Conservation Psychology Photo of Plant Pushing Up Through PavementConservation Psychology

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Lecture/Discussion Topics

What Is Conservation Psychology?

Within the last four years, a new label has caught on: Conservation Psychology. It may well prove to be a useful meta-label that will encompass all of the disparate environmentally related work by psychologists. Like the discipline of conservation biology, conservation psychology is conceived of as psychology with a conservation agenda– that is, psychology for a sustainable future (Saunders, 2003). The first conservation psychology textbook was published by Susan Clayton and Gene Myers in 2009 (Clayton & Myers, 2009).

There are No “Environmental” Problems

Preferably before students have read chapter 1, ask them what environmental problems they’re concerned about, and put the list on the board.  Then ask, what do all of these things have in common?  [Answer: all caused by human behavior.]  Point out that if human behavior is the cause, then human behavior is also the solution; the main theme of the text.  

Can Psychology Help Save The World?

Susan Clayton and Amara Brook (2005)– and many others of us– think it can and it will! Top down change alone (e.g., in the form of environmental and social policy) is not going to move the world in a sustainable direction. The transition will require a shift in individual values and behaviors at the grassroots level. Granted, people’s behavior is constrained by legal and economic structures, but even people who have the ability to make more earth-friendly choices often fail to do so. In this way, the environmental crisis comes down to the behaviors of individuals. As the social science most focused on individual behavior, psychology is destined to play a valuable role in our sustainable future.

How Important is it?

This exercise, contributed by Dallase Scott, can take between 30-60 minutes but is very effective in introducing students to the basis of our collective problem: that even though we can’t live without a healthy environment, it’s the last thing we think about when making everyday decisions.

Dallase Scott Exercise

What Is “Sustainability”?

The label ” Conservation Psychology” is so new that it has no definite parameters. In our opinion, all of the topics described on this site could be included in a conservation psychology class.

Students are bound to have heard the term “sustainability,” but they may not have a solid grasp of what the concept means– in fact, the experts don’t entirely agree. Students will have some sense that a sustainable future is one that is less consumptive than the present. They will likely describe the importance of alternative energy sources. Sustainability means much more than these things, however. An accessible model consisting of four principles for sustainability can be found on the website for the Natural Step, an organization that works with businesses to promote socially, economically, and ecologically sustainable practices.

Towards A New Worldview: Three Dimensions of the Great Turning

Macy and Johnstone (2012) described The Great Turning — the emergence of a new worldview, comprised of a) holding actions, which raise awareness and slow down the damage humans are causing; b) sustainable practices, including those described in chapter 3 (changes in agriculture, along with green building, and the “triple bottom line” in industry); and c) a shift in collective consciousness, along with community building and spiritual/faith coalitions. (See the following graphic, from Macy and Johnstone, 2012, p. 32.)

Macy and Johnstone The Great Turning Model

After describing this model, students could discuss ways in which they see evidence of each of these three processes, and/or how each process is relevant to their individual lives. For instance, with respect to the shift in consciousness, students could discuss calls towards sustainable practices from faith communities (e.g., Pope Francis, 2015*; Rasmussen, 2013), and/or The Earth Charter** (see also Faith-Based Responses to Climate Change Activity in Instructor Resources for Chapter 7).

* Full text available at

** Available at

The Power of the Individual

There are at least 4 ways to engage directly with sustainability initiatives (cf Harré’s, 2011 description of personal, group, and civic/political levels of action):   

  1. a) First, “Not contributing to the problem is part of the solution” (author unknown).  Lifestyle choices matter (refuse to use/reduce consumption first); see Self-Change Project, below
  2. b) Political action (vote, write letters to legislators);
  3. c) Impact industry (demand determines supply; write letters to businesses);
  4. d) Spread the word within group affiliations (friends, family, co-workers), e.g., via social networking.  

Note that if each person in class told 2 friends about what they’re learning in class, and each of them told 2 friends, it would take only 28 doublings to reach nearly the entire United States population.  2^28 = 268,435,456 (Current U.S. population = 320+ million).  Instructors could relate this to the concept of exponential growth, described in Chapter 1.  Some instructors might remember an old Faberge’ shampoo commercial that illustrates this point.

