How Do We Learn to Make Sustainable Choices?

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Thomas Dietz, MSU vice president of environmental research, studies how societies learn about ecosystems and sustainability. (view larger image)

How does society cope with climate change when the change appears to be happening so quickly? How do we respond to emerging diseases when little is known about them? How can sound environmental policies be created when so much remains to be learned?

Understanding how societies learn about ecosystems and sustainability and how that learning can be used to create public policy was the focus of a symposium organized and moderated by Thomas Dietz, Michigan State University assistant vice president of environmental research and director of the Environmental Science and Policy Program. Adam Henry, of the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government, also organized the symposium, held Feb. 17 at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston.

“How Can Social Learning Move Us toward Sustainability?” explored how social learning can be applied to all types of public policy and how three theories are used primarily to shape environmental policy.

Social learning theory is used to explain how learning is transmitted through society, building on what each individual learns.

“In social learning, individuals learn from the experience of others,” Dietz explained. “So networks and communication are important. Our goal is to use social learning theory to create good public policy and sustainably manage ecosystems. Given how quickly the environment is changing and how much we need to know, it’s the only strategy that can ensure good policy.”

Dietz’s research is funded by the National Science Foundation and the MSU Environmental Research Initiative.

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