Beyond Sustainability Blog

  • Do you listen when we perform our Eco-Anxiety?

    Contributor: Soji Cole, Interdisciplinary Humanities PhD program at Brock University, Ontario Canada.

    The title of this reflection appears as a question because the issues around anthropogenic activities call for constant questioning. There have been multifarious and complex interventions from climatologists, and there is a broad spectrum of ongoing campaigns from scientists, artists, humanists, spiritualists and even religionists; all in the bid to trigger changes in human activities to minimize the effect of the climate crisis. The results have not been very impressive, and so, questioning the conditions and activities around the issue of sustaining the global ecosystem and preventing it from further destruction must be an ongoing debate. In the introduction to the book, Eco-Anxiety and Pandemic Distress: Psychological Perspectives on Resilience and Interconnectedness (2023), Douglas Vakoch and Sam Mickey argue that; “Past researchers have proposed varied definitions for eco-anxiety— for example, “a chronic fear of environmental doom” (Clayton et al., 2017, p. 68) and “the generalized sense that the ecological foundations of existence are in the process of collapse” (Albrecht, 2012, p. 250)” (p. 2). Taking cues from these definitions, eco-anxiety is the consequence of a general fear, arising from an imagined human future without the support of non-human natural eco-system that could sustain that future. This premonition is sustained by the overwhelming negative impacts of humans on the non-human natural ecosystem.

    Over the last couple of years, I have made contributions to the subject of sustainability and the global ecosystem. My special focus has been to explore how drama and theatre performance can generate impactful meaning in the global understanding of the human ecosystem as well as how to mitigate further climate disasters. This is important as it is increasingly apparent that the arts and the humanities can fill some gaps left by science and technology in enhancing actions toward a sustainable earth.

    I contributed as a co-author to a climate change essay which appeared in a published book of essays entitled Theatre Pedagogy in the Era of Climate Crisis, edited by Conrad Alexandrowicz and David Fancy, in 2021. The book was published in the Routledge Educational Series. My intention (with the co-author) in the essay was to bring to global awareness how Nigerians and Africans are using drama to respond to the climate crisis. In the last days of October, and the first few days of November in 2022, I was part of a collective (a theatre ensemble) production, initiated and led by David Fancy (drama professor at Brock University), and hosted by the Department of Dramatic Arts at Brock University. The stage production, titled AnthropoScene, was supported by the “Beyond Sustainability—Radical Transformation Through Systems Thinking” project. My position combined as an actor, a learner, as well as an advocate of sustainability on the platform of the Young Professional (in research) Exploration Group (YPEG), an offshoot of the “Beyond Sustainability Project”. Over several weeks of rehearsals and drawing multiple perspectives (most of which focused on the issues of climate crisis and sustainability), the stage performance eventually ran for four days in a theatre packed full of curious audience. A round-table discussion program was organized on an alternate day, by the “Beyond Sustainability—Radical Transformation Through Systems Thinking” project to discuss the stage performance and the connection to issues on sustainability and climate crisis. In May 2023, I was one of the YPEG artists/scholars that made artistic presentations in the “Transforming environment awareness with Artistic Interventions” event.  The artistic presentation was hosted and funded by the “Beyond Sustainability Project”, and it was presented to the public at the Niagara Artists Center, in the city of St. Catharines. The intervention followed series of brainstorming between three artists—who are PhD students in the Interdisciplinary Humanities program of Brock University, and who are also members of the YPEG. Over several months, we planned, researched, and eventually concluded that we might be able to generate a multifaceted form of spectacle if we focused on each participant’s specific area of artistic strength. Naturally, I stuck to drama. I drafted a script and titled it: “Are we really aware?” In the public presentation, I played a solo character who was listening to the voice of a more powerful and invisible character. The subject of the conversation was simply how the climate crisis could be curtailed by the intervention of the most important persons—you and me!

    Against the backdrops of all these interventions, the problematics of three constant questions are prevalent: 1) whether through science or arts, what kind of audience do we have when we discuss issues of climate crisis? For this question, an argument could be raised that the medium or strategy ought to be more important first of all than the audience to whom the message is targeted. This argument leads to a more generative conversation, but my concern has always been that, in the age of technological multi-tasking, knowing the kind of audience you intend to appeal to is the first most important thing than the strategy or medium of such appeal. 2) Can arts offer a serious intervention in a subject such as the climate crisis, which is predominantly science encumbered? This is not a new question. This question has spanned several decades of critical assessments of human knowledge, with constant claims of epistemic segregation of other knowledge routes by the discipline of science. 3) Do you listen when we perform our Eco-Anxiety? This question is the most important one to me. Apart from being an artist who utilizes drama as a tool, I keep a mental refrain that the crux of drama is entertainment, and as such, it provides one of the most liberal means of education and discerning of information. So, if drama can provide veritable sources of education for climate crisis intervention, why are we not listening? Why are there still dangerous trends of anthropogenic activities around us? Why are there still conscious wastages of natural resources? Why is there prevalence of conspicuous consumption around us? Why?

    Let me quickly negotiate the three main questions posted above.

    Question 1: Whether as scientists, humanists, or artists, it may be important to ask what kind of audience we deal with when we discuss climate crisis and sustainability. Working through drama reflection in an earlier paper, I (as a co-author) suggest that there are usually three categories of audiences in the framework of climate change awareness; (1) “The informed and the concerned” (“Anthropogenic Anxiety…” p. 108). This set of audience considers appraisal of gaps in climate knowledge and anthropogenic activities and are inspired to further think and take necessary actions for change. Progress towards mitigating climate crisis is slow because this kind of audience is scanty. (2) “The informed and unconcerned” (p. 108). This category of audience has awareness of the inimical consequences of anthropogenic activities, yet they do not show concern or efforts to join the crusade against the impending disaster. Their belief is that; “…such occurrences are bound to happen anyway and there is nothing that can be done about it” (p. 109). (3)  “The absolute ignorants” (p. 109). This set of audience do not even believe that human actions could cause a tip in the natural order of the environment. Ignorance is sometimes placed on the pedestal of spirituality. “For this category of people, any such disaster only happens if a certain divine force is angry with the desires of humans” (p. 109). In my participation in the drama projects of “AnthropoScene” and “Are we really aware”, I have had to constantly think of how devised dramatic strategies can connect with each strand of audience among the three different types listed above.

    Question 2: Can arts (drama) offer serious intervention in such subject as the climate crisis, which is predominantly science encumbered? It is important to start out a response to this question by asserting that conflicting modes of knowledge production should not constitute a disregard for strategies and methods with which different disciplines generate knowledge. Arts (drama) have methodological strategies and insights that have potential to fill the gaps left by science. For example, the power of narrative can only be fully extracted through methodologies inherent in the humanities and arts. Narrative is important in the consciousness of the public in times of global stress (as we witnessed during covid), and during our eco-anxious times. Artistic intervention such as drama, in the subject of climate crisis, will serve to complement and contribute to efforts in the campaign towards eco-justice and sustainability. It produces audio-visual perspectives that enhance the scientific narrative of human crises. In reference to pandemics, Priscilla Wald (2008) takes account of the importance of the intervention of arts in producing fictional narratives to promote public understanding. She reflects that, “[f]ictional accounts of outbreaks did more than reflect and convey the lessons of science; they also supplied some of the most common points of reference, which influence social transformation and diseases emergence in their own right” (p. 31). In essence, the beauty of arts (drama) is that it plays both synergistic and complementary roles with other disciplines—including science. Such intervention promotes interdisciplinarity, and the advantage is such that approaches and knowledge from different disciplines might not only shed new light on a problem, but it will also give allowances for a more comprehensive understanding of the problem.

