Applied Ecopsychology in Australia: Approaches to Facilitating Human-Nature Connections
by Rosemary Baillie

The world is in an increasing state of ecological crisis and this has provoked a search for ways of achieving ecological sustainability. One approach to the search for solutions is to explore the relationship between people and the natural environment (eg. Roszak, Gomes & Kanner, 1995). Many theorists believe that modern humans are separated from the natural world at both a psychological and cultural level (Scull, 2002). This disconnection from nature has been postulated as a root cause of environmentally-destructive behaviour (eg. Scull, 2002). The current research will explore the theory of the human-nature connection, and the approaches being used in Australia to address these issues. It will focus specifically on how the spiritual and social dimensions of the human-nature connection are conceptualised and applied.

Research Aims
The aim of the present research is to examine some approaches used by Australians to facilitate human-nature connections. I will compare, analyse and contrast the various approaches, with a focus on the social and sacred aspects of the human-nature connection. I will also examine evidence of the outcomes of these programs in terms of environmental attitudes and behaviour, and in regenerating a sense of the social and sacred in nature. It is hoped that this research will illuminate some of the theoretical issues already discussed in the debate over the human-nature connection. In so doing, it is hoped that the findings will indicate future directions for applied ecopsychology practices in Australia.

To approach this research I decided to do an initial survey of the literature to define the human-nature connection and to explore the applications of theory to practices designed to reconnect people with nature. This provided me with a broad overview of the area.

The second stage of the research involved doing a survey of the people and programs in Australia which were actively seeking to facilitate human-nature connections. This survey process was done through the Internet and through using my personal networks to collect information. This is a process I have worked on for many years. The results provided a strong sense of the categories of approaches being used in Australia to facilitate human-nature connections.

The third phase of the present research focussed on selecting a few examples of people and programs operating in Australia who are actively seeking to facilitate human-nature connections. I approached this phase by interviewing one representative for each category of nature-connecting approaches. The sampling method was partially based on convenience in terms of ease of access. Each representative selected was considered to be an authority or leader in their role. I used a standard set of eight questions to interview the candidates. The interviews were done either in person, over the telephone or via e-mail. The responses to the interviews were compared and contrasted to look for patterns and differences in approaches. The responses were also analysed with respect to the theoretical background of the human-nature connection.


Phase 1: Literature survey of the Theoretical Background

1.0 Defining the Human-Nature connection
In common discourse the words “connecting with nature” are bandied around haphazardly, so it is important to define what the nature of this connection is. The discipline of Ecopsychology provides a framework with which to view the human-nature connection. Ecopsychology is a form of radical environmental philosophy which originated in response to growing concern over the global environmental crisis and provides a psychological theory of the relationship between humans and the natural environment, and the practical implications of this relationship (Bragg, 1995). Ecopsychology claims that the psychological and cultural roots of the environmental crisis lie in the separation or disconnection of humans from nature. (Bragg, 1995).

Various models of the human-nature connection have been proposed by ecopsychology (Scull, 2002). For example, Roszak (1992) has suggested that there is an “ecological unconscious” which lies dormant in all of us, and can be awakened. Similarly, the Biophilia Hypothesis recognises that people have an inbuilt affiliation for nature (Wilson, 1975). Sewall (1995) has suggested that our sensory capacities (taste, sight, hearing, smell and touch) are the keys that underlie the human-nature connection, and the numbing of perception is what has created the human-nature disconnection. A major focus of many ecopsychology theories is that the human-nature connection is a reflection of an individual’s sense of self, or self-concept. Thus the human-nature connection is viewed from a psycho-spiritual perspective with the focus of the connection at the level of the individual.

1.1 Psycho-spiritual connection
A central feature of ecopsychology is the notion of “ecological self”. This term was first used in the field of radical environmental philosophy known as "deep ecology" (Naess, 1985). The ecological self has been defined as " a wide, expansive or field-like sense of self, which ultimately includes all life-forms, ecosystems and the planet itself" (Bragg, 1996, p. 100).. This self-concept is one of connectedness with the rest of the natural world (Markus & Kitayama, 1991).

The human-nature disconnection of the industrialised world is seen as a consequence of the dominant conceptualisation of self in Western psychology as that of the self-contained, self-concerned, unique individual (Gergen, 1985). The notion of an independent self is part of a Cartesian, dualistic philosophical tradition that characterises Western thinking, in which the self is separated from the object and from the natural world (Markus & Kitayama, 1991).