The Behavioral Wedge

A team of prominent researchers compiled resources on The Behavioral Wedge (see also Dietz, et al., 2009) based on four premises:

  1. a) Changes at the level of individual households can significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions,
  2. b) primarily via use of more energy-efficient technologies (especially fuel efficient vehicles, driving behavior, weatherization, appliances, and HVAC equipment).
  3. c) Voluntary action needs to be complemented by policies and programs to overcome the main barriers to behavioral change.
  4. d) Behavior change programs should be designed using the best available evidence-based practices.  

The website apparently hasn’t been updated since 2009, but is a starting point for a class lecture or discussion on the individual actions deemed to have the most impact, including a graphic illustrating the relative impact of each of 17 household behaviors.

Instructors could also ask students to hypothesize which household behaviors are most impactful, and then compare their responses to the graphic.


Reviewing Psychology Literature On Environmental Issues

We have embedded a plethora of research citations in this manual, but our reference list is by no means exhaustive. Have students pick an environmental issue (e.g., recycling, energy conservation, wildlife protection) or a specific journal (e.g., Environment and Behavior) and conduct a literature search to find recent publications that apply psychology to the environment. A simple assignment is to compile citations and abstracts; a more in-depth assignment is to write a paper in the form of a literature review that summarizes and compares a limited number of the references they find. In-class presentations are a good way for students to hear about the breadth of current environmentally related psychology research.

Reading Ishmael As A Conservation Psychologist

Daniel Quinn’s 1992 novel Ishmael: An adventure of the mind and spirit was the winner (chosen from more than 2500 entries) of Ted Turner’s “Tomorrow Fellowship,” awarded for a work of fiction offering positive solutions to global problems. Ishmael is a silverback lowland gorilla who adopts a Socratic approach to teach humans about ecology, life, and freedom. Both Sue Koger and Cay Anderson-Hanley use this novel with their psychology students. Koger suggests the following questions as the basis for a conservation psychology class discussion about the book:

  • Is the book fundamentally optimistic or pessimistic?
  • Why did Quinn choose a gorilla as the “ teacher”?
  • What is necessary for real change to occur? “ Not just stopping things [e. g., behaviors]. Not just less of things. People need something positive to work for. They need a vision of something that … They need a vision of the world and of themselves that inspires them” (pp. 243-244).
  • How would Ishmael respond to such contemporary issues as genetic engineering? NAFTA/CAFTA? Biomedical research?
  • Do you agree that by taking “ this educational journey with [Ishmael], you’ re going to find yourself alienated from the people around you — friends, family, past associates, and so on”? (p. 37). Is being environmentally/socially conscious difficult? Do you perceive it as punishing, self-sacrifice, or giving up a lifestyle to which you feel entitled?
  • What do the “ Takers” do that is in violation of the Law that promotes diversity? [Exterminate competitors (kill for sake of killing) ; Destroy competitors’ food to make room for own; Deny competitors access to food; pp. 126-128. ]
  • How would you respond to the argument that increasing the food supply increases population? Does it follow that, in order to deal with overpopulation, that the food supply should be restricted? Who should make such decisions? (pp. 133, 137).
  • Many cultures value male babies more than females. According to Ishmael, this strategy may be adaptive from an evolutionary point of view [as a form of population control]. Explain and debate this idea. (pp. 179-180)
  • What were the three dirty tricks that the gods played on man? – didn’t put earth at the center of the universe (Copernicus). – didn’t create man separately; he evolved in the same way as other animals (Darwin) – didn’t exempt man from the law that governs other species, promoting diversity of life. The world wasn’t made for one species. If we refuse to live under that law, we simply won’t live!
  • What is the significance of Ishmael’s death?
  • How do you interpret the quote at the end of the book?

