Educator Focuses on Environmental Behavior

Conservation psychology encourages preservation of natural world

Amy Cabaniss has a plan to advance awareness of environmentally responsible behavior. (Joanna Detz/ecoRI News)

Amy Cabaniss has a plan to advance awareness of environmentally responsible behavior. (Joanna Detz/ecoRI News)

By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff

KINGSTON, R.I. — Amy Cabaniss’ smile brightens the dulled space, and her infectious laugh echoes in the near-empty Mallon Outreach Center on East Alumni Avenue. Her University of Rhode Island co-workers are out in the field or in a classroom on this early-December Thursday morning as Cabaniss passionately speaks with a reporter about how to motivate environmentally responsible behavior.

Cabaniss topped off her still-going-strong 30-year career in environmental education last May with a Ph.D. in environmental studies. Around the same time she presented her dissertation, “Message Matters: Application of the Theory of Planned Behavior to Increase Household Hazardous Waste Program Participation,” the lifelong Connecticut resident was being hired as the youth STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) coordinator for the Outreach Center.

While her three-decade career includes classroom- and field-based programs, outreach to children and adults, curriculum development and educator training, Cabaniss is currently focused on conservation psychology — the scientific study of the relationships between humans and the rest of nature, to encourage conservation of the natural world.

The former assistant director of the Goodwin-Niering Center for the Environment at Connecticut College says the best ways to build awareness of environmental issues and break down barriers are quite simple: make the path to desired behaviors, such as increased recycling and reduced energy use, clear, convenient and easy; and, more importantly, talk to people.

“For the most part, people want to do what other people are doing and what they ought to do,” says Cabaniss, the former recycling coordinator for the Connecticut River Estuary Regional Planning Agency. “Sometimes it just takes a quick explanation. Other times it means better connecting the pieces that are already in place. For example, we have well-established recycling programs in place, but we often don’t make them convenient — trash cans with no recycling bins anywhere around.”

Cabaniss believes the environmental movement has made great progress since the 1960s, thanks in large part to Rachel Carson and her book “Silent Spring.” To continue the march of environmental awareness, the longtime educator says society needs to do a better job teaching and showing students their connection to the natural world.

“We need to introduce our students to the environment and support teachers in this endeavor,” says Cabaniss, who teaches environmental studies at Mitchell College in New London, Conn. “We need to build an environmentally literate society.”

ecoRI News recently asked the married mother of one a few questions about how we can build a more environmentally aware society:

How important is it for us to introduce younger generations to environmental education?
I believe it’s critical. With the many environmental problems we currently face, and will in the future, it’s important to develop an environmentally literate society.  I’ve realized, through my work as an environmental educator and research in conservation psychology, that it’s very important to foster an environmental awareness and sensitivity in young children. Significant life experiences in nature, especially at an early age, can have lasting effects, such as developing positive environmental attitudes and actions to protect the environment.

How do we advance environmental issues in this day and age?
Through educational initiatives, societal engagement, individual efforts, business leadership, technological advances — every avenue possible given it’s so important for the health and well-being of our world (both humans and non-humans).

Is society going a good enough job teaching/promoting environmental awareness?
Certainly there’s a greater awareness and attention to environmental issues in society today. Many people understand that the environment is not separate from us and they’ve made the connection to personal health. This is evidenced by a market rise in local foods and natural products, the elimination of BPA from plastic bottles and the dangers associated with secondhand smoke. Recycling and household hazardous waste collections are now prevalent. There’s a vast number of hybrid vehicles on the roads. Business leaders have recognized the importance of environmental stewardship and good citizenry by creating sustainability coordinator positions at colleges and universities, implementing corporate social responsibility initiatives and leading with product stewardship, such as rechargeable battery and electronics take-back programs.

I’m less of a cheerleader though when you ask if it’s good enough. There’s so much more that needs to be done to foster environmentally responsible behavior.  Some ways to do this are by continuing to provide science-based evidence to the public on environmental issues; to provide college students who will be our future teachers with information and skills to engage children in environmental investigations; work on better reaching underserved populations. We’ve learned over time that so many factors come into play with regard to environmentally responsible behavior. Research has shown that that having the knowledge and positive attitudes toward the environment aren’t enough — there’s more to the picture such as external and internal barriers to behavior. These need to be addressed.