes and behaviors, with the aim of understanding environmental education's potential to increase individuals' willingness to undertake particular pro-environmental actions.

The authors surveyed 961 public school students between the ages of 11 and 16 in northwest England about their environmental attitudes and beliefs. Mirroring the UK adult population, about half of the students considered themselves to be environmentally friendly and believed in and expressed worry about global warming.

The questionnaire first asked students about their willingness to undertake specific pro-environmental behaviors. Students seemed willing to undertake different environmental behaviors to varying degrees. Students were most amenable to the direct action of switching off unused electrical appliances. About half the students were open to installing home insulation, recycling materials, and paying more for energy-efficient household appliances. Fewer expressed interest in planting trees, paying more for food grown without artificial fertilizers, or eating less meat.

The survey also inquired into students' beliefs about the possible benefits of particular behaviors in the context of one environmental problem: global warming. Students believed that some environmental actions would be more effective in addressing global warming than others. Most thought that making better decisions related to personal transportation, minimizing energy consumption, and recycling were important ways to address global warming. They were less likely to believe that growing food without fertilizers or eating less meat would have an impact.

The authors found important differences between males and females, students of different ages, and more or less concerned students. Females were more prepared than males to take action on certain issues, such as switching off unused electrical items, reducing car usage, and eating less meat. Similarly, older secondary students appeared to be more willing than younger students to change their behaviors in light of new knowledge about environmental issues. Finally, there appeared to be a positive relationship between a student's level of concern about global warming and their willingness to undertake some pro-environmental actions.

The authors conclude by identifying which actions might be effectively targeted through environmental education. Because of the host of personal and social incentives, disincentives, and norms associated with every action, the authors argue that altering a student's belief about certain issues will not necessarily have an effect on their willingness to act. For certain behaviors—such as using public transportation or reducing fashion purchases—increased education is unlikely to overcome the personal disincentives for action. However, for other actions, there was a strong relationship between the extent to which an action was to be effective in reducing global warming and a willingness to undertake it. Increasing recycling, planting trees, installing home insulation, and using energy-efficient domestic appliances are just some examples of behaviors environmental educators may want to target.

That said, educators and researchers must continue to bear in mind the wide differences in students' attitudes, knowledge, and the potential for pro-environmental behavior. The authors note that, similar to adults, “students will not be uniform in their behavioural responsiveness to environmental education even about specific actions.”

The Bottom Line

<p>Young adults vary widely in their knowledge and attitudes towards environmental issues, as well as their willingness to change behaviors. For certain behaviors, altering a student's belief will have little effect on his or her willingness to act. However, for other actions—such as recycling, reducing energy consumption, and planting more trees—the benefits of education in changing practice may be more likely.</p>