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Sustainability, learned helplessness and empowerment. Revisiting the challenges for environmental psychology



Enric Pol


As environmental psychologists, on a turbulent and changing world, we must be constantly reviewing our research agenda and priorities, to ensure our contribution to the improvement and well-being of our society, now and for future generations. This is the challenge of sustainability in its original sense following Brundtland Report (1987).


Pol Castrechini & Carrus (2017) emphasize opposition of two social models, which can change or vary the internal dynamics and research of our discipline: a society installed or moving towards a learned helplessness vs. a society where values of solidarity, social cohesion and work for empowerment are predominant. We often talk about the need to move towards sustainability, but socioeconomic and political dynamics do not seem to go in that direction.


Our studies (CIS, 2002) and others provide data to state that without social cohesion and identity, there is no coping capacity or resilience, then sustainability is not possible. In addition, current social dynamics linked to precariousness and labour rights lost, refugee movements or migrations directly or indirectly related to climate change, do not seem to prioritize sustainability challenges when immediate survival arise. In addition, we have to consider how urban form and organization of the city, can facilitate or hinder necessary cooperation and social cohesion, or to lead to a decreased perception of well-being and quality of life.


Dominant psychological literature, when concerned about sustainability, use to focus in predicting behaviour and on attitude-behaviour relationships, from eminently individual explanation models, not taking into account sufficiently, contextual factors that can drastically change behaviour, despite having a ‘positive’ attitude. Furthermore, forms of communication and explanation of changes linked to new technologies, instead of facilitating transition, ends up generating scepticism and incredulity about what it was considered ‘to be sustainable' and essential until then. This puts communication processes in the centre of the object to analyse from environmental psychology to achieve sustainability.


In any case, in a world evolving in an unpredictable way, from the analysis and development of environments allegedly facilitating sustainability, we must analyse and propose minimal ways that satisfy social needs offering the person coping capacity and resilience. We know that this is not possible without a minimum of cooperation options, trust and empowerment. We need to revisit what was already raised in architectural psychology of the 60's and 70's (Canter, 1969, Honikman 1970, Küller 1973 Proshanky, Ittelson & Rivlin, 1970): What are the minimum ways that guarantee (or not disrupt) psychological processes and provide psychosocial well-being in the interaction of people with their everyday environment, housing, neighbourhood, city, and provide a sense of belonging to the group or community.



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