By Benedikt Schmidt
- Connectedness to nature is the extent to which you are aware of your interconnectedness with the natural world
- While this awareness has likely been our default status for millennia, we came to lose it in the last centuries
- Our disconnection from nature is at the heart of our environmental crisis, as it allowed us to destroy our social and ecological environment without noticing it
- This disconnection is driven by a number of initial (historical) and continual (present-day) drivers as well as physical and psychological factors, the latter being a lack of consciousness
- Understanding nature connectedness is essential for transcending our current crisis towards holistic well-being; it is already spreading rapidly due to its eye opening effect
- Connectedness to nature has been positively linked to pro-environmental behaviours and human physical, psychological, and social well-being
Why is nature disconnection relevant?
With the nature connectedness series we want to embrace the positive outcomes that nature holds ready for us. To better understand where we are right now, where we can go, and how we can get there, we explore here the likely reasons for our disconnection from nature. Understanding this will allow us to get a more holistic perspective on why we are where we are right now.
Whether psychologically or physically, living disconnectedly from the natural world has two major disadvantages: (1) being unaware of what we are doing (damage, consequences, and dangers) and (2) missing out on the benefits that nature holds ready for us. Our current crisis in the world is not a political, social, or economic one – it’s a crisis of consciousness. And it is therefore not a matter of human nature, intelligence, or goodwill, which in turn makes it redundant to look for someone or something to blame. It seems that it is primarily a number of unreflected assumptions and beliefs about the world that has lead us to destroy our very own habitat and that keeps us from achieving profound well-being and sustainability. But assumptions can change. What if all that it takes is to become aware OF one’s learned assumptions on the world and to start exploring it with fresh eyes?
The drivers of disconnection
There are likely multiple drivers of human disconnection from nature, both historical/initial and ongoing/maintaining and both psychological and physical. Different drivers may have caused disconnection in multiple ways and have likely influenced each other. Zylstra and colleagues (2014) have compiled an extensive number of studies in order to distil the most likely drivers of our disconnection from nature, of which many are presented here. In this article we do not aim for an exhaustive analysis, but to propose a more holistic and solution oriented perspective on what is likely keeping us from profound fulfilment, well-being, and sustainability.
This enquiry is not meant to look for something to blame, to judge or to give a final explanation, but to investigate likely drivers of our disconnection which in turn will allow for an increased awareness which in turn is fundamental for change. It is not meant to be a denial of progress, but an enquiry of unreflected progress, allowing us to take what is beneficial and leave what is not.
Our disconnection from nature has not happened from one day to another, but as a gradual process. As people desensitize and/or adapt to the social and environmental changes, the extent of our disconnection from nature increased from generation to generation. As a result, a spiral of each other negatively reinforcing effects arose.
To be fair, nature is not always swell and nice. Diseases, fires, earthquakes, droughts, and dangerous animals are all not always particularly pleasant. And it would not seem surprising if humans had developed a slight disfavour of potentially dangerous aspects of nature and wanted to protect themselves. The question is, however, why did some cultures develop a deep respect, appreciation, and acceptance for these phenomena while we have come to the point where we are exploiting and destroying the basis of our life. What made us follow such different paths?
As a first step we might want to look at the invention of agriculture during the Neolithic revolution, which has lead to an initial disconnection form nature with the abandonment of ‘the wild’, the first domestication of plants and animals, as well as the need to store and protect what has been harvested. If we look closely, however, we see that many cultures have practised agriculture while being strongly immersed into the natural world, indicating the need for further drivers of disconnection.
Some of the most influential drivers of our modern way of thinking have been ancient Greek philosophies, some of which are likely to have contributed to a decreased connectedness. Rationalism and with its later extension in Cartesian dualism and deductive reasoning, for example, have lead to an omnipresence of deductive and divisive thinking and thereby to a decreased ability/attentiveness to see connectedness between what is present as well as a denial of other ways of knowing. As a result, with modern day thinking we are now very good at understanding complicated systems, but less good at understanding complex systems, one of them being the natural world. In addition, we have become so absorbed in thinking that we have lost touch with the reality that is surrounding us, with tangible wealth, our gut feelings, and many other things.
A different driver of our disconnection can be found in the Roman system of divide and rule that may have laid the groundwork for/augmented a logic of domination, which in turn has found further amplifications in the course of time, such as European colonialism, slavery, patriarchy as well as the unreflected approval of Darwin’s evolutionary biology, which states life primarily as competitive and selfish, rather than primarily cooperative and mutually beneficial.
Another major driver is likely the adoption of selected interpretations of the old testament. Different authors, such as Metzner (1995) and White (1967) state that by establishing a dualism between humans and nature and by replacing pagan animism with a dogma of human mastery over nature, Christianity made it possible to exploit nature while being indifferent to its well-being and unaware of possible consequences. While this psychological disconnection has not lead to the ecological destructions itself, it may have laid the motivational groundwork for science and technology to be used so destructively, which in many ways seems to persist in these fields despite their dissociation from religion. Moreover, the dogma of human sinfulness and selfishness likely lead to collective self-fulfilling prophecies (that is, by behaving according to one’s assumptions on the world, one behaves in a way that forces other people to act according to one’s assumptions) and thereby a climate of distrust and selfishness.
