Applying principles of psychology to tackle major global environmental challenges

By Isabel Richter

A tropical beach with waves

How can we harness the power of psychology to drive sustainable development?

This question is at the heart of Dr Isabel Richter’s professional career as a behavioural scientist and her personal passion as a young researcher.

“In the beginning I didn’t know the science of behavioural change existed, and as a psychologist I didn’t even know it could be studied,” Isabel recalls, “but when I realised that it can be your profession, it was the point I couldn’t be stopped anymore! I knew I wanted to keep doing more work on this.”

After obtaining her PhD in environmental psychology, Isabel was awarded the ACU Blue Charter Fellowship in 2018. It provided her with an opportunity to apply theory into practice in the context of one of our biggest global environmental challenges: marine plastics pollution.

As a Blue Charter Fellow, Isabel travelled to Sabah on the scenic island of Borneo, Malaysia, where she regularly visited coastal fishing communities to make observations around behaviours related to tourism and plastic waste and investigate how these might be changed. She worked closely with the University of Malaya, local policymakers and stakeholder groups, mainly from the tourism sector in the diving destination of Sempornah.

For years, Sempornah had been struggling with a growing plastic pollution problem. To begin working towards a solution, Isabel applied her knowledge about the principles of psychology to work closely local officials in co-designing a roadmap for a regional single-use plastics ban.

Reflecting on the key to her success, Isabel reminds researchers that it’s important to “talk to people, spend time with people, be interested, listen and try to find out as much as you can. You must also adapt your style to who you’re working with and to different cultures.” In Malaysia, Isabel quickly immersed herself in the new culture and connected with diverse people ranging from NGO representatives to policymakers, nature activists and local community members. The process helped her consolidate communications and stakeholder engagement skills vital for the translation of science into practice.

“The Fellowship gave me enough confidence to work further on behavioural change and plastics pollution,” Isabel reflects. “It enabled me to be confident enough to participate in the global discussion, to work with different actors, and to engage in the whole process of grant applications.”

Now a postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Plymouth in the United Kingdom, Isabel is contributing to other international projects focused on sustainable development, resource use and fisheries in Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia and other parts of the world.

On the topic of sustainable tourism, Isabel explains: "It is a great idea, but it can difficult to implement, especially as mass tourism develops rapidly and offers easy and quick benefits while at the same time causing long-lasting damage. Within affected communities, some people really suffer while others profit – people are aware of the environmental damage, but at the same time many accept that this just happens.”  

Through her work, Isabel would ultimately like to support communities to achieve sustainable livelihoods and development. "In order to do this, it is key to understand what communities need, what their norms and traditions are, and how we can provide extra knowledge and capacity-building without imposing ourselves,” Isabel adds. "For us, it’s super exciting to work with the communities. You learn so many new things. You always feel like you know something well, but then you go to a new country and gain all these new insights – I always feel so humble working with these communities.” 

Isabel and her colleagues have recently submitted new grant proposals to expand their work into South America and Africa, where they hope to generate deeper insights into the relatively young field of environmental psychology and collaborate with other disciplines. Through her vital research and community engagements, Isabel continues to shape a better relationship between people and ecosystems in Southeast Asia and beyond.

The ACU Blue Charter Fellowships programme was generously funded by Waitrose & Partners and the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS).

The programme forms part of the Commonwealth Marine Plastics Research & Innovation Framework – a global hub which aims to share scientific and technical expertise in this vital area – and support the aims of the Commonwealth Blue Charter.

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Theme: Global challenges