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«Annick Hedlund-de Witt Worldviews and the transformation to sustainable societies An exploration of the cultural and psychological dimensions of our ...»

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I see nature as a manifestation of the beauty of the greater power. So if I interact with it, I'm coming closer to the higher power as well. If I take care of and love the land, then I appreciate something that the higher power has provided. What I read about Buddhist thought and the more I understand that, the higher power is part of nature. There is just this sense of directing to something much greater than myself when I interact with nature. [spiritual practitioner] Moreover, it appears that precisely when experiences in nature are particularly profound and meaningful to participants, a spiritual dimension is encountered, and the experience’s potential to be a source of a sense of environmental responsibility is enhanced. Similarly, when the source of one’s spirituality was experienced particularly strong in nature, this seemed to have the potential to function as an incentive to care for and protect nature, possibly leading to a sense of environmental responsibility. In figure 1, these relationships are portrayed by the convergence of the arrows running from ‘contemporary spirituality’ and ‘profound encounters with nature’ to ‘a sense of environmental 175 responsibility.’ The research thus traces three potential pathways to a sense of environmental responsibility: profound encounters with nature (which can be interpreted to be of a spiritual nature, or not), contemporary spirituality (which can be explicitly connected with a more reverent relationship with nature, or not), and their convergence in spiritual nature experiences (where the first two pathways come together). I conceptualize these as three distinct pathways even though they tend to dynamically interact with, and enhance, each other, because the data in this study as well as existing literature seem to suggest that these first two pathways do not necessarily imply each other—that is, profound encounters with nature (Chawla, 1998; Kaplan, 1995; Kaplan & Talbot, 1983) and contemporary spirituality (Hedlund-de Witt, 2011; Heelas, 1996; Heelas & Woodhead, 2005) both appear to be potential pathways to a sense of environmental responsibility in themselves.

Figure 1: The three different pathways to a sense of environmental responsibility as found in the interviews 176

5.5 Discussion and conclusion

The results of this study give an analytical understanding and empathic insidersperspective into the spiritual dimension of nature experience and its relationship to environmental responsibility, as reported in 25 interviews with naturelovers/environmentalists and spiritual practitioners in Victoria, Canada. In the experience of these individuals, seeing nature as imbued with meaning, as having intrinsic value, and/or as sacred seems to engender an increased sense of environmental responsibility. Simultaneously, a natural, evolutionary, and thisworldly understanding of spirituality appears to lead to a ‘kinship with all life’ethics. Profound or spiritual experiences of nature were characterized by three key-themes, which I labeled presence, interconnectedness, and self-expansion. Many participants explained that these experiences had a profound impact on their lives, often informing their worldviews, sense of environmental responsibility, and for some their career choices. The research thereby traces three pathways to a sense of environmental responsibility: profound encounters with nature, contemporary spirituality, and their convergence in spiritual nature experiences.

In this way, the research illuminates the inner logic, meaning, and experience of these pathways, as well as their potential interplay and enhancement (see figure 1).

Since the data were derived from a selective group of individuals at a specific North-American location, the possibilities for generalizing the data to a larger population are limited.60 However, comparing the major observations with the literature give the impression that a basic level of generalizability can be assumed. For example, Self-Determination Theory refers to ‘eudaimonic’ individuals as driven by intrinsic (rather than extrinsic) motivations,61 and a

picture is sketched that echoes the descriptions in my study (Ryan et al., 2008):

The researchers showed that eudaimonic individuals: have high levels of inner peace, as well as frequent experiences of moral 60 For example, contemporary nature spirituality seems to be more common in the Pacific North-West (Shibley, 2011).

61 While intrinsic motivations refer to engaging in activities because of their intrinsic value, or inherent appeal, extrinsic aspirations refer to instrumental actions that one engages in as a means to achieve a goal; e.g., money, material gains, social reputation (Ryan et al., 2008).

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There thus seems to be a convergence of the themes dominating these spiritual experiences in nature, and certain findings within environmental psychology (e.g., with regard to wilderness-experiences) and positive psychology, notably Self-Determination Theory (K. W. Brown & Ryan, 2003; Ryan & Deci, 2000;

Ryan et al., 2008). Moreover, participants’ understanding of spirituality appears to be in line with Taylor’s (2010) observations of contemporary nature spirituality. Based on examples from many different continents, this work suggests that this kind of spirituality and worldview is a global rather than a local phenomenon.

These results can therefore be understood in light of, and appear to give an insiders-perspective into, contemporary nature spirituality—which some authors claim is spreading rapidly around the world, become increasingly important in global environmental politics, and hold a substantial potential for sustainable development (Giner & Tábara, 1999; Hedlund-de Witt, 2011; Liftin, 2009; B. Taylor, 2010). The extent to which this research generates understanding into a worldview (Hedlund-de Witt, 2012) as much as into a particular experience, is enhanced by the selection of participants’ in this study, which was based on their likelihood to have a profound, even spiritual experience of nature.62 As the results suggest, this susceptibility to experience nature spiritually seems to be associated with a specific worldview: that is, participants did not speak of their nature experiences in isolation to the rest of their lives and their perspective on the world. In contrast, these profound experiences appeared to take place in the context of, as well as in reciprocal relationship to, their worldview, apparently both informing it as well as being 62 This in contrast with earlier, more experimental research, in which a-selective, representative groups of participants were taken into wilderness areas for an extended period of time and were requested to journal about their experience (see e.g. Frederickson & Anderson, 1999; Kaplan & Talbot, 1983; Talbot & Kaplan, 1986).

