Affording Sustainability: Adopting a Theory of Affordances as a Guiding Heuristic for Environmental Policy

Abstract

Human behavior is an underlying cause for many of the ecological crises faced in the 21st century, and there is no escaping from the fact that widespread behavior change is necessary for socio-ecological systems to take a sustainable turn. Whilst making people and communities behave sustainably is a fundamental objective for environmental policy, behavior change interventions and policies are often implemented from a very limited non-systemic perspective. Environmental policy-makers and psychologists alike often reduce cognition ‘to the brain,’ focusing only to a minor extent on how everyday environments systemically afford pro-environmental behavior. Symptomatic of this are the widely prevalent attitude–action, value–action or knowledge–action gaps, understood in this paper as the gulfs lying between sustainable thinking and behavior due to lack of affordances. I suggest that by adopting a theory of affordances as a guiding heuristic, environmental policy-makers are better equipped to promote policies that translate sustainable thinking into sustainable behavior, often self-reinforcingly, and have better conceptual tools to nudge our socio–ecological system toward a sustainable turn. Affordance theory, which studies the relations between abilities to perceive and act and environmental features, is shown to provide a systemic framework for analyzing environmental policies and the ecology of human behavior. This facilitates the location and activation of leverage points for systemic policy interventions, which can help socio–ecological systems to learn to adapt to more sustainable habits. Affordance theory is presented to be applicable and pertinent to technically all nested levels of socio–ecological systems from the studies of sustainable objects and households to sustainable urban environments, making it an immensely versatile conceptual policy tool. Finally, affordance theory is also discussed from a participatory perspective. Increasing the fit between local thinking and external behavior possibilities entails a deep understanding of tacit and explicit attitudes, values, knowledge as well as physical and social environments, best gained via inclusive and polycentric policy approaches.

Publication
In Frontiers in Psychology, Environmental Psychology.
Date