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The futility and fatality of incremental action: motivations and barriers among undergraduates for environmental action that matters

Abstract

Monty Hempel was deeply engaged with the impact of sustainability education on student values and behavior. An important question that he posed was How can sustainability education provide a sound basis for the transformation of student learning? This question is highly relevant for the education of young adults—the students who pass through our classrooms—who will deal with the consequences of environmental crises such as climate change. Even though sustainability education is prevalent across college campuses, there is a disconnect between environmental concern and action. To examine this disconnect, we use a mixed methods approach to ask, What environmental issues concern young adults? What pro-environmental activities do they undertake? and What are the motivations and barriers for engaging in pro-environmental action? We led 93 undergraduate students from an introductory undergraduate environmental studies course to conduct 143 structured interviews about the environmental behaviors of their peers. While students cite large-scale systemic issues like climate change and the government-corporate nexus as key concerns, 97% of the reported behaviors in response to these issues were one-time, individualistic, incremental actions. Of the 143 interviewees, 59% reported taking only incremental actions. Less than 5% of students reported transformative actions toward systemic change, and only 3% reported transformative actions such as coordinated political mobilization. Students recognize the limitations of their incremental actions—they consider a lack of self-efficacy and community as barriers to transformative activities. Based on these findings and the reflections of students conducting interviews, we offer suggestions for designing educational interventions to empower young adults to engage in environmental action that matters.

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Acknowledgements

This research was conceptualized because of the students at Ithaca College, whose active engagement in the general education environmental studies class inspired thought-provoking discussions about consumption and pro-environmental actions for addressing large-scale, global challenges such as climate change. The research would have been impossible to execute without the involvement of these students who enthusiastically embarked on conducting interviews and their peers who whole-heartedly agreed to be interviewed. Finally, we thank Will Cournoyer, Maggie McAden, and Bella Radka Nigro for providing excellent support for data analysis.

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Correspondence to Praneeta Mudaliar.

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Appendix 1: Interview Questionnaire

Appendix 1: Interview Questionnaire

  1. 1.

    When did you first learn about the environmental crisis? How old were you then?

  2. 2.

    What environmental issue are you most worried about? How does it make you feel?

  3. 3.

    Have you undertaken any action to address this environmental issue? What sort of actions?

  4. 4.

    What do you think are some of the barriers that prevent you from taking action on an environmental issue?

  5. 5.

    What do you think would motivate you to take action?

  6. 6.

    What are your thoughts on the climate crisis? How does the climate crisis make you feel?

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Mudaliar, P., McElroy, M. & Brenner, J.C. The futility and fatality of incremental action: motivations and barriers among undergraduates for environmental action that matters. J Environ Stud Sci 12, 133–148 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13412-021-00705-1

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Keywords

  • Climate change
  • Pro-environmental behavior
  • Self-efficacy
  • Community
  • Collaboration
  • Social norms
  • Sustainability education