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How environmental change are the direct consequence of human behavior

Many of the most troublesome aspects of environmental change are the direct consequence of human behavior, so it is appropriate that changing that behavior should be high on the list of goals for any program of environmental preservation. But behavior is seldom changed significantly or for very long simply in response to scolding, admonishment, pleading, or even rational explanation of why change is required. Describing what the environment could be in 100 years has little effect on people who feel little or no responsibility toward unborn generations. Systems must be designed that make it difficult to behave in ways that will make things worse.

We have focused here on how human factors research might contribute to shaping technology so that the natural consequences of its use for human ends will be more environmentally benign. We have pointed to a few examples of the kinds of specific research issues that should be addressed. Human factors research can be applied to the goal of reversing undesirable trends in environmental change in other ways as well. It can help extend our understanding of how human behavior causes environmental change; and it can contribute to the development of more effective tools for use in the study of environmental change; and it can help assess the effectiveness of efforts to modify undesirable current trends. Finally, it may be able to contribute in ways that will become clear only when a significant number of human factors researchers turn their attention to this area.

A major challenge for the design of environmentally benign systems is inducing people to see constraints less as constraints than as ways to afford something else. The constraint that we all drive on the same side of the road is recognized as an opportunity for safe travel. The constraint on the voltages available in domestic power supplies is an opportunity for safe and efficient use of appliances. Often, however, when constraints are introduced for safety or health purposes, people react negatively to what theyPage 173Suggested 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

see as encroachments on their freedom of choice. Mandatory seat-belt and motorcycle-helmet laws have sometimes been repealed despite conclusive evidence that seat-belt and helmet use prevents death and serious injury on the highways. Laws prohibiting smoking in public places encountered enormous initial resistance despite the evidence that smoking, including breathing secondhand smoke, is injurious to health. Dealing effectively with these kinds of issues is, at least in part, a human factors problem.

Detrimental environmental change is becoming perceived, by both the scientific community and the general public, as one of the most serious problems that is now faced—and that will continue to be faced for the foreseeable future—not only by individual nations but by the world as a whole. Because this problem has global implications, it should present unusual opportunities for international collaboration among researchers in many countries. If such collaboration is to be effective, the researchers must acquire some new skills and perspectives. It is not safe to assume that what works in one country or culture will work equally well in another. We must learn how to collaborate effectively if we are to have any hope of making real headway on problems that are global in extent. Otherwise, we run the risk of designing the behavioral analogs of very tall smokestacks and exporting various forms of cultural acid rain to other cultures in our efforts to help our own society.