In this summary article, some advances of, the potential for, and challenges faced by environmental psychology as a contributor to sustainability science are outlined. In its first 40 years, it has evolved from a discipline primarily—but never solely— concerned with proximate architecture to one that adds concern with larger-scale issues, particularly sustainability. This growth of interest has in turn led to increased interest within it in public policy, technology, cooperation with other disciplines, multilevel analyses of problems, the ingestion of new ideas, and concern with the health of the biotic and ecological world. Some challenges are that the central proponents of “sustainability science” itself have not acknowledged environmental psychology as a potential contributor, the field is comparatively young, that it needs to explore biotic and ecological issues more, needs to help discriminate facts from nonfacts about environmental problems, and needs to warn sustainability science about the daunting task of overcoming environmental numbness and self-interest in individuals. Nevertheless, there is hope: sustainability scientists, including environmental psychologists, may be Adam Smith’s “invisible hand.”
I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read,
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed,
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1818
The Uncertain Future
In conclusion, pessimism (as expressed in Shelley’s “Ozymandias” poem) versus cautious optimism (as expressed by most proponents of sustainability science) depends on how one weighs the growth, maturity, and future potential of environmental psychology against these challenges and barriers. Will the pessimism of Hardin (1968), among others, be borne out in the end? Are there simply too many people, most of whom believe that they are already doing the right thing, added to those who believe that they have the right to exploit resources as fast as possible? Will it all end with the victory of the biblical Four Horsemen? Given the near-vertical human population curve since the 16th century, the limits of human nature, never-ending war in one region or another, and the constant threat of pandemics, a deep fear seems truly justified. Yet, in the wings are the reasoned voices of super-optimists like Julian Simon (1981), who believed that, considering the long term, there simply are no problems with either resource availability or quality of life, except in temporary, isolated pockets.
Nevertheless, those who see environmental problems as more painful and pressing than that cannot but try. As for this writer, I believe that those who toil toward sustainability solutions comprise, collectively, the very “invisible hand” of which Adam Smith (1776) wrote, that is, the corrective influence against greed. The articles in this special issue, written by some of those who are part of this invisible hand, will go far toward advancing environmental psychology as an essential part of sustainability science.