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4.4.5 The Role of Interpersonal Communication

Although many of these theories of pro-environmental behavior look at social norms, few really delve into interpersonal communication with the exception of the health-related models which discuss the utility of social support. Environmental risk is a social construction influenced by how people talk about perceived threats as much as by what they personally experience in their daily interaction with the physical world (Cantrill 2010). People are generally unaware of potential actions they can take. This lack of awareness limits what most people can do when confronting environmental change.

We turn to others whom we trust for advice (e.g., families, friends, and coworkers). Within these social interactions, our perceptions of risk can be amplified or diminished by our perceived trust in what the others are saying, by our belief that we or those we care about may be harmed, or by our lack of proximity to the threat. For example, I have given tours of our eco-efficient home to showcase environmental sustainability to community members and students (my own and local architecture students). I describe efforts we took to reduce our water consumption and how we considered utilizing rainwater recovery technology. When I provide the tour, I hope people perceive me to be a trusted and credible source, but few see water scarcity as a real threat to them, unlike it is to people living in other parts of the USA and across the globe. In any social network, the arguments that get talked about the most are the ones that people turn to when making up their minds, regardless of the soundness of the argument (see Sect. 7.1.3.4). So, despite periodic media coverage during times of drought, few homeowners actively talk about or conserve water in my part of Arkansas because that is not part of the normal community Discourse.

However, a change in awareness and action is possible because even environmentally apathetic publics interact with others in their social and professional circles who are knowledgeable and concerned about a particular environmental subject (e.g., water conservation given the scarcity of clean water globally) or an issue relevant to local people (e.g., a local drought). This is a powerful force amplifying environmental risks and opportunities—simply get people talking. Gatekeepers are members of a person's primary group who influence others' beliefs, attitudes and behaviors. We need research to see how much people actually are talking about the environment. Kassing et al. (2010) developed the environmental communication scale. This 20-item measure assesses environmental communication along three dimensions: practicing, dismissing, and confirming. The practicing and dismissing dimensions assess the extent to which people engage in or avoid conversations and media reports about environmental issues. Practicing sample questions are “I enjoy listening to discussions about the environment” and “Listening to discussions about environmental issues energizes me.” Dismissing sample questions include “I ignore people who talk about the environment” and “I skip over news stories about the environment.” The confirming dimension taps people's attitudes regarding the importance and necessity of engaging in environmental communication. Sample questions include “Discussing the environment is important” and “It is necessary to discuss environmental issues.” Their scale can be modified to assess intraorganizational or interorganizational communication prior to and then immediately after an intervention designed to promote an organization's sustainability-related initiative. Best Practice: It is important to get people in your organization or community talking about the environment. Seek to create a positive pro-environmental “buzz.”

 
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