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Nature-Connectedness: The Greening of Behaviour, Well-Being and Christian Imperatives: Part 2

February 18th, 2014 No comments
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Missed Part One?  Read it here.

Translating the Nature-Connectedness Hypothesis into Theoretical Frameworks

The groundwork of any psychological research involves the study of various facets of human nature and behaviour. There are numerous branches of psychology that focus on specific frames of reference to focus investigations, such as social, physiological, forensic, personality, etc. The emerging sub-discipline of ecopsychology (also related to environmental psychology and conservation psychology), “[…] proceeds from the assumption that at its deepest level the psyche remains sympathetically bonded to the Earth that mothered us into existence” (Roszak, 1995, p. 5). Clearly, this focus of empirical research sounds remarkably similar to the aforementioned hypothetical musings of Wilson, Naess, Louv and Jung. Although these ideas are not new, scientific inquiry is a refreshing course of action that may provide stronger evidence for the validity of these philosophical claims.

It is important to point out that while psychological inquiry does make use of scientific empirical techniques that the essence of this study is inherently speculative (p. 14). The mysterious nature of the mind makes even the soundest theory difficult to prove conclusively. Additionally, no two people are exactly alike; therefore, psychology can most often speak in terms of generalities and correlations. Despite the seemingly inconclusive quality of this research, it is still extremely valuable in assisting to understand the motivations and behaviours of people. This can be a powerful tool in influencing policies and actions of social institutions.

 

Toward Environmental Well-Being

Some research inquiries assist to further understand human motivation toward positive environmental action. P. Wesley Schultz (2000) conducted research on the role of empathy with nature on concern for the environment. Drawing on previous research that suggested that an individual’s value system could determine the extent of environmental concern, Schultz constructed a research design to measure three factors of value-based environmental concern.

The first, egoistic concerns, suggested that people will have greater concern for environmental issues that affect them personally. Altruistic concerns proposed that concern is derived from the degree to which environmental crises affects others, including individuals, communities, nations, and/or humankind. The last concern, biospheric, assumed that interest in the environment is propelled by a deep value for all living organisms (p. 392).

Schulz did not believe that these concerns worked independently; however, he suggested that the degree to which an individual felt interdependency with self, others or all living organisms could propose motivating foundations with regard to environmental concern (p. 393-394). Further, he posited that individuals could have differing motivations for their concern about the same issue (p. 392). For instance, individuals protesting the destruction of a local forest may be engaged in the environmental cause because the forest represents a personal place of leisure (egoistic). It could also provide important community recreational and aesthetic attributes (altruistic), and it may also be a place of great bio-diversity worthy of protecting for its own sake (biospheric). Egoistic and altruistic concerns may be easier to activate as they appear to direct concern toward more localized and personal areas of interest, while biospheric concerns could propel wider reaching implications of global concern, such as issues surrounding carbon emissions.

Drawing on past research on inducing empathy to increase helping behaviour, Schultz assigned two groups of participants into either an objective condition or perspective-taking condition. Participants were shown a series of images depicting people engaged in outdoor recreational activities, animals in nature, and animals being harmed in the natural environment. Following, participants completed a questionnaire designed to measure environmental attitudes and the three proposed value-based factors (p. 398-399). The results indicated that when shown images of animals being harmed, biospheric concerns were activated in the perspective-taking condition significantly higher than those in the objective condition (p. 400), suggesting that empathy toward nature seems to increase concern for it, thus potentially highlighting an important element in which to engage individuals in environmental issues. The link between connecting to nature and pro-environmental behaviour will be discussed further in subsequent sections.

In his discussion, Schultz pointed out that more psychological research is needed to understand motivations and behaviours with regard to people and the environment, especially in light of the growing ecological crisis facing the world. He acknowledged that much of the research is disjointed – drawing from models within the field of social psychology – and that there has yet to be a comprehensive and organized theory to understand ecological behaviours (p. 401). He suggested, “[…] that any activity that reduces an individual’s perceived separation between self and nature will lead to an increase in that individual’s biospheric concern” (p. 403).

As Schultz aptly demonstrates, psychology is making strides toward narrowing the gap between philosophical ideas concerning nature-relatedness and the scientific understanding of this phenomenon.

