Psychology is an exciting and vibrant discipline because it is relevant to so many challenges of humanity. Our science addresses fundamental questions about human beings (and other animals)--the nature of memory, learning, perception, personality and social relationships. Our practice offers hope and interventions relating to mental and physical health, productivity, education, prosperity and democracy. No other discipline speaks to so many facets of the human condition.
The problems psychological science and practice focus on are complex and important. Solutions and refined interventions will occupy the work force of psychology for decades to come. Against this backdrop, it is curious (if not troubling) that psychology has yet to turn the full force of its attention to the greatest challenges of our time.
The really big challenges
Anyone who follows political, social and scientific commentary knows that the quality of life on our planet is now threatened by global warming. Similarly, the future of human activity on this planet depends on solving the looming "energy crisis." What is psychology doing to address these two problems?
When we turn to science for answers, plenty of knowledge and insight can be found. The fields of physics, chemistry and environmental science explain the proximal causes of global warming. The same fields, especially when combined with expertise from engineering, continue to make progress in developing renewable sources of energy. These and other fields of science are devoted to understanding and solving such problems, and are hampered mainly by inadequate resources (money) dedicated to research.
Where is psychology?
Our own science also contributes insight. Indeed, it is psychology that points to the true culprit of both global warming and reckless energy consumption: human behavior. Global warming is the result of human activity. Wasted energy and the rapidly diminishing supply of oil is the result of human activity. This is the domain of psychology--unique among the sciences in its capacity to understand human behavior and unique in its ability to address these two challenges.
So where is psychology in the scientific effort? It is hard to find. A search of the PsycINFO database returns a total of 62 journal articles, books, or dissertations over the past 25 years having anything to do with global warming. Only 186 items can be identified on the subject of energy conservation.
It is not as though psychology is mute on subjects related to these two challenges. Over the same 25 year period, we can find over 800 treatments of social conformity, and over 1,000 mentions of persuasion and attitude change--phenomena that will surely be critical to changing the human behaviors responsible for global warming and energy consumption. What psychology has not yet done, to any significant degree, is link such studies of human behavior with these two behavioral challenges of the 21st Century.
We must rise to the challenge
It is almost trite to say that psychology must respond. Of course we should. It won't be easy, and we must be careful not to promise more than we can deliver. But we must do better than we have so far.
As responsible citizens of the world, it is the right thing to do. As responsible scientists, it is our duty. Our future as a credible and relevant science depends on it.
Most of us want psychology to be accepted and respected as a science. We want our science to be useful and to contribute to the solution of human problems. We can easily point to a wealth of accumulated knowledge bearing on some of the greatest mysteries of human cognition, emotion and action. As a science and as a profession, we have plenty of which to be proud.
Yet when friends, family, taxpayers and legislators ask what psychology has done to address the problems of global warming and energy conservation, we look away. We do not have much to show in our collective scientific efforts.
Why is this? Is it because the problems are just too difficult? Are they too big for psychology to handle alone? Is it because other problems must take priority? Are these two problems too enmeshed in politics? Is the research we need just too practical and applied?
Whatever the answers, we must rise above the problems. We must rise to the challenge. If the discipline of psychology can't do it, then no discipline can.