The Psychology of Sustainability: Milene Morfei ’89, professor of psychology
You might not naturally peg a professor of psychology as an expert in environmental sustainability. But since 1999, Professor Milene Morfei has been teaching a popular course on the topic—and her passion for it is contagious, affecting the entire Wells campus.
As a result of a project in her Psychology of Environmental Sustainability course, trays are no longer used in the dining room. “With entire trays to fill, students took more than they could eat, resulting in a lot of waste,” says Morfei. Now, using only individual plates and bowls, students waste significantly less food. The secret to motivating the policy change? Economic incentive. “Some people may not care about sustainability, but they care about saving money,” she says.
Applying psychological concepts to change environmentally destructive behavior has long been a passion of Professor Morfei’s. “I’m committed to make change in the world, using my discipline,” she says.
By turning assignments into service learning projects on the Wells campus, Morfei empowers students to identify problems, understand the barriers, and implement solutions. She encourages them to draw on their knowledge of psychology to answer the question, “what’s the best way I can get people to listen to me and make change?” By understanding what motivates others, her students explore a wide range of environmental issues that touch on many disciplines, including sociology, political science, and economics. As a result, her course draws students from a number of different majors.
While also studying environmental issues worldwide, Morfei’s students take action closer to home. Issues on deck include the use of two refrigerators in each dorm room, having disposable cups for “high tea” in MacMillan Hall each day, and keeping lights on in campus rooms that are unused. Wells President Lisa Ryerson has recently signed a commitment to reduce the College’s carbon footprint, giving Morfei’s students even greater leverage for tackling environmentally destructive behavior on campus.
Morfei, who also teaches courses in organizational behavior, adult development and aging, social psychology, and forensic psychology, works on sustainability issues in concert with her colleague Niamh O’Leary, professor of environmental science.
“Today on campus I’m seeing a lot more awareness about sustainability than I did just a few years ago,” says Morfei, who cites the Campus Greens student group as an example. She is committed to expanding that awareness and translating it into action. “I don’t think we can, in good conscience, graduate students who lack a firm understanding of the enormous environmental challenges we face.”