An Interview with Environmental Psychologist: Maggie Melin is Changing Habits

In my search for enthusiastic practitioners in the field of environmental psychology, the same name popped up behind several interesting projects.

Maggie Melin

Maggie Melin

Maggie Melin from Michigan, US, completed graduate degrees in urban planning and sustainability science from the University of Virginia and Lund University in Sweden, and her master thesis Active Learning as a Tool for Behaviour Change was inspired by a summer spent working on organic farms (WWOOF) in Italy.

Prior to her studies in Sweden she was running a blog with tips for making our bathrooms more eco-friendly (The Green Toilet) and also worked at the Green Infrastructure Center while living in Virginia. Currently she is active in promoting biking and walking in the United States at both The Alliance for Biking and Walking in Washington, DC and the Active Transportation Alliance in Chicago. The idea I associate with her name is well-expressed in the old saying  “…watch your habits for they become your character”. Maggie helps us watch our habits and change for the better.

From everything you did until now, Maggie, it seems that you choose to be active and mindful when the easy way is to choose comfort and be passive. Can you tell me something about the beginnings of your interest in sustainability? Do you remember the time when your focus shifted from yourself to a wider frame? Or were you always like that?

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San Francisco; photo by David Ohmer

I attribute a few things to developing an interest in caring for the environment. I grew up in the suburbs of Michigan, in a very car centric region, where sustainability was not a common topic of conversation. However, nature was always an important part of my life growing up – my family would make frequent visits to the Great Lakes and as a child I spent many weekends playing in the woods. Early on in my life I developed a connection to and appreciation of nature, in large part because of these experiences.

Although, it wasn’t until I moved out to San Francisco that a shift in my thinking and actions really began. I was very much influenced by the people I met in this area of the country. Dinner conversations often revolved around organic food, composting, hiking and biking trips, environmental justice, water conservation, and so on. I also for the first time experienced life without the need to have a car and found it incredibly satisfying. I loved that San Francisco was designed in a way that allowed people to move so freely. Living here eventually inspired me to leave the field of online marketing and return to school for urban planning and sustainability science.

Behavior change was an important part of your master thesis. According to it, volunteers working on organic farms recognize the opportunities to live with the locals, learn about organic farms and to travel as the most appealing. The majority of them report having a positive experience (90%), and practicing at least one new sustainable habit in their daily lives after WWOOFing (82%). What was WWOOFing experience like for you?

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Flower farm in Italy where Maggie had her first WWOOF experience; photo by Maggie Melin

My WWOOFing experience was incredible. I volunteered on an organic flower farm in the Alps of Italy (the Alto Adige region) and essentially picked flowers all day long in an area that seemed like a setting for a fairy tale.  I lived with a beautiful, multi-generational Italian family who were always incredibly kind to me. I laughed a lot while I was living there and ate the most delicious, fresh meals I have ever had in my life. WWOOFing allowed me to experience the benefits of living a more simple life.  It was a very therapeutic time for me.

 Working on this farm not only helped center and balance me mentally, but it also affected me physically in a very positive way. Having the experience of only eating fresh, organic whole foods gave me incredible amounts of energy. I felt refreshed and rejuvenated, like I was a new person! That experience alone still impacts me today and I am much more careful about what food I am willing to buy and put into my body.

After my summer in Italy I returned to my studies in Sweden and was so inspired by my experience that I began researching how others were impacted by their WWOOFing experiences. After completing my research and graduating, I WWOOFed again, this time in Ireland. I worked on two farms and for a second and third time met wonderful people who further influenced the way I think about and treat the environment.

Psychologists often have trouble explaining and bridging the attitude-behaviour gap. Most people report having pro-environmental values, but when it comes to actual behavior, we seem to need a bit of a nudge. How do you facilitate actual pro-environmental action? What did your thesis work reveal?

While there may be no perfect recipe for turning pro-environmental values into action, I think there are many tools out there that can help influence our behavior. One of these tools could be active or experiential learning which essentially means learning by doing. My thesis work tried to investigate this by looking at 1,400 individuals who volunteered on a farm through the WWOOF organization. My research found that living in a different way and engaging in active, hands-on experiences that reflect a more sustainable lifestyle can help change our attitudes and behavior.  Some of the behavior changes that were reported included starting a garden, buying more local, organic food, using more environmentally friendly products, recycling, and taking shorter showers.