Closely related to this is the development of an unreflected doctrine of progress, still persisting today. While progress made life easier in many ways, we were blinded to the negative consequences that came with it (nuclear and chemical pollution, droughts, mass extinctions of species, to name only a few).
In addition, a number of ongoing drivers are now maintaining and amplifying the historical separation. The empowering fact is, however, that this is already changing in many ways. Awareness and willingness to find beneficial and regenerative ways of living are spreading all over the world so many of the drivers we mention here are already losing force.
Let us take a look nonetheless. One of the drivers is our modern urban lifestyle, that comes with a decrease of meaningful exposure to nature and massive psychological distractions, due to its plethora of potent stimuli and creation of artificial desires. In the process, people desensitize and/or adapt to the social and environmental changes, resulting in the extinction of experience and knowledge. This devolution towards a largely unnoticed loss of regular, direct, and meaningful contact with nature enlarged our unawareness concerning our dependency on nature and more often than not evokes fear and intolerance towards nature, further amplified by modern, predominantly indoor sedentary lifestyle.
With our increasing focus on the individual endeavour and competition, likely another result of unreflected Darwinian theory, we have swapped our holistic, interconnected concept of self for a limited self-concept, focused on oneself almost in isolation. This has seen an even further decrease due to social networks, tempting us to focus solely on our appearance.
Another maintaining factor is the continued appreciation of mechanistic achievements as human triumphs over nature, facilitated by a rejection of non-western ways of knowing. Somewhat connected to this is also the disconnection of modern day values from the natural world (e.g. our thinking of scarcity rather than abundance, as well as our current economy model, which works separately from the natural constraints). And finally, the continuation of the unreflected doctrine of progress, amplified by unreflected economic dynamics. Taking away the monetary benefits, we see that in a way progress has actually become equivalent to the degree to which we have polluted and destroyed the fundament of our existence, while the increase of happiness seems to be lagging behind. In addition, artificial economic forces keep most of us so busy, that we are missing life all the way along.
Taken together, it is unawareness that produces an environment which produces unawareness. Understanding the human disconnection from nature as a matter of consciousness will most likely help us reconnect and, in turn, discover profound well-being, fulfilment, and a life of abundance.
How to profoundly take control of our lives again?
The idea is not to demonise all these developments. After all, they have brought us to this point where we can reflect on a global scale on how we want to live. But having explored the drivers of our disconnection from nature, we understand, that in many ways we can look at nature and our own lives with fresh eyes and discover our very real ability to create the world we want to live in.
In order to reconnect to nature we might want to cultivate a consciousness that is attuned to the natural processes. To say it with Zylstra and colleagues (2014):
CWN [connectedness with nature] is more than the simple contact or superficial enjoyment of nature: it is an enduring appreciation, empathy, and mindfulness of the intrinsic value and shared essence of all life—including non-(aesthetically) appealing and non-(apparently) useful elements to humans: that is, it transcends hedonism, speciesism, and functional utilitarianism. (p.126)
In this process, as with other unfamiliar things, we might feel an initial denial or avoidance inside us and that is ok. As we would do during a meditation we might just want to observe it and accept the feelings, before we continue our exploration. We could, for example, meditate on the mere miracle of life, the flow of molecules into and out of our body, the fact that we are the descendents of thousands of generations before us, or the fact that in a way everything that we ever experience really is a gift. At this point we might be filled with wonder und gratitude. And looking from this point it becomes clearer in which divisive ways humans currently still tend to think and act in the world and how this divisive thinking keeps us from some of the most profound feelings we can experience and that indeed go far beyond words.
Directly experience nature
We have already explored different ways on how to reconnect to nature in articles one and two. Another very promising way to reconnect is by exploring permaculture. Having started as a highly productive , regenerative, and chemical free alternative to agriculture, it is, at its core, a way of being that is attuned to, that observes and utilizes the patterns found in the natural world. It can even be applied to design beneficial social systems that create vibrant, healthy and productive people and communities. We will discover this in one of the next articles. If you don’t have the possibility to do so right, you might want to try and spend as much meaningful time in nature as possible.
Listen to your gut
We often underestimate the positive impact we can have on our lives. You might want to give your thinking a little rest, learn to listen to your gut feelings, and explore how you feel when you do all sorts of activities. When do you really feel fully at peace/agitated/not coherent with what you would really like to do? You might want to start doing more of that. You might want to look for people that you can learn from, and visit or start projects of transition.
What if it is, but our collective belief system that makes us make our own and each other’s lives really just more difficult than they have to be? What world do we actually want to live in and how can and do our actions contribute to that? Let us build resilient and productive communities and work places in regenerative, life supporting habitats. We have such a remarkable ability of self-transformation. Let us discover what the world holds ready for us and make this planet the paradise it is meant to be.