Volume 52   Number 4 Fall 2019

Engaging Communities in a Culture of Sustainability

Written by Julie Pellman, New York City College of Technology

Climate change is a threat to our ecosystem, humanity, and the biodiversity of the planet. The impact of climate change is far reaching: the loss of sea ice and rises in sea level, extreme weather, food and water shortages, droughts and famine, increased incidence of infectious diseases and other health concerns, changes in animal and plant habitats, loss of biodiversity, lower crop yields, and psychosocial effects of displacement and forced migration on individuals and communities (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2018). Climate disruption is an area of great concern that community psychologists should become significantly more involved in (Riemer & Reich, 2011). There is a need to create social structures that support pro-environmental norms and values and that empower ordinary citizens with tools that will enable them to become involved in action for the environment. 

In light of this goal, the Environment and Justice Interest Group had three sessions that revolved around climate-related concerns.  In the first symposium “Engaging Communities in Environmental Action: Examples from Community Psychology,” Carolyn Springer and Julie Pellman discussed classroom approaches for educating students on this topic while Brittany Spadafore talked about engaging people in reducing their meat consumption.

Carolyn Springer talked about a climate module that she will present in her health psychology class in the fall.  She mentioned that when she has asked students about their interests in order to inform curriculum planning, environmental issues and global warminghave been less frequently cited than other topics such as stress and coping, adolescent health, and gender and health. She is hoping that her climate change module will “engage students in a process where they can begin to think critically about potential strategies for addressing climate change on the interpersonal, community, and policy level.” 

Julie Pellman discussed a service learning option in which students use an eco-friendly bag for the semester. She tells her students about the hazards of plastic and how using a reusable bag can help to alleviate this problem both in their communities and in the ecosystem.  Before beginning the project, students are asked whether they feel that they belong to a community and what they hope to learn from participating in the “Bag Project.” They keep a journal of their thoughts, feelings, and experiences throughout the semester. In addition to the journal, at the end of the semester, they reflect on what they have learned about themselves and others as a result of the “Bag Project,” how the “Bag Project” benefitted their community, and whether the experience helped them to better understand their role as a community member, changed their sense of civic responsibility, and/or made them aware of some of their biases and prejudices. Finally, they consider whether their experience changed their views of their community and the ecosystem.

Brittany Spadafore explored participants’ rich, context specific experiences with reducing meat consumption and engaging in sustainable food consumption in a peer group setting in the workplace. She developed a group that consisted of six weekly, participant-driven, meetings over lunch that emphasized dialogue and reflection about the process, as well as planning for individual and collaborative action.

The second symposium, “Case Studies in Creating Cultures of Sustainability Through Community and Organizational Partnerships” featured the following presentations.

  • Niki Harre talked about creating a culture of sustainability in a school in New Zealand, which now has sustainability embedded into its policy, practice and infrastructure. Over a 12-year period the school has included sustainability as a strategic goal, established a number of student leadership portfolios, supported teachers to include sustainability topics in the classroom, and offered regular sustainability-related events. Importantly, the process is held together by a sustainability network that is open to new projects in a ‘bottom up’ process.

  • Carlie Trott focused on the need to empower children in the area of climate justice. According to Trott (2019) children are key stakeholders. Yet, they are under-engaged in terms of education and action. How do we facilitate children’s climate change engagement and how do we create empowering learning environments?  Trott partnered with local boys and girls clubs in northern Colorado. The children ranged in age from 10-12 years. The children heard a climate change presentation at the City Council. They planted 12 trees. They also spread compost and planted fruits and vegetables. They then used photographs to discuss what they cared about and developed a website. How can these projects help children to develop a sense of agency? The youth developed greater awareness and understanding of the world around them. They became concerned and were motivated to take action. They felt more competent about helping the environment and that they could create positive change.

  • According to Kai Reimer-Watts, climate disruption is an existential threat to humanity and requires a rapid and immediate response. One way of promoting cultures of sustainability is to use art for creating symbols of sustainability in our built environment and communities. He presented an application of this in Canada’s first commercial net-positive energy multi-tenant office building, which has rainwater harvesting, a living wall, a solar thermal wall, geothermal heating and cooling, and solar panels on the roof and the parking lot. Tours of this building are offered to the public in the hopes that participants will learn about sustainable practices.

  • Manuel Riemer further discussed the work of his team related to the above-mentioned office building. He discussed more broadly the topic of how do you create a culture of sustainability in such a context?  According to Riemer, a culture can be seen as a soul of a human system, such as building a community. Cultures include values and norms, shared practices, language, and symbols. The development of a culture of sustainability is complex. It is co-created among social actors in a physical or virtual space and is a gestalt that emerges from that process. People need to be part of the process. They need to be engaged cognitively, emotionally, and behaviorally. They need to see themselves as agents of change and to be involved in action in the context of community.  The process involves a ripple effect: I have knowledge that I share with others who continue to spread the knowledge and keep the fire burning.

The presentations of the Environmental Interest Group culminated in a roundtable entitled “Community Psychology and Cultures of Sustainability” organized by Manuel Riemer, Niki Harre, Carlie Trott, Julie Pellman, and Kai Reimer-Watts. Each presenter briefly discussed their focus on sustainability and discussion followed. Participants discussed four elements of culture: narratives and stories, practice, the built environment, and responsiveness. There is an interplay between narrative and stories and practice. In addition, different countries have different symbols, which color meaning, such as the New Zealand Māori concept of “kaitiakitanga”, which refers to people’s kinship with natural entities and the guardianship that follows. 

The oscillation between narcissism and despair with regards to pro-environmental behaviors was another focus of conversation. A narcissistic approach may be seen as “it is up to me to solve this.” Despair may be operationalized as,” It is all on my shoulders. I can’t do it.” There is a need to create a sense of meaning which can then be translated into action.

Finally, participants agreed that there can be many cultures of sustainability. Culture drives our decision making, our action, and our values. The manifestation of values is in social practices and symbols, such as the sustainable building in Canada as mentioned by Kai Reimer-Watts and Manuel Riemer. There is a need to create a space for people to have conversations such as:  Where are we going? What do we want to be? Part of changing culture is making these things visible. It takes a large amount of energy to transform a culture. Culture is psychological space, a physical space between bodies, and a technological lattice. We are all part of this larger narrative. The narrative has to be plausible.  

There is a great deal of work that needs to be done to facilitate a paradigm shift towards pro-environmental cultures, beliefs, attitudes, and practices. Please get involved with the Environment and Justice Interest Group and help play a role in mobilizing community members to take on the challenge of climate change.


Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC). (2018).  Summary for Policymakers. In: 

Global warming of 1.5°C. An IPCC Special Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty [Edited by V. Masson-Delmotte, P. Zhai, H. O. Pörtner, D. Roberts, J. Skea, P. R. Shukla, A. Pirani, W. Moufouma-Okia, C. Péan, R. Pidcock, S. Connors, J. B. R. Matthews, Y. Chen, X. Zhou, M. I. Gomis, E. Lonnoy, T. Maycock, M. Tignor, T. Waterfield ]. World Meteorological Organization, Geneva, Switzerland.  Retrieved from

Riemer, M., & Reich, S.M. (2011). Community psychology and global climate change: Introduction to the Special Section. American Journal of Community Psychology, 47(3-4), 349-353. doi:10.1007/s10464-010-9397-7