Reflecting On My Ecological Footprint

Mathis Wackernagel and William Rees (1996) coined the term “ecological footprint” to describe the impact of an individual human or group of humans on the earth based on their consumption of resources including water, energy, food, space, and various materials. The measurement of ecological footprint is used to estimate the amount of resources and space that would be needed to sustainably support a given lifestyle on a global scale (i.e., how many planets we would need for every individual to live a lifestyle with a particular ecological footprint). Environmental educators and advocates use the ecological footprint as a heuristic tool for raising awareness and inspiring lifestyle change among individuals. Have students take the ecological footprint quiz online and write a reflection essay. Questions for consideration in the essay or class discussion:

  • How does your individual footprint compare with the average footprint of a U.S. citizen (5 planets; 184 global acres)? Are you surprised by your score? Why or why not?
  • The tool breaks your footprint down into carbon, food, housing, goods & services; does the similarity between your lifestyle and that of the average American differ across categories?
  • What impacts might result if everyone in the world enjoyed the same lifestyle that you do? How would it impact you personally if this were the case?
  • Does reducing the size of our footprint necessarily mean reducing our quality of life? Why or why not? Are there ways of enhancing quality of life while lowering impact? (Some examples might include driving a higher mileage car, generating less waste, saving money by using more efficient appliances.)
  • Were any footprint quiz questions difficult to answer or not directly relevant? What is your opinion of the ecological footprint as a heuristic tool for raising awareness and inspiring change?

To solidify personal involvement in this issue, students should include a pledge form describing what they will do to personally reduce their footprints and how progress will be monitored.

Thinking Globally, Acting Personally

For this project, students individually examine one or more of their environmentally relevant behavior patterns and attempt to become more aware, document, and change the behavior. To help students select a behavior that will have significant impact, have them read Gardner & Stern’s (2008) short list of effective action to curb climate change for inspiration. Because this list applies to households, students may need to adapt for their college living circumstances, but just looking at it will help dispell some common misconceptions (e.g., that recycling is the most effective action an individual can take). Students may also feel inspired by perusing this list of personal sustainability actions [list contributed by Professor Shawn Meghan Burn]. It is important to provide clear guidelines for students to follow as they embark on their behavior change project.. Follow these links to access instructions for this kind of activity from Christie Manning, Sue Koger, and Laurie Hollis-Walker. Also, see the Appendix: Self Change Project in Scott, Amel, Koger, & Manning (2015).

Improving My Corner Of The World

A campus or community project examines an environmentally relevant practice of the college campus or surrounding community. It involves assessment of the situation, followed by educational and organizational efforts to work for improvement. This can be a collaborative project, conducted by a group of students from the class as well as students in other, related classes, the school’s environmental club, the community outreach office (if available), and local community groups. Projects can involve a variety of environmental issues.

  • Click here for a PDF of guidelines for a project using psychology to improve a degraded site on the campus. (inspired by an activity described on the website of Canadian non-profit educational organization “Learning for a Sustainable Future”)
  • Click here for a PDF of guidelines for a project using psychology to encourage resource conservation.

Students may want to consult the “Tools for Change” wesbite for case examples of successful community projects that have involved similar steps to those listed in the guidelines.

Privilege Walk

(Adapted from Young, 2006)

Some argue that only the more wealthy and powerful (i.e., privileged) people have the opportunity to engage with sustainability, further disenfranchising the poor. One way to begin a conversation about privilege is with a sustainability-oriented version of The Privilege Walk (Young, 2006).  Before beginning the activity, be sure to note that participation is voluntary, and if anyone feels uncomfortable at any time, they can leave the exercise; and all information revealed should be kept confidential by participants.

Sustainability privilege-walk sentences

The Power of One: Book Report/Research Project

Chapter 2 describes a number of individuals who have made significant contributions to the environmental movement; there are many others. Some have biographies or autobiographies available, others have written exposés. This assignment involves reading about one individual or his/her cause, writing a report (5-7 pages), and preparing a brief (8-10 min.) presentation, including:

– background on the specific issue;

– why the issue is important to you;

– what the person/people did;

– your reactions to reading about the person/people;

– a list of the references you used for your research (using APA style citations and reference list). If you chose to do a book report, simply identify the book you read in the Reference section.

Seeing Sustainability in your World

Arrange for a class trip or ask students to independently take a field trip to a farmer’s market, a second-hand store, or a local farm engaging in organic, permaculture, or other sustainable practices. You could also ask them to find examples of sharing programs in your community, and brainstorm ideas for more. Ask students to write up their observations, particularly as they relate to the development of an “ecological worldview” (Scott, et al., 2016).  Ask students to envision ways they could reduce and reuse, share and repair, repurpose and recycle, in their own lives.

