VERMILLION, S.D. – Joseph Kantenbacher, Ph.D., a professor who recently joined the University of South Dakota Department of Sustainability & Environment, says that recent environmental events—wildfires in California and Oregon, an active hurricane season in the U.S. Gulf—coupled with news of rising sea levels and global temperatures can overwhelm and discourage even the most ardent environmentalist.
“Climate despair and ecological despair are some of the terms used to describe how people respond to negative information about climate trends,” said Kantenbacher, who studies the social aspects of climate change and energy use and production. “While a little bit of worry about the future can combat complacency, too much can be crushing.”
One of his research interests focuses on this dilemma of understanding the nature of people’s despair about the environment and helping to find ways to bolster hope for the future. “It’s a bit of an all-hands-on-deck time and we need to keep as many people engaged and realistically hopeful about their futures and how they can contribute,” he said.
Although Kantenbacher began his doctoral studies at the University of California, Berkeley’s Energy and Resources Group with a focus on the technical and economic aspects of renewable energy, as he progressed through his studies he grew more curious about people’s attitudes and behavior regarding sustainability issues, particularly energy.
“I wondered, ‘Why do we keep replicating the very high energy-consumptive lifestyles that we have?’” Kantenbacher said. “’What are the kinds of social barriers deploying renewable energy? Why aren’t we adopting more energy-efficient technologies?’”
After earning his Ph.D. from Berkeley, Kantenbacher took at research position in the Centre for Sustainability and Well-being in the Visitor Economy at the University of Surrey in the United Kingdom. There, he studied the relationships between tourism and sustainability and well-being. After three years, he moved to another research position at Indiana University, Bloomington and returned to his central interest of people's understanding of the world of energy and their own energy use.
“I focused on the cognitive psychology associated with energy—how people understand the energy that they use in their homes, how they understand the energy system on a larger scale,” he said. “I want to know how can we work with that understanding to help people make more effective decisions when it comes to improving their own energy use and how we can improve their understanding of the sorts of policies and decisions that need to be made on a larger scale to move towards more renewables or a low-carbon energy system.”
Another related research area focuses on how people act differently in the present when shown possible future scenarios. “It’s easier to take action today if you have a sense that you’re contributing towards a future that you want to live in,” Kantenbacher said.