Consumption and the Rights of Earth: Perspectives from Psychology and Other Disciplines

At a recent UN panel, psychologist David Krantz outlined ways in which different fields might offer hope for humankind’s efforts at restraint in our relationship with our planet.

By Susan A. Nolan, PhD

Susan Nolan, PhD, is Associate Professor and Chair at Seton Hall University. She is a representative for APA at the United Nations. Her research is on stigma and perceptions of people with mental illness, and on the career trajectories of people following careers in science, technology and mathematics (STEM) fields.

Psychologist David Krantz, speaking at the United Nations (UN), proclaimed that people “have become one of the geologic forces. We are like the wind, the tectonic plates… We have not learned to restrain ourselves.” At a recent UN panel, an ambassador, a psychologist, an attorney, and an expert in both earth science and religion outlined ways in which their fields might offer hope for humankind’s efforts at restraint in our relationship with our planet.

In May 2010, the 18th Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) followed up on issues raised at the December 2009 UN Conference on Climate Change in Copenhagen. The CSD highlighted several specific environmental concerns, including mining, transportation, and sustainable production and consumption. The American Psychological Association (APA) was a co-organizer and co- sponsor of a side event that took place during CSD on the UN grounds – Consumption and the Rights of Mother Earth: Perspectives on Needed Change from the Fields of Economics, Jurisprudence, Psychology, Science, and Religion. Side events provide a means through which nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) with consultative status at the UN may contribute to discussions occurring at official meetings among UN entities and between the UN and civil society. This CSD program was supported by over twenty NGOs; in addition to APA, the International Association of Applied Psychology was a co-sponsor.

The side event included presentations from four panelists, as well as a conversation among the panelists and audience members. The event attracted attendees from a wide spectrum of backgrounds – from nongovernmental organizations, academia, and UN entities – and the presentations sparked lively dialogue among the standing-room-only crowd. The four panelists were:

  • H.E. Pablo Solón, Ambassador of Bolivia to the United Nations

  • David H. Krantz, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology, Center for Research on Environmental Decisions, Columbia University, New York, NY, USA

  • Eduardo Scarel, O. Carm., Ph.D., Professor of Science and Atmospheric Studies, University of Buenos Aires, Argentina

  • Patricia Siemen, OP, Esq., Executive Director, Center for Earth Jurisprudence, Collaborative Center of Barry and St. Thomas Universities, Miami Gardens, FL, USA

Ambassador Pablo Solón set the tone for the evening, asserting that as the Declaration on Human Rights was key for the 20th century, so would the proposed Declaration on Mother Earth be for the 21st century. “The search for harmony with nature is related to the search for harmony between humans,” he said, citing Bolivian President Evo Morales’ belief that the rights of nature must be guaranteed to guarantee human rights. Ambassador Solón related the quest of Bolivia and other countries in the developing world to highlight environmental issues at the UN. He encouraged the use of the phrase “Mother Earth” to encourage people to view the earth as a living being in need of respect and care, rather than a resource simply to be used. [Bolivia’s proposal may be read at]

Dr. David Krantz built on Ambassador Solón’s presentation by observing that Bolivia is putting forth a moral standard; “In decision science,” Dr. Krantz said, “I think of moral standards as goals.” He then outlined areas in which moral standards are studied empirically by psychologists and other social scientists. For example, the study of group dynamics emphasizes affiliation and social roles. Dr. Krantz reported that our moral standards are derived from our social roles (e.g., teacher, parent), status (e.g., within a peer group), and identity (e.g., faithful, non-racist). He views the changing of internalized standards and norms as a route to behavioral change with respect to the environment, noting that the adoption of new standards can occur quickly through insight whereas the abandonment of current standards tends to be much more gradual. Thus, if we can affect standards via people’s social roles, status, and identity, we can expect that these new standards will tend to last. Dr. Krantz did note, however, the special nature of environmental standards, including the fact that many goals are intergenerational and thus require a different empirical framework.

Dr. Eduardo Scarel combined earth science and religion in his presentation. He began by highlighting the vast problem posed by levels of consumption in the developed world, reporting that if all developing countries were to consume at the level of the United States and other western countries, we would need four additional planets to sustain this consumption. Dr. Scarel views global warming like a fever in a human – a symptom of wider socioeconomic structural problems that must be “treated.” He echoed the views of Ambassador Solón and Dr. Krantz in his emphasis on human values as the force behind behavioral decisions. Dr. Scarel cited organized religion and spiritual practices as important means of sculpting human values.

Sister Patricia Siemen reported from her work on earth jurisprudence, noting that standards and norms are also guided by the legal system. In much of the developed world, the legal system has evolved to support market practices that harm the environment. She sees laws as following cultural values; in her work, she explores ways in which communities can be transformed so that environmental values and respect for nature are common cultural values, so that the law then codifies these values. Like Ambassador Solón, Sister Siemen discussed the importance of referring to our planet as “Mother Earth,” a means through which we can affect values. She also encouraged attendees to eliminate the word “the” when discussing Earth, to avoid thinking of it as an object; “we don’t say the Mars, the Venus,” she observed. Indeed, Sister Siemen asserted, “saying Mother Earth is a significant shift in consciousness for those coming out of a western society.” In her push to change our language and values with respect to Earth, Sister Siemen also sees a role for public relations and the media. Ultimately, she sees change occurring when we strive to shift cultural values and then “work with the western legal paradigm to bring forth laws” that protect the environment.

The discussion after the presentations highlighted interdisciplinary connections with respect to behavior change. All the represented disciplines emphasized moral standards, and there is an evident role for psychology in studying means through which we can change moral standards and cultural values. The Center for Research on Environmental Decisions (CRED) at Columbia University, where panelist Dr. Krantz and other psychologists work, is an example of an interdisciplinary venue in which psychologists are prime contributors. In addition to psychology, CRED pulls from a wide range of disciplines including anthropology, economics, engineering, geosciences, and public administration. As psychologists continue to engage in projects such as those at CRED and in conversations such as the UN side event on consumption, its role as a connecting discipline will grow as, will its influence on environmental behavior change.