Ecopsycholgy thus views the human-nature connection as a psychospiritual consequence of an individual’s self-concept. The construct of ecological self has been deconstructed to highlight the defining features of such a self-concept, and to elucidate the process by which ecological self may form.

1.3 The process of human-nature connection
Fox (1995) regarded ecological self-concept as arising from a natural (spontaneous) psychological response to the fact that people are inherently biological organisms functioning as parts of larger systems. Fox postulates three different bases of ecological identification:
1. Personal identification arises from a sense of commonality with other entities that arises from personal involvement with these entities.
2. Ontological identification is brought about through spiritual realisation of commonality.
3. Cosmological identification arises from the incorporation of any worldview that sees the world as a single unfolding process.

In defining ecological self, Bragg (1995) has also alluded to the underlying aspects of identification. Fox's cosmological identification corresponds to Bragg's notion of a cognitive component of ecological self which is a conceptual understanding of the interdependence between self and the natural environment. Fox's personal and ontological identification are analogous to Bragg's (1995) notion of an emotional, spiritual and sensory understanding of connection with nature.

Winter (1996) has also recognised distinct aspects of the shift to a nature-connected ecological self-awareness. She identifies the three components of the shift as: 1) a conceptual/cognitive shift; 2) a perceptual/sensory shift; and; 3) a spiritual shift.

1.4 Sociocultural context of the human-nature connection
The conceptualisation of the human-nature connection in terms of ecological self-concept reflects the view that the human-nature connection operates at a personal, individual level. An alternative, or complementary, perspective views the human-nature connection in the context of the larger culture or society (Scull, 2002). Thus the forces of economics, education, consumption and other social factors come into play to influence a whole culture’s experience of connection with nature. People attempting to create a stronger link between nature and culture are working at a higher level of focus than the psychological techniques previously discussed which are focussed on the individual.

2.0 The origins of disconnection
There have been numerous theories which claim to identify the origin of the disconnection between people and nature (Scull, 2002). Historical and prehistoric accounts of the human-nature relationship approach the disconnection from a socio-cultural perspective. These theories allude to a time when human communities lived in a close connection with the natural world. There are various views that either agricultural development, language, rationalism, urban development, Christianity, or the industrial revolution led to a separation of humans from the natural world (eg. Winter, 1996; Shepard, 1992; Cohen, 1997). Some theorists believe that proximate causes such as advertising and economic incentives separate humans from nature (Scull,2002). Other accounts suggest that the human-nature connection is not just something that was lost through history, but actually is a higher state that we are evolving towards (eg. Wilber, 1996).

Other accounts of the disconnection refer to the individual level of disconnection. For example, Cohen (1995) claims that "citizens of western civilisation spend an average of over 95 percent of their lives indoors, cloistered from nature". Thus, the absence of direct sensory contact with nature is seen as the origin of individual’s disconnection from nature. Similarly, Sewall (1995) postulates that the numbing of perception has occurred in the modern world and we have lost this basic sensory link to nature. The sociobiological view of the human-nature disconnection is that it is human nature to be psychologically separated from nature (Scull, 2002).

3.0 Facilitating human-nature connection
From the theories of our psychospiritual and sociocultural disconnection from nature, it follows that it may be possible to facilitate the reestablishment of human-nature connections. It is in this context that the theories are relevant: to the extent that the theory can inform attempts to reconnect people to nature. Applied ecopsychology is the field which attempts to develop methods which can reconnect people with nature (Scull, 2001). As has been discussed above, there are various conceptualisations of the human-nature connection, and these are reflected in the numerous approaches being applied to reconnect people with nature. The practices being developed and used reflect both psychospiritual and sociocultural perspectives.

3.1 What are the practices which reconnect?

Across the different theoretical positions, most agree that direct experience of nature is a key method for facilitating human-nature connections. The direct experience of nature is seen as a way to enhance sensory awareness (eg. Cohen, 1995) and increase aesthetic appreciation (eg. Winter 1996). Tied in closely with these direct experiences of nature are techniques which facilitate openness to the environment. These techniques include mindfulness through silence, meditations, and structured sensory activities.

Other methods for reconnecting people with nature include rituals such as seasonal celebrations, singing, and specially designed workshops which facilitate personal transformation and increase awareness of ecological interconnectedness.

