Grass roots action for climate and community health

22 November 2022

When we think about environmental activism, it’s probably high-profile protests or climate rallies worldwide. Environmental action also includes less visible forms such as joining a local Landcare group or participating in citizen science projects. And these types of collective activism aren’t just good for the environment. They can be good for you, too.

It’s the co-benefits of environmental activism that Dr Zoe Leviston, from the Research School of Psychology, plans to investigate as the inaugural recipient of the McMichael Award*. Here Leviston will examine the wellbeing consequence of participating in collective environmental action.

“It’s very important for us to feel socially connected, and to develop our social identity. Co-benefits of being involved in environmental-based collective actions can include an attachment to place, social cohesion, and building social capital. The flow on benefits of an improved local environment help sustain those wellbeing benefits to people as well,” says Leviston.

With climate change the biggest challenge of our time, some people may feel a growing despair for an uncertain future. Taking part in group activities to protect the environment however, can create a sense of optimism.

“Collective action also has implications for people’s sense of efficacy and hope. Participating in a collective action sends a clear social signal because all of a sudden, we’re surrounded by like-minded people engaging in the sort of activities we care about. This can shift our beliefs about how much other people care, which is important for sustained hope and empowerment,” says Leviston.

Leviston hopes to quantify and document positive outcomes and co-benefits of participation, with the ultimate goal of incentivising greater participation in these types of activities.

“I think as environmental challenges start to bite, we will be called upon to be involved not just as citizens of a big society, but as members of local communities, to take action to adapt to those challenges. So as a community member, I want to know what’s in it for me, and the people I care about, as well as the benefit to the environment. My research will help address this question,” says Leviston.

This interaction between the environment and people’s health is at the heart of the research undertaken by Emeritus Professor Tony McMichael, whom this award honours. McMichael pioneered an understanding and awareness of the links between human health and our environment, in particular climate change.

“Too often the social sciences are an afterthought or used as a way to package up and communicate ‘real’ science to the masses. However, the way people think, and the way groups organise themselves is significant to many environmental questions, and the solutions that will actually work on the ground,” says Leviston.

“I think it’s a testament to Tony’s transdisciplinary legacy that the inaugural McMichael award is for a social science and psychology project.”

Indeed, the McMichael Award encourages research projects that help find solutions to health challenges due to climate change, and foster international research, collaboration, and mentorship.

“I think the McMichael Award is an exciting first step to coalescing a global network of future leaders working in this space, from the social sciences, medical science, environmental science, ecology, and population health. Organising researchers working in that space to promote transdisciplinary programs of work is exciting,” says Leviston.

*The McMichael Award supports research and career development through a global network of mentors and thought leaders connected to NCEPH through the late Emeritus Professor McMichael’s legacy. Funding for the Award is by a generous donation from Associate Professor Judith Healy, with a gift match from the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health to endow the Tony McMichael Award. The McMichael Award is named in honour of Judith’s late husband, Emeritus Professor Tony McMichael AO.

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By Liz Drummond.