Ecological identity

Frans Verhagen - May, 2010

Creating Sustainable Communities

Frans C. Verhagen, M. Div., M.I.A., Ph.D. is a sustainability sociologist, co-founder of Earth and Peace Education International (EPE), and director of its sustainability education and research program. He is also the founder and president of the International Institute of Monetary Transformation.

Discovering one’s selfhood is a life long process and challenge. We are often forced by internal or external events to ask ourselves who we are and how we have to act towards other people. At times we may also question how we should relate to our physical environment or Nature, even to planet Earth and the Universe. These are questions that recognize our ecological self or ecological identity.

  It is this ecological identity that is to be recognized and nurtured if we are to become fully human. It is essential to our selfhood. Besides being a father, mother, professor, artist, tennis player, activist…., we are also Earthlings. All of these statuses make up our identity and form the sum total of our relationships. The scope and complexity of our individual identity is well recognized by geologian Thomas Berry and cosmologist Brian Swimme’s in their book, The Universe Story (1992). They state, “Our individual self finds its most complex realization within our family self, our community self, our species self, our earthly self, and eventually our Universe self.”

  Why is it important to discover and nurture one’s ecological identity? In last instance, the future of humanity and the Earth depends on whether humans understand how to commune with the natural world rather than exploit it; on whether they develop their capacity for intimacy in human-Earth relations. "Already the planet is so damaged and the future is so challenged by its rising human population”, states Berry, “that the terms of survival will be severe beyond anything we have known in the past." He believes that we stand at a defining moment in history, one in which the Earth herself calls out to us to embark upon a re-sacralization of Nature, a new ecological beginning. Our response to this call will depend on whether we recognize and nurture our ecological identity.
Like Thomas Berry, Ursula Goodenough (1998), professor of evolutionary biology at Washington University, emphasizes the need to connect with Nature. She writes, “Once we have our feelings about Nature in place, then I believe that we can also find important ways to call ourselves Jews, or Muslims, or Taoists, or Hopi, or Hindus, or Christians, or Buddhists. Or some of each.” In other words, according to Goodenough, our capacity for intimacy in human-Earth relations is basic to our capacity to transcend cultural and religious differences in our human–human relationships.

  The question of how to discover and nurture one’s ecological identity has been the subject of numerous books and conferences, the latter of which deal, particularly, with the connectedness with Nature of indigenous cultures. The recent Cochabamba Conference in Bolivia is an example. Most of the publications have emerged during the last four decades from the deep ecology movement, which also include eco-feminist writings. Others came from concentrations such as bioregionalism, eco-psychology, Earth spirituality, education, sustainability sociology. Here I will highlight three, which have significantly contributed to the literature on building an ecological self.

High on my list is Ecological Identity: Becoming a Reflective Environmentalist by Mitchell Thomashow (1996). It is a must read for anyone interested in changing the ways human beings exist in the world. Thomashow shows how environmental studies can be deeply informed by personal reflection. Through theoretical discussion as well as hands-on participatory learning approaches, he provides concerned citizens, teachers, and students with the tools needed to become reflective environmentalists. The questions he raises are: What do I know about the place where I live? Where do things come from? How do I connect to the Earth? What is my purpose as a human being? These are the questions that he identifies as being at the heart of environmental education. Reflecting on these questions contribute to developing a profound sense of self as being in relationship with natural and social ecosystems, a necessary grounding for the difficult work of environmental advocacy, he believes. Each chapter in the book includes learning activities, e.g. the Sense of Place Map, a Community Network Map, and the Political Genogram, most of which can be carried out on an individual basis.

Another important contribution to the literature on ecological identity is Eco-psychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind. Edited by historian Theodore Roszak with Mary Gomes and Allen Kanner (1995), this pathfinding collection includes articles by premier psychotherapists, thinkers, and eco-activists which show how the health of the planet is inextricably linked to the psychological health of humanity, individually and collectively. The book makes it clear that the natural world is not just an `environment' around us, but that it exists inside our souls and minds.

Finally, a classic of the sustainability movement, Thinking Like a Mountain: Towards a Council of All Beings is co-authored by John Seed, Pat Fleming and Joanna Macy (2007). According to Macy, a new beginning for the environment must start with a new spiritual outlook. Her writings evidence her strong Buddhist leanings, particularly those that stress the interconnectedness of all things in the world, which principle, she views as essential to overcoming the self-centeredness and anthropocentrism that has devastated the environment. Thinking like a Mountain is a book of readings, meditations, rituals and workshop notes that provides a guide for discovering and nurturing our ecological identity. It helps us experience our place as members of the web of life rather than stewards, much less masters of the Earth.

Berry, T. & B. Swimme. 1992. The Universe story from the primordial flaring forth to the Ecozoic era: A celebration of    the unfolding of the cosmos. London, UK:  Harper Press.

Goodenough, U. 1998. Sacred depths of Nature. Oxford, UK:  Oxford University Press.

Roszak, T., M. Gomes & A. Kanner. 1995.  Eco-psychology: Restoring the Earth, healing the mind. San Francisco, Ca: Sierra Club Books.

Seed, J., P. Fleming & J. Macy. 2007. Thinking like a mountain: Towards a council of all beings. Catalyst Publishers.

Thomashow, M. 1996. Ecological identify: Becoming a reflective Environmentalist . Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.