4.0 The consequences of human-nature connection
A key claim of radical environmental philosophy is that a strong relationship with nature gives rise to a motivation towards environmentally responsible behaviour (eg. Mathews, 1991; Roszak, 1995). The specific claim is that if individuals experience a more expansive sense of self which incorporates the entire ecological system of the Earth, there will be a spontaneous behavioural response of defending and nurturing the ecological system out of "self-interest". In this sense environmental ethics becomes superfluous: individuals with a sense of ecological self would take care of the natural environment not out of moral pressure, but simply out of a sense of "self" defence (Fox, 1990).

Ecopsychology theory also suggests that building human-nature connections leads to improved human well-being in terms of spiritual, emotional and mental health outcomes (Roszak, 1995).

Phase 2 Results: A Survey of Australian Approaches

From my survey of programs and practices being used in Australia to facilitate human-nature connections, there emerged several categories of approaches. Presented below are the results of this survey, listing each category and outlining how each approach aims to facilitate human-nature connections. As part of this survey, I have reflected on the social and spiritual dimensions of these nature-connecting approaches.

Vision quests
I came across a few organisations in Australia which offer vision quest programs. These programs involve solo retreat in nature, with ritual, fasting and meditation used as a tool for personal transformation and connection with nature. There is an explicitly spiritual element in these programs, and the support and sharing of a group is an important aspect of the experience.

Wilderness therapy/ ecotherapy/nature-guided therapy

There are numerous programs in Australia which focus on achieving therapeutic outcomes by exposing people to nature. Although the focus is on the therapy, the human-nature connection is viewed as a "bonus" outcome. In most programs the group participates in some form of expedition in nature, and the social aspects of being in nature are considered as integral to the program. The spiritual is viewed from the perspective of the individual’s personal journey to wholeness. The nature-guided therapy approach takes a more individual focus, where nature activities are prescribed to achieve mental health outcomes.

Environmental education and interpretation programs
There are innumerable environmental education programs in Australia, and the ones of most interest in this survey were the programs which explicitly seek to deepen the relationship between people and the natural world. These programs focus on building emotional, conceptual and spiritual bonds with nature. This is done mainly through experiential learning using activities such as sensory experiences in nature, solo time, and concept discovery activities. Much of the learning is done in the group context. The spiritual dimension of interconnectedness with all life is emphasised.

There are many forms of ecotourism in Australia, and the survey found that some ecotourism companies in Australia are explicitly seeking to restore connections between people and the land. These companies tend to have a strong spiritual focus, and use processes such as ritual, seasonal celebrations, meditations and visits to sacred sites to facilitate human-nature connections. They often introduce concepts of traditional indigenous wisdom as a model for understanding the land and connecting with it. The role of the group is an important aspect of the connections formed with the land.

Neopagan gatherings
There are many neopagan groups in Australia, including druid groves, Wiccan covens, and shamanic groups. These groups vary from traditional orientations to more fluid, less-structured practices. There is also a varying degree to which the groups explicitly seek to facilitate human-nature connections. Some groups perform rituals in natural settings, whereas others practice indoors. Most groups claim that nature is a focus of their practices, but this is not always apparent from their practices. The processes used to facilitate connections with nature include ritual, chanting, seasonal celebrations, rites of passage and initiation. The spiritual is often viewed as nature itself, so the process of connecting with nature is seen as inherently spiritual. The group is also a key element in facilitating connection with nature, as the group provides the context for ritual and the shared understandings of the significance and sacredness of nature.

Land restoration programs
Of the numerous land restoration programs in Australia, some explicitly seek to foster a sense of stewardship for the natural environment. The direct experience of working in and for nature provides the context for facilitating human-nature connections. Many of these programs build a sense of community by involving local volunteers. The spiritual aspect of the connection is not emphasised.

Community environmental festivals
Community festivals with an environmental theme are becoming increasingly popular in Australia. They provide an opportunity to connect the wider community to the natural environment through raising awareness of issues and highlighting natural values. The methods used to achieve this include dance, drama, educational displays, music and workshops. The social element of coming together in celebration and concern for nature is an important aspect of these festivals. Some festivals incorporate explicitly spiritual messages about nature, whereas others allow the spiritual to emerge naturally from participants’ personal experience of the event.

