Mirei Takashima Claremon describes herself as a hybrid. Half Japanese, half Korean, she grew up in Japan but studied in international and American schools, coming into constant contact with people from different countries, religions and experiences. Seeing so much diversity in how people approached the world, she said, is a key reason why she became interested in human psychology.

“I enjoy thinking about people’s behavior and why, even if encountering the same situation, they can respond differently or perceive it differently,” Takashima Claremon said.

After earning her bachelor’s degree in psychology from Cornell University and both a master’s and Ph.D. from UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, her work focused on helping organizations navigate cross-cultural differences, especially between the U.S. and Japan. More recently, however, she turned her attention toward what she calls “Behavioral Sustainability”: working with businesses, nonprofits and individuals to better understand the behaviors and viewpoints involved in resolving environmental and social challenges.

At UCLA Extension, Takashima Claremon teaches Principles of Sustainability III: Stakeholders and Engaging Communities, where students explore environmental justice and the socio-cultural behaviors that affect beliefs, change and decision-making. We spoke to her about her experience and what she thinks students should know about sustainability as a career. This interview has been edited for clarity and concision.

Why did you make the decision to shift your professional focus to sustainability?

I started paying more serious attention to how human activity is impacting our world. Learning about the plastic crisis and climate change, it just struck me that there’s nothing more important than trying to improve our circumstances and really think about the future and make this a better world. So I signed up for Nurit Katz’s class in UCLA Extension’s sustainability program. When I mentioned that I had a Ph.D. from Anderson, she asked me to guest lecture and asked, “Can you apply behavior psychology to sustainability?” She really pushed me to think about how I could apply my skills to the field, and how we can build a more sustainable world using behavioral psychology. So that’s really what got me to focus on sustainability, and not just business.

Where does psychology fit in studying and understanding sustainability?

Sustainability is often talked about in the context of policy or science and technology, but beyond the individual level we never really talk about it as a matter of human behavior. Picking up your trash or recycling more or using less plastic, those are things we think about. But really what we need to understand is that sustainability is a systemic issue. So when I say “behavior” it also encompasses changing the behaviors of organizations and institutions, and to do that you have to understand their motivations and incentives. Public companies, for example, are mandated to make profit for their shareholders. If you don’t understand and address that then it’s basically impossible to change their behavior. So when environmentalists and climate change activists label for-profit businesses as evil, that’s not really the right framing. It’s not productive. It’s important to look at these problems in a more holistic way so that when you’re faced with a new issue, you can ask the right kind of questions.

What kind of students generally enroll in your class?

I would say most of the students who come to sustainability have an environmental interest. Very broadly speaking, they are interested in saving nature, whether it’s polar bears or preserving snow on mountains. But they often aren’t thinking about how humans are also affected, and about environmental racism and how issues tend to affect poorer countries and poorer communities first and hardest. That’s a big part of what they learn in this class.

The students are usually people who are already in sustainability and want to deepen their understanding, or who want to transition into sustainability. I tell them to think like a detective or a journalist. You do investigations, you don’t just have a linear singular view, but you ask the kind of questions that you may not have thought of before you took the course. Understanding how different issues overlap, and how you bridge gaps and bring people together is critical if we want to build a better future. We can’t think about environmental and social issues separately because the real world is complicated and messy.

What would you tell students who are considering a career in sustainability?

You don’t have to be a climate scientist to make the world a better place, to be part of positive change. Most people are not climate scientists and most people don’t have to be. We really need people from different fields. We need people who understand behavior, we need people who understand design, we need people who understand the numbers, we need people who understand the science, and then we need people who understand how to mediate and bring everybody together. Whoever you are, whatever your skills are, you can add value if you understand what role you can play to make the world a better, more sustainable place.