Environmentalism with attitude: the importance of psychology

Posted on June 19, 2017


Although public support can be crucial in achieving aquatic management goals, management approaches often receive little input from disciplines that focus on the relationship between humans and the environment.  A recently-published paper used case studies, some specifically relating to freshwater issues, to show how environmental psychology and natural sciences can work together to successfully tackle aquatic conservation problems.  The first freshwater case study concerned human-nature relationships in river use and management in Austria.  Questionnaries revealed that only a few members of the diverse group of stakeholders consulted aligned themselves with the “master” attitude, namely that humans should control and change nature.   Many more regarded themselves as users, stewards or participants in nature. However, some saw themselves as participants in nature in their private life but masters in their professional life.  An awareness of these views can help to develop a common understanding between different user groups.   The second case study, on river quality, focussed on Italy’s Magra River, which has become less braided and less ecologically diverse as a result of human activities.  To assess attitudes towards proposed restoration works, a photo-questionnaire was developed showing riverscapes with different proportions of water, vegetation and sediments.  The results showed that although physical features of braided rivers were valued by scientists they were seen as less valuable by members of the public, mainly because they disliked gravel bars. However, local children liked gravel bars more than children living further from the river, which suggested that engagement with local schools could help to reinforce positive associations with braided rivers into adulthood. The third case study examined the reasons why many members of the British public find certain endangered species (especially invertebrates) uncharismatic. The study focussed on the freshwater pearl mussel (Margaritifera margaritifera). By conducting a quantitative online survey of public attitudes the researchers found that both values and knowledge affected the way that conservation importance was perceived. One value-based measure (the value of local rivers) and two knowledge-based measures (the familiarity of a species and whether or not the species was native to the UK) were significant, suggesting that conservation bodies should highlight the local benefits of rivers, in terms of both ecology and resources. This approach would also help to offset any negative associations of rivers with climate change and flooding. Finally, a fourth case study examined how newspapers have affected public perceptions of PCB pollution in the France’s River Rhone. Reports in three regional newspapers in 2005-2010 contributed to improved public awareness of PCB pollution. Public interest in the topic increased between 2005 and 2008 in line with media coverage, which declined after 2008. This study showed how newspapers can reflect and help to shape attitudes to environmental issues.

Reference:  Walker-Springett, K. et al.  2016.  Ways forward for aquatic conservation: applications of environmental psychology to support management objectives.   Journal of Environmental Management 166, 525-536.  http://ac.els-cdn.com/S030147971530356X/1-s2.0-S030147971530356X-main.pdf?_tid=09d653e4-3e89-11e7-866b-00000aab0f02&acdnat=1495414575_0e335923b1b8cdf27ebefd770ba6d3e7