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To date, human factors, as a profession, has not focused much on the problem of environmental change, at least as that problem is conceived here. What is sometimes referred to as “environmental ergonomics” has tended to focus on how one’s immediate environment—temperature, humidity, noisiness—affects one’s bodily and cognitive functions and performance. The interests of the Human Factors Society’s Technical Group on Environmental Design (Human Factors Society, 1991:38), for example, “center on the human factors aspects of the constructed physical environment, including architectural and interior design aspects of home, office, and industrial settings.” The Applied Experimental and Engineering Psychology issue of PsycSCAN has “environment” as one of six major topics under which the abstracts are organized. But each of the 12 subtopics in this section deals with the effects of some environmental factor (altitude, heat, noise) on human beings (performance, safety, or comfort). In general, the subject of the implications of human behavior for environmental change—as distinct from the effects of environmental variables on human behavior—has not been a focus of attention of the human factors community.

There is one major exception: the interest the field has shown in studying industrial accidents and near accidents, especially in the nuclear power industry, and in developing ways to decrease the probability and severity of such accidents (Reason, 1990; Senders and Moray, 1991). With this exception, most of what psychologists have done that relates directly to the problem of detrimental environmental change has not been done within the mainstream of human factors research, and the results of that work have not been published in the journals most strongly associated with human factors research. The problem of environmental change has not captured the imagination of the human factors research community as a whole.

As to why this is the case, we can only speculate. One possibility is that human factors researchers believe they have little to offer in this area. We think that human factors does have something to offer, and the main purpose of this chapter is to make that point.

Another possibility is that human factors researchers have assumed that the best way for the discipline to address the problem of environmental change is indirectly, through work on more generic problems, such as the design of displays, of person-machine interfaces, of work situations, and so on.

This view has considerable merit. When one designs a better interface for a computer system, or when one discovers and articulates principles that can help designers produce interfaces that are better suited to human use, one is facilitating the work of anyone who uses systems with these interfaces, including earth and atmospheric scientists working on the problem ofPage 163Suggested Citation:“5 Environmental Change.” National Research Council. 1995. Emerging Needs and Opportunities for Human Factors Research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/4940.×SaveCancel

global warming, modelers developing source-receptor models for predicting the dispersion of sulfur dioxide emissions, and agronomists attempting to balance variables in a plan for a sustainable-agriculture approach to the production of crops.