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Holding the earth

Most scientists now agree that human behavior is the main cause of pollution, the loss of biodiversity and global climate change. The challenge is to find ways to change people's behaviors to reverse those problems, says Robert Gifford, PhD, a psychology and environmental studies professor at the University of Victoria in British Columbia.

That's where environmental psychology comes in, says Amara Brook, PhD, a social psychology professor at Santa Clara University who studies the development of environmental identities. "As experts in human behavior, we can help figure out how to motivate people to do sustainable things," she says.

Dedicated to creating, managing, protecting and restoring environments that promote productive and healthy behaviors, environmental psychologists can be found in nearly every subfield of the profession, and they're increasingly at the forefront of efforts to protect the planet.

Why it's hot:

Environmental psychology has been a subdiscipline for about 40 years and often mingles with such subfields as urban and city planning, environmental design and environmental health. It's experienced a recent surge of interest, thanks to public concerns about the effects of climate change, Brook says: "Almost every issue of Time and Newsweek talks about moving toward sustainability."

And as public interest in the psychology of sustainability grows, demand for environmental psychologists also appears to be increasing, says Nora Davis, chair of the Div. 34 (Population and Environmental) ad hoc committee on the participation of students and young professionals. "It used to be that Div. 34 would send out an environmental psychology job opportunity listserv announcement maybe once every six months," says Davis, an education associate at the U.S. Green Building Council. "Now, from the listserv and other places, I get two to three a month."

While most of those jobs are for research psychologists, clinical psychologists with environmental expertise are also in demand because environmental concerns cause people anxiety and grief, says Thomas Doherty, PsyD, a Portland, Ore., clinical psychologist who specializes in helping clients develop more sustainable lifestyles. Doherty says therapists can help people maintain their motivation and optimism about environmental issues and help clients connect with nature in a way that promotes mental health.

Yet Paul Stern, PhD, director of the U.S. National Research Council's Committee on the Human Dimensions of Global Change and a member of an APA task force on climate change, cautions that it might be too early to say with much certainty that demand for environmental psychologists is really growing.

"The environment and human interaction with it is what's hot, and psychology is only a small piece of that," says Stern. "It's only as hot as it makes itself."

What you can do:

Some environmental psychologists work at nonprofit organizations or in the government, where they conduct or apply research on environmental issues, says Patricia Winter, PhD, a research social scientist with the U.S. Forest Service. Her research, for example, often centers on routes to encouraging environmentally friendly behaviors, including the wording of signs in outdoor recreation settings. Other environmental psychology researchers spend their time investigating such issues as the effects of sunlight on employee productivity or testing how adding parks and gardens to urban neighborhoods affects children's academic performance. Some work for nongovernmental organizations where they promote new research findings to drum up support for environmental causes, says Gifford.

Academic jobs specifically for environmental psychologists are hard to come by, Gifford adds. However, many ecology-oriented researchers teach in social or developmental psychology programs and apply psychological theories to behaviors such as energy conservation, recycling and material consumption, even if they don't formally call themselves environmental psychologists.

APA is also working to promote more opportunities for environmental psychologists. Since last year, the APA Task Force on the Interface between Psychology and Global Climate Change has been working to survey the many links between psychology and the environment and to highlight emerging opportunities for psychological research. These include exploring people's attitudes toward the environment and their perception of environmental risks as well as predictors of sustainable behaviors, says task force chair Janet Swim, PhD, a psychology professor at Penn State University.

"Psychologists just have so much to offer on these issues," Swim says.

Earnings outlook

Salaries for environmental psychologists will vary widely depending on employment sector, says Jessica Kohout, PhD, director of APA's Center for Workforce Studies. For instance, the overall median annual salary for psychologists in research positions, regardless of focus, is $90,000, according to APA's 2007 salary survey. For psychologists in research administration positions, the median annual pay is $110,000. The same survey reported that the annual median salary for licensed doctoral-level clinical psychologists was $85,000. These numbers, Kohout says, include psychologists with experience levels that span up to 30 years. For those with experience between zero and five years, however, median doctoral-level salaries for research positions come in at $65,000. For research administration and clinical direct human service positions, the median annual salary is $63,000.

How to get there:

Students who decide to pursue environmental psychology early in their education might consider attending the few graduate programs specifically focused on this area. (For a list, visit the Div. 34 Web site.) Each program has a slightly different orientation—for example, architectural, activist or ecological—so shop around and read through the publications of each institution's professors to get a sense of a school's focus, Gifford says.

If you're a budding environmental psychologist enrolled in a program that doesn't have an environmental focus, Gifford and Brook suggest that you apply your ecological interests to your studies or embark on a dissertation or thesis with an ecological spin and traditional psychological underpinnings. Social psychology professors have a reputation for being particularly good advisers for up-and-coming environmental psychologists.

Regardless of your program, Stern and Winter advise students to pursue additional course work in subjects like environmental science, cultural geography and natural resource management to broaden their perspectives.

"Staying totally in a psych department is not wise if they want to make a real contribution to understanding and coping with environmental problems," Stern says. "The disciplines provide insights but also impose serious blinders."

Students can also augment their training by attending conference sessions on environmental psychology topics, and by joining local environmental groups to gain hands-on experience with the issues affecting their community. Davis also suggests reading journals on environmental psychology, such as the Journal of Environmental Psychology, Environment and Behavior or the newly launched EcoPsychology and joining Div. 34 to network with others in the field.

Pros and cons

Many environmental psychologists say their favorite part of the job is the feeling that they are working toward solving serious world problems.

Another perk is that environmental psychologists often work outside or on location in zoos, parks and within the community, which can be more appealing to some than spending all day in a lab or office.

Environmental psychology is also relatively unexplored, and as environmental issues continue to gain traction among policymakers and the public, Doherty says, opportunities will surely grow.

"Times have changed and green is the emerging norm in most places," he says.

But despite these burgeoning opportunities, environmental psychologists often have to be self-motivated and think broadly when building a career in this area, Doherty says. Brook agrees, adding that while the need for more environmental research and advocacy is certainly there, many people may not yet realize that psychologists, as specialists in group processes and human interaction, are among the best prepared to undertake it.

"As one of only a handful of clinical psychologists in this area, I've had to build my own path," Doherty says. "That's not for everyone."

By Amy Novotney


Amy Novotney is a writer in Chicago.

Environmental psychology resources: