Home > Psychology > Nature-Connectedness: The Greening of Behaviour, Well-Being and Christian Imperatives: Part 1

Nature-Connectedness: The Greening of Behaviour, Well-Being and Christian Imperatives: Part 1

February 17th, 2014 Leave a comment Go to comments

A subset of psychology called ecopsychology is developing intriguing research based on theories concerning nature-connectedness and how this affects overall well-being and environmental behaviours. Inspired from the philosophical work of enlightened ecological thinkers, the coalescing of these powerful ideas with empirical investigative techniques has introduced new theories in which to shift conventional knowledge about the interdependent relationship between humankind and nature. As research continues and more empirical data is gathered, social and political institutions will find this growing body of work calls for a fundamental shift in policies and patterns of belief in order to respond to the growing discontent of peoples with the destruction of the natural environment.

As concerns grow about humanity’s impact on the natural environment it will be imperative for institutions, such as religious traditions, to seek out ways in which to change the destructive behaviours of those they guide and to usher in a new era of environmental sustainability that reflects mutual well-being for people and the biosphere.

As a key institution in the Western world that influences public policies and opinions, it is necessary for the Christian tradition to integrate this dynamic body of research into a more robust worldview. Two arguments that appear repeatedly throughout ecospirituality literature demonstrate the ideological tensions inherent in the discourse of both historical and present day response from the Christian perspective.

The first follows the argument originally put forth by Lynn White, Jr., suggesting that Western Christian traditions bear the brunt of the responsibility for the devastation to the environment resulting from the subservient role of nature to man as recounted in the Creation story (White, 1967). Ironically, other arguments point to the same Creation story for divine mandates on humankind’s responsibility toward ecological sustainability, whereby man is called upon as shepherd or steward of the earth (Hathaway, 2000).

Regardless of whether White’s arguments hold merit, this should not dissuade the tradition from seeking ways in which to address the environmental crisis. In fact, if White’s thesis is to be believed, it would suggest that Christians can embark on a new era of atonement for the wrongs inflicted upon one of God’s most sacred creations – the earth. The validity of their response will be bolstered by turning toward empirical research, such as that emerging from the field of ecopsychology, for modern tools in which to engage their congregants. Faith-goers may find that reconnecting with nature not only increases their well-being and positive environmental behaviour, but may also fulfill a higher spiritual mandate.

The Historical Development of the Nature-Connectedness Inquiry

Famed biologist Edward O. Wilson coined the term biophilia to describe the, “[…] innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms” (1996, p. 165). Wilson pointed to a variety of curious human behaviours, in addition to our shared evolutionary history, as support for the biophilia hypothesis. He suggested that the proliferation of both dreams and symbols involving a decidedly nature-oriented quality could demonstrate a connection between human beings and the natural environment. Through examining the representation of animals and natural phenomenon in various myths, rituals, and symbols, Wilson conceived of an embedded genetic code of biocultural origin to further validate the biophilic proposition. He also pointed to the preference of children and adults for activities that involved contact with natural elements, such as trips to the zoo, and an inclination for people to desire living near water or park-like settings (p. 165-177).

Wilson is one of many scholars who hold strong convictions regarding a human-nature bond. Others have conceived ideas on how the strength or weakness of this bond could impact environmental attitudes and behaviours.

In a 1973 paper, Arne Naess introduced the notion of deep ecology which he differentiated from shallow ecology, where the former expressed nature as being intrinsically valuable rather than the latter as valuable as a resource for human beings (p. 83). He suggested that identification with the natural environment and other species could spur a deep ecological attitude that would manifest itself as internalizing the interests of the environment as one’s own interests (p. 86). He further postulated that this identification process did not require the ability of the subject of interest to reciprocate, suggesting that humans could identify with mountains, trees, and oceans (p. 87).

