The other night I sat down with the family and we all watched David Attenborough’s ‘A Life on Our Planet: My Witness Statement and a Vision for the Future’. It was, as is always the case with these productions, magnificently shot, informative and emotive. I was moved by the ‘witness statement’ given by Sir David as he took us through his life long journey exploring the wild places of the world, and described his gradual realisation that the onset of the Anthropocene has in a frighteningly short period of time all but irreversibly wrecked the gift of a world in perfect balance that was the Holocene era; an era that could have been ours to enjoy for countless generations to come. It was fantastic to hear Sir David explicitly calling for the ‘rewilding’ of our world. Even the controversial necessity for global population control was addressed intelligently in a way that left no room for knee-jerk reactions about environmentalists wanting to take away our ‘right’ to have children. After a harrowing description of what we can expect to face over the next few decades if we continue our present unsustainable way of life – nothing less than the sixth great mass extinction – Sir David left us with a ray of hope in the form of a precise set of instructions setting out exactly what we need to do to return to the beauty and security of the Holocene. As I sat and listened through Sir David’s eloquent explanation of this plan of action, my heart began to sink. Not because I didn’t agree with the plan: I most fully agreed. No, my heart sank because what Sir David spelled out was an action plan that constituted almost a carbon copy of an action plan that was offered around fifty years ago. ‘Do we have another 50 years?’ I thought to myself.
In the 1970s the philosopher and mountaineer Arne Naess became the main founder of the ‘deep ecology movement’. An influential thinker and activist, Naess articulated along with George Sessions a set of principles that would heal the crisis of our dysfunctional human/non-human relationship. These principles are presented below.
1. All living beings have intrinsic value.
2. The richness and diversity of life has intrinsic value.
3. Except to satisfy vital needs, humans do not have the right to reduce this diversity and richness.
4. It would be better for humans if there were fewer of them, and much better for other living creatures.
5. Today the extent and nature of human interference in the various ecosystems is not sustainable, and the lack of sustainability is rising.
6. Decisive improvement requires considerable changes: social, economic, technological, and ideological.
7. An ideological change would essentially entail seeking a better quality of life rather than a raised standard of living.
8. Those of accept the aforementioned points are responsible for trying to contribute directly or indirectly to the necessary changes.
Along with this action plan, Naess also argued for a reduction in meat-based diets, if not outright vegetarianism or veganism. The parallels between the principles that make up the deep ecology movement and those spelled out by Sir David are almost one and the same. So what happened since the 70s?
Well, as Sir David pointed out, progress has been made, as illustrated by the doubling of forest cover in Costa Rica and innovations in food production taking place in the Netherlands. However, the rate of progress has not been sufficient to combat the rate of unsustainable practices, and thus we have finally arrived at the ‘tipping point’: our final chance to recover something of the Holocene, before climate change becomes something quite literally outside of our ability to influence. Sir David’s witness statement was, among other things, a witness to this final chance.
As my observation of the commonality between the principles of the deep ecology movement and those of Sir David’s latest production attest to, whether we succeed at this last chance is not down to knowing what to do, or even how to do it. Nothing in Sir David’s action plan was news to me. So what is it down to? Again, Sir David, toward the end of the programme, poses the poignant question of whether we have the will, as a species, to come together and save our own world. Sir David points out that such an endeavour is entirely in our own interests, since our indivisible connection to the rest of our living earth systems literally mean that damaging our environment equates to damaging ourselves. And this was where I felt the argument was left unfinished.
Yes, human identification with the natural world, and the consequential inclusion of nature into our self-concept, is right and healthy and a sign of psychological maturity: Naess called this our ‘ecological Self’. However, to use this as the premise for environmentalism remains, ultimately, an instrumentalist and anthropocentric approach – the very ideological stance that got us into this mess in the first place. Therefore, it is here that I would like to suggest that although the inclusion of nature into the human self-concept is good, it is more of a side effect of a much more important, and genuinely non-anthropocentric approach to our relationships with non-human life. Again, this approach was illuminated by Naess and others in various philosophical forms. I merely try to offer it here in common English.
