Feature

It may be an inconvenient truth for some but it seems as if everyone's going green. Here are a few ways psychologists in particular can help protect the planet.

  • Save a tree; use your computer. Review the resources you consume daily and make adjustments as needed, says Thomas Doherty, PsyD, a Portland, Ore., psychologist who helps clients develop more sustainable lifestyles. Psychologists, for example, tend to use a lot of paper-for reports, presentations, client files and more. To curb paper waste, Indiana University cognitive psychology professor Michelle Verges, PhD, posts her syllabi and other course information online and uses both sides of the paper when she does need to print. Researchers can reduce paper use by collecting data via the Web when possible.

Confidentiality concerns may prevent clinicians and researchers from reusing paper, so Doherty recommends finding a local source for buying post-consumer recycled paper. Not only does recycled paper save trees, it keeps more trees sucking up carbon dioxide from the air, reducing the amount of greenhouse gases in the air. Confidential documents may be shredded and then recycled-at least in most areas, Doherty says. In Phoenix-a city that does not accept shredded paper for recycling-psychologist Sherri Gallagher, PhD, says she puts it in her compost and later uses it to fertilize her garden.

Practitioners may even want to consider the example of Portland, Ore., psychologist Jeffrey Noethe, PhD, who went almost completely paperless. When Noethe does patient intakes, for example, he scans and shreds each client's information form and signature pages and types up notes after each session. He does all of his scheduling and billing electronically, as well. As for security, he says his encrypted computer files are much safer than paper copies in a file cabinet.

"There are more people who know how to use a crowbar than know how to hack a computer," says Noethe, who is on the steering committee of the Portland-based group Psychology for a Sustainable Future, which explores the connections among psychology, ecology and sustainability.

  • Overhaul your energy use. Electricity generation creates about 40 percent of U.S. carbon emissions, according to The Nature Conservancy. If you own your office and have control over your energy selections, choose to get your energy from one of a growing number of renewable energy sources-from solar power or windmills, for example-and install the most energy-efficient appliances, says industrial-organizational and conservation psychologist Elise Amel, PhD. More than 50 percent of retail customers in the United States now have the option to purchase alternative energy directly from their electricity supplier, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. (Visit www.eere.energy.gov for information on the alternative energy sources available in your area.)

Even if you don't have control over your workplace's energy source or appliance selection, everyone can cut their own energy consumption by switching to compact fluorescent lightbulbs, which reduce the amount of fossil fuels consumed to generate electricity. In December, Congress voted to phase out conventional incandescent lightbulbs beginning in 2012-all the more reason to invest now.

Another energy-saving tip: Turn off your computer when you leave the office, says Ken Liberatore, PhD, a staff psychologist with the Federal Bureau of Prisons in Lompoc, Calif. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, a typical computer and monitor use about 270 watts of energy when active. Powering down your computer when not in use-or at least setting it to enter sleep mode during periods of inactivity-reduces your computer's energy consumption by 75 percent-and may save you up to $150 a year.

In addition to the above tips, psychologists can join their institutions' recycling committees or green teams, says Verges. And if a group like this doesn't exist, start one.

"By participating in this type of committee work, you are in the position to implement green practices all over your campus" or office, Verges says.

  • Cut carbon as you commute. It's obvious, but can't be said too often: Whenever possible, take public transportation. Every mile that you don't drive saves one pound of carbon.

Airplanes are a particularly big culprit for greenhouse gas emissions, and can leave a big carbon footprint on an otherwise environmentally conscious lifestyle.

"You don't necessarily want to get caught up in the details of what kind of lightbulbs and paper you're using if you're flying around the country all the time and not doing something about that," says Doherty.

That doesn't mean you shouldn't leave your hometown. If you must fly, purchase carbon offsets for air travel-as well as for electricity and gas use-says Doherty. A roundtrip flight from New York to Los Angeles, for example, emits more than 2,000 pounds of carbon dioxide-a third of the amount a hybrid car releases in an entire year-but a tax-deductible donation of less than $10 at such Web sites as www.carbonfund.org helps mitigate the damage done by such trips by funding organizations dedicated to clean-energy development, the reduction of energy use and reforestation promotion.

  • Green by example. Research shows that when you know someone else is doing something that's good for the Earth, you're more apt to do it yourself, says Amel.

Meg Houlihan, PhD, a private practitioner in Charlotte, N.C., models eco-friendly behavior by placing recycling bins throughout her office. She also recommends posting feedback on how many cans and bottles your office recycles each week and noting how much energy that saves. If your office or workplace is accessible via public transportation, Amel suggests posting the bus or light-rail schedule and encouraging visitors to take advantage of this option. Also stock your office's kitchen or waiting room with locally made refreshments-which don't require carbon-emitting transportation across continents-and make sure people know where they're from, Amel says.

"Just publicizing what you're doing to be more green gets people to recognize that not only do you care, but it gives them ideas and shows them that if this busy person can do this, I can, too," she says. "It's all about demonstrating through your own behavior."

  • Become a resource for sustainability. In addition to adopting more environmentally friendly actions, psychologists can also use their skills to help people live healthy, full lives, built-at least in part-on the acknowledgment of the important role nature can play in improving one's mental and physical health, says Houlihan.

"It's really important that we don't just focus on compact fluorescent light bulbs and printing on two sides of paper," says Houlihan. She notes that the "high consumption, materialistic route to mental health and happiness" common to American culture is damaging the planet, and does not, in fact, lead to happiness. Instead, research shows, happiness is related to low-consumption activities such as gratitude, mindfulness and the development of close relationships, meaningful work and a spiritual connection.

Psychologists can contribute to sustainability in their communities by encouraging depressed clients to go hiking or take up gardening to improve their moods, by providing consulting services to a local sustainable business looking to drum up customers or by offering to speak at Earth Day celebrations on ways to manage environmental stress. Verges even recommends applying environmental issues into course curriculums as a way to raise student and public awareness, and provide a contextual basis for learning psychological concepts. For example, as part of her Statistical Analysis in Psychology course, Verges asked her students to link their study of statistics to a community environmental issue: the conservation of plastic bags. Throughout the course, students read Elizabeth Royte's "Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash" (Little Brown & Company, 2005), contributed to a blog tracking the number of plastic bags consumed nationwide and hosted Bagfest, a community festival to raise public awareness of the issue. At the festival, students collected more than 74,000 plastic bags for recycling, created a public platform to discuss economic and environmental factors regarding the consumption of plastic bags and encouraged local residents to use reusable tote bags for shopping.

"People are interested in what psychologists have to say," says Doherty, who runs a monthly public environmental discussion group. And in case you were wondering, the group holds its meetings at the EcoTrust building, a renowned center for environmental activities in Portland-and yes, Doherty rides his bike to get there.

Further Reading

Further resources
  • For information on calculating your office's carbon footprint, visit The Nature Conservancy at www.nature.org.

  • For information on carbon offsets, visit www.carbonfund.org.

  • For more information on how to create almost paperless offices, visit http://drnoethe.com/Articles/PaperlessOffice.pdf.

  • For information on how colleges and universities are greening their campuses, visit the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education at www.aashe.org.