Environmental Worldview Scale

 Ask students to complete the Environmental Worldview Scale (Nooney, et al., 2003) using a 5 point scale: 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree). Note that items 7-10 are reverse scored; instructors can vary the presentation of the items to intersperse those that are reverse scored. Higher scores are associated with greater pro-environmental attitudes (Nooney, et al., 2003).  

  1. The balance of nature is very delicate and easily upset.
  2. When humans interfere with nature it often produces disastrous consequences.
  3. Humans have an ethical obligation to protect the environment.
  4. We are approaching the limit of the number of people the earth can support.
  5. There are limits to growth beyond which our industrialized society cannot expand.
  6. Protecting the environment is so important that requirements and standards cannot be too high and continuing environmental improvements must be made regardless of cost.
  7. Humans have the right to modify the natural environment to suit their own needs.
  8. Mankind was created to rule over the rest of nature.
  9. Plants and animals exist primarily to be used by humans.
  10. Humans need not adapt to the environment because they can make it suit their needs.

Voluntary Simplicity

Ask students to read about voluntary simplicity*, and consider how they might incorporate its principles into their own lives. In what ways would be easy? More challenging? What would be the costs as well as benefits? Ask them to commit to incorporating one change for one month, and then report back on their successes/challenges at the end of the trial period.  




Website: Conservation Psychology

Carol Saunders at Brookfield Zoo has created a rich online resource for conservation psychology. According to the site,

Conservation psychology is the scientific study of the reciprocal relationships between humans and the rest of nature, with a particular focus on how to encourage conservation of the natural world. This applied field uses psychological principles, theories, or methods to understand and solve issues related to human aspects of conservation. Conservation Psychology is also the actual network of researchers and practitioners who work together to understand and promote a sustainable and harmonious relationship between people and the natural environment.

Access the site at

Websites: Educating For Sustainability

Two sites that have good materials for sustainablity educators are the following:

  • Learning for a Sustainable Future– “a Canadian nonprofit organization whose mandate is to work with educators from across Canada to integrate the concepts and principles of sustainable development into the curricula at all grade levels” (description from the website). This site includes resources for k-12 teachers, but many of the activities could be adapted for use in undergraduate level courses on conservation psychology. Access the site at
  • Facing the Future — “develops young people’s capacity and commitment to create thriving, sustainable, and peaceful local and global communities. We do this by equipping teachers and schools with the tools and strategies to help students: Understand global issues and sustainability in a way that shows the connections between population, environment, consumption, poverty and conflict; Develop a global perspective; Learn critical thinking skills; Be inspired to take personal action (description from the website).

Website: Vital Signs of the Planet

NASA provides excellent information on current condition of the Earth’s carbon dioxide levels, global temperature, land ice, and many more. Website can be found at Vital Signs of the Planet

Websites: Resources For Green Living

Once their consciouness has been raised about the importance of individual behavioral change, students are hungry for guidance on how to begin moving in a sustainable direction. The websites listed below offer some good resources:

Film: The Ecological Footprint: Accounting For A Small Planet (2005)

In this film, co-creator of the Ecological Footprint, Dr. Mathis Wackernagel, describes the tool and why we need to make an accounting of our individual impacts if we hope to secure a sustainable future. See details on the Bullfrog Films website at

Images of U.S. Consumption

Digital artist Chris Jordan’s exhibit, “Running the numbers: An American self-portrait” vividly confronts viewers with the tremendous amount of consumption and waste associated with the American lifestyle. For example, what initially looks like a version of Seurat’s “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” but turns out, upon closer inspection, to be an image comprised of 106,000 aluminum cans, the number used in the U.S. every thirty seconds. See images from the exhibit at Chris Jordan’s website.

Films To Provide An Overview Of The Environmental Crisis

Before the Flood (2016)

Narrator and Producer Leonardo DiCaprio’s film documents climate change impacts that are already occurring, and questions “humanity’s ability to reverse what may be the most catastrophic problem mankind has ever faced.”

An Inconvenient Truth (2006) and An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power (2017).

