«Annick Hedlund-de Witt Worldviews and the transformation to sustainable societies An exploration of the cultural and psychological dimensions of our ...»
Research within the field of environmental psychology seems to suggestively support this hypothesis. For example, the findings of a ten-yearlong research program suggested that profound ‘wilderness experiences’ can prompt broad and significant psychological changes in participants, affecting one’s perspectives on the world, life, and nature, as well as personal priorities and involvements. The impacts of such experiences were found to be largely 150 similar for different participants, as well as for participants in somewhat different programs, and such changes appeared to last over time (Kaplan & Talbot, 1983; Talbot & Kaplan, 1986). Although the investigated experiences were not necessarily framed as being of a ‘spiritual’ nature, the spiritual dimension was frequently alluded to in the description of these experiences.
Such profound nature experiences are therefore often viewed as powerful ‘therapeutic tools’ (see e.g. Walsh, 2011), as they seem to have the potential to encourage new behavior patterns and self-perceptions in the participants, and may have the capacity to change the way individuals view nature and the world at large. For example, participants often reported that they felt they were learning new ways of thinking about their place in the world, and about the compelling relationship between that world and themselves— frequently becoming “convinced that living with nature is both more appropriate and more satisfying” as opposed to a more dominating or controlling attitude (Talbot & Kaplan, 1986, p. 186). Such experiences can thus lead individuals to deeper levels of personal understanding, to convictions that the ways in which they conduct their lives should be different, and to a change of personal priorities (Kaplan & Talbot, 1983; Talbot & Kaplan, 1986). Findings such as these make it therefore plausible that profound nature experiences have the potential to affect attitudes, worldviews, (political) choices, and behaviors in a more environment-friendly direction. However, it is likely that long-term changes develop only gradually, as a response to either extended or repeated positive experiences. Moreover, next to worldviews and values, there are of course also many structural factors—such as economic, infrastructural, institutional, and social-practical ones—that inform environmental behaviors and lifestyles (Gifford, 2011; Shove et al., 2012). In this context, demographics such as age, income, and socio-geographical location are thus also likely to play a substantial role.
While there frequently appears to be a spiritual dimension to profound experiences in the natural world (see e.g. Frederickson & Anderson, 1999;
Kaplan & Talbot, 1983; Williams & Harvey, 2001), this dimension has not been systematically and empirically explored, nor has it been investigated how it relates to a sense of environmental responsibility. As also Williams and Harvey (2001) observed, “while there is increasing interest in the spiritual values of 151 nature, there have been very few empirical studies undertaken to identify the character of significant experiences which contribute to these values” (p. 256).
In this study, I therefore explore the spiritual dimension of nature experience and its relationship to environmental responsibility, intending to provide insight into: 1) how participants experience and conceptualize the spiritual dimension of nature; and 2) what the (self-described) potential of such experiences in nature is for developing a sense of environmental responsibility.
I do this by analyzing 25 semi-structured, in-depth interviews conducted in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, with two groups of carefully selected individuals: nature-lovers/environmentalists and spiritual practitioners (that is, yoga- and meditation practitioners, as well as individuals found through an interfaith center). Through the use of this (interview) method, I aspire to generate qualitative insight into the inner logic and processes of these profound experiences in nature and their relationship to a sense of environmental responsibility, thereby generating rich detail, thick descriptions, and almost a felt sense of such experiences and their transformative value, rather than attempting to (more quantitatively) prove this relationship.
5.2 Background As earlier research on profound experiences in nature has shown, such encounters tend to be characterized by a strong positive affect and feelings of overcoming the limits of everyday life (Frederickson & Anderson, 1999;
Williams & Harvey, 2001). Also, these experiences seem to go along with a profound sense of meaning and purpose. As individuals experienced themselves against the background of an expansive natural world, they often came to feel the significance and value of life, while simultaneously becoming more aware of the transience of more mundane concerns (Frederickson & Anderson, 1999;
Kaplan & Talbot, 1983). Additionally, a sense of oneness, unity, wholeness, and/or connectedness tends to be present in these experiences. Participants described, for example, feeling closely related to the earth, and understood themselves to be a part of and participating in nature, rather than being an outsider or intruder. Related to this were feelings of awe, wonder, and sensitivity to the spiritual elements of the environment (Talbot & Kaplan, 1986). These 152 experiences also have a propensity to be characterized by an increased awareness— varying from a heightened sensory awareness, a reawakening to physical capabilities, a renewed sense of the body, to a more general feeling of an increased consciousness (Frederickson & Anderson, 1999; Kaplan, 1995;
Williams & Harvey, 2001). Additionally, individuals frequently reported to come to view themselves and the larger world in a different way. A new and more profound sense of self-understanding often emerged, as well as an expanded sense of self and one’s capabilities (Talbot & Kaplan, 1986). Particularly periods of solitude seemed to provide participants with spiritual inspiration and a sense of contemplation, reflection, and personal growth (Frederickson & Anderson, 1999).
As this brief characterization of profound experiences in nature shows, these individuals frequently allude to a spiritual dimension to their experiences.
These experiences may thereby provide a doorway, as well as give an insidersperspective into a larger cultural movement that is increasingly observable, most notably in the Western world (Campbell, 2007; De Hart, 2011; Gibson, 2009;
Hanegraaff, 1996; Heelas, 1996; Heelas & Woodhead, 2005; Partridge, 2005).
