From environmental education to social change

Les Robinson, Community Education Director, Social Change Media

Summary of presentation to Waste Educate Conference 2001

Ecological sustainability implies changed lifestyle choices and altered production and consumption systems throughout society. Ecological sustainability is therefore inherently about social transformation.

Effective and sustained social transformations are likely to be those which are freely chosen by individuals and groups in the pursuit of their own dreams and aspirations.

Everyone agrees that environmental education (EE) should be central to this process. But for EE to be a transformative force it needs to move beyond conventional awareness-building approaches, to more integrated, strategic approaches which focus on facilitating personal change.

Most of us believe that education as 'information transfer' (that is, as a didactic process based on classroom paradigms) has reached its limits and cannot be expected to deliver further significant change in either the community or business.

I think this is evident in recent results from the EPA's NSW-wide Who Cares About the Environment survey which suggest that the spread of more sustainable actions by NSW residents has stalled or begun to reverse.

Environmentally friendly actions undertaken
in the last 12 months




Choose environmental household products




Reduce water consumption




Home composting




Avoiding highly packaged products




Source: Environment Protection Authority NSW, Who Cares About the Environment? 2000
The sampling error was +/- 3%, so these figures are statistically significant.

We have recorded similar shifts in our regular survey of northern Sydney residents for Resource NSW.

I believe these figures should be regarded as a crisis for environmental education, and used as a healthy chance to re-examine the intellectual tools we use as educators.

If EE needs to move beyond a conventional 'awareness-building' approach, then what comes next? How can we move from awareness-building to 'facilitating behaviour change'?

As 'change agents' we need a deeper and more intuitive understandings of the nature of individual change. We also need models of social change which can help us design programs which can enable individuals, groups and businesses to make fundamental shifts.

I believe a key question should be how think about 'personal change'.

I have just completed national series of workshops with environmental educators. Each workshop included an interactive session which explored the triggers for change in our own lives.

Common threads ran through the participants' experience of change:

These sessions add weight to a model of change we have developed over the past three years.

This 'Seven Doors' model aims to be a holistic approach which allows educators and program designers to develop and deliver more effective behaviour change programs.

It's now one of the set of tools we use to plan social marketing programs at Social Change Media. It looks like this:

The 'seven doors' are check-points for program designers. It's likely that all seven doors will need to be 'open' for a behaviour change program to be effective.

Of course, every situation is different…some doors will be already be open and the role of the program designer is to invest effort in opening the remainder.

This model explains a few things:

• It puts knowledge in it's place. Knowledge (ie. information) becomes just one of a number of factors which need to be present in the equation of personal change. It can never be enough in itself.

• It explains the focus group assertion that 'an advertising campaign [alone] will never get me to change'.

• It explains why peer educators (ie. 'trusted others') are becoming accepted as vital elements in successful EE programs.

• It emphasises the importance of developing 'hands-on' displays, stalls and demonstrations as part of future EE programs, and points to the value of having facilities in NSW comparable to CERES in Victoria.

The table describes the model in more detail.





Ensure your program accords with deeply-held community hopes and desires.

Promote holistic visions which connect your offering with people's hopes and dreams.

(ie. what product advertising often does so well).


Ensure people understand the personal and environmental costs of current behaviours and benefits of future behaviours.

Stories and facts which illustrate impacts and advantages in concrete, personalised terms.


People are confident about their personal abilities to perform the new behaviours.

Step-by-step illustrated print materials, demonstration events/facilities, videos.

Convenient systems

Is the proposed action is facilitated by products and services which are competitively costed, accessible and convenient?

• Regulation and pricing tools which drive improved production and consumption systems.

• Eco-design.

• Design and delivery of products, services and systems.

Trusted others

• 'Early adopters' need face-to-face interactions with trusted peers and experts.

• Mainstream audiences need endorsements from trusted peers, celebrities and leaders.

• Peer education.

• Endorsements from 'stars' and community leaders.

Change moments

Where it all comes together.

Times and places where people can be exposed to new ideas, interact with trusted peers, safely experiment outside their comfort zones, and make new commitments.


Reward people for making the change.

Stories of success, celebrations, rewards, awards.

The Seven Doors change model is © Les Robinson 2001

I hope that this model proves useful and stimulates debate amongst educators.

Anyone wishing to discuss it with me should email me on



About the presenter

Les Robinson

National Environmental Education Director, Social Change Media

Les is Social Change Media’s national environmental education director and an experienced communication practitioner.

Les has spent over 10 years creating and implementing environmental education programs for community, councils and government. Waste education has been a strong focus over the last 4 years, and Les has led the development influential studies, campaigns and communication products in this field.

To design more effective community change programs Les developed the ‘Seven Doors’ approach which focuses on overcoming the barriers to social change and enabling communities to achieve their own aspirations towards healthy, safe and sustainable futures.

Les is the author of Field Guide to the Native Plants of Sydney, Making Reader Friendly Publications, and co-author of Winning Back the Cities (with Peter Newman and Geoff Kenworthy). His Open Your Council and Working the Media are now available through New Citizen Books.

To contact Les Robinson, phone (02) 9692 5123 or 0414 674 676

or email:

A showcase of Social Change Media's waste education campaigns and communication products can be seen at:

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