Al Gore’s 2006 film made “the compelling case that global warming is real, man-made, and its effects will be cataclysmic” [from the film website]. The 2017 sequel shows “just how close we are to a real energy revolution” [from the film website].

Blind Spot (2008)

This documentary by Adolpho Doring,

establishes the inextricable link between the energy we use, the way we run our economy and the effect it has had on our environment. It takes as a starting point the inevitable energy depletion scenario know as Peak Oil to inform us that by whatever measure of greed, wishful thinking, neglect or ignorance, we are at a crossroad which offers two paths, both with dire consequences. If we continue to burn fossil fuels our ecology will collapse and if we don’t, our economy will. Either path we choose to take will have a profound effect on our way of life. [from the film website]

Bill Moyers Reports: Earth on Edge (2001)

This two hour film is an engaging and alarming introduction to the impact of human activities on the planet. Moyers reports from Mongolia, British Columbia, Brazil, South Africa, and Kansas. This film is a good one to use in class because a discussion guide, classroom materials, and other resources are available at the PBS website. See a description and view a clip of the film at the Films for Humanities & Sciences website here.

Psychology for a Better World: Strategies to Inspire Sustainability (2011)

Psychologist Nikki Harre, Ph.D., is the author of the 2011 book Psychology for a Better World: Strategies to Inspire Sustainability, which can be used as a supplemental resource by instructors for this chapter or for chapter 11. She has a 15-minute talk on YouTube.

How to use a paper towel (2012; 4:28)

Joe Smith describes how to use a paper towel ; 13 billion paper towels are used by Americans every year; if each person reduced their use to one towel per hand-washing, that would save 571,230,000 pounds of paper.

Suggested Readings For Students

Clayton, S., & Brook, A. (2005). Can psychology help save the world? A model for conservation psychology. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, 5, 1-15.

Clayton, S. & Myers, G. (2009). Conservation psychology: Understanding and promoting human care for nature. Chichester, West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

Nickerson, R. S. (2003). Psychology and environmental change. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Saunders, C. D. (2003). The emerging field of conservation psychology. Human Ecology Review, 10, 137-149.

Winter, D. D. & Koger, S. M. (2004). The psychology of environmental problems. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.


References Cited In This Section

Clayton, S. & Brook, A. (2005). Can psychology help save the world? A model for conservation psychology. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, 1-15.

Clayton, S. & Myers, G. (2009). Conservation psychology: Understanding and promoting human careor nature. Chichester, West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

Dietz, T., Gardner, G.T., Gilligan, J., Stern, P.C. & Vandenbergh, M.P. (2009). Household actions can provide a behavioral wedge to rapidly reduce US carbon emissions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 106., 18452–18456.

Gardner, G. T. & Stern, P. C. (2008, Sept/Oct). The short list: The most effective actions U.S. households can take to curb climate change. Environment. Philadelphia: Taylor & Francis.

Harre’, N. (2011). Psychology for a Better World: Strategies to Inspire Sustainability. Available online.

Macy, J. & Johnstone, C. (2012). Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in Without Going Crazy. Novato, CA: New World Library, p. 32.

Nickerson, R. S. (2003). Psychology and environmental change. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Nooney, J., Woodrum, E., Hoban, T., & Clifford, W. (2003). Environmental worldview and behavior: Consequences of dimensionality in a survey of North Carolinians . Environment & Behavior, 35(6), 763-783. Retrieved 10/7/15 from

Quinn, D. (1992). Ishmael: An adventure of the mind and spirit. New York: Bantam-Turner Books.

Rasmussen, L. L. (2013). Earth-honoring faith: A decade project, Ghost Ranch, Abiquiu, New Mexico.

Saunders, C. D. (2003). The emerging field of conservation psychology. Human Ecology Review, 10, 137-149.

Scott, B. A., Amel, E. A., Koger, S. M., & Manning, C. M. (2016). Psychology for sustainability (4th ed). New York: Routledge.

Wackernagel, M., & Rees, W. (1996). Our ecological footprint: Reducing human impact on the earth. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society.

Watson, D., & Tharp, R. (2004). Self-directed behavior: Self modification for personal adjustment. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.

Winter, D. D., & Koger, S. M. (2004). The psychology of environmental problems (2nd ed.). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.