A 2004 paper documented investigative research, influenced by the work of famed ecologist Aldo Leopold. Using the Connectedness to Nature Scale (CNS), the research sought to test Leopold’s assumptions that people need to feel a kinship with nature in order to respond to environmental crises as if their own welfare was at stake (Mayer & Frantz, p. 504-505). In addition, parts of this study were designed to test Wilson’s biophilia hypothesis using established measures of previously conducted social psychological inquiry derived from theories of the need to belong to groups (p. 509). The results of this work demonstrated that the CNS is a reliable and valid measure that supports Leopold’s postulations.

Overall, the researchers concluded that people do need to feel connected to nature in order to protect it; however, the researchers also noted that a cause-effect relationship cannot be cited because of issues of bi-directionality (p. 512). In essence, does a deep affiliation with nature lead to environmental behaviour or does environmental behaviour lead to a deeper affiliation with nature? These are important elements for future research to investigate in order to provide even more robust theories that can be adopted by social institutions seeking to integrate methodological frameworks into responsible environmental directives.

The authors also noted that some people can and do engage in self-destructive behaviour, either consciously or subconsciously, and therefore increasing connection to nature may have little impact on positive environmental behaviour (p. 512). For example, this insight demonstrates that knowledge, such as the negative environmental impact of burning fossil fuels, may be difficult to manifest into positive change, particularly due to cognitive processes that override the integration of this logic. Immediate gratification and short-term benefits may supersede the long-term gains derived from an ecologically superior course of action. For instance using public transit may be more environmentally friendly; however, using one’s own vehicle may provide greater comfort and decreased travel time. Clearly, individuals’ actions toward the environment are mitigated by numerous factors, suggesting further research is warranted.

Research published in 2011 in the Journal of Environmental Psychology examined how commitment could impact environmental behaviours. The authors postulated that dedication to nature could lead to pro-environmental behaviour (Davis, Le & Coy, p. 257). Drawing from work on interdependency theory and other such commitment models, the research sought to draw conclusions on the relation of an individual’s dedication to the environment and one’s willingness to sacrifice to sustain it.

Overall, the study demonstrated that commitment to the environment does lead to positive environmental behaviour, especially when instances of experience in nature are fulfilling. Additionally, individuals’ sense of purposefulness in their actions toward the environment also tended to increase commitment and positive ecological behaviour. The authors cautioned that results are correlational only; suggesting that one cannot ascertain whether commitment affects behaviour or behaviour affects commitment (p. 263). Of positive note in this study, is the attempt to bring together fragmented frameworks of inquiry into a combined analysis.

 

Toward Individual Well-Being

The aforementioned studies demonstrate just a small sample of the robust investigations being conducted into the motivations of human behaviour toward ecological well-being. If, as has been put forth, there is an interdependent relationship between people and nature, what can this research reveal about the influences on individual well-being when engaged in ecologically positive practices?

Paul Stevens (2010), in an article published in Perspectives in Public Health, presented a comprehensive overview of research in the area of individual well-being resulting from interaction with the natural environment. He documented research that demonstrated most individuals display a preference for natural environments, which are posited to produce relaxation, focus, and emotional engagement. Additionally, ecotherapy models have advocated that feeling disconnected from the environment could result in various maladaptive psychological symptoms such as anxiety and depression, which is mitigated through increased contact with the natural world (p. 267). This appears intuitive when considering that people often recharge their bodies and minds through breaks from the hectic technological world by getting back to nature through hiking, camping, or exotic vacations on tropical beaches. People seem to instinctively know that nature has a restorative quality that nourishes the body and soul.

Perhaps more intriguing is research indicating a decrease in biological ageing with subsequent increases in the availability of green space in areas where people live (p. 268). Clearly, there is a causal connection; however, it’s difficult to ascertain the cause-effect relationship. Perhaps, individuals who have more natural settings nearby are likely to get out and enjoy those spaces more frequently – resulting in increased exercise, a healthier body and a healthier mind.