Taylor (2010) speaks in this context of contemporary nature spirituality, referring to a cultural movement characterized by a deep sensitivity to nature and an ethics of kinship with all life, which has emerged from the nature-revering, Romantic movements in Europe and North-America in the 19 and 20 centuries, th th spearheaded by figures like Rousseau, Burke, Goethe, Emerson, Thoreau, and Muir. According to Taylor (2010), this cultural movement flows from a deep sense of belonging to and connectedness in nature, while perceiving the earth and its living systems to be sacred and interconnected. Dark green religion is generally deep ecological, biocentric, or ecocentric, considering all species to be intrinsically valuable, that is, valuable apart from their usefulness to human beings.
This value system is generally (1) based on a felt kinship with the rest of life, often derived from a Darwinian understanding that all forms of life have evolved from a common ancestor and are therefore related; (2) accompanied by feelings of humility and a corresponding critique of human moral superiority, often inspired or reinforced by a science-based
While Taylor speaks of this cultural movement as a religion (that is, ‘dark green religion’), he explicitly characterizes its most prevalent forms as noninstitutionalized and ‘post-theistic’, which has more in common with what is generally understood as contemporary spirituality (De Hart, 2011; Heelas & Woodhead, 2005; Houtman et al., 2009), or, in the terminology of Benedikter and Molz (2011), as ‘rational spirituality.’ In this worldview, the individual, subjective experience takes central stage, scientific insights (such as the theory of evolution, ecology, and physics) profoundly inform one’s ontology, and nature experience is seen as valid epistemology for the direct apprehension of the sacred (B. Taylor, 2010). According to several authors, this ‘religion’ is characterized by ‘a fundamental relocation of the divine from its previous position somewhere ‘up there’ to its new location somewhere ‘down here,’ that is to say, from a basically transcendent [God] conception to one that is more suggestive of immanence’ (Campbell, 2007, p. 270; see also Houtman et al., 2009). Thus, contemporary notions of spirituality tend to be this worldly—that is, focused on this life and this world—thereby elevating nature, but also for example the body (Campbell, 2007;
Hanegraaff, 1996; Heelas, 1996; Van Otterloo, 1999). It is precisely this elevation (or, in Campbell’s terms, ‘rehabilitation’) of nature that explains the sense of environmental responsibility that is often associated with this cultural movement (Giner & Tábara, 1999; Hedlund-de Witt, 2011; B. Taylor, 2010).
Thus, frequently a certain coherence can be discerned between the more conceptual ideas and assumptions (in)forming the cultural worldview and the practices and behaviors that can be empirically observed (Hedlund-de Witt, 2012). For example, as Liftin (2009) carefully unpacks in her study on the global ecovillage movement, beneath these ecovillagers’ commitment to social and ecological sustainability, “one may discern a worldview premised upon holism and radical interdependence. This basic ontological commitment is what unites the global ecovillage movement, forging a shared epistemic bond across widely disparate communities” (pp. 126-127).
154 5.3 Methodology In this study, I elected to use semi-structured, in-depth interviews as they facilitate questions that are relatively personal, illuminating responses to subjects that tend to be considered of a more profound nature. The interviews were held with the support and direction of an interview-guide (see appendix III). In line with the tradition of ethnographic interpretative research, experiences were explored with a high level of detail, in a ‘storytelling’ yet analytical fashion, with the aim of generating insight about cultural themes and worldviews (Creswell, 1998).
I conducted a total of 25 interviews in Victoria (British Columbia, Canada) during the fall of 2003, each of which generally lasted one to two hours.
The number of interviews was determined on the basis of saturation of information, and the participants were selected through purposeful sampling (Seidman, 2006), namely, on the basis of their susceptibility to experience a spiritual dimension in nature. Participants were found through contacting various organizations by a written letter, which explained the purpose and practicalities of the interview. Fourteen participants were found through the assistance of spiritually oriented centers, namely the Zen Centre, the Victoria Yoga Centre, and the Interfaith Centre.54 The eleven other participants were found through the help of nature/environment-oriented groups, namely the Outdoors Club of Victoria, the Western Canada Wilderness Committee, and the Sierra Club.55 54 The Zen Centre is a small organization, presenting the Zen path of meditation and contemplative arts. Although based on Zen Buddhist teachings, the centre states that it has a secular, non-dogmatic orientation; its main focus is on presence and mindfulness. The Victoria Yoga Centre (www.iyengaryogacentre.ca) aims at encouraging ‘physical, mental, and spiritual growth … by the study and discipline of Iyengar Yoga.’ Inner awareness is enhanced through learning to relax and concentrate. The Interfaith Centre of the University of Victoria (www.stas.uvic.ca/chap) welcomes students, staff and other interested people to share, question, and develop their personal spirituality—regardless of their religious background.
55 The Western Canada Wilderness Committee (www.wildernesscommittee.org) is Canada’s largest grassroots, membership-based wilderness preservation group. The Sierra Club is an international grassroots organization that was founded in the United States in 1892 by the naturalist and writer John Muir. His philosophy that interaction with the natural landscape inspires environmental stewardship still fuels the Sierra Club today (www.sierraclub.bc.ca).
The Outdoors Club of Victoria (www.ocv.ca) organizes outdoors activities, ranging from hiking, climbing and canoeing to mountain biking, camping and skiing. The club is a non-profit 155 These participants were either environmental activists (working as professional or volunteer for environmental organizations) or ‘nature-lovers’ (hiking on a regular basis). The participants as described by these labels showed some overlap, notably in the sense that all environmentalists declared that they were also active nature recreationists. The labels thus primarily reflect through which organizations I found the different participants. The interviews took place at the homes of the participants, or in a few cases, in a public space. The group consisted of ten males and fifteen females, and the ages varied between 22 and
76. The education level was generally high: everybody received a higher education at a university or was in the process of attaining one, except for two people, who only finished secondary school.