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The “Opa” (grandfather) of the family picking flowers in Italy; photo by Maggie Melin

My research revealed that the most important factor in inspiring these types of pro-environmental behavior was human relationships and the dialogue and discussions between people. Surveys and interviews showed that having friendships and respect between the farm host and volunteer was very predictive of pro-environmental behavior change, especially when the farm host was environmentally minded. If discussions and relationships were not present, usually behavior change was low or non-existent.

Living a new lifestyle where life is more simple, where you have to put energy into growing your own food and suddenly you have to think about your resource use, this was also very influential to many people and seemed to correlate with higher reported behavior change.

Additionally, having an initial interest in the environment is useful but not always necessary for behavior change to occur. Many participants were initially not interested in organic farming and were instead more interested in traveling or having a cultural experience.

WWOOFing in Italy; photo by Maggie Melin

WWOOFing in Italy; photo by Maggie Melin

However, many of these volunteers still had a profound, eye-opening experiences simply because they seemed open to learning – and this may be partially because of the community feeling and relationships they developed with their hosts. Research has shown that positive emotions such as feeling connected to others, feeling peaceful, useful, and feeling a sense of belonging can enhance learning. Potentially these positive feelings made WWOOFers more open to learning from their hosts and the experience.

In general I think we shouldn’t underestimate the power of experience and human connection. By living out our values any of us can inspire change in someone when we least expect it.

How do you promote sustainable transportation now and how do you measure the effectiveness of your efforts?

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Bike light giveaway event; photo by Steven Vance

For the last year I have been working at the Active Transportation Alliance in Chicago on a campaign to encourage residents in select city neighborhoods to bike, walk, and use transit more often. The campaign is similar to Portland’s SmartTrips program as well as to programs that have been run in Perth, Australia and several German cities. We hire local ambassadors to promote biking, walking and transit use and work with community members to organize bike rides and group walks. We also deliver customized packets with transportation resources to residents so they are more aware of their options. Materials include bus and rail maps, walking guides, bike share information, and bicycling safety tips.

The Open Street Project

The Open Street Project; photo by Steven Vance

The principles of environmental psychology are very much used in this program whether that’s through connecting residents with existing resources or letting residents experience alternatives forms of transportation first hand and seeing their peers do the same.  It has been a great experience so far, especially when you are able to encourage someone to try out a bike again or join a walking group and you see that they get a lot of joy out of the experience, making it more likely something they will repeat.

While working in the communities of Chicago, I have also been involved as a research assistant for the Alliance for Biking & Walking in D.C. – our project has been to collect biking and walking data for all 50 states and the largest U.S. cities in order to benchmark their progress over the years. In the United States we certainly have a long way to go regarding improving conditions for bicyclists and pedestrians, but there is a lot of passion and dedicated advocates throughout the country and the report tries to highlight this, in the hopes of encouraging more great work and progress.

What would you like to do next? Or what should be done next by some aspiring environmental psychologists?

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Bike the Drive, a yearly event organized by Active Transportation Alliance; photo by Eric Allix Rogers

Environmental psychology is a very important part of the push for sustainability and it’s often a forgotten aspect. Big change can happen when we better understand what stops people from being environmentally mindful and when we explore what can motivate someone to actually make a change in their lives. Creating sustainable change is complex, but when we understand people’s needs and offer alternative options in a more positive way, without casting judgment, this can go a long way. I would love environmental psychologist to keep applying their knowledge within as many fields as possible so that more people are aware of the importance of understanding people’s behavior.

At the moment I’m really enjoying my involvement in promoting sustainable transportation and can see myself working in this field for a while. Within the field of environmental psychology, there are fortunately many possibilities and I’m sure in whatever I do in the future, this field will be a central part of my work. Going WWOOFing again sounds like a nice idea too!

 

Gallery: other WWOOFers’ experiences told through pictures:

 

Photo credit: Steven Vance, Eric Allix Rogers, Gigi, malleabis, Steve Wilson, Egan Snow, David Ohmer 

 

 

 

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