Naess, writing in a small mountain cabin in his native Norway, argued for the need to protect nature on account of its intrinsic value, rather than simply on account of what it can offer to human life alone. But in order for this to happen, humans would have to break away from the ingrained dualistic thinking of our modern cultural and scientific traditions; traditions that see the ‘real’ world ‘out there’ as nothing more than what is described by mathematical physics, and the rich world of colour, beauty and values (our most immediate reality) as nothing more than the ‘subjectivities’ of the human mind, existing somehow separately as an exclusively human phenomenon. If we could see, argued Naess, that the mountain is in fact majestic as well as being a huge lump of rock, we would be inclined to assign the mountain with qualities that carry value intrinsic to the mountain. If we accepted our spontaneous experience of the lake as peaceful, we would see qualities in the lake that we see in each other, and therefore assign a certain personhood to the lake, which would lead to the lake sharing the values and rights that we afford our own species. Our dominant cultural and scientific assumptions tell us that we ‘project’ qualities of peacefulness onto the lake, whereas in ‘fact’ such qualities constitute only perceptions that are spatially locked into our brain’s interpretation of the ‘world-out-there’. Naess fundamentally challenges this assumption, arguing that qualities are not spatially located and isolated within the individual brain, but as much a fundamental part of reality as the abstract objects of mathematical physics: a reality of which we are a part of and are embedded within. By taking this relational approach, we humans can begin to see ourselves as truly relating to non-human life, identifying with the other-than-human in ways that elicit genuine empathy for non-human life, because we see in the non-human the same qualities that we see in ourselves, and therefore afford the non-human the same value and rights that we afford ourselves. Yes, our sense of self is expanded by this way of relating, but the important part is the recognition of the intrinsic value of the other, which is a true departure from the anthropocentric perspective. In a world where values and qualities are intrinsic only to the human imagination, argues Naess, it is no wonder that we have treated the rest of life as nothing more than a set of resources for our use. The answer, according to the deep ecology movement, is a fundamental shift in our understanding not just of ourselves in nature, but of non-human nature itself. Is this perhaps how we might finally develop the will to come together and protect the other-than-human, as the other-than-human becomes beautiful and precious for its own sake? Why don’t we find out? I will leave you with an invitation: allow yourself to develop a friendship with a tree, or have a conversation with a babbling brook, or dance with the autumn winds. Allow yourself to enter into a relationship with these things. Don’t assume you’re projecting your ’human’ feelings of friendship onto the tree; actually enter into a friendship with that tree. Don’t just assume you’re making up the sound of the brook; actually listen to its song. Don’t assume you’re really just dancing with yourself; actually dance with the wind. Connecting with nature in this way is not just a fulfilling and enriching experience – it may just be a vital basis for awakening the will to do right by all life, both human and other-than-human.
reference: Naess, A. (2008). Ecology of Wisdom. Penguin modern classics.
If, like me, you have little patience for climate change deniers, I would invite you to reflect on the following:
When I hear climate change deniers use phrases like ‘there’s no actual proof’ or ‘it’s just a theory’ I secretly sigh inside and bemoan the lack of scientific literacy. When I hear climate change deniers base their denial in conspiracy theories I am politely infuriated at the precious energy these activists are wasting: energy that they could otherwise be applying to changing what is actually happening to the earth as a consequence of run-away production and consumption. Of course, I get it: the issues we face today are huge in scale. To use the Marvel Universe as an analogy, we have moved from your friendly neighbourhood Spiderman to The End Game in an incredibly short space of time. It can be over-whelming; it can elicit feelings of hopelessness – even denial. The psychologist in me knows this. But really, can I judge? Can we rational minded, concerned environmentalists really judge?
Today I listened to an interview with social psychologist Dr Susan Clayton. Dr Clayton has done fascinating and important work in the field of individual behaviour change, nature-connectedness and conservation psychology over the course of her career. In the interview she was asked what she thought about climate change deniers. My ears pricked up – will she judge? Will she be politely furious? Her answer… ‘we are all climate change deniers to some extent’. This one gentle statement dissolved all my negative feeling toward those ‘stupid conspiracy theorists’. Why? Because if we really faced the whole truth of our situation; I mean psychologically really took fully on board what the climate and other environmental scientists and are saying, we would all be behaving differently! All of us push the ‘emergency’ to the back of our minds when we get in the car or board the plane, or eat a steak. Don’t eat steak? Fine, think harder, because almost no one is a ‘climate saint’, and really, no one can cast the first stone. A climate change denier may not be as psychologically resilient as you or I, but would you judge someone simply for not being as resilient as you? I thought not.
So, if we stop hating on the climate change deniers, what do we do instead? There is no doubt that denial is very dangerous and we all need to face it if we are to build a sustainable future. But can a full blown climate change denier be persuaded otherwise? Dr Clayton suggests that perhaps they could, but this may be the wrong approach. No one likes admitting that they’re wrong, and the task of persuading someone to shift their position on a stance they’ve taken always implies an admission of being wrong on their part. It can happen, but it’s not easy. A better approach, suggests Dr Clayton, is to work on encouraging people who doubt the fact of anthropogenic climate change to focus on the positive things they can do, and benefits they can accrue to themselves, by engaging in mitigating actions, rather than challenging them directly on the truth or falsehood of their beliefs. There are many incentives to taking mitigating action, such as the health benefits that come with ditching the car and cycling to work, or the increased mental wellbeing that comes from contact with green spaces. Perhaps, as strong deniers engage more with choices that benefit the environment - at first for the indirect benefits to themselves - they may just start to feel a little more agency and empowerment. They may just start to connect with nature in a more positive way. As initially self-centered motivations are expanded through positive contact with nature, they may just come to the point of wanting to protect the earth through their own maturing intentions – a much more empowering and positive way to come around to accepting the reality of the climate and environmental emergency that we are all, to greater or lesser extents, learning to face.
Join me, then, in making a promise not to ‘other’ climate change deniers. Othering never does good. It only breaks down understanding and communication and empathy. And where are we without these things?
if you would like to listen to the full interview with Dr Susan Clayton follow the link! www.youtube.com/watch?v=HMWEof0GfVw
(Photo by Markus Spiske from Pexels)
Climate change is no longer just a prediction for the future – it is happening now. And yet there is still a shocking level of ‘unhealthy scepticism’ amongst the public. In the USA, for example, around 28% of the population rejects the scientific consensus around the reality of anthropogenic climate change. Furthermore, even across those who do accept the facts, individual engagement with the issue is low. Why is this? For a while, climate science communication was informed by something called the information deficit hypothesis. This hypothesis proposed that if people were well educated enough about the science behind climate change, they would not only accept it, but also act to mitigate its negative consequences. Unfortunately, this has not worked. As someone who is passionate and excited about science, it breaks my heart to say this, but I have become convinced that ever clearer explanations of climate science to a non-scientific audience – particularly when it comes to presenting statistical evidence – is unlikely to produce significant behavioural change. Strangely, despite a phenomenon of people accepting numerical information as fact more readily, when it comes to climate statistics, the authoritative power of numbers fails to convince. There are explanations as to why this is, but that is not the focus of this post. The focus here is on a fascinating alternative to climate statistics, and it involves the power of story telling.
Emotion powers action like nothing else, and this is essentially the promise of story telling as a medium for climate change education. Stories have already been shown to be effective in promoting pro-social behaviours in previous research, so why not pro-environmental behaviours? Researchers Morris et al. (2019) set out to test story telling for exactly this purpose.
How does it work?
