Dec 09 2011

Why Old Approaches to Environmentalism Are Failing

Published by Margaret Emerson at 11:34 am under Ecopsychology

The cover story in the December, 2011 issue of Outside Magazine is about marine biologist’s Wallace J. Nichols “touchy-feely” theory that if we could “understand what really happens to us in the presence of the ocean—which brain processes underlie our emotional reactions—it could bring about a radical shift in conservation efforts.”

Nichols has been observing what happens to people’s demeanor when they enter the gigantic and spectacular coral reef tank in California’s Academy of Sciences in San Francisco where he works, as well as what happens to the attitudes of people who spend time in the vast wilderness of the ocean, such as surfers and fisherman. He’s concluded – anecdotally – that spending time in or near the ocean has a calming effect on the mind and body, akin to meditation or a spiritual experience. It also creates a desire to conserve and protect in those who have a direct relationship with the ocean.

Nichols is so excited about this concept he has even launched a campaign to create a field of study called neuro-conservationism, because he believes that if we knew exactly why we love the ocean (or any kind of wilderness for that matter) we could create a new tool to protect it. In other words, if we could have empirical evidence that the human mind needs nature for optimum wellbeing, we could make headway in the environmental movement.

I agree with Nichols and many others that the guilt, blame and shame of the environmental movement in the last 50 years isn’t working. While reading dire statistics about the extinction of species or the pollution of air and water worldwide may cause us brief panic or concern, it doesn’t necessarily work to change our long-term patterns of thinking or behavior. There’s a very simple reason for this – we can’t truly care about something with which we have no direct relationship. It just becomes another problem “out there” that hopefully someone will solve. But for now, we think, we have to figure out how to pay the bills and fix the car.

Since the Agricultural Revolution 5,000 years ago and more recently since Industrial Revolution, there has been a shift in how most human beings relate to their environment. Instead of  living in harmony with nature, out of necessity and out of a spiritual impulse, we look to nature as a resource and something to be exploited. That river is no longer a sacred thing that provides life to everything around it, it is something to be controlled and dammed and put to use so we can have electricity and water inside our homes. That mountain is no longer a majestic testament to something greater and older than ourselves, but a pile of minerals and coal to be extracted and plundered so that we can make gadgets and products and “service the economy”.

We’ve literally moved away from depending on the land we’ve inhabited to living inside boxes all day long: houses, cars, cubicles, living rooms, and the virtual “boxes” of televisions and computers. We have separated ourselves from that which sustains us so much that many of us don’t know where our drinking water comes from, where our food comes from, and lack the visceral knowledge that everything is connected to everything else. Therefore, how can we know that our very survival depends on the health and vitality of every ecological system on Earth? We think it depends on a job, or the economy, or the grocery store down the street.

Under these circumstances, is it any wonder that our eyes glaze over when we hear about how the world’s oceans are dying? Or that the rate of extinction of species is accelerating at such an alarming pace due to climate change, pollution and human encroachment on habitat?

If you lived on a piece of land that provided for your every need, from food, drinking water, heat and shelter (wood) and even your spirituality, you sure as heck would care about whether or not someone was dumping toxic chemicals downstream of your river or shooting all the predatory birds and mammals for recreation. You’d lay your life down to protect the place where you live, because you would know how important a healthy ecosystem was to your wellbeing and the wellbeing of your children’s children. But in the paradigm of modern society, we are taught that all we need is money, and that as long as we have a healthy economy everything else can be fixed, developed, or sacrificed to the deity of “progress.”

Of course we’re wrong, but we don’t know it, because we have no direct relationship anymore to the land.

What Nichols is realizing, and what ecopsychologists have been saying since the 90s, is that unless we develop a new relationship with nature, we will not have the will or the passion deep in our heart and soul to change anything. Studies have shown that persons who can relate to nature, or spend a lot of time in nature, may realize the connection to their environment better than those who do not, and consequently are more apt to give more attention and credence to issues such as the need for conservation and sustainability.

“…people high in environmental identity accord more weight than people low in environmental identity to those principles that endow environmental entities with moral standing. That EID score was also related to an increased rating for a fourth principle, ‘managing natural resources for the public good’…” (Susan Clayton, Environmental Identity, pg 57)

So yes, Mr. Nichols, it is true that people who develop a relationship to the ocean are more likely to care about conservation of the ocean. For that matter, the same holds true for those who develop a relationship to mountains, prairies, forests, and all the plants and animals that reside there. I don’t think we need more empirical data or neurological studies to make the case that we are not and cannot live separate from the world around us. We already know that deep down in our gut, in that place that connects us to who we really are. We need a healthy environment, not just so we can thrive physically, but also so we can thrive emotionally and spiritually as well.

The new environmentalism consists of taking people outside, showing them what they have forgotten about the connectedness of all things, allowing them to see for themselves the beauty and serenity they’ve been missing. It is about getting people to fall in love with something—an animal, a mountain, a stream—and then allowing their hearts to make the conservation and protection of it a priority.

Al Gore’s documentary, “Inconvenient Truth” doesn’t start with a smack on the face statistic. It starts with a scene at a lake, under a tree, where Gore reminisces about how there was a special place he used to go when he was a kid, and how it made him feel, and how it’s shaped his priorities in life. I believe we all have that memory of a special place where the birds sang and the wind rustled through the trees. It’s time we reconnected with its source.

2 responses so far

2 Responses to “Why Old Approaches to Environmentalism Are Failing”

  1. Jon 09 Dec 2011 at 2:36 pm

    Thanks for your thoughts on this topic. I agree! And love your book, having done thousands of miles of “contemplative” hiking along the coast. I do think more understanding of the brain-ocean connection can be useful. And at the very least, fascinating. To science geeks like me and the general public as well. And that fascination can be yet another tool in the toolbox. Why limit our tools? Big brands and big politics are using neuroscience.

  2. Mollyon 09 Dec 2011 at 4:30 pm


    I was hoping you saw that article! I read it and was so glad it made the cover. I would like to get together with you soon and possibly talk more about it. I will be in touch.