178 informed by it. Thus, while the presence of a certain worldview—based around a certain understanding of nature, the human-nature relationship, and spirituality—seems to increase the likelihood that such experiences will take place, simultaneously these experiences can potentially also be seen as worldview-changing events. Therefore, the relationship between such nature experiences and the associated worldview can probably be best understood as a reciprocal relationship, rather than a one-sided, causal relationship.

Another contribution of this study is the outline of three potential pathways to a sense of environmental responsibility. While environmental responsibility is partially self-reported in the present study (although not completely, as the environmental activists worked for environmental organizations and expressed their sense of responsibility in that, measurable way), several studies suggestively support my outcomes (e.g. K. W. Brown & Kasser, 2005; Weinstein et al., 2009).63 However, these findings still need to be investigated further—especially the extent to which a self-described sense of environmental responsibility is related to measurable environmental behaviors and sustainable lifestyles. While the experiences and perceptions as explored in this study appear to play a substantial role in developing a sense of environmental responsibility—at least in the experience of these individuals themselves—many other factors will likely inform actual environmental behaviors, including availability and attractiveness of environment-friendly alternatives, supportive social norms, financial incentives, and logistical issues (Atcheson, 2007; McKenzie-Mohr & Smith, 2008; Moser & Dilling, 2007), as well as demographic factors such as age, education, and country of residence.

This study also raises questions and thereby potential avenues for further research with respect to its practical implications, considering the increasingly urban and technological world we live in. How can we make sense of these profound experiences in the wild within the context of a world in which half of 63 In these studies, researchers found that both nature relatedness (compare interconnectedness) and autonomy (compare self-expansion) independently and robustly predicted higher intrinsic aspirations, which have been empirically found to be related to pro-social and other-focused value orientations, and lower extrinsic aspirations, which predict self-focused value orientations (Weinstein et al., 2009). Brown and Kasser (2005) showed that people embracing the extrinsic goal of materialism tend to consume more and have bigger environmental footprints.

–  –  –

Together these findings suggest that full contact with nature can have humanizing effects, fostering greater authenticity and connectedness and, in turn, other versus self-orientations that enhance valuing of and generosity toward others. In these experiments, people’s contact with nature was relatively weak, consisting of brief exposure to slides of natural landscapes or sitting among plants in an office space. Given that these brief exposures appear to have yielded a reliable impact in creating a more prosocial value set, we might speculate about the more general balance of nature and nonnature in people’s lives and its societal effects (Weinstein et al., 2009, p. 1328).

These findings thereby suggest that nature has, even in its more prosaic or common manifestations, to use Norton’s (1990) term, important ‘transformative value.’ This sort of value is, however, likely to increase in intensity and depth depending on both the nature of the exposure as well as on the quality of attention paid to the experience (Weinstein et al., 2009, for example, speak of ‘immersion’ in this context). Moreover, as multiple participants in my own study argued, ‘ultimately everything is nature’, and they often appeared to have a comprehensive appreciation of nature, including for example, trees and birds in the urban environment. The hereby reported study thus attempts to demonstrate and underscore the profoundness of the potential and transformative value of nature, without reducing it to more exclusive and frequently inaccessible ‘wilderness experiences.’ Overall, this study provides insight into a variety of inner motivations for 180 a sense of environmental responsibility and an understanding of how these motivations fit into individuals’ larger worldviews. As other authors have argued, the spread of such a contemporary nature spirituality may be a powerful means for the popular implementation of ecologically rational behaviors, especially because there are limits to the societal diffusion of complex scientific arguments as well as to an exclusively analytical and rational understanding of reality (Giner & Tábara, 1999, p. 74). Moreover, several authors emphasize that this kind of ecological or nature religion is shared by multiple religions, thus forming a common ground between them (e.g. B. Taylor, 2010; Tucker & Grim, 1994). Therefore, such nature spirituality ‘provides the universal language that can be integrated in diverse institutions and situations. For this reason, it can be considered to have an invaluable cultural role in the common pursuit to adapt human societies to global environmental change’ (Giner & Tábara, 1999, p. 75).

In a world plagued with global environmental challenges, with questions of meaning and spirituality on the rise, and with traditional religions reinventing themselves (see e.g. Berry, 2009; Habermas, 2010; McFague, 2008; Tucker & Grim, 1994), the potential role of (spiritual) nature experience in humanity’s quest for understanding its role and purpose in existence seems difficult to overstate.

–  –  –

I’m interested in how people relate to nature. Many people enjoy spending time in nature, but why? What happens to people when they are in nature? I would like to ask you some questions about your relationship to nature, in the past and the present.

–  –  –

Now I would like to talk with you about spirituality. Although many people speak about spirituality, it is often not clear what is meant with the term. It seems to be a word that people use and understand in different ways. I am curious what you understand spirituality to be.

–  –  –

I am curious if these experiences in nature that you have just told me about, have impacted you and your life in a way. Do you think that these experiences in nature changed something in you that was lasting in its impression? Why? And how?

–  –  –

64 In: Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit (1992), p. 12.

65 In: Sources of the Self. The Making of the Modern Identity (1989), p. 183.


6.1 Introduction Theoretical and empirical insight vis-à-vis worldviews and values is an essential element in approaches aiming to design and support more sustainable development paths for society. Our beliefs about the divine, the spiritual, and the transcendent, as well as about our role in the world as moral agents shape our sense of duty and responsibility to care for others and for nature (Hulme, 2009).

Issues like climate change raise questions with strong moral and ethical dimensions that need to be dealt with in policy-formation and international negotiations (Wardekker et al., 2009). Additionally, research shows that values and beliefs are strong predictors of policy opinion and policy support (Shwom et al., 2010) and tend to be indicative for environmental behavior (e.g. Karp, 1996;

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