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Natural Connections...

We have arrived at a point in our infinitesimally short life on this 4.5 billion-year-old planet we call home at which no part of the natural world remains untouched by human hand.

Vast inaccessible areas such as the deep ocean sea bed still remain unexplored and nature continues in that plants grow, the sun shines and rain falls. But no longer can we regard any part of nature’s cycles and patterns as being entirely natural. So it might seem perverse that, at this time of peak human interference with natural biological systems, we are rediscovering the benefits of getting closer to nature.

Increasingly we hear that the remove at which we live now from the natural world is a significant factor in why we do not cease from degrading it and that, to motivate a meaningful shift to sustainability, we need urgently to rebuild our connections. But a 2009 literature review for the Wilderness Foundation suggests that our new-found interest in nature is actually concerned less with modifying our destructive ways and more on how time spent in the natural world can help us cope with some of the more dysfunctional aspects of modern living. Whilst this review - and an earlier one by Dr Roger Greenaway and me – shows strong evidence of valuable therapeutic outcomes, the emphasis is still on what we as a species can gain from nature rather than what we can offer to it to ensure the welfare of all life on the planet.

Natural connections…

Accounts of nature therapy frequently describe healing, regenerative experiences of the natural world at its most benign through which people can be helped to overcome physical and mental disorders. In its simplest application, markedly improved recovery rates have been noted amongst those who look out on trees and greenery from their hospital beds than those who do not. In a more specific context, outdoor experiences such as gardening and country walking are often reported as restorative activities that can help to alleviate depression and to achieve a ‘work/life balance’ in a culture that tends to regard ‘working’ and ‘living’ as separate compartmentalised entities. And, since the 1980s, more committing and intense experiences of ‘wilderness therapy’ have been used as an intervention to address such prevalent developed world ailments as anti-social and delinquent behaviours and addictions.

So-called ‘primitive’ societies, including our own ancestors, have lived much closer to nature than we now do and, despite lacking scientific understanding, have normalised rituals and behaviours that conserve the biological resources that support them and seek to appease and mitigate nature’s more violent side. In our modern societies, we treat the downside of nature as an inconvenience, whether this be the nuisance of weeds in our manicured lawns, protracted winter snows that we enjoy for a day or so but ultimately frustrate our earning a living, or volcanic ash clouds that disrupt our travel plans and stall our targets for GDP. Even with all of our culture’s advanced scientific knowledge, last year’s record greenhouse gas emissions show just how far removed we are from forming meaningful connections with the natural world.

In the West, we evince a variety of attitudes and responses to nature that range from anthropomorphic sentimentality or the romantic ‘nature worship’ tradition of Rousseau to momentary fascinated awe at the footage of a tsunami on the news before passing on to the football results. A few of us enjoy pitting ourselves against nature by climbing K2 or ‘bagging’ Munros, but many others prefer the vicarious engagement of watching celebrities swallow live jungle insects on TV ‘reality’ shows. Even those of us who do set out to encounter wild nature at first hand most often travel to it in comfortable fossil-fueled cars or planes and then return to fossil-fueled micro-climates in homes and offices and shopping malls that are designed to entirely shelter us from it.

So we don’t often make the most appropriate connections with nature, even when we are engaging with it directly. Regularly enjoyment of activities in the outdoors does not automatically lead to improved ‘eco-literacy’ or motivate the desire to protect the natural world. For instance, sales of toxic herbicides to devoted gardeners remain phenomenally high. And I well remember from my instructing days far too many rock-gymnasts, whose passion was not for the natural world but the adrenalin rush of the sport, who departed the crags at the end of the day leaving behind debris from beer cans to human faeces. I also think of a much more responsible friend who regularly sets off on long-distance walks and would never dream of littering his route or leaving field gates open. But he is not in the least deterred by the predicted impacts of global warming from flying to his treks in far-flung places.