Stevens concluded his overview by stating, “[e]nvironmentalism has never just been about the loss of habitats and other species becoming extinct – it is fundamentally linked to all aspects of who we are, individually and collectively. Well-being requires a healthy environment, local and global, to ‘be well’ in” (p. 268).

Shifting ecological arguments from focusing solely on other species and future generations, to the present state of human well-being, may induce social institutions to radically alter paradigms. Acknowledging the importance of a healthy environment for a healthy individual may increase environmental protection regulations, similar to other health regulations surrounding tobacco and alcohol control or food safety. There’s legislation designed to mitigate psychological and emotional harm to an individual in the form of various anti-discrimination laws and guarantees of certain rights and freedoms; therefore it’s not difficult to imagine legislation that lessens harm to individuals resulting from lack of access to a clean and healthy environment. It appears that as a collective the global community sees the various facets of well-being as important to foster and protect; therefore, protecting the environment which provides so many benefits for humans appears intrinsic to these pursuits.

Specific research undertaken at Carleton University has focused on the correlation between happiness and nature-relatedness. This research utilized the Nature-Relatedness Scale (NR) to measure identification with nature, as coined by Arne Naess and discussed previously in this paper. Thought to be an enduring and stable aspect of an individual, NR reflects differences in the degree of connectedness to the natural environment (Nisbet, Zelenski & Murphy, 2011, p. 304).

The results of three studies conducted demonstrated a positive association between NR and various facets of well-being (including positive affect, purposefulness, and personal growth). Additionally, the research suggested that NR could help mitigate negative emotions and mood or affective conditions. Further, it was shown that students enrolled in environmental courses tended to show higher states of well-being versus students not enrolled in these courses, even when highly stressful academic demands were included (p. 316). This investigation showed that these results were similar regardless of age or occupation of the participants (p. 317), suggesting that they could be generalized to the larger population.

Similar to previous research discussed, there are notable limitations that should be highlighted. This study showed a correlational link between NR and well-being. Additionally, concerns of the complexity of what role NR may play in not only well-being, but pro-environmental engagement were cited (p. 318). Despite these limitations, this research provides strong support for the psychological benefits of humans relating to the natural environment.

The aforementioned ecopsychological pursuits demonstrate that there is an important link between people and nature that certainly requires continued investigation. A failure to advance this inquiry would seemingly result in the loss of opportunity to increase the well-being of not only the earth, but also its various inhabitants – including humankind. It appears intuitive that this research should and must continue, and that influential social institutions must support and even adapt these ideas into a framework that assuredly can only benefit their communities.

One of these institutions, particularly influential in the Western hemisphere, should take interest in this research as a means in which to engage in dialogue and effect a new environmental age of awareness. Religious institutions heralding a Christian perspective will find these insights not only offer adaptive methods to shepherd an age of environmental integrity, but will also offer devotees a path to greater well-being. In addition, a greater spiritual fulfillment may be sought through penance of historical actions that have been suggested as the root cause of the alienation of humankind from nature which may have led to the present day ecological crisis.

***Read Nature-Connectedness, Part 3***

M. xo

References

Davis, J. L., Le, B., & Coy, A. E. (2011). Building a model of commitment to the natural environment to predict ecological behaviour and willingness to sacrifice. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 31, 257-265.

Mayer, F. S. & Frantz, C. M. (2004). The connectedness to nature scale: a measure of individuals’ feeling in community with nature. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 24, 503-515.

Nisbet, E. K., Zelenski, J. M. & Murphy, S. A. (2011). Happiness is in our nature: Exploring nature relatedness as a contributor to subjective well-being. Journal of Happiness Studies, 12, 303-322.

Roszak, T. (1995). Where psyche meets gaia.  In T. Roszak, M.E. Gomes & A.D. Kanner (Eds.), Ecopsychology: Restoring the earth, healing the mind (pp. 1-17). San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books.

Schultz, P.W. (2000). Empathizing with nature: the effects of perspective taking on concern for environmental issues. Journal of Social Issues, 56 (3), 391-406.

Stevens, P. (2010). Embedment in the environment: a new paradigm for well-being? Perspectives in Public Health, 130 (6), 265-269.

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

February 17th, 2014 No comments
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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

References

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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