From Science to Solutions: How Psychology Research Can Help Build Sustainable Communities

Bill McConochie

sustainable_developmentSustainable communities are those that can go on forever, without excess population pressure on resources. Beyond this basic requirement, desirable sustainable communities must provide satisfactory educational, vocational, health care, and recreational opportunities for all citizens, while being free of aggressive warring. To create and maintain such a community requires the skills and services of persons in many disciplines, from government to psychology.

My research in political psychology has included studies of public attitudes toward many issues related to sustainable communities, with many interesting findings. Perhaps the most important and encouraging: 90% of adults want government that serves them not as members of special interest groups (endorsed by only 20%), but as members of the community overall–“public democracy” on behalf of the common good, if you will.

In my own survey work, I’ve found that individuals who endorse a cluster of human rights oriented items (e.g., “Everyone has the right to food, shelter and clothing” and “Everyone over the age of 18 has the right to vote or be elected to the governance of their community”) also tend to endorse items that reflect a personal focus on sustainability issues (e.g., “My national government should support international treaties and efforts to reduce greenhouse gasses and global warming” and “My national government should support restriction on harvesting from forests and fisheries to levels that are sustainable for generations (forever)”). My studies further reveal that those with high scores in these two areas also tend to have high scores on many other questionnaire measures of pro-social traits, such as endorsement of public democracy, kindly religious beliefs, improved government services of all sorts, and a positive, constructive foreign policy.

In contrast, a much smaller portion of the people I survey endorse warmongering, fundamentalist religious beliefs, authoritarianism, violence-proneness and even terrorism. We don’t have to go to the Middle East to find terrorist-prone persons. And there are so many publicly observable traits associated with endorsement of warmongering that we can reliably rate political and historical figures on warmongering-proneness. These characteristics include endorsement of lying and conniving to obtain and maintain political power, endorsement of propaganda, and fear of Muslims or other foreigners. Scores on this trait for president George W. Bush and other presidents, leaders, and historical figures correlate very highly with an independent rating of warmongering-proneness.

Knowing valuable scientific information relevant to sustainable community formation is only the first step. Getting this information into the community is another. For myself, I try to disseminate what I’ve learned while learning more from others in a variety of ways: through professional networks and conferences, collaborating on research projects, publishing, and maintaining a website. I find many opportunities in my home state of Oregon, where the only UNESCO chair for peace and sustainability studies in the Western Hemisphere is held by a professor at the University of Oregon. Also, the governor of our state is sponsoring and promoting a series of sustainable programs, ranging from how to dispose of river dredgings in a manner that protects the local crab industry, to helping school children and their parents participate in school sports with “competition but not conflict” (i.e., without hostility toward opponents).

At the same time, good intentions regarding sustainability are not always enough. I’m a member of Rotary International, a century-old organization dedicated to international communication, exchanges of students and business leaders, helping the underprivileged, and promoting understanding and peace. I admire and participate in this work, but I can also see how such efforts can inadvertently contribute to world problems–for example, by reducing death rates without simultaneously addressing birth rates and population growth. We Rotarians feel good helping others, but we need to look at the big picture in what we do if we’re going to promote truly sustainable communities that aren’t overpopulated and that don’t overwhelm available resources.

There are many areas in which well-informed psychologists can help design and maintain sustainable communities. As psychologists we can continue studies to equip ourselves with hard data that can assist community efforts to keep dangerous and special interest group serving people out of politics and empower the large majority of citizens who endorse pro-social policies and programs, including sustainable communities. When we consider the impending danger posed by global warming, we see that the welfare of the whole world hangs in the balance. Sustainability is akin to survival. What more important focus can there be for our professional efforts?

PsySR member Bill McConochie is a psychologist in private practice with about 40 years of experience in school, clinical, industrial/organizational and political psychology (in that chronological sequence). He currently focuses primarily on political psychology, conducting research and sharing findings over his website Political Psychology Research and at professional conventions. Bill can be reached at tstmastr@rio.com or bill@politicalpsychologyresearch.com. All of his research questionnaires are on his website and can be downloaded for use without fee. He encourages researchers to use these instruments to replicate his studies and to conduct new ones.

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