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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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Milfont and Duckitt, 2004; Schultz and Zelezny, 1999). Because everyday consumption choices are deeply enmeshed in a web of non-instrumental motivations, values, emotions, self-conceptions, and cultural associations (Sorin, 2010), values and worldviews can also be seen as major drivers in consumer trends and economic spending patterns, including those concerning the green economy. Lastly, the concept of sustainable development itself contains both objective and subjective dimensions, as it can be seen as a quest for developing and sustaining ‘qualities of life’ (De Vries and Petersen, 2009), which are at least partially shaped by the views and values that individuals and groups hold.

However, even though the concept of values has played a significant role in the climate change and sustainable development debates, it tends to be narrowly defined, predominantly referring to monetary worth, relative worth, or a fair return on exchanges, which are typically measured as numerical quantities (De Vries and Petersen, 2009).

Therefore, as O’ Brien and Wolf (2010) state:

In relation to climate change, what are still missing from economicoriented and welfare-based approaches to valuation are the differential subjective values of individuals, societies and cultures regarding the experience and consequences of environmental transformations.

Economic concepts such as utility and efficiency cannot capture the often subjective and nonmaterial values affected by climate change (pp. 232Therefore, a systematic integration of worldviews and values is argued for in both research and practices concerned with sustainable development.

While there are many different possible approaches for investigating worldviews and values in the context of sustainability (see for example O’Brien, 2009, who explores traditional, modern, and postmodern worldviews in Norway and their interface with climate adaptation measures), there is a cultural development that may be particularly of interest, as it seems to hold a certain potential for sustainable development (Campbell, 2007; Dryzek, 2005; Hanegraaff, 1996;

Heelas, 1996; Ray and Anderson, 2000). This is the rise of the culture of contemporary spirituality.

Several social scientists and philosophers claim that a gradual but profound change in the Western worldview is taking place—a change in the direction of a more re-enchanted, post-material, metaphysical, or spiritual worldview (Campbell, 2007; Gibson, 2009; Houtman and Mascini, 2002;

Partridge, 2005; Ray and Anderson, 2000; Tarnas, 2006). Some authors speak in this context of a spiritual revolution (Heelas and Woodhead, 2005) or a spiritual turn (Houtman and Aupers, 2007). As Inglehart and Welzel (2005) put it, based on the results of the World Values Survey, the largest existing worldwide, crosscultural, longitudinal data-set on (changes in) cultural beliefs, values and


Although the authority of the established churches continues to decline, during the past twenty years the publics of postindustrial societies have become increasingly likely to spend time thinking about the meaning and purpose of life. Whether one views these concerns as religious depends on one’s definition of religion, but it is clear that the materialistic secularism of industrial society is fading. There is a shift from institutionally fixed forms of dogmatic religion to individually flexible forms of spiritual religion (p. 31).

Clearly, the emergence of contemporary spirituality is not just a countercultural or marginal phenomenon. On the contrary, as Heelas and Woodhead (2205) emphasize, this “spiritual revolution… has taken place in key sectors of the culture” and “has its home within the more general culture of subjective 187 wellbeing whilst also being a relatively distinctive or specialized variant of the more widespread culture” (pp. 75, 86). Sutcliffe and Bowman (2000) even state that “contrary to predictions that New Age would go mainstream, now it’s as if the mainstream is going New Age” (p. 11). The culture of contemporary spirituality appears to be a pivotal part of the change taking place in the Western worldview, both reflecting the larger cultural development, as well as giving shape and direction to it. The emergence of contemporary spirituality is therefore not to be neglected in our aims to create and facilitate the emergence of a more sustainable society and respond to issues like climate change: not only is it a powerful and growing subculture in itself, it is also largely compatible with as well as instructive for the broader cultural development.

The aim of this study is therefore to generate insight into the culture of contemporary spirituality and investigate both its potentials for sustainable development, as well as explore the risks or pitfalls that it poses, predominantly on the basis of the sociological “New Age” literature. As far as I am aware of, no study of this specific terrain has been made before. Additionally, perspectives on the culture of contemporary spirituality are not always comprehensive; the literature on the phenomenon frequently tends toward polarization between critics and adherents. For some, the “New Age” represents a step backwards from the standards of modern rationality towards pre-modern, irrational thinking and the abandonment of the self-responsibility of the individual; it is then seen largely as a regressive, reactionary, and narcissistic movement (e.g.

Lasch, 1978). Others tend to emphasize its noble intentions, qualities, and potentials as well as its overall progressive signature (e.g. Ray and Anderson, 2000). However, the former position tends to dominate in social-scientific analyses of the cultural movement (Höllinger, 2004). Because the term New Age has acquired negative connotations both among the general public and among New Agers themselves (Lewis, 1992), I generally prefer the more neutral term “contemporary spirituality” (although I use them interchangeably throughout this chapter). The use of this term is in line with my aspiration for a more nuanced understanding of this phenomenon in its dignity and its disaster, its grandeur et misère, vis-à-vis issues and goals of sustainable development. In section

5.3 I will show that a developmental framework is uniquely suitable for making sense of the observed potentials and pitfalls for sustainable development, as it 188 enacts an empowering perspective that inspires to appeal to the potentials while avoiding or mitigating the pitfalls. More generally, this study may shed light on the complex interaction between the more objective, exterior and the more (inter)subjective, interior dimensions of issues, goals, and discourses concerned with sustainable development.

