Russian and U-M Researchers Collborate to Save Lake BaikalSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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When Nicole Rom and I began designing our master's thesis research, we had several criteria in mind. First of all, we wanted to conduct research that was simultaneously intellectually stimulating, academically rigorous, and would be useful to practitioners in the field of environmental advocacy and education. Additionally, we wanted to conduct our research internationally, preferably in Russia or Kazakhstan, where we each had previous experience working in the environmental sector. In answer to these criteria, we developed a research project titled "Evaluating Environmentally Responsible Behavior in the Lake Baikal Region of Russia." Our study attempted to assess the degree to which citizens of the Baikal region currently practice environmentally responsible actions, their readiness to play an active role in solving environmental problems, and how individuals understand their own ability to influence the condition of the local environment.
The specific setting of this project was one of the most intriguing aspects of this research. The environmental policies and industrial practices of the Soviet era left a legacy of severe ecological destruction in Russia. Numerous researchers have documented the dynamics and extent of this 'ecocide.' The State of the Environment Report published by the Russian Federation in 1996 listed 16 percent of the country's territory as ecological disaster zones. This same territory is home to more than 20 percent of the Russian population. The causes of this environmental degradation stem from the very heart of the Soviet system. Centralized decision-making paid little attention to regional ecological factors. Marxist ideology awarded no value to natural resources—they were the common property of the people, to be exploited for the good of the country. Enormous industrial complexes were built wherever the resources were located, even in fragile ecological zones such as tundra and taiga regions.
Since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia has been undergoing a period of transition—politically, economically, and culturally. During this transitory period, economic development projects are often favored over environmental protection or cleanup, and there has been a tendency to consider conservation as a luxury that can only be afforded during times of economic prosperity. The creation of effective environmental protection policies in the former Soviet Union is hindered by limited economic resources, lack of training in self-government, corruption, poorly functioning legal systems, and a general lack of trust in the government. Transition to a market-based economy has caused new threats to the environment such as poaching of endangered species and deforestation stemming from over-logging for exportation.
Many researchers who have investigated the environmental situation in present-day Russia have concluded that during this period of transition, foreign involvement is crucial to the development of a stable, effective system of environmental protection in Russia. This involvement should not only be in the form of funding for environmental projects, but should also include technical information exchanges and policy development support. Despite this financial and technical support for environmental efforts in Russia, the American academic community has done very little recent research on environmental issues specifically in post-Soviet contexts. There is also very little academic research from Russian scholars on these issues—ecology and environmental protection only came into being as official university departments within the last 10 years in Russia. Most universities that have such departments still approach environmental issues from a very technical standpoint, studying aspects of pollution measurement and control. Research on environmental values, how to promote environmentally responsible behavior, or methods of environmental education is even more uncommon. A great number of environmentally focused education efforts exist in Russia, but unfortunately, they have not been effective in motivating individuals to take action. The emphasis of most Russian environmental education programs is "cherish nature," as opposed to why or how to protect the earth. Other programs focus on awareness of environmental problems, but not on action towards resolving these issues.
One region of Russia that is of international environmental interest is the Lake Baikal region. Lake Baikal is a truly unique ecological treasure, and was recognized by the United Nations as a World Heritage Site in 1996. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) describes the lake as "the most outstanding example of a freshwater ecosystem."Baikal contains nearly 20 percent of the earth's unfrozen freshwater. It is home to a large number of endemic species, which make it a valuable site for evolutionary science. Because of its uniqueness, the irreversibility threshold for environmental degradation in Lake Baikal is much lower than in other areas, making it especially crucial that the international community and the local communities of the region work together to preserve and protect the environment of this region. The most pressing environmental issues currently affecting the lake include increased tourism, which leads to over use of fragile areas and exponentially increasing amounts of litter, and new commercial interest in the oil and gas deposits of the region.
Through my previous volunteer work teaching environmental education in Irkutsk, we had firm connections to a local grassroots non-governmental organization (NGO) known as Baikal Environmental Wave. Baikal Wave's general mission is to provide information to the local community about ecological issues that affect the Lake Baikal region. However, until Nicole and I launched our investigation, the educators and lobbyists working for this organization had very little empirical evidence of what their audience currently knows or believes about these environmental problems.
The goal of the project was to provide information to environmental activists and educators, such as those at Baikal Wave, so that they can more effectively design programs and materials to encourage the adoption of environmentally responsible behavior (ERB). The research focused on three overarching questions:
*Knowledge: what do residents of the Baikal region know about local environmental issues?
*Attitudes: what issues do Irkutsk residents feel are important, and how do they feel about environmental issues?
*Behaviors: what behaviors are Irkutsk residents already involved in, and what behaviors do they need more encouragement to engage in?