Natural cycles…

In Susanne Moser and Lisa Dilling’s major collection of research, ‘Creating a Climate for Change’, a paper by John Tribbia considers the lack of take-up of cycling in Boulder, Colorado. Cycling is good example of a popular and accessible outdoor activity that can bring us closer to nature, both through heightened exposure to the elements and the slower more direct perspective it affords than can be gained from travelling in a car. It is a much more common leisure pursuit than rock-climbing or even long-distance walking and, more than this, is a cheap, practical, and socially acceptable means of zero-carbon transport with added health and fitness benefits. Yet John Tribbia finds that, even in such a liberal, well-educated, outdoor inclined and environmentally aware town as Boulder, the contrasts between knowing the rational advantages of bicycles over cars and acting on them are marked.

Where I live in rural France, most people hereabouts jump straight into the car to collect their baguette from the village bakery in the morning. But the bike is still quite common and I daily observe different characters who use this mode of transport. One elderly retired farmer bicycles daily to tend his potager on a weighty gearless contraption that he has clearly kept going for years. Another local family cycles the school run each morning and afternoon, both parents accompanying their children, with the pre-school youngest along for the ride in a home-made trailer attachment. Solitary cyclists pedal by with small daysacs on their backs, out bird-watching or simply enjoying the scenery. Throughout the summer months, I regularly see couples on heavily-laden machines, touring the area with waterproof maps and matching rain-capes and saddlebags. And, on weekends and public holidays, our scenic coastal road is filled with yellow lycra-clad cyclists in wrap-around shades intent on winning their long-distance competitions as they speed up and down the cliff-top corniche.

It is clear that the motivations of these different individuals are as varied as their attire and the marques of their bicycles. Losing weight, general fitness, enjoyment of the open air, the adrenalin of competition and economic necessity might all play a part, none of which necessarily has anything to do with consciously sustainable behaviour. Some behaviour change campaigners argue that the motivation does not matter just so long as the non-polluting bicycle is used in favour of the car.

But actually the motivation – or what John Tribbia cites as the ‘values orientation’ of individuals – does matter very much. If he won the lottery, my pensioned farmer neighbour might actually much prefer a car to transport his cumbersome tools instead of balancing them precariously on his handlebars. Some amongst the lycra-clad race competitors may well have an ‘egoist’ values orientation which displays itself in their wider lives in the powerful Masserati they might drive. The individual out cycling for fitness may be more motivated by personal body tone than by the feeling of wind in their hair. In fact, the only ones amongst my examples that I can say with any confidence are motivated by ‘social altruism’ (desire to preserve the environment for other people’s use and well-being) or by ‘biospheric’ values (concern for the biosphere for its own sake) are my friends who cycle daily with their children to school. And I deduce this not only from their cycling en famille but from knowing how they live the rest of their lives.

Many of us go for country walks and enjoy the fresh air. But how many of us are able to accurately interpret what it is we are seeing around us? For instance, who among my variously motivated cyclists recognises that the bountiful fields of maize and wheat and artichokes they are passing are organically dead without the constant use of chemical fertilisers? How many understand that the artificial nitrogen running off those same fields, glistening attractively now after the sudden Breton downpour that just soaked them, is eutrophying the bright blue sea below and causing toxic algal blooms?To progress beyond appreciating only the restorative effects of the outdoors so as to properly value the natural systems that sustain us, we need to be able to interpret what it is we are experiencing and how it is that we are degrading it.

But we don’t need expert knowledge. We just need the right knowledge to make appropriate connections and place these in a bigger picture. I was not born a countryman, but in congested south London and I grew up alongside expanding supermarkets and ‘just in time’ deliveries. I enjoyed trips into the countryside but I knew next to nothing of the natural world. My first real exposure to the great outdoors came later in the guise of military training, but was a life changer for me. Never a team sport devotee, I discovered a whole new physical and psychological identity in outdoor activities. My formative experiences included pre-dawn winter mountain ascents to watch sunrise from the summit, the retrospectively shameful rustling and slaughter of a Welsh farmer’s sheep for rations, and seemingly interminable open country treks with heavy rucsac through deer grass and bogs. I did not always understand what I was experiencing but I knew I loved it.