6.2 Literature review: An exploration of potentials and pitfalls In its response to the prevailing Western worldview, as well as in its search for alternative ways of relating to nature, the culture of contemporary spirituality offers some distinctive potentials for the issues and goals of sustainable development, as well as poses some threats or pitfalls. In this section I present these potentials and pitfalls respectively, based on an exploration of the sociological literature on this cultural phenomenon (see table 13 for an overview of these possible potentials and pitfalls). The main used sources include New Age standards, notably Wouter Hanegraaff’s historical exploration of New Age religion, which presents an analysis on the basis of the most important New Age texts, sources, authors, themes and beliefs (New Age Religion and Western Culture.

Western Esotericism in the Mirror of Secular Thought, 1996) and Paul Heelas’ sociological study of ‘the New Age Movement’ (The New Age Movement: The Celebration of the Self and the Sacralization of Modernity, 1996). Next to that, Colin Campbell’s sociological account of the process of ‘Easternization’ of the West (The Easternization of the West. A thematic account of cultural change in the Modern era,

2007) and Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead’s empirical exploration of the holistic milieu in Kendal, England (The Spiritual Revolution. Why religion is giving way to spirituality, 2005), have been used extensively. Additionally, several other sources have been employed, including various articles reporting empirical studies in this domain (e.g. Aupers and Houtman, 2006; Höllinger, 2004; Jacob et al., 2009).

189 6.2.1 Potentials of contemporary spirituality for sustainable development Firstly, the potentials include a rehabilitation of nature; Campbell (2007) signals a dramatic change in popular beliefs and attitudes towards nature that has occurred over the past thirty to forty years, which comes to concrete expression in the rise of the animal rights movement, the swing to vegetarianism and the consumption of whole and organic food, the holistic health movement, and the origination and expansion of the environmental movement itself. In Campbell’s eyes, these are all different manifestations of the contemporary spiritual idea that some sort of spirit, divine life force, or higher value is present in all of nature (including the human body and being), which therefore needs to be treated with respect, or even reverence. This idea is profoundly influenced by Eastern spiritual ideas and ideals (Campbell, 2007) and has positive, practical consequences for environmental behaviors, resulting in an overall greening of individual life-styles. An example of this is the change in attitude towards meateating, as animals are increasingly considered in terms of their well-being and rights, including the right not to be killed and eaten (Campbell, 2007), and seen as sentient ‘fellow creatures’ instead of merely ‘food’ (Verdonk, 2009). Because of its considerable and well-documented impact on the environment, meat consumption is highly significant in the context of sustainable development.66 Also Heelas emphasizes this point: “’right livelihood,’ to use the Buddhist term, and green consumption are the natural responses to the experience of the value and sacrality of both nature and the person, these practices being seen as providing the best way of ensuring that the natural is respected” (1996, p. 86).

More generally speaking, contemporary spiritual thought has often been associated with ecological concerns (Aldridge, 2000; Hanegraaff, 1996).

Secondly, this contemporary spirituality is characterized by a pervasive emphasis on interconnectedness (Campbell, 2007; Hanegraaff, 1996; Heelas, 1996;

Heelas and Woodhead, 2005;). The understanding and experience to be profoundly interconnected with the rest of life may result in a service-ethic and “a profound sense of responsibility for others and the earth” (Heelas, 1996, 66 In their 2006 publication “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has stated that animal agriculture substantially contributes to climate change, air pollution, land-, soil-, and water degradation, and to the reduction of biodiversity (FAO, 2006).

190 p.25). We see this for example in the spiritual-ecological literature, in which our interconnectedness with nature is often emphasized as a major reason, motivation, and inspiration for treating it with respect (e.g., Duintjer, 1988;

Leopold, 1949; Macy, 2007; Naess, 1989). Next to that, empirical research has also affirmed a sense of connectedness to nature as a determinant of proenvironmental behavior (Dutcher et al, 2007; Mayer and Frantz, 2004), as also observed in chapter four. Besides the sense of responsibility this interconnectedness may bring, it potentially also results in a sense of empowerment: being connected to the rest of existence may give meaning and purpose to all that humans do, for it will necessarily have effects beyond themselves. More generally, the belief in a fundamental interconnectedness tends to make New Agers tolerant of differences regarding nationality, ethnicity, religion, and sexual preference, because the essential unity of the human species tends to be emphasized over their differences. Similarly, different religions tend to be perceived as varying expressions of the same, deeper mystical truths (Aupers and Houtman, 2006; Hanegraaff, 1996; Heelas, 1996).

Thirdly, this cultural movement tends to put emphasis on embedded individuality. This notion of individuality resembles beliefs about the nature and importance of the person as developed by the Romantics, rather than individualism, understood as the economic doctrine that has traditionally served to legitimate the pursuit of self-interest. As Campbell (2007) points out, there appears to be a paradox lying at the heart of the New Age worldview.

This is that the central message individuals receive when consulting the inner self is that believing they are a separate entity is an illusion. For the individual divine essence located within each person – the true self – although real, is also merely part of a larger whole, that which is AllSpirit. In this respect the New Age paradigm only gives the appearance of being exceptionally individualistic (p. 356).

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