Society: Step to to save the planet



Scientific knowledge alone isn’t enough to save the planet – we must also act on that knowledge and radically change our behaviour, according to the authors of an international study.

The study, carried out by researchers from The Australian National University and colleagues in Germany, the UK and the USA, suggests that the greatest barrier to sustainability no longer lies in a lack of knowledge about environmental problems, but rather a failure to translate that knowledge into action.

A co-author of the study, Dr Robert Dyball from the ANU Fenner School of Environment and Society, said that sustainability demands urgent and real changes in human behaviour. While more knowledge is useful, the focus needs to be on how and when humans willingly change their behaviour based on what they know.

“Human actions and behaviours, both by individuals and societies, are the greatest cause of ecological damage and the ongoing degradation of the biosphere. We know what we need to do – it’s now time to ‘just do it’,” Dr Dyball said.

“Our study has identified five key priority areas that can help humans change their behaviour and increase sustainability. These are: reforming the formal institutions of nation states; strengthening civil society and fostering citizen engagement; curbing consumption and reducing population growth; ensuring equity and social justice issues are included in all decision-making processes; and examining deeply-held value and belief systems, which fundamentally shape behaviour.”

Dr Dyball added that achieving large-scale behavioural change requires a powerful movement within civil society.

“Unsustainable behaviours result from a vicious cycle, where market and state institutions discourage and undermine more sustainable behaviours to maintain the status quo. At the same time the institutions of civil society lack the momentum to effectively promote fundamental reform of these institutions,” he said.

“Achieving more sustainable behaviours requires this cycle to be broken. To drive social change, civil society groups must engage people and provide opportunities for active participation. On top of this, sustainability messages need to be communicated in a way that people can relate to. Put bluntly, we know what needs to happen to work towards a more sustainable future: we know that a social avalanche is needed. The challenge now is to get it started.”

The study has been published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology