Katharina Thelen-Laesser: CLOSING THE GAP BETWEEN KNOWLEDGE AND ACTION

Katharina Thelen-Laesser: CLOSING THE GAP BETWEEN KNOWLEDGE AND ACTION

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Although several hundreds of studies have been undertaken so far, no definitive answers have yet been found that convincingly explain the huge gap between the knowledge and awareness of environmental issues on the one hand and the radius of action on the other.

What are the reasons for this startling absence of answers? One reason might lie in the complexity of the subject. In order to get into the various aspects of the problem, one needs to exert oneself into various kinds of models: Political and economic models, psychological and ecophilosophical models, social marketing models to mention a few.

This leads to the conclusion that the posed question – what builds the competence of a behavior that considers environmental issues? – is such a complex one that it cannot be visualized through one single scientific approach. So, for someone who enters the field of Environmental Humanities like myself for the first time, it can be hard to find an entrance to the maze and it can be even harder to find a way out without losing directions.

One entry to the maze could be the following: In order to act in a way that respects the environment, one needs to develop the competence of ‘pro-environmental behavior’. According to Kohlmus et al this kind of behavior is defined as a mode of action that seeks to minimize the negative impact of one’s actions on the natural and built world on a conscious level.[1]

Early rationalist and linear models that are based on the assumption that a linear progression of environmental knowledge automatically leads to environmental attitudes, which in turn was thought to lead to pro-environmental behavior, were proven to be wrong.[2] Recent research has shown that in most cases, an increase of knowledge does not lead automatically to pro-environmental behavior. Despite this scientifically based insight a majority of NGOs base their campaigns and strategies on the assumption that more knowledge will lead to more enlightened and conscious behavior.

Apart from the obvious roots of pro-environmental behavior – e.g., normative and cultural influences it has been shown that direct experiences have a stronger influence on pro-environmental behavior than indirect experiences.

It is therefore not enough to teach someone in an abstract setting like a school room. Experiencing the consequences of pro-environmental behavior has been proven to lead to a much stronger correlation between attitude and behavior.

That leads to the conclusion that in order to stimulate change there must be more about the education of human kind than the reliance on abstract information. Change can be improved by establishing a point of contact with the real world. It is easier to love and esteem what one can feel, taste, smell, see and hear than what you only read about and hear.

This point of contact will lead to a closing of the gap between human kind and nature and, consequentially, to a closing of the gap between the knowledge and awareness of environmental issues and the radius of action on our fragile and unique planet.

 

[1] Kollmuss, Anja et al, Mind the Gap: Why do people act environmentally and what are the barriers to pro-environmental behavior? In: Environmental Education Research, Vol. 8, 2002, pages 239-260, p.241.

[2] Burgess et al, Environmental communication and the cultural politics of environmental citizenship, in: Environment and Planning, 1998, pp. 1445–1460, p.1447.

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