How you see the world can help you to develop a deep ecological consciousness.
One meaning of that assertion might concern your perceptual processes, that is, how you look out from those eyes and take in environmental stimuli.
Another meaning of that assertion could involve your understanding of the universe, or your worldview. Worldviews are sets of beliefs and embodied dispositions about fundamental aspects of reality that ground and influence our perceptions, our thoughts and our actions.
Both ways of seeing the world shape our actions, and both are often done habitually, without a lot of awareness of what exactly we are doing.
We modern humans have some habits, both in seeing and in thinking, which need to be changed if we are to develop the deep ecological consciousness required to implement a sustainability revolution and avert the environmental collapse potentially looming before us.
Ecological consciousness is one’s level of awareness of one’s environment. When humans have deep ecological consciousness, they are aware of their embeddedness in the natural world, have strong bonds to other species and have strong ties to their local surroundings.
I want to highlight a few of these habits that block our ecological consciousness.
Perception is the process of becoming aware of something and interpreting it. While we often use the term interchangeably with “observation,” perception can involve all the senses.
What we see depends upon what we focus our attention on. The focus of attention can mean the difference between seeing and not seeing something.
Focused attention on the up-close details of objects allows a familiarity with the object to develop. This allows us to appreciate what we are looking at, and that appreciative perception motivates our actions.
Because appreciative perception involves a discernment of worth, it can facilitate a sense of the sacred.
Among modern people in the West our perception is often focused on “things” — discrete, isolated and separate, leaving us insensitive to the relationships that exist between things.
How reality is seen affects how it is understood. Because we tend to focus on separate things, we often see ourselves as independent of the natural world. Our worldview is grounded in our perceptual habits.
In 1972, Gregory Bateson, an interdisciplinary scientist who pioneered systems theory, drew attention to this “epistemological error” and observed that we are “governed by epistemologies that we know to be wrong.”
Deep ecological consciousness demands ecological perception. Ecological perception is developed through learning to notice relationships and interdependencies.
With ecological perception, we see our human embeddedness within larger ecological systems and see our relationships to these systems.
Ecological perception demands the constant shifts from seeing parts to seeing wholes. The familiarizing mode of perception needs to alternate with defamiliarizing modes of perception in which our perception is wandering and undirected.
Through these back and forth shifts in modes of perception we can come to focus on the relationship of the parts to the whole.
Attuned to the interconnected web of existence, we can become amateur naturalists engaged with our local habitats, prying and probing the landscapes around us, alert to who is predator and who is prey.
We need to see these landscapes from all angles and look at them at different times of the day and year.
In a sense our ecological crisis is the result of a collective myopia. We are so focused on our human lives that we don’t see our relationships to our environment.
But seeing is not enough. We must develop affective bonds to the natural settings of our lives, and a sense of place-attachment. With place-attachment we feel connected to a physical location and feel morally obligated to care for it.
When we become conscious of our embeddedness in a particular ecological context and have an identity that is tied to that specific tract of land, that bonding provides an inner sense of belonging and motivates earth-friendly behavior.
As we become familiar with the particulars of our natural world we tend to appreciate that world more and more. As we shift from familiarizing modes of perception to defamiliarizing modes, we tend to become aware of the relationships between things.
Three aspects of our modern conception of the natural world may block our ecological consciousness.
First, in Western civilization the natural world is typically understood as distinct and opposed to humanity or to human culture. Nature is those things relatively unaffected by people. This form of thinking puts humans outside of nature.
Second, modern humans tend to see the earth as a resource for humans to exploit and profit from. Our thinking is so human-centered, or anthropocentric, that we fail to consider the needs and value of other species.
Third, most modern humans in the West tend to not see nature as sacred. In my opinion, the desacralization of our natural world has had dire consequences for our treatment of the environment.
All three of these ways of thinking about nature are wrong and must be changed.
First, humans are a part of nature and do not exist separate from our environments. Second, we are just one species in the web of existence and each and every species has value to the whole system.
Third, for me, all of nature is sacred. This sense of the sacred is invoked by:
» The incredible mystery at the center of our understanding of the cosmos
» Our absolute dependence on the natural world for our very sustenence, survival and fulfillment
» Our awareness of our human fragility in the face of nature’s awesome powers
Humans often distinguish between that which is sacred and that which is profane. To say that something is sacred is to insist that it must be treated with respect and reverence and never violated. It is of utmost importance.
While our ancestors in pre-modern societies often regarded the natural world as sacred, and saw their mountains and rivers as imbued with spirit, modern humans have lost that sense of enchantment.
Thus, to develop a deep ecological consciousness we can change the way we see the world.
First, we need to see that humans are a part of nature, embedded within the interdependent web of existence. Second, we need to eliminate the anthropocentrism, or human-centered thinking, so prevalent in modernity. It is not all about us humans.
And finally, the re-sacralization of Nature could be an important change in our modern worldview, reaffirming the importance of the natural world, increasing our ecological consciousness, and promoting an ethic of care in which we treat Nature with reverence and respect.
Through appreciative attention to the concrete particularities of our local environments we can foster experiences of the sacred in nature.
As we awaken to our connections to the world in which we live, and come to see that world as filled with spiritual significance, this can amount to a radical paradigm shift in which a deep ecological consciousness transforms our everyday actions and our relationship to the natural world.
— Wayne Mellinger Ph.D. is a social and environmental educator, writer and activist who sits on three nonprofit boards and two Santa Barbara County commissions. He is developing the notion of nature-as-sacred into a full ecotheology in his blog, The Dionysian Naturalist. The opinions expressed are his own.