Background: Environmentally significant behaviors

Water scientists and educators strive to address a huge range of environmental management needs. They aim to provide citizens with information, skills, and motivation to maximize the quality of water and to manage water quantity. According to the USDA Research, Education, & Economics: Strategic Plan 2003-2008, the ultimate goal is to “protect and enhance the nation’s natural resource base and environment.”

What do citizens need to be able to do?

One task for the educator is to describe the behavior that ultimately will lead to the preferred water management goal. Personal qualities, group dynamics, politics, economics, and social structure all play a role. Sometimes the preferred behavior is quite simple; often it is complex and multi-faceted. Paul Stern (2000) summarized two decades of research about adoption of environmentally significant behaviors. His summary (see list below) demonstrates a hierarchy of potential goals, as well as the complexity of the challenge facing the educator.

Potential significant behaviors by an individual or group

  • Interest, knowledge, skills, and/or environmental sensitivity
  • Private sphere behavior (Individual locus of control; personal responsibility)
    • Changes in equipment use, lifestyle (curtailment)
    • Consumer purchase behaviors
    • Green consumerism
    • Maintenance of household equipment
    • Waste disposal behaviors
    • Work place behavior
  • Behavior affecting group decisions, within:
    • Agencies
    • Businesses
    • Organizations
  • Public sphere behavior (Empowerment)
    • Environmental citizenship
    • Policy support
  • Environmental activism

A clear statement about the preferred behavior is critical to developing an effective outreach or education strategy. If you are unsure about exactly what goal you want to accomplish or you need to refine your goal, consider using the BEP Decision Tree. The Decision Tree walks you through a series of questions for each of the following potential outreach or education goals:
I need to develop an education program or outreach strategy…

  • Tree 1 – To tackle a specific water use or management problem.
  • Tree 2 – To increase public awareness or help the community meet a water goal.
  • Tree 3 – To build community capacity to manage water use and environmental impacts.

How do I choose an effective outreach technique?

Once you have a clear idea about the specific goal for an outreach initiative, the CPB self-study modules help you to choose successful outreach techniques by walking you through a step-by-step process. (See list below.) Steps # 2, #4, #5, and #6 depend on your ability to provide a clear statement about the preferred behavior or practice. Step #5 provides an opportunity to apply variables that affect individual adoption of environmentally significant behaviors.

  1. Describe the environmental concern or opportunity.
  2. Identify preliminary target audience(s).
  3. Determine specific actions citizens need to take to accomplish your management goal.
  4. Collect audience information relevant to the environmental practices and specific behaviors.
  5. Assess potential for adoption of single behaviors and the environmental practice.
  6. Select single behaviors for intervention focus.
  7. Select intervention technique(s).


  • Stern, P. C. (2000). Toward a coherent theory of environmentally significant behavior. Journal of Social Issues, 56(3), pp. 407-424.
  • USDA Research, Education, and Economics. (2003). Strategic Plan 2003-2008. Retrieved February 2006 from