    Question 3: Do you listen when we perform our Eco-Anxiety? For me, this question continues to be generative on the issue of climate crisis. It subsumes so many other questions: Why is the world recording slow progress in the battle against climate crisis? What is happening with all the information on the climate crisis that we have access to? What are the limitations between this information and the taking of meaningful actions that are suggested and often requested, in the information? Despite evidence that there is progress in controlling emissions, why does global warming still exceed the expected range? Why are concrete actions taken so far on the climate crisis not making as much of a substantive impact as hoped? Even when scientific findings on the subject of climate crisis are transformed into arts (film, drama, literature etc.), to enhance a more liberal means of information perception, why is the world still witnessing snail-paced progress? There is no one way to respond to all these questions. Maybe we need to slow down the fear of urgency that we associate with the climate crisis so that people can “listen” better. Perhaps we need to deploy more strategies instead of calling for more urgency in the politics of transformation towards sustainability. Maybe it’s okay to consider the argument of Håvard Haarstad, Jakob Grandin, Kristin Kjærås and Eleanor Johnson? They suggest that;

    Perhaps haste is precisely what we do not need. When in haste, we make more mistakes, we overlook things, we get tunnel vision. Instead, is there a case for what we call a ‘slow politics of urgency’? Rather than rushing and speeding up, maybe the sustainable future is better served by us challenging the dominant framings through which we understand time and change in society. Transformation to meet the climate challenge requires multiple temporalities of change, speeding up certain types of change processes but also slowing things down (pp. 1-2).

    Maybe it is time to understand that resolutions to the climate crisis will not be characterized only by scientific mixtures, data, and epidemiological models, but also by processing the economical, communicative, cultural, and cognitive conditions around which the problems manifest. Perhaps it is time to truly consider the meaningful impacts that disciplines in the arts and humanities can have in the climate crisis resolution. I have been part of this journey, and I call myself a witness, to boldly assert that, it is time to pay good attention to drama and theatre in this journey of sustainability and restoration of our world. “It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, and to feel that climate change is too big to solve. But we already have the answers, now it’s a question of making them happen” (Green Peace-

    Works cited

    Cole, S. and G. Asoloko. “Anthropogenic anxiety and the pedagogy of climate crisis in Wake Up Everyone”. Theatre Pedagogy in the Era of Climate Crisis. (Conrad Alexandrowicz and David Fancy (Eds.) Routledge, 2021. pp. 102-114, ISBN:  978-0-367-54154-4

    Haarstad, H., J. Grandin, K. Kjærås and E. Johnson. “Why the haste? Introduction to the slow politics of climate urgency”. Haste: The slow politics of climate urgency, (Håvard Haarstad, et al. eds.). UCL Press, 2023.

    Green Peace-

    Vakoch, D. and S. Mickey. Eco-Anxiety and Pandemic Distress: Psychological Perspectives on Resilience and Interconnectedness. Oxford University Press, 2023.

    Wald, Priscilla. Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative. Duke University Press, 2008.

    Categories: Beyond Sustainability Blog

  • Enchanting the Environment: How “Magical Thinking” Might Help Us Better Respond to Environmental Crises

    Photo by: Julie Gemuend & Tracy Van Oosten

    Contributors: Julie Gemuend & Mitch Goldsmith

    Joan Didion, in her 2005 memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, weaves an account of loss and recovery following the tragedy of her husband’s sudden death. Didion’s form of “magical thinking,” neither flippant nor escapist, forges a shadowy space that touches the dark edge of human experience. In this space, Didion explains how lapses in reason and inclinations to mystery and fantasy provide a source of refuge amidst her personal apocalypse. As Didion rightly observes, cold rationality, which has historically contributed to conceiving ourselves and the world as transparent and demystified, does nothing for the soul in agony. Rather, allowances of magic, mystery, and the mystical enable Didion to process her pain softly, in the corridors of imagination and intuition, which work to dissolve the unthinkable in an affective and deeply intimate cauldron of sorts. This mystical brew of curiosity and creativity transforms her pain into something else, a new narrative by which to live, a new spell to cast. In the aftermath of her abysmal loss, Didion frames magical thinking as a form of self-preservation — a talisman to protect against an increasingly unlivable reality.

    Like Didion, many of us feel a growing sense of loss and dismay at the climate crisis and “sixth great extinction” unfolding around us. This feeling has a name: solastalgia. Coined by Glen Albrecht, solastalgia captures the distress produced by environmental changes that impact one’s home — a feeling of homesickness for a place that no longer resembles itself. Many of us are, therefore, looking for a way to make sense of the changing reality of our shared and precarious planet — to understand how best to respond, often in both personal and political ways, recognizing that the personal and political are always connected. In this desire to adequately respond to our growing alarm at a planet threatened with ecological collapse, we ask, what possibilities does a spiritual or even magical response to grief and personal upheaval, like that explored by Didion above, open up for responding to the grief and turmoil of climate change, environmental degradation, and species extinction? What if those of us who are paralyzed or overwhelmed by the magnitude of our ecological problems, were to map the magical thinking from Didion’s personal apocalypse on to our shared eco-apocalypse?

    In fact, these two concepts, magical thinking and apocalypse, inhabit common ground. The Latin and Greek terms for apocalypse are synonymous with revelation — an uncovering or disclosure — a revelation into sight, into something that was hidden. Magical thinking draws on intuition, a process that offers us the ability to know something directly without analytic reasoning; an interior impulse able to penetrate the darkness of the unconscious mind, thus bridging the gap between instinct and reason. Intuition offers the revelation of a different kind of sight — a type of mindful awareness that can discern connections and paths through the anxiety that marks the spectre of our uncertain future. This visceral register, moving below the immediate surface of politics and public life, is one that modern, secular, and analytic responses to environmental crises often distrust, deny, and ignore. In a time when many religious responses to our climate emergency seem to engage in their own type of magical thinking, much of this distrust seems justified.  Yet, what do we miss when we completely dismiss magic or the mysterious from our world? We miss the opportunity to harness the generative aspects of this visceral register and apply them to our social and political realities.

    We suggest a reorientation in social and political responses to environmental doom that, rather than dismissing spiritual or magical understandings of grief, loss, and crisis, make space for renewed visceral and visionary insight that engages in acts of resistance against earth-destroying systems and practices. We argue that a magical or mystical response to environmental crises engages productively with non-secular, spiritual questions without the need for religious literalism that so often reinscribes fatalist escapism (e.g., “it’s god’s plan”) and justifies ecological inaction or reactionary politics. A spiritual sensibility, which is responsive to the mystical impulse in many religious and spiritual traditions and practices, exists as a potentially rich storehouse of imaginatively powerful responses to environmental crises.

    Spiritual responses to ecological concerns are about cultivating within ourselves and our communities a sensibility that privileges those visceral qualities of care, emotion, imagination, and intuition. These modes of relating to the world around us are part of the daily realities of many people. A spiritual sensibility offers a heightened sensitivity to our relationships with the more-than-human world and the types of ethical and practical responsibilities these entanglements entail. We become what the political theorist William Connolly calls a “seer,” those enduring figures of Greek drama, folktales, animist cosmologies, literature, and film, who cultivate an ability to see future possibilities (opportunities and threats) that encourage responsible responses in the present. In these “forking moments” where an unfolding situation could go either way, the seer seeks to nudge things in the right direction.

    Photo by: Julie Gemuend

    The seer’s insight-foresight relies on the ability to disengage, however imperfectly, from the everyday. Especially important are attempts to disengage from the systems that benefit from our relentless, earth-destroying, capitalist productivity. And, in the space created between us and these systems, to retreat, at least temporarily, to that shadowy, solitary, internal space where magical thinking swirls. This kind of space fosters a heightened awareness of the world in all of its wonders. This active passivity of retreat shares similarities with what John Keats calls “negative capability,” which is understood as non-doing as a way of doing. In other words, the mind enters a state of mystery and uncertainty, open and receptive to the impulses of our enchanted world, like “a submarine, silent on the ocean’s bed, aware of the depth charges, now near and now far” (Didion, 27).

    Connolly describes this temporary withdrawal as a form of “dwelling.” Like Keats’ “negative capability,” dwelling is a practice of mindful slowing down and retreat, often accomplished through spiritual practices such as meditation, ritual, or time spent with nature and animals. Connolly argues that  one can more clearly see the visceral forces that animate social and political issues by slowing down or temporarily retreating. Dwelling can highlight unseen connections or operations at play in issues that might have seemed paralyzing or intractable before. Practices such as ritual, meditation, nature walks, prayer, and celebration are tools we can use to make better sense of the current ecological crises and figure out how best to respond.

    Dwelling is an enduring practice that takes many shapes and goes by many names. For example, dwelling can take the form of erotic, embodied “corporeal communing,” like that undertaken by the Latina artist Laura Aguilar in her photographic series “Grounded.” “Grounded” is a series of photographs of Aguilar’s body alongside rocks and land formations in the American Southwest. In these images, Aguilar enters the “nonhuman fold” to showcase the potential for a type of mystical alliance that forms when one pays closer attention to the resemblances — to the connections between humans and nature (Luciano and Chen 184). The human-nonhuman relationships expressed in Aguilar’s images offer the viewer a blueprint from which they might draw their own approach to becoming mystical. This type of transformation often requires a change in how we perceive ourselves and others, in order to better attend to the ethical contours of these human-environmental relationships.

    Tapping into the mystical helps us think about ourselves and the world differently. Intuition is about making connections and is thus bent on bringing things together. In understanding magic or mysticism as part of our daily reality or way of living, the late German theologian Dorothee Soelle argued for what she called “democratic mysticism,” or mysticism not reserved for the exceptional but something real and lived in the every day and open to each of us as we might see fit. According to Soelle, “Mystics are quite ordinary people: shoemakers, nannies, dyers of wool, home-care workers, or physicists” (18). We agree.

    We invite our readers to activate this ability to change shape — to shift perspective, cultivate wonder, and embrace intuition — ultimately, to reorient attention towards an enchanted world. We argue that such a change in perspective holds manifold potential to respond meaningfully to environmental crises, even when we might otherwise feel powerless or overwhelmed.

    To engage in this kind of enchanted orientation requires work. In her book The Enchanted Life, psychologist and writer Sharon Blackie shares exercises designed to establish more meaningful and respectful relationships with nonhuman animals and the environments in which they live. We find many of these exercises interesting, helpful, and a potential starting point for a magical or mystical response to environmental crises. We believe that these types of non- or post-secular exercises, which help us reorient ourselves to the more-than-human world, can help to further and sustain more equitable human-environmental relations and enchanted responses to environmental crises.

    Exercise 1: Finding a “Sit Spot”

    Cultivate the practice of sitting in the same outdoor spot as regularly as possible. According to Blackie, “The aim is simply to notice. To settle down, focus your thoughts on the present moment and notice the flow of life around you” (58).  Through regular “dwelling,” this practice helps one feel more connected to their local landscape and the many beings with whom they live, knowingly or not. Regular sitting allows one to physically and sensorially share space with the more-than-human world and to value it.

    Exercise 2: “Knowing Place”

    Blackie suggests that one’s human-environmental relationship can be further strengthened through intellectual investigation, what she calls “Knowing Place” (214-216). This investigation includes asking questions about a particular region’s geological and human history, researching current human and non-human inhabitants, a place’s particular folklore, and the types of foods, goods, and services one might procure locally, using local water, power, and other resources. This exercise can take the form of meditative reflection or serious study. This bioregional quiz provides a good foundation from which to work. We suggest choosing one of the questions you can’t answer and making it a priority to learn what that answer is. Move on to a new question once you’ve composed a sufficient answer.

    These are just two examples from a wellspring of exercises that can be found in Blackie’s book, which we have found to be helpful in understanding the many complex layers that make up our relationship to the natural world.

    Works cited

    Blackie, Sharon. The Enchanted Life: Unlocking the Magic of the Everyday. Ambrosia, 2018

    Connolly, William. A World of Becoming. Duke University Press, 2010

    Didion, Joan. The Year of Magical Thinking. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2005.

    Luciano, Dana and Mel Y. Chen. “Has the Queer Ever Been Human?” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, vol. 21, no. 2-3, 2015, pp. 182-207

    Soelle, Dorothee. The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance. Fortress Press, 2001


    Categories: Beyond Sustainability Blog

  • Dualism and paradox in our relationship with other animals

    Pumping groundwater to increase the numbers of water-dependent wildlife for tourism in Hwange National Park Zimbabwe. Photo by: Imvelo Safaris 

    Contributor: Mike Jones

    This article is republished from a contribution to the Great Transition Initiative forum “Solidarity with Animals” that reflected on humanity’s rapacious disregard for and commodification of our fellow creatures under the title Back to the Farm Mindfully. The article is published here with acknowledgement to Catherine Longboat for introducing me to the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Prayer quoted at the end of the article which clearly illustrates how the destructive use of nature by modern societies can be avoided if they can learn from the Indigenous people of North America.

    Some History

    As a child growing up on a small farm in England during the 1950 and 60s, I had a strong affinity with farm and wild animals. Protecting crops and livestock against predation was part of farm life. Foxes that raided the chicken house or killed early spring led to calls for the local hunt to deal with the problem. Or father reaching for his flashlight and shotgun to affect revenge on the offender. But peering through the cover of bracken to watch a vixen playing with her cubs on an early summer evening was a source of delight and wonder.

    At the age of 12, after reading about the rescue of large mammals from the rising waters of a lake created by damming the Zambezi River at Kariba Gorge in Zimbabwe, I decided that I was going to save wild animals in Africa. Ten years later my first assignment as a new ranger to Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe was to learn how to shoot elephants that were breaking the boundary fence to raid the crops in the fields of neighbouring farmers. Pumpkins, maize, bananas, beans and watermelons are so much tastier than the dry leaves and twigs found in the park.

    Having learned a little about how to kill elephants, my next assignment was to work on an extensive program of habitat restoration, the need for which arose from a long-term management aim to increase the numbers of charismatic large mammals for public enjoyment. The park’s conservation objective of setting aside wild land for biodiversity conservation, conflicted with the objective of creating opportunities for public recreation. The park had to be seen to make a financial contribution to the national economy and public support was necessary to legitimize the use of land for wild animal husbandry as opposed to agriculture or mineral extraction.

    Unfortunately for all involved, Hwange is mostly dry for a large part of the year [1]. Except where movement was restricted by fences, large numbers of wildlife left the park every dry season as water supplies dwindled. To provide a wildlife spectacle for tourism, many artificial waterholes were created over a period of 40 years so that water dependent species stayed in the park throughout the year. This changed the entire ecology of the park, resulted in numbers of some animal populations reaching levels that could not be sustained by the available vegetation, and extensive soil erosion in some places.

    Then the culling began to bring the ecosystem back into balance. Large numbers of animals were killed, some were translocated to other places. Nobody was interested in reducing the numbers of animals by slowly reducing the number of artificial waterholes. The animal loving public and tourist industry protested the culling and provided considerable material support to keep the pumps running in the dry season when the government was short of money. The net outcome is that populations of some species (especially elephants) grew well beyond the point of any sensible population control measures. Habitat degradation and soil loss are increasing, and neighbouring small holder farmers face severe livelihood challenges from crop and stock raiding wildlife. Attempts by animal welfare organisation to reduce human-elephant conflict with chilli pepper and beehives are of limited use.

    Elephant numbers in Hwange are at the point where we can expect the kind of population collapse that occurred in Tsavo National Park [2]. Watching elephants die of starvation is most unpleasant, and there is no ethical way out of a dilemma born of the destructive relationship that exists between consumer age people and the rest of nature. Hwange’s tourists and wildlife lovers are consuming wildlife and using technology to provide a year-round spectacle that attempts to match what they expect based what they have seen on the TV or at the cinema.

    Use of wildlife increased throughout Zimbabwe from the mid 1970s as wildlife-based tourism was promoted as an alternative to livestock ranching. This policy arose out of necessity imposed by the common law of Zimbabwe that has precedence over statutory laws that regulate land use. Under common law, a farmer was entitled to kill any animal that preyed on his livestock or crops. Large wild animals were doomed to extinction outside protected areas because of the conflict between them and people for access to land. Commodification provided a way to significantly increase the amount of land available for wild animals where land unsuited to crop production occurred outside protected areas. One leading conservationist described these wildlife production systems as “rural factories” where additional income is gained by providing tourism services that add financial value in ways that cannot be achieved with livestock ranching.

    This short history illustrates how the policies and practices of wildlife management in Zimbabwe were aligned with the evolution of human development and its environmental impacts described by Lewis and Maslin “The Human Planet and How we Created the Anthropocene”. The accumulation of financial capital and technology have worked together since the 14th Century to enable global trade, industrialisation and consumer capitalism that dominate world affairs today. The naïve visions of a 12-year-old boy could never be met while the existing structures that support capitalist exploitation of nature for financial gain exist. Somewhere along the path of our cognitive and cultural evolution from pre-agrarian to post-agrarian societies, humans of the modern world lost the ability to reign in greed and the accumulation of power.

    Where Next?

    The farm where I grew up has avoided the intensification of industrial agriculture by providing organic grass-fed beef for local markets, tourism and environmental education services, alternative energy production, various trial-and-error experiments in agro-forestry, and the reintroduction of beavers to enhance wildlife and reduce flooding of a neighbouring village. These achievements were made against a policy background that favours industrial agriculture and a financial system that requires every expense to be considered in relation to the need to avoid insolvency and the loss of the land to the capitalist system. What is happening on the farm is a movement towards the GTI future of eco-communalism.

    Thinking about the misstep in the cultural evolution of modern humans and the need to overcome the idea that humans are exceptional animals leads to consideration of the cosmologies of Indigenous People of North America who developed societies based on various forms of hunting, gathering, fishing, forestry, and agriculture. As Indigenous writers such as Robin Wall Kimmerer show in “Braiding Sweetgrass”, Indigenous People have much to teach us about holistic thinking, the use of social controls to curtail greed and how to live with the rest of nature. This verse from the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address [3] is a suitable way of thinking about our relationship with other animals as sources of pleasure and nourishment to be used respectfully and responsibly.

    We gather our minds together to send greetings and thanks to all the Animal life in the world. They have many things to teach us as people. We are honoured by them when they give up their lives so we may use their bodies as food for our people. We see them near our homes and in the deep forests. We are glad they are still here, and we hope that it will always be so.

    Now our minds are one.”



    [2] Parker, I.S.C. 2018. An historical note from Tsavo East National Park: vegetation changes over time. Pachyderm No. 59: 109-113


    Categories: Beyond Sustainability Blog

  • “Wicked problems” Part 2: In relation to policy as part of the systems thinking (applications)

    Addressing environmental challenges is not always straightforward. The effectiveness of Canada’s plan to plant 2 billion trees, for example, is impacted by logistical challenges  and ecological dynamics such as insect pest outbreaks or increased fire risks.

    Contributor: Brian Leung 

    This blog is the second of a two-part series on “Wicked Problems”. Read Part One Here.

    On the surface, solutions to many current problems appear straightforward: if we want to address climate change, reduce emissions; if we want to conserve species, protect more areas; if we want to improve air and water quality, stop pollution. Indeed, policies have been put in place for these purposes and should be lauded. The difficulty comes in actually achieving the goals in a meaningful way. This comes about arguably because of the high level of socio-ecological complexity of these problems (e.g. the cause of “wicked” problems). 

    For ecological complexity, we often do not fully understand the dynamics of the system at play. The models that we use to make predictions are either missing important factors or incorrectly model them as we can only model the phenomenon that we have thought of, and for which we have some information. Some main difficulties include interactions and feedbacks within the system. An example of interactive effects: Canada has a plan to plant 2 billion trees to help reduce amounts of CO2 in the atmosphere. Beyond the logistical challenges of doing this, ecological dynamics such as insect pest outbreaks or increased fire risk reduce the effectiveness of the plan. Indeed, it may actually cause forests to be net emitters of CO2, which has additional, unintended social consequences.  What is known as “tipping points” can also occur, wherein after a certain degree of change, positive feedback loops (a closed system of amplifying disturbances) occur. For example, the progression of climate change could reduce snow cover in northern latitudes, which reduces reflectivity (white snow versus dark bare ground) resulting in an increase in heat absorption and thus, air temperature, which then further accelerates warming. This highlights the fact that predicting outcomes is not actually straightforward.

    In societies, feedbacks can also occur due to human behaviour and motivation. Even if a company (or country) wants to be proactive, this could cause a competitive disadvantage compared to other companies/countries whose only focus is monetary gain and is then able to expand more and become more dominant. Put another way, actions do not occur in isolation, but rather, occur given a landscape of all other actors and their potential actions. Accounting for these dynamics and putting the appropriate incentive structures in place requires substantial insight and coordination (e.g., so that the socially responsible company “wins,” everyone would be willing to pay a little more and not buy from the other companies).   

    Human values and motivations are not uniform and are not always geared towards societal improvements. People can be innovative and smart, and even when policies are in place, actors may not necessarily comply, or will find ways to navigate around the policies.  These dynamics of human behaviour and response are critical for policy success, and should be predictable to a certain extent, yet rarely enter the models which inform policy. How systems perpetuate and how to break detrimental feedback loops remain an open question. Finally, policies have costs and benefits, with often the most vulnerable sections of society disproportionately, and negatively affected. 