I can trace the beginnings of my awareness of human despoliation of nature to waiting at a rendez-vous high up on a forested mountain in Scotland and being poisoned by water from a stream, although I had followed the guidelines for fast-flowing water above potential sources of contamination. The Forestry Commission were still spraying herbicides from the air in those days.

I have subsequently spent much of my career in outdoor education and living as close to nature as is possible in overcrowded Britain (and now France). But I still struggle to name many wild plants and lesser obvious trees and, even though I don’t have a TV, like most people in our societies, I can readily identify more popular celebrities than I can birds or insects. Nevertheless, over the years I have acquired a level of awareness of the natural world that informs my view of the human world and leads me to question and confront received wisdoms about how we live in it.

Detailed biological or botanical knowledge is not essential and, in my experience, can sometimes become a myopic end in itself. But forming meaningful emotional connections with nature is vital if we are to be able to appreciate its wonder and internalise a sense of our own place in it. As Karl Ronkhe, an old mentor and a leading light in experiential education, has explained it, challenges in nature that are committing and mind-expanding but also positive and funn are crucial to forming healthy connections with nature (and, indeed, with other human beings), but F-unctional U-nderstanding is N-ot N-ecessary.

Natural change…

What is needed, and is increasingly rare in modern urban living, are opportunities to have profound experiences of nature in the first place. WWF Scotland are presently running the second of a series of experimental programmes, the Natural Change project, with just this lack in mind.

The first ‘Natural Change’ programme invited seven “influential professionals”, none of whom were seen as “particularly environmentally aware”, to take part in a series of psychologically engaging experiences in the natural world with the intention of engendering “deep and lasting transformation” towards pro-environmental behaviours. Six months on, an evaluation study has considered how these experiences have altered the values and attitudes of participants and how any changes have been manifested both personally and professionally.

As a direct result of the programme, all the participants have stated stronger connections with the natural world, primarily on “a feeling and intuitive level” and with most “appearing content to be without traditional technical, biological or ecological understandings”.

But the strongest apparent outcome has been the close bond formed between participants which has persisted well beyond the life of the programme. Such bonding is actually a commonly stated outcome of shared experiences of outdoor challenge in which mutual trust and support between participants is deliberately fostered. It can also occur spontaneously in other extraordinary psychologically engaging situations, such as military combat or the aftermath of a train crash or a natural disaster. Strong group ties that result from such profound shared experiences can sometimes create a closed and exclusive group. So whilst the bond that formed between the ‘Natural Change’ participants clearly enabled high levels of trust and personal disclosure amongst them and stimulated the declared intent by some to build community in their wider lives, it is also possible that such a bond could inhibit subsequent implementation and outreaching of learning to other settings and communities.

Another strongly reported outcome was the personal therapeutic benefit of the programme for individuals. Participants “felt permission to be their intuitive, ‘authentic’ selves” and various of them commented that the programme was “like counselling for us all”, providing “time out to think” and raising important questions about the relationships between personal and environmental wellbeing”.

In terms of substantial and measurable shifts towards practising sustainable behaviours, the outcomes were rather less clear. There was a general group feeling that such outcomes were non-linear and not easily quantifiable, and would only manifest themselves over time. Although participants reported some changes “in areas such as recycling, transport, and shopping”, the group acknowledged that only a few “have so far undergone ‘strong changes’ with regard to… ‘pro-environmental behaviours’.”

The evaluation also notes that: “Within the group there was a feeling of frustration at the difficulties and costs of making big changes. Some reported increased feelings of guilt associated with their inability to make as many changes as they wanted to”.

