The biggest conservation challenge: Transforming human behaviors


What if changing human behavior could solve most conservation problems seen throughout the world?

As it turns out – it can.

Recognizing this, environmental professionals working to conserve water, protect wildlife, or promote climate protection are incorporating strategies to activate sustainable behavior change into their programs and campaigns.

These strategies draw on an understanding of behavioral science and the emerging field of conservation psychology which explores the factors that foster sustainable behavior and interventions that work (and those that don’t) to engender behavior change.

According to Carol Saunders of Brookfield Zoo, these approaches can be built into community and public outreach programs to enhance public commitment to more sustainable practices. Saunders believes one of the fundamental characteristics of conservation change stems from better attempts “to understand self-in-relation to nature in order to develop a more powerful vocabulary for influencing the public discourse and producing enduring behavior change.”

“Educators and outreach specialists are often at the vanguard in popularizing sustainability and helping people care about their local environment,” said James Danoff-Burg, Ph.D., director of Big Sky Consulting, a leader in providing expert science-based education and conservation solutions.

Critically, however, research demonstrates that awareness and knowledge alone do not promote behavior change and new approaches are needed. An important component requires an understanding of how to communicate an organization’s message to the public in such a way that prompts desired results.

“You’ll find older anti-litter ads, for example, that featured a beach covered in discarded cigarette butts. Even though this paints a clear picture about the impact of litter on the environment, it did little to change the habits of people who litter,” said Laura Fandino, Ph.D., director of Extension’s Environment and Sustainability programs. Instead, messages that are based on an understanding of human behavior are more likely to achieve results and that’s where that’s where conservation psychology and related subjects comes in to play, she says.

UC San Diego Extension’s new specialized certificate, Sustainability and Behavior Change helps practitioners integrate behavioral science into environmental projects and programs. Danoff-Burg will be the instructor for the Community Engagement course within the certificate. He says part of the main goal of the certificate program is to help change-makers learn to develop their skills to inspire sustainability and environmental conservation actions throughout their communities.

“The people who participate in this program are already likely creating innovation within their communities, or at least poised to do so. My goal is to help these professionals try both the already-tested successful practices that we discuss in class, but also to encourage them to improve and think creatively to identify situation-specific opportunities and act upon them,” said Danoff-Burg.

As part of the new certificate opportunity, Extension invites conservationists throughout the world to “Be Transformative,” sharing their experiences on social media channels about their efforts to activate behavior change to help build a sustainable future using the hashtag #BeTransformativeUCSDExt.

To learn opportunities offered with the Environmental and Sustainability area of study, visit To enroll in the new online specialized certificate in Sustainability and Behavior Change, visit, or contact Fiona O’Donnell-Lawson at (858) 534-8139.

To stay up-to-date with Extension’s Environment and Sustainability opportunities and related news, follow on Twitter @UCSDExtSustain.

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