    Categories: Beyond Sustainability Blog

  • “Wicked Problems” Part 1: In relation to policy as part of the systems thinking (issues)

    The most pressing environmental problems of our time often defy straightforward solutions and can be considered “wicked problems”.

    Contributor: Charles Conteh  

    This blog is the first of a two-part series on “Wicked Problems”. 

    What do we mean by wicked problems? These are knotty issues that defy straightforward solutions; problems that rebel against our conventional suite of simple “answers” or “solutions.”  For instance, some of the pressing environmental issues of our time, such as climate change, water pollution, deforestation, and loss of biodiversity, can all be considered wicked problems. They are problems that require everyone, from diverse backgrounds, working together to find solutions.  

    Such problems do not fit into conventional policy toolboxes. They do not align easily with the political system of our countries, where ministries, departments, and agencies are tasked with a specific mandate and do not always talk to each other. Also, given the widespread and transboundary nature of most environmental problems, they defy the capacity of any one country to solve them alone.  

    All these characteristics of “wicked” environmental problems call attention to the fact that the natural world is a complex system. But then, this begs the question: what are systems? Systems in environmental policy are complex but interrelated domains consisting of varying life forms interacting together, such as crops and the weeds competing in an agricultural field. In public policy, our appreciation of complex systems has gained prominence, inspiring a group of scholars who are re-thinking conventional approaches to how governments regulate human interactions with the biosphere. 

    We should point out that wicked problems do not necessarily mean “evil” problems. Rather, they are tremendously complex and have many moving parts. By their very nature, wicked problems make a mockery of our modern mechanistic worldview and our attempts to use simple, linear thinking to force complex social problems into straitjacket solutions. Wicked problems highlight that reality is “messy.” In public policy, a wicked problem is difficult but not impossible to solve. Wicked problems challenge us to be responsive to changing values and changing interactions between humanity and the planet.  

    Categories: Beyond Sustainability Blog

  • Inside Earth Sensations: Outside of Theory. Reflections on a Conference

    Contributor: Julie Gemuend, member of the Young Professionals (in research) Exploration Group (YPEG).
    Photo by: Julie

    In the late, long shadow afternoon of October, I breathe a rose. The rose is one of many that has come to full flower in the botanical gardens of Aarhus, Denmark. I arrived here, in the country’s second-largest city, for the academic conference Earth Sensations: Affects, Sensibilities and Attachments in an Era of Climate Change. This beautifully-composed interdisciplinary conference gathered thinkers of all stripes to explore the sensational flows and interchanges between bodies and environments — between interior and exterior landscapes — in the hopes of sparking new modes of thinking about and being within the mutating material world. Thought-provoking presentations yielded thoughtful conversations that addressed the ways we perceive and participate in the natural world; though, that world of muck and mystery, mosses, and magic, was itself absent. There were seldom moments when we engaged with that living world, save a few rushed breaths of fresh air between panels, cloistered as we were in those institutionally antiseptic, temperature-controlled buildings. But, of course, this is the way of conferences, of learning in higher education, and of academia at large. We are accustomed to withdrawing into safe, comfortable spaces that facilitate concentration and theorization, after the archetypal image of the standalone genius — the thinking individual reading and writing philosophy in solitude.

     And yet. 

    There is something so alienating about this model of producing knowledge, especially for those of us who dedicate our research to excavating our connection to nature — who not only think and write about the necessity of rekindling a whole-hearted, embodied, and ecological participation in the adventure of life itself, but also, try to live it. Thinking and writing are typically conducted in isolation, in a room of one’s own, not only separated from others and the physical world, but from our bodies, as well. And though scholarly research can be conceived as some sort of conversation between the author and the thinking and writing formerly done by others, it nevertheless unfolds in the ether of imagination — a disembodied experience, distanced from the material and sensory world. This is why Virginia Woolf suggests that we stipple our reading and research with divergent pursuits, such as walking, cooking, or gardening.i. Reading, Woolf proposes, is best served by pausing to engage in simple or repetitive tasks that allow a short vacation from the work. Time spent in a garden — “picking a snail from a rose” — refreshes the senses and ignites little synapse fires across the brain, which offer sudden unexpected points of entry back into the work.ii. Thus, thinking not only requires fingers that press keys into black words on a white screen but also fingers that sink deep and slow into the warm soil of the living world.

    My experience in the rose garden offered an invitation to engage in the latter. To spend time in direct and intimate observation with roses was clarifying — smoothing the velvet petals between two fingers, inhaling the honeyed scent, utterly bewitched by the incandescent ruby reds and island yellows. The garden provides an escape from the vortex of academic vernacular. In an era where deception and illusion have become cultural pastimes, the garden gives us a way to ground ourselves in something more substantial, more tangible. This material realm is one of processes and the passage of time, of bodily labour and the senses, of reciprocal generosity and care. To live more than a half-life, we must pass beyond a simple understanding of what those black-and-white words might mean, and truly feel the prismatic spectrum of life in our bodies — live it with all our senses.

    Rebecca Solnit reminds us that “just as everything symbolizes the body so the body symbolizes everything else,” which, she claims, is a sentiment that could be applied to roses, as well. iii Roses, in western culture, have come to embody the whole gamut of human experience. They are the customary offering for milestone life moments that soften sorrow and loss and celebrate romance, achievement, recovery, and hope. In this way, the rose is more of a vessel than it is a flower — a vessel that conveys both life and death. The body, of course, is a kind of vessel, as well, one that Jane Bennett speculates can convey the creativity of the cosmos. In her keynote presentation at the Earth Sensations conference, Bennett explores the ways in which words take up residence in the porous body. She speaks animatedly about how we think, framing the process as an encounter of surprise that comes from something in the cosmos that then mixes with something in the human. Bennett conjures the doodle to illustrate her point. When a person doodles, it is often with a certain measure of miles-away absentmindedness, a wandering rather than a walk with a clear destination or purpose in mind. This, Bennett suggests, is because the doodler inhabits a mode of subjectivity that isn’t quite theirs — it’s crossbred with something already in existence, with nonhuman constituents, cosmic forces that express themselves through the human body in a spontaneous act of co-creation. Bennett, who understands the human as composed of animal, vegetal, mineral, and atmospheric vitalities, seeks a language capable of expressing the way this nonhuman cocktail is immanent within human writing itself. Her proposal: middle-voiced verbs.

    Middle-voiced verbs are neither active nor passive. Using them situates us as contemporaneous with the act so that our efficacy is one amongst a complex, heterogeneous process. In this way, we participate in a lively process while being processed. Take Walt Whitman’s phrase “It sails me, I dab with bare feet” or “I sing the body electric.” According to Bennet, we can’t sing the body electric unless we are amidst the body. Middle-voiced verbs, in Bennett’s formulation, best represent our ontological entanglement with other agential nonhuman entities and forces. Writing is the outgrowth of our own subjectivity interwoven into the subjectivities of the cosmos, which speaks through us in middle-voiced verbs. Through her examination of language, Bennett proposes that we humans are more akin to middle-voiced verbs than we are actors or participants. We are composed and decomposed by extraneous and intrinsic substances and forces, as middle-voiced verbs remind us, the outside is inside, the strange is inherent in the familiar. 

    While Bennett’s presentation explores feelings and forces that are operative below the radar of sense perception and the kinds of words that can tune into them, Alexis Shotwell’s presentation examines feelings that are not so much imperceptible as they are hard to make out or rather make fit into established categories. Shotwell’s approach is an affective one that acknowledges feelings as relational and co-formed rather than individual. That is, we require others to feel. This means that others have power over our feelings through processes of interpretation. For example, those who occupy positions of social power may interpret our feelings through emotional categories that serve their own needs and interests. Collectivizing feelings in this way has transformed mourning into political organization, evidenced by feminist anger or climate anxiety, but, as Shotwell suggests, our feelings are often too nuanced to be contained by existing classical emotional categories such as joy, fear, anger, or sadness. Inchoate, slippery, and difficult to express, Shotwell calls these feelings “freeform.” 

    My experience in the rose garden serves as an example of such feelings: the warm sun slanted the gardens into my lap and the absence of other people made it so that all my senses were tuned to the frequency of roses, which perfumed the air so intensely that as I inhaled I felt as if I were breathing the roses into me, as if through the power of scent their essence became a part of me, became infused with my own life force. Did the rose become a part of me, or did I become a part of it? This hard-to-describe feeling arose from an ineffable, but in no way vague, shift of consciousness into the plant itself. I was no longer sensing the rose but living it. 

    Shotwell believes that the acceptance of big-box feelings as the only feelings available to us is a political problem that might be solved by building non-monetizable spaces where new, collective, free-form feelings, like those of my rose rendezvous, can be cultivated. These spaces would advance a no border politics, thus opening portals through which feelings flow and mingle, uniting us in solidarity with one another towards futures that are still in the making — futures to which free-form feelings can contribute. Borders, Shotwell stresses, are not just about fixing and categorizing but produce and are the product of social relations from which we must emancipate ourselves. Borders have been demonized in some academic circles for the deep divisions they create between self/other, mind/body, and a cascade of additional dialectic oppositions. But do we want to fully dissolve borders? Elsewhere in the conference borders were deemed necessary. Sophie von Redecker regards borders as necessary for encounters for we can only be in touch with the other if there is a border that distinguishes self from other. Von Redecker’s presentation explores human-nonhuman working groups through alpine shepherding in northeastern Italy, positing that agency is distributed amongst the shepherd-livestock-guard dogs-landscape assemblage. In this case, the borders that fences create are indispensable because they do the work of the shepherd while she sleeps. In a sense, they allow the shepherd to extend the boundaries of self.

    Borders may be about fixing things, but they are not fixed. They are porous, plastic, and pliable, constantly renegotiating what falls inside and outside of their parameters. The conference panels considered this interplay between interior and exterior through various lenses: grief, trauma, pleasure, enchantment, toxicity, decolonization and migration, wild and cultivated landscapes, art and design, affects and activism. My own presentation was part of the Sensibility and Health panel. I reframed the hypersensitive body as an imaginative intervention that figures embodiment as porous, co-composed, infected, and infectious — as positively vulnerable. This reframing articulates an understanding of the human as contaminated by otherness and thus accountable to a material world that is never merely an external place but always the very substance of ourselves.

    In other words, we exist in a web of reciprocal interactions between humans, animals, plants, objects, and environments. Timothy Morton visualizes this kind of interconnectedness as a mesh. Morton’s mesh is populated by a multitude of entangled entities, none of which exist in a vacuum. In this reality, the boundaries of form are blurred — there is no clearly defined inside or outside of beings. The mesh travels within, across and among all entities, which include everything from cells to stars. We can never perceive the mesh directly but if we orient our attention toward our bodies, the biosphere, and its inhabitants we might be able to detect it amid certain earth sensations: the gesture with which a small flower opens in the morning; the sound of the wind whispering through the trees; the full-bodied scent of a rose as it nears the end of its cycle — the smell of life and death, of sweet decay. Emblems of ephemerality, roses often appeared in 17th-century vanitas paintings common in Europe at the time, where robust bouquets were set alongside skulls as a reminder that blossoming, and decaying cannot be uncoiled. 

    Vanitas Still-Life with a Bouquet and a Skull, Adriaen van Utrecht, 1642. Adriaen van Utrecht, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


    In a sense, this investigation of inside and outside that so permeated the conference was largely a brokering of self and non-self, life, and death. In Western culture, we consider life and death as oppositional, a hard and unyielding boundary between them. Yet, if we look at the field of posthumanism, we encounter a recasting of the life/death binary as a life-death continuum, where these formerly discrete categories are folded into each other, together creating what we might call zoe. Zoe is cosmic energy, like Bennett’s nonhuman vitalities. According to Rosi Braidotti, one of the foremost thinkers of posthumanism, zoe is the non-human, vital force of all living creatures, the “dynamic, self-organizing structure of life itself.”v. Zoe is restless, fugitive — as in too much, too vast to be contained in any one body for long. Zoe grows out of the body the way a crab grows out of its shell and continues its journey onward from one vessel to the next. This means that death is not an end, it is rather “the transience of life.” Viewing the world through this kind of frame impacts the way we encounter the material world. vi. A feeling of belonging begins to replace one of separation and we come to realize that lives are not lived only in the head, but they are an embodied experience where all human and nonhuman entities are tethered to each other by the shimmering, web-like filaments that zoe leaves in its wake.

    This same reframing might also cast a light on the inextricability of theory and practice, thinking and doing, a difficult perspective to embrace considering that stability and categorization grant us a sense of control in this overwhelmingly complex and accelerated world. It may seem easier to imagine things as belonging to discrete categories rather than all tangled up with each other. But we don’t need to untangle those knots. We need to live them, not just with our minds, as academia prescribes, but with our bodies. Thinking-with we might call it — thinking while walking, while gardening, with others, human and nonhuman alike, with the world. Cognition, as Katherine Hayle reminds us, is not localized in the neocortex but occurs throughout the body. Furthermore, “it extends beyond the body’s boundaries in ways that challenge our ability to say where or even if cognitive networks end.” vii. Expanding the boundaries of self, of mind, into the body and beyond will bring discourse to life or bring life to discourse. 

    This is my ultimate takeaway from the conference and conceivably why my rose encounter continues to take up so much real estate in my mind. Why those same roses have found their way, rather conspicuously, into the fabric of this reflection paper. The rose urges us to remember the garden and the garden ushers our minds from abstract realms back to the earth, back to our bodies and our senses. The body reminds us of our mortality, which in turn reminds us to live in the here and now, to take the pulse of the world-as-it-is. A mere mental evocation of the elemental is not enough. The body’s feelings, whether they arise as shy and shaky puffs and whispers or the most explosive emotional resonances, are the thick, radial root for true vision, and only from that root will we truly see that the world does not happen to us, nor do we happen to the world. We are in a relationship with the world, amidst the world. We are, following Jane Bennett, middle-voiced verbs. 

    i Woolf, Virginia. 2020. “How One Should Read a Book.” Gateway to the Great Books, volume 5, edited by Robert M. Hutchins and Mortimer J. Adler, Laurence King Publishing.

    ii Woolf, Virginia. 2020. “How One Should Read a Book.” Gateway to the Great Books, volume 5, edited by Robert M. Hutchins and Mortimer J. Adler, Laurence King Publishing, p. 50.

    iii Solnit, Rebecca. 2021. Orwell’s Roses. Viking, p. 15.

    iv Morton, Timothy. 2012. The Ecological Thought. Harvard University Press. v Braidotti, Rosi. 2013. The Posthuman. Polity Press, p. 60.

    vi Braidotti, Rosi. 2013. The Posthuman. Polity Press, p. 133.

    vii Hayles, Katherine N. 2012. How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis. The University of Chicago Press, p.17. 