Without further programmes and in-depth comparative studies, it is difficult to assess whether the ‘Natural Change’ approach is any more or less effective in motivating and supporting lasting behaviour changes than the carbon-cutting self-help approach of, say, ‘Carbon Conversations’ or ‘Transition Together’ groups. (For more discussion, see Envisioning Sustainability). But what seems unique to the ‘Natural Change’ programme is the intentional selection of participants with only average prior environmental awareness who had not previously been motivated to be involved in a sustainability initiative.

My own practice in outdoor experiential learning informs me that the strongest reported outcomes of ‘Natural Change’,(heightened trust between participants, safe opportunities for personal disclosure, improved awareness of self and others, and increased identification with the natural world), are also commonly stated outcomes of other well-facilitated outdoor programmes.

Similar findings are evident in the research review (shortly to be reprinted) that I conducted with Roger Greenaway in 1995. My contribution to this review was to examine research into outdoor programmes that aim to enhance pro-social behaviours amongst troubled and alienated young people. My review makes clear that well-constructed programmes can often provide a supportive environment in which participants are led to explore problematic behaviours and to practice new ones. But the process of transferring and applying the insights and learning gained into more familiar everyday settings is often neglected and is much harder. In practice, successful transfer that achieves sustained behaviour change requires as much facilitation as the outdoor experience itself. Without an ongoing process of review, follow-up support and mentoring, the powerful new insights and motivations gained from the outdoor experience can quickly dissipate in frustration or be superseded by familiar old habits and influences.

To some extent, ‘Natural Change’ has appreciated the challenges of transfer by encouraging continued interpersonal communications between participants and through the on-line blogs that some still maintain. But a stronger approach could be to recruit participants only from close geographic localities so that subsequent group review, study and support meetings are accessible to all and the efforts of individuals to implement their learning in their wider lives and to outreach this to other communities they belong to can be shared and supported by their fellow participants.

To date, ‘Natural Change’ is the only programme I have found that applies an outdoor experiential learning approach to motivating sustainable behaviour. The programme is still in its early experimental days so clearly has strengths and weaknesses. In its existing form, it would seem unlikely to appeal to all population groups. For instance, some people may initially be put off by its more ‘touchy-feely’ aspects. An unsentimental countryman like my pensioner farmer friend might well grumble “Seems like you run over a rabbit these days and you need counselling!” Similarly, some aspects of the programme might seem too self-reflective and ‘navel-gazing’ to immediately attract some of the slick lycra-clad bike-racers I watch powering along the corniche.

Natural appeal…

But this is not to say that an outdoor experiential approach to sustainability, as exemplified by ‘Natural Change’, need lack wide appeal. The range of applications that already exist in outdoor experiential education – from corporate team-building to school field trips, mental health recovery programmes to military command tasks, rehabilitation of offenders to commercial adventure holidays – suggests that the approach can be adjusted and modified so as to appeal to many different populations. For instance, one application might attract business sponsorship through programmes that combine team-building and corporate social responsibility agendas and follow these up with continuing study and self-help groups in the workplace. Another might be designed for youth organisations and yet another aim to inspire inter-generational family involvement.

Nor need programmes depend entirely on having easy access to wild remote places. In the past I have facilitated powerful outdoor learning experiences inside high prison security walls. Outdoor experiential learning can equally effectively take place in parks, playing fields and playgrounds.

As mentioned in my last post, I am currently developing a project for ‘sustainability through experiential learning’ programmes, and a handbook of transferrable activities and applications, that draws together the different threads of self-directed ‘mutual support’ study groups, the cognitive and affective methods of ‘sustainability-literacy’ and ‘eco-literacy’, and the psychological engagement of active experiential learning.

I would like to hear from others interested in the possibilities such an approach could offer to mainstreaming sustainability. I am also seeking potential collaborators and sources of funding for a series of pilot programmes. So I would be pleased if you would share this post widely. If you have thoughts, criticisms or ideas to share, please leave a comment below or feel free to contact me here.

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