Narrative transportation is a concept used to describe the way the reader – or listener – of a story has a kind of proxy personal experience through identification and empathy with a main character. Typically, a story will involve one or more main characters who go on a literal and/or psychological journey, and meet obstacles along the way which must be overcome in order to achieve some kind of important goal, outcome or resolution. The potential for stories to provide an impetus for pro-environmental behaviours comes from the fact that narrative transportation has been shown to elicit higher levels of emotional arousal than other forms of information dissemination. It turns out that the vivid experiences received via narrative transportation are effective vehicles to learning. The key is in the elicitation of emotion and empathy with the story characters. Could stories help us inspire people to pro-environmental behaviour in a similar way?
Let's do an experiment!
Morris et al. (2019) developed a three-stage experimental set up. I’m going to give you the summary here; but if you want the full detail, I’ve provided a link to their paper at the end of this post.
Participants in the experiment were assigned to either an informational presentation, an environmental story, or a control group where they read about the construction of a university building. After the reading task was over, they were led to a separate room to fill out a couple of surveys and while they were there, they were offered a glass of water. Observers noted several things at this point, such as who recycled their cup, whether they took a glass or a plastic cup to start with, who turned off a lamp above the computer they read from, and who signed up to a Green Peace news letter at the end. Not all the measures showed significant differences, but it was observed that those in the environmental story group were twice as likely to subscribe to a Green Peace news-letter, and the odds of someone recycling turned out to be almost twice that of the informational group, and almost three times that of the control group.
In another stage of the experiment participants viewed environmental videos, some of which had a high level of narrative structure containing all the elements of a good story, and some of which were more informational or documentary style. The participants were wired up to sensors whilst viewing, and the interesting thing here was that those who viewed the videos with high narrative content responded with a deceleration of their heart rate. This deceleration of heart rate was predictive of subsequent pro-environmental behaviours. Morris et al. (2019) interpreted this as a reflection of the emotion elicited by narrative transportation working together with cognitive processing of a threat that is not immediate, but potentially around the corner. The physiological response of participants who watched the videos with a narrative structure is congruent with how our bodies prepare for a possible danger: deceleration of the heart rate is a consequence of our brains signalling to our bodies to ‘optimise bodily budgets’ for when it really counts. In other words, we shift into a state of readiness for action. It is noteworthy that the same kind of physiological response was absent for viewers of the informational videos.
The take home message
Morris et al. (2019) provided some empirical evidence that ‘narratives structured as stories are better vehicles of persuasion than informational narratives’. It is interesting to note, though, that where Morris et al. (2019) collected self-report measures they failed to see a difference in environmental concern between the groups. Perhaps this points to the largely non-conscious nature of the processes that influence behaviour. Both narrative transportation and heart rate deceleration are not things we consciously choose or monitor. Their effects can take place at a purely implicit level. This would also fit with the finding that information disseminated through narrative transportation is less susceptible to counter-arguing. There are also questions around whether narrative transportation has the power to effect longer term behaviour change, such as lowered meat consumption and reduced air miles. Still, the potential for at least short-term applications is there. So, if you’re planning on running an environmental campaign any time soon, you might consider going out and finding yourself a damn fine story-teller!
Morris, S. B., Chrysochou, P., Christensen, J. D., Orquin, J. L., Barraza, J., Zak, P. J., & Mitkidis, P. (2019). Stories vs. facts: triggering emotion and action-taking on climate change. Climatic Change, 154(1-2), 19-36. doi: 10.1007/s10584-019-02425-6
is a PhD candidate researching under the topic 'Understanding Behaviour Change toward Sustainability'. Damien is also a strong believer that knowledge should be freely available; a belief that motivated him to start One Beautiful Earth as a way of informing earth lovers everywhere on what behavioural scientists and social psychologists are up to and what we're finding out, all in human readable language! It's not all science though: expect a smattering of environmental ethics, philosophy, interviews and the odd opinion piece thrown in. Enjoy!