    Categories: Beyond Sustainability Blog

  • Why we need to exit from colonisation for better sustainability

    Photo: Liette Vasseur; 2023 United Nations Climate Change Conference

    Contributor: Simone Bignall

    Indigenous peoples have long governed lands and waters sustainably, historically using resources wisely for thousands of years and now continuing to do so in the present period following colonial invasion and settlement.

    Indigenous peoples do not merely strive to live in harmony with the natural world (like many non-Indigenous people do). More profoundly, being Indigenous means living rightfully and lawfully as part of the natural world; existing as Country.i Indigenous peoples therefore consider that they have an ages-old natural authority and responsibility to care for the Country that defines what it is to be an Indigenous human. In this sense, ‘Country’ is the interconnected web of land, water, sky, human and nonhuman life, ancestral agencies, and environmental forces that, together, make up the distinctive character of a place. From this perspective, healthy Country means healthy people and humanity is thus obliged to uphold the health of the Country that sustains all life within an interconnected ecology.

    Environmental damage depletes human wellbeing, since it weakens the reciprocal connections needed for all to flourish in harmony. Additionally, human damage depletes environments that rely upon symbiotic processes balancing complex systems of relationship.  The cultural identity and wellbeing of Indigenous peoples is connected with the health of the environment, because belonging to a place defines the cultural and political identities of First Nations. Likewise, environmental destruction affects the capacity of Indigenous peoples to enjoy and exercise their collective cultural rights. In the current global context of climate crisis, mass species extinction, and the collapse of fragile ecologies because of unsustainable extractive industry, the cultural need to protect Country is ever more urgent to Indigenous leaders and communities.

    In many settler-colonial places, environmental policy planning has recently shifted to recognise First Nations leaders as “stewards” and “custodians” of their traditional lands and waters. Yet, such acts of recognition rarely extend to the acknowledgement of Indigenous leaders as environmental “governors,” exercising rights flowing from aboriginal sovereignty. Properly recognised in political terms, Indigenous governors would then be vested with the authority to manage environmental resources wisely according to scientific evidence that has been developed through ages of innovation, experimentation, and observation.ii It makes perfect sense then that Indigenous authorities should lead the way as humanity struggles to find more sustainable pathways, because Indigenous peoples already know how to govern life, lands and waters sustainably.  This obvious solution, however, appears hard to realise when Indigenous authority has been so severely impacted by settler-colonisation. In fact, settler-colonisation works specifically to erode or deny Indigenous sovereignty and settler-colonial governments rarely even imagine turning to Indigenous governments for advice and assistance in public planning or environmental policy. Indigenous political structures and processes have also, in many cases, been weakened by settler-colonisation. This has resulted in a loss of jurisdiction and less capacity for self-determination or self-government in many communities, which consequently are unable to demonstrate effective leadership for social development and environmental stewardship.

    Around the world, many Indigenous communities have begun strategic programmes of Indigenous Nation (re)building as a way of responding to these legacies of settler-colonisation in Canada, Australia, Sápmi, the United States of America, Aoearoa-New Zealand, and other occupied territories. Nation (re)building refers to: “the processes by which a Native nation enhances its own foundational capacity for effective self-governance and for self-determined community and economic development.”[iii] Nation (re)building revives the political life of an Indigenous collective in a way that matches cultural traditions while catering to contemporary political needs and aspirations. It involves an Indigenous polity raising cultural awareness and resilience amongst its citizenry, honing political structures and processes for maximum effectiveness in relevant contexts of political and economic engagement. Moving through stages of identifying, organising, and acting as a political collective, the process of nation (re)building supports a community’s leaders to act strategically and make decisions that can bring about the long-term vision of their nation. By reviving the capacity for Indigenous governments to exercise meaningful authority and expand their powers over traditional jurisdictions that have been lost through colonisation, Indigenous nation (re)building opens up pathways of exit from colonialism.

    Settlers, too, must responsibly learn how to walk these pathways collaboratively for a more general release from the colonial structures that continue to shape every aspect of post-colonial society.[iv] Ultimately, Indigenous peoples’ renewed enjoyment of political authority and expanded jurisdiction over Country allows for the firm expression of Indigenous voice in federal and international policy developments for decolonisation and sustainable environmental governance. And this offers all of humanity hope for securing the future of life on Earth.

    i See, for example: Steve Hemming, Daryle Rigney, Simone Bignall, Shaun Berg & Grant Rigney. 2019. ‘Indigenous nation building for environmental futures: Murrundi flows through Ngarrindjeri country’, Australasian Journal of Environmental Management, 26:3, 216-235.

    ii. Gregory Cajete. 2000. Native Science: Natural Laws of Interdependence. Santa Fe: Clear Light Books

    iii. Miriam Jorgensen (editor). 2007. Rebuilding Native Nations: Strategies for Governance and Development. University of Arizona Press, page xii.

    iv. Simone Bignall. 2014. ‘The Collaborative Struggle for Ex-Colonialism’, Journal of Settler-Colonial Studies, 4:4, 340-356.


    Categories: Beyond Sustainability Blog

  • Ecopsychology, Ecopsychosis, Indigenization: Reciprocal Healing Between Humans and Nature

    Creative engagement with nature is a good way to begin to address ecopsychosis

    Contributor: David Fancy

     Reciprocal healing between humans and the earth involves the simultaneous and mutually informed pursuit of human as well as wider environmental health, wellness, and renewal. In other words, human health and wellness occurs in a broader ecological and environmental context, and, for better or for worse, given the current climate crisis, ecosystem health is in many cases dependent on human’s ability to foster beneficial relationships with ecosystems.  

    Researchers have coined the term “ecopsychosis” to describe the pathological and deeply dysfunctional relationship between humans and ecosystems played out in many contemporary societies. This sickness-inducing relationship is predicated on the faulty notion that, as humans, we are somehow separate from one another and from the planet in ways that relieve us from responsibility towards one another, towards other beings, and towards the Earth. Addressing and healing pervasive ecopsychosis affecting many humans and many human cultures is central to the work of reciprocal healing, and to the continued sustainability of human life on the planet. 

    From an ecopsychological perspective, it is important to emphasize that the human psyche has emerged and developed in deep entanglement with the natural world. Humans have spent 99.97% of their existence as a species as hunter gatherers, and much of the remaining 0.3% as tribal pastoralists. Only approximately 0.0002% of our time as a species has been spent during the modern industrial and post-industrial eras in which the current ecopsychosis and separation from “nature” has come to the fore, especially for those living in the Economic North. 

    Many ecopsychologists advocate, with full recognition of the political complexities and nuance that this will entail, that humans living in the industrialized world who have benefitted the most from the exploitation of natural and human resources need to re-Indigenize their relationship with the natural world. Unlike relationships with nature in industrialized regions, Indigenous relationships with nature are often characterized by: 1) ongoing daily exposure to nature, 2) perpetual embodied relationships with nature through walking, moving, hunting and so forth, and 3) by the creation of cultural artefacts such as tools, housing, or artistic production patterned from the natural world around them.  

