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One Giant Step

Action for sustainability doesn’t just happen once someone knows something they didn’t know before. Despite the fact that many environmental education and communication programs focus on the delivery of information, there is significant research to indicate that awareness alone is not enough to compel behaviour change.

“Research in the field of environmental education and in commercial marketing has shown that there is no cause-and-effect progression from knowledge to attitude to behaviour as educators have long believed” (Martha Moore, Brian Day, and Mona Grieser, Environmental Education and Communication for a Sustainable World, GreenCom, 2000).

Just because we know the costs and benefits of our actions doesn’t necessarily translate into personal changes. Sometimes – many times – despite knowing what to do to improve our sustainability, we continue to perpetuate damaging behaviours.

As Les Robinson and Andreas Glanznig state in Enabling EcoAction (2003): “There is obviously much more to the ecology of personal change than merely possessing knowledge”.

As environmental educators and communicators, we need to focus our efforts toward clearly defined actions that inspire behaviour-change in our audiences / participants / local communities. Environmental education can no longer be simply about information download.

If (as research suggests) there is no cause-and-effect progression from knowledge to attitudes to action, the relationship between these factors is a bit of a mystery. Some fields of study (such as explorations in “cognitive dissonance”) suggest that the opposite progression may occur. In other words, actions may help to form attitudes, which then stimulate the seeking of knowledge (Leon Festinger and James Carlsmith, Cognitive Consequences of Forced Compliance, Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 1959, Vol. 58, pg. 203, cited in Robinson & Glanznig, 2003).

Is it possible that actions can be both the means and end to personal and social change?

Either way, as Robinson & Glanznig (2003) highlight, the benefits of promoting specific actions for sustainability are threefold:

  • People can make a real different to the natural environment through their actions
  • People can measure and observe the benefits and impacts of their actions
  • People can learn quickly and efficiently through their actions

Combined, these factors point toward clear outcomes for action-focused environmental education. As educators and communicators, when we promote and facilitate experiential learning, we enable a powerful tool for social change:  learning by doing.  

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