Additionally, Naess did not overlook the possibility of tensions arising from conflicts of interest embedded within the identification process, such as a traditional hunting tribe having deep affinities for the animals being hunted. He suggested alienation could be remedied through the process of ritualization and ceremony, thus re-establishing identification (pg. 87). Other ecological thinkers have postulated, in somewhat bleak detail, how the modern technological landscape is rapidly disconnecting us from this potentially innate identification with nature.

In his best-selling book, Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv (2005) coined the term nature-deficit disorder to describe the phenomenon of children growing up in the technological age as being disengaged with the natural environment. He suggested that the resulting disconnect from nature was inhibiting human vitality through stunting the physical, psychological and spiritual health of children. In his follow-up book entitled, The Nature Principle, Louv (2011) expanded his nature-deficit hypothesis to discuss the diminished overall well-being of adults navigating a hard-wired world.

Louv argued that the future of environmentalism must include reconnecting with nature in addition to sustainable practices and policies. Without re-establishing this nature bond, humans are subjugating themselves to a future of decreased well-being and a failure to realize the full human potential (2011, p. 4-6). Through a series of interviews, summaries of research and personal accounts, Louv makes a strong case for the nature-deficit hypothesis – suggesting that researchers should consider investigating the validity of the phenomenon.

Louv, a writer, demonstrates how artists and other creative thinkers facilitate bringing these ideas to the attention of scientists and researchers. Additionally, innovative hypotheses are consumed more readily by the masses through artistic endeavours that can connect with the emotionality inherent in the human spirit; while science tends to alienate the lay person with its hard facts, figures and constraining methods. This shouldn’t imply that some great scientific minds haven’t popularized some of these concepts, such as Wilson mentioned previously, and C.G. Jung to follow.

Renowned psychologist, Carl Gustav Jung had much to say about the effects of modern technology and Western religious ideology on the connection between nature and the human psyche. He lamented Western technological and consumer-driven societies, pointing to the growing lack of focus, purpose and meaning in the lives of children and adults alike – particularly directed to what he called city-dwellers. Jung decried the paradoxical quality of modern technological time-saving devices that filled time such that one was left without any (2002, p. 138-139), resulting in a detachment from the self and the world.

In a collection of published letters, Jung recounts a story that succinctly sums up some of his ideas on the effects of technology on the soul:

“I would mention the story of a native [African] who had been invited to be driven in a car. After half an hour he asked the people to stop. He stepped out and stretched himself on the ground. They asked him whether he was sick, and he said, “no,” he felt alright, but he had just to wait for his soul that had remained behind, as they went too fast for it” (p. 140).

Many of Jung’s writings clearly display a deep belief in a transcendental quality in nature. He reflected on how the natural environment seemed to personify God better than humankind (p. 28) and pointedly called “[n]atural life the nourishing soil of the soul” (p. 67).
Despite being a well-known psychiatrist, the field of psychology has only recently begun to delve into robust empirical work on the effects of nature-connectedness on the human psyche.

***Read Nature-Connectedness, Part 2 here***

M. xo


Hathaway, M. (2000).  Overcoming paralysis, healing the earth: ecospirituality and empowerment. In J. Mihevc (Ed.), Sacred earth, sacred community:  jubilee, ecology & aboriginal peoples (163-171).  Toronto: Canadian Ecumenical Jubilee Initiative.

Jung, C.G. (2002). The earth has a soul: C.G. Jung on nature, technology & modern life. M. Sabini, (Ed.). Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.

Louv, R. (2005). Last child in the woods: Saving our children from nature-deficit disorder.  Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.

Louv, R. (2011).  The nature principle: Human restoration and the end of nature-deficit disorder.  Chapell Hill, NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.

Naess, A. (1997). Identification as a source of deep ecological attitudes. In E. Soifer (Ed.), Ethical issues: perspectives for Canadians, 2ed (83-93). Peterborough: Broadview Press Ltd.

White Jr., L. (1967). The historical roots of our ecologic crisis. Science, 155 (3767), 1203-1207.

Wilson, E.O. (1996).  In search of nature.  Washington, DC: Island Press.


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