    Of additional significance from an ecopsychologically informed perspective is the idea that for much of human history, nature was encountered subjectively. In other words, nature was personal, was a location for the interpretation of patterns and meanings that had significance for individuals and for groups. This allowed our collective ancestry the ability to retain flexibility and resilience in a natural world marked by continuous cyclical changes. The compartmentalization and professionalization of scientific knowledge about nature in contemporary societies has contributed to the alienation many people experience in the face of the natural world. 

    How to achieve these complex connection, relation, and interrelation that are integral to the process of re-Indigenization that can help thwart the ecopsychosis fueling the climate crisis? Much research has begun to demonstrate what ancestral and Indigenous cultures already know: that time in nature reduces chronic stress, assists in emotional regulation, intensifies healthy attachment, nourishes the development of a coherent sense of self and increases respectful understanding of the natural world. Time in nature is a particularly good way to begin to address ecosychosis and the many problems it engenders in turn. 

    Categories: Beyond Sustainability Blog

  • Why the Arts are Integral to a Sustainable Future

    Ecological Art seeks to draw attention to environmental themes.
    Contributor: David Fancy 

    There are diverse ways in which the arts can be integral to a future sustainable for continued human life on earth. These may take the form of using art to draw attention to the climate crisis or art practises involving collective responses to the climate crisis. Responding to the climate crisis might also manifest as art practises imagining revolutionary and loving futures in which supremacy logic, greed, and materialism are not as central to the many human societies which they are now. One element that is shared across these approaches is the following premise: that the environmental crisis is not simply the result of scientific failure, the faults in several types of government policy or in economic practices. Instead, underpinning all these challenges is the notion that the climate crisis represents fundamental failures of imagination. These failures result from profoundly maladapted understandings of kinship and connection between human and other-than-human entities in the complex networks of which humans are embedded. In short, and in response: the arts can permit us to imagine kinship, connection, and relationship differently in such a way that can be integral to sustainable futures for humans on this planet.  

    Geoartistry explores how other-than-human entities create artistic effects.

    Although different modes of artistic creation across many cultures provide models of complex relationships between human and other-than-human, we can focus briefly here on three overall types of art practice. The first of these, broadly speaking, is Eco-Art or Ecological Art. These practices—in painting, performance, dance, installation, storytelling, or other genres—regularly seek to draw attention to environmental themes, the need for healthy ecosystems, and humans’ negative impacts on these ecosystems. For example, the Brooklyn-based group STUDIOCKA installed a towering multi-story blue whale entitled ‘Skyscraper’ made of plastic garbage in a canal in Bruges, Belgium. By using 5 tonnes of recovered materials collected from shorelines around the world, the artist collective foregrounded that this amount of plastic represents only 0.00000003 % of the estimated total amount of plastic on shorelines around the world.1  

    A second type of practice falls under the rubric of Nature Art, in which natural materials are used to draw attention to their beauty and  encourage the awareness of subtle interconnections between human and natural expression. Andy Goldsworthy’s often sprawling nature installations in the English countryside2 or Anna Rakitina’s paintings of the human body as they map on floral or other forms of patterning3 are excellent examples of Nature Art. In many ways Nature Art is by no means a new phenomenon; many forms of Indigenous expression have existed before Nature Art emerged as a category from creative practices in the Economic North. 

    A third category of practice can be described as geoartistry, or the recognition that natural systems may also generate aesthetic effects and sensations not simply for the purposes of human enjoyment, but for their own sake, or for the enjoyment of other non-human animals and entities. Geoartistry serves as an invitation to help humans move beyond their species narcissism and to wonder: do other creatures experience beauty, do other species generate aesthetic experience for its own sake?  

    Each of these modes of creation—from Eco-Art, Nature Art, Geoartistry, and beyond—are all part of the work of creating a new earth and a new people to come. 


    Duncan, R. (2018). Systemic Thinking and Imagination in Ecopsychology and Mental Health. Routledge. NY. 

    Categories: Beyond Sustainability Blog

  • Earth: Human’s most misused relationship? 

    Photo caption: Environmental Sustainability Students stand in the healing garden at the Niagara-on-the-Lake campus of Niagara College, at the foot of the Niagara Escarpment Biosphere. 

    Contributor: Cassandra Carlson  

    How does one heal oneself? Whether it be a physical, mental, or spiritual injury, the only one that can truly heal ourselves is us. You can be prescribed medication by a doctor, for example, but if you do not take it, you will not get better. We are responsible for our own happiness, and thus, need to find and use our own tools to combat the difficulties of everyday life.  

    In today’s society, humans are sharing knowledge and producing opportunities at a far greater rate than ever before. At the same time, there is an increasing level of both supply and demand, in many fields, that is  becoming unsustainable. The rise of urbanization and industrialization, and continuous technological and medical advancements, seem to imply that humans are increasing the tools available to combat everyday difficulties. The solution to solving our everyday problems may not be creating new tools, however. The solution may instead lie in re-examining how we can use the tools we already have to the greatest effectiveness. Maybe it is more accurate to say that “we’re given the tools to achieve happiness, it is up to us how we use them”. With that in mind, it can be argued that the greatest tool of all—Earth—is often the tool that is most ignored.  

    Healing Gardens are one of many tools used in Indigenous practices to promote greater health and wellbeing for both people and the Earth. Not only do plants provide a variety of beneficial medicinal uses, but healing gardens also act as an open space for worship, thinking, and self-reflection. The combination of connecting to the Earth and the benefits of the various plants within the garden provide the potential for people to gain great improvements to their physical, mental, and spiritual health. Land is also very important in Indigenous culture and holds a special connection to healing and overall wellbeing. The idea of respect and treating others the way you would want to be treated is the key feature between the relationship of land and human health. Is it a coincidence that as global climate change is on the rise, so too are levels of stress, anxiety, and general distress? From a Westernized perspective, this connection may never be examined. In an Indigenous worldview, however, it is ever so clear.  

    Compared to a Westernized perspective, Indigenous mental health revolves around a holistic approach, where all spiritual, mental, and physical aspects of the individual’s current situation are intertwined. For example, improving cultural pride, self-esteem and interpersonal relationships has been shown to increase the resilience and wellbeing of many youth. A focus on the land-health connection has also been shown to provide many benefits to those who lack access to relevant mental health resources due to barriers in location, understanding and availability. Ideologically speaking, a problem that exists in the human mind probably has a solution that can be found in nature. . . Not only can Indigenous land-based programs provide the same, if not better, benefits than  Western medicine,  these programs are also  more widely available to different demographics of people. Why then, are they not more popular? The  answer could be rooted in colonialism. 

    Indigenous peoples have a historical level of mistrust of the Canadian government, and the practices it embodies. Understanding and accurately using land-based programs goes beyond having an uncomfortable conversation about the effects and involvements of colonial trauma and genocide and environmental protection. These conversations need to extend toward an acceptance of a “I scratch your back, you scratch mine” relationship between Earth and Human. For example, children should not just be taught to reduce, reuse, and recycle, but rather, should be encouraged to develop a personal connection to the Earth, to gain a greater appreciation and respect for the gifts that Earth provides.  

    How do we do this? As an Indigenous person myself, I believe the best way to learn is through the sharing of stories, listening to a variety of perspectives, and self-reflecting on different ways to integrate new ideas, opinions, or narratives. Our voices are  powerful, but what is even more powerful is our ability to listen and   relate to others. We need to respect and learn from the stories of others so that we have an integrated understanding and appreciation of the human experience. 

    Categories: Beyond Sustainability Blog