Urban human-nature resonance for sustainability transformation


"And what does your world look like?"
Social formations of worldviews and their changeability thanks to psychological flexibility.
Plus: Final tips from Maude



Current debates in sustainability science are increasingly pointing towards the need to consider internal dimensions in research alongside external factors such as government regulations and taxes to influence individual behavior. While the external factors are described as comparatively shallow leverage points for sustainability transformations, the change in worldviews in relation to our understanding of nature is said to be a particularly deep and effective leverage point. In order to reflect on the shallow and deep leverage points in our URBNANCE team and apply them to our understanding of human-nature resonance, we organized a workshop on this topic at the beginning of the URBNANCE team, which led, among other things, to the following content-related result:

Categorizing leverage points for influencing the human-nature relationship during an URBNANCE workshop
(left: resonant relationship/right: human-nature dominance)

Some readers will notice the two emphasized sentences in the last line under the headings Worldviews/ Paradigms: While (left) a resonant human-nature relationship is based on the fact that individuals attribute a soul to every being and the consideration of relationality with everything is emphasized, (right) an anthropocentric worldview rather assumes that humans alone possess dignity and rights and that this represents their maxim for action.


Social influence on worldviews

In order to understand more precisely how worldviews are created and shaped, it is important to understand the respective people who carry these worldviews within them. However, all living beings - and therefore also humans - are incredibly diverse. Social and psychological imprints, how we develop as individuals over time, what is important to us and which paths we take are also incredibly complex. Nevertheless, sociologists are certain that we humans are also culturally and socially shaped by certain geographical areas. When I think of myself, the following comes to mind: For example, I grew up here in Germany in the 1990s, where Christian festivals such as Christmas and Easter were certainly important (a journalist, who I unfortunately can't re-find online now, recently referred to Christmas as "social synchronization power"), women's rights were even less pronounced than they are today (there was no female chancellor and the penal code didn't yet provide for many things) and a large part of our generation (the well-known Generation Y) watched Japanese Animés and read detective stories for young people.

Sociological comparisons between generations are increasingly being used to try and understand the effects of these specific generational influences (although initially more in relation to the area of labor, where it is currently very acute due to the shortage of skilled workers). But how does a cultural imprint compare to another country in which there are other customs and festivals, other values are important and laws protect other areas?

When I think of the Indigenous-influenced constitutions of the Andean states of Ecuador or Bolivia, in which nature is protected as a legal entity and it is part of people's culture to cultivate relationships with rivers, the sun or a mountain god - what worldviews are promoted by such structures and rituals? By way of explanation, I would like to add that Indigenous peoples affirm their complete dependence on nature as a gift. They see themselves as a family with celestial bodies, plants, animals and Earth, nurtured by a bond of mutual care. However, since a single Indigenous people does not form a single political country, but the representatives usually live in one or more state formations, the question of whether, for example, specific laws make a significant difference in the lifestyle of individuals can be analyzed, for example, between two countries with regard to the effect on sustainable living. To date, there have been few comparative cultural studies on this topic. However, there is a growing assumption that nature-related constitutions and laws, originating from even older Indigenous cultures, contribute to a more sustainable lifestyle.

Cultural comparison: Crucifixion of Jesus and resurrection at Easter (left) and homage to a mountain god (right)

To come back to my upbringing and my generation: Various activities, experiences and rituals have thus also shaped what is important to me and us and what we consider relevant. Certainly, my generation also experienced value systems that are considered less conducive to socio-ecological coexistence. Scientists have shown, for example, that the major monotheistic religions, including Christianity, are less suitable for encouraging sustainable behavior than animistic religions or Buddhism, for example. This should come as no surprise based on the fact which living beings are given which value in the respective teachings, as described above. With regard to Christianity, I had an interesting conversation with a young pastor a few weeks ago. I asked him whether he thought there were any stories in the Bible in which people did not play the central role. He said no, that people were always at the center. From my perspective, this is a decisive and formative aspect of Christian culture, that there is this human-nature dichotomy and that nature is not also recognized as having her own fundamental ability to act (scientists speak of agency here) and is allowed to belong to herself. Since human-nature resonance, a mutual touching and allowing oneself to be touched, depends on two entities meeting at eye level, such a worldview that sees humans as the primary dignitaries could be an obstacle to equal coexistence.


Changeability of worldviews for the sustainability transformation

Unfortunately, worldviews are also particularly difficult and time-consuming to change, as they conceal our values, our identities and the things that often give our lives direction. Worldviews are often shaped in childhood. The fact that children today, especially in cities, spend much less time in nature, climbing trees and romping around, may therefore alarm the German Advisory Council on Global Change. Yet studies show that certain interventions that are relatively easy to realize have a great effect on connecting with nature. For example, environmental psychologists have shown that the mere introduction of nature study lessons for schoolchildren and engagement with nature had a nature-bonding effect, which also alleviated stress and psychologically strengthened the children. Another intervention, in which a group of children in kindergarten were outside every day for six months, showed a significant improvement in the young children's ability to regulate their emotions.

A very touching and rare sight for me: Rose-drawing children

This clearly shows the psychological and physical interweaving of the outer and inner worlds. It should therefore come as no surprise that interventions are particularly effective when they are body-based, as the emotions that make an experience an experience are stored in our human bodies, as the educationalist Professor John Dewey impressively describes. Body- and experience-based methods therefore harbor great potential for understanding current worldviews and, as a society, counteracting them with care and understanding. While the child's being is still developing and quickly processes external influences, the adult brain is also far more inflexible and rigid in its physiology. While psychotherapists work with individuals to develop healthier attitudes and behaviors, transformation scientists want to move entire societies towards more sustainable worldviews. However, there is a consensus in psychotherapy and transformation research that sensitivity and patience are needed to avoid overburdening individual human systems and to allow individuals to integrate new views into their lifeworld.  These days, many sustainability scientists are addressing precisely this challenge and the question of how values such as compassion, consideration and love for and with nature can be strengthened in society today. In her last essay on Indigenous worldviews, my colleague Maike also described the fact that worldviews and values are in a constant state of flux, which also inspired me to think specifically about my own worldviews and their retrospective transformations.

Graffiti with the question "Does love still exist?"

But to move from the retrospective to the present and the future, I would like to end this essay with a small collection of interventions. Research is being carried out on each of the experience-orientated inventions in order to contribute to a greater connection between humans and nature and a change in values and worldview in the sense of the deep lever for sustainability transformation:

It should come as no surprise that some of these sustainability-related tools are very similar to tools used in psychotherapy. Direct physical contact also plays a role here, e.g. in exposure therapies. Psychoeducation is essential in order to give individuals themselves more handling and the development of specific skills is also repeatedly emphasized. However, pure counselling therapy according to Carl Rogers, in which content is exchanged in a trusting, empathic constellation, is also very effective. In recent years, psychological storytelling has also gained a reputation through the Argentinian psychiatrist and author Jorge Bucay, for example.



As diverse as people are, so too are their very own approaches to their worldviews. Regardless of this, neuroscientists, neurobiologists, and psychotherapists are certain that psychology and physiology are changeable. A story that had a huge impact on me and my worldview comes from the film Harold and Maude, which Yusuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens) accompanied auditively in a unique way. Maude in particular has a few tips for dealing with worldviews.

Author: Susanne Müller

If you have any comments or question on the essay, feel warmly invited to contact the author  (s.muellerioer@ioer.de).





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"And what does your world look like?"
Social formations of worldviews and their changeability thanks to psychological flexibility.
Plus: Final tips from Maude



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