The research design involved two methods. The first was a three-page written questionnaire with six main questions focused on several overarching factors, which are generally believed to predict environmentally responsible behavior (attitudes about the environment, knowledge of issues, motivation to act, barriers to action, locus of control, and current behaviors). We collected a total of 369 surveys in public parks in Irkutsk throughout the summer of 2003. The second method involved a card sorting interview technique called Cognitive Content Concept Map or 3CM, which allowed respondents to sort words into categories as they felt those words pertained to environmentally responsible behavior. Twenty-three of these interviews were conducted with respondents who had already filled out the shorter questionnaire.
Through these methods and statistical analysis of the survey and interview responses, Nicole and I were able to draw some basic conclusions:
*People in the Irkutsk region care about the environment.
*People are interested in reading about ecological issues.
*People are willing to try to help improve environmental conditions, but they do not know how or what to do.
*People who are more confident with their knowledge about ecological issues are more involved in environmentally responsible behaviors.
*People who are involved in organizations are on average more confident in their knowledge than others.
These points reveal that the environment is an important issue to residents in the Baikal region, and their involvement in organizations and in other pro-environmental behaviors is dependent upon their confidence with their knowledge, their environmental attitudes, and their being motivated by a concern for the environment. Lake Baikal is recognized as a place that is special, fragile, and vulnerable to pollution and species loss. Above all else, it is deemed worthy of protection to citizens in the region. Challenges with infrastructure and corruption, as gleaned from the researchers' observations and informal conversations with Russian citizens, are the most pressing needs to be tackled by grassroots environmental organizations at all levels of society. Only when these issues are dealt with can the promotion of individual behaviors that impact the environment take root.
Having drawn these conclusions, we constructed certain recommendations for our Russian colleagues:
1.Build on the fact that people already read about ecological issues and are interested in learning more about what they can do.
2.Work to try to increase participation in organizations, both environmental and other—this will in turn increase awareness and willingness to participate in the community in general.
3.Provide information about what types of behaviors individuals can do to help the environment.
First of all, one behavior that respondents are participating in and which is predicted by the behavior models is "reading about ecological issues." This is encouraging because it indicates that what printed materials groups like Baikal Wave are publishing are not wasted energy. People are interested in learning more and reading about the issues is a good way to do it. And as they learn more and their confidence with their knowledge increases, they are likely to become more involved in other ways.
Next, evidence shows that people already involved in community organizations are more likely to also engage in personal environmentally responsible behaviors. This suggests that cooperation between organizations could be a powerful way of increasing both civic participation and environmental consciousness.
This project also found some key things that environmental educators might want to focus on. For one thing, the most significant reason that people indicated for not living an environmentally correct lifestyle was that they simply don't know which behaviors to change. This indicates that that there is a need for programs (or printed materials) that explain to people which behaviors to change, why these behaviors have a negative impact on the environment, and how to carry out new behaviors.
Although the research findings and their implications were very interesting, the most rewarding part of the entire research project was when I had the opportunity to return to Irkutsk and present the results and recommendations to the environmental activists at Baikal Wave. This was an extremely important part of the research process for us, because Nicole and I felt strongly that our research should in some way give back to the community with whom we had worked. The response to my presentation was overwhelmingly positive. In response to specific results, several of the activists remarked that they had always sensed such attitudes or trends among the community members with whom they worked, but that it was very validating to see researched numbers that confirmed their intuition. One woman, who works for Baikal Wave as a specialist in pedagogical methods, was enthusiastically grateful that these University of Michigan researchers had sought to include the NGO in the research and share the results directly. She lamented the fact that although Russian academicians are beginning to look at the social sides of ecological issues, their educational system is not set up in a way that facilitates the type of cooperation between scholars and practitioners as this project did. The members of Baikal Wave were so excited about the presentation that they set up a press conference so that the results could be shared more widely. Local reporters, city administrators, science and pedagogy teachers, and other environmental activists were invited to the event, at which I described all of the study's findings in Russian, as well as answered questions about the results of similar research within the United States. Although the audience was very interested in our methods and research findings, the most notable result of the press conference was that it sparked a lengthy, public discussion among the audience about what was being done or should be done to solve the environmental issues in their city. The true success of this project was not any specific finding or conclusion, but rather the sense of collaboration between us—two University of Michigan researchers—and our Russian counterparts.
The use of the term environmental education in this context means education that teaches not only the basic concepts of ecology and natural science, but also helps create a citizenry that is capable of and motivated to take action to solve environmental problems. It focuses more on promoting critical thinking and problem solving skills than on advocating certain behaviors.
In May of 2004, Jennifer Smith completed an M.A. in Russian and East European Studies and an M.S. in Natural Resources and Environment. She is currently teaching environmental education at the Leslie Science Center in Ann Arbor and plans to move to Washington D.C. this fall to pursue a career in international environmental policy.