Deep ecology workshops
Deep ecology processes have been designed specifically to help people to experience their connection with the natural world and to release despair feelings to give way to empowerment towards environmental action. In Australia, there are increasing numbers of workshops which employ these processes. The practices include meditations, group rituals and awareness activities, direct sensory experiences in nature and emotional release techniques. It has been found that the power of the small group is one of the keys to the success of deep ecology processes. (Bragg 1995). The spiritual dimension to these workshops is usually explicit, in that spirituality is viewed as the experience of one’s interconnectedness with nature.

Nature Meditations
Nature meditations can take the form of mindfulness practices performed in natural settings to open one’s senses to the natural environment; or visualisation meditations which have nature as a subject of the meditations. The spiritual dimension of connection with nature is emphasised in the visualisation meditation, as it is believed that one can connect spiritually with nature even when one is not physically in direct sensory contact with nature. This belief also extends to the view that "healing energy" can be sent to the earth through visualisation meditations. This has led to the formation of numerous "earth healing" groups who gather for group meditations.

Prayer and religion
Some religions use teachings from their traditions to teach environmental responsibility and ecospirituality. This is done through private retreats and group tours in natural settings. Prayer is a technique which encourages gratitude for nature, which can also facilitate human-nature connections. At a cultural level of the human-nature connection, religious teachings have potential to create shifts in consciousness by alluding to the interconnectedness of all life, the sacredness of all life and our ecological and moral responsibilities.

Creative arts
Art, music, dance, theatre and writing all have the potential to affect the larger consciousness of society. In Australia, various artists are using their talents to communicate messages about natural values and the importance of the human-nature connection. Through their crafts, artists can inspire new values in society, and remind us of the importance of nature. They can highlight a spiritual view of the human-nature relationship.

Natural therapies
Natural therapists remind us that we are essentially of nature, and that living in close relationship with nature is good for us. Thus natural therapists can influence at a cultural level, as well as the individual level of lifestyle.

Environmental activist groups
Environmental activist groups encourage a stronger human-nature connection through raising awareness of natural values and the interrelationships between human health and the environment. Thus their circle of influence extends to whole societies. Some groups may articulate a spiritual dimension to their work, but this is mostly covert and personal.

Voluntary simplicity movement/ lifestyle movements
Some believe that the best way to connect with nature is to live an ecologically-sustainable lifestyle. These people promote such lifestyles by leading by example and raising awareness, as well as seeking social change to alter fundamental social structures and thus assist others to live ecologically.

Phase 3 Results: Interviews

There were a total of nine interviews completed. The people selected for interview represent a range of approaches to facilitating human-nature connections. The participants were:
1. An environmental educator
2. A spiritual ecotourism guide
3. A meditation teacher
4. A revegetation specialist
5. A natural therapist
6. The coordinator of a Druid grove
7. A visual artist
8. The coordinator of an environmental activist group
9. A cultural analyst and lifestyle designer

Each interviewee was asked eight questions. The results of the interviews are compared and contrasted below, one question at a time.

1. How do you conceptualise the human-nature connection?

This question was asked to achieve an understanding of the interviewee’s theoretical framework. There was a strong theme that "we are a part of nature" from the environmental educator, the cultural analyst, natural therapist and revegetation specialist. The cultural analyst emphasised that we exist in relationship to nature as a part to a whole, drawing on Systems Theory as an explanatory tool.

In contrast, the Druid coordinator expressed the idea that we are nature (ie. ecological self-concept). There was also a theme of the reciprocity between humans and nature with respect to our actions. This was expressed by the activist, the artist, the environmental educator and the revegetation specialist and natural therapist. All interviewees acknowledged that the human-nature connection is an inherent aspect of being human. The cultural analyst alluded to the choice that humans have to either align with nature, or to live in imbalance. The meditation teacher feels that some people are more in touch with a connection that is latent in other humans. All interviewees seemed to agree that it was possible to build a stronger or deeper conscious connection with nature.

2. Do you believe spirituality or the sacred is an aspect of this connection? Please explain.

This question was asked to identify interviewee’s interpretations of the spiritual, and how this comes into play in the human-nature relationship. All participants except for the activist felt that the spiritual was a very important aspect of the connection. The activist did not deny a spiritual aspect, but saw this as an abstraction and therefore as less important than more concrete realities. His view of spirituality reflected a theme of human’s ethical responsibility toward nature. The environmental educator, the natural therapist and the regeneration specialist also highlighted the theme of ethical responsibility. The artist added to this theme by commenting on the importance of respect and gratitude in the human-nature relationship.

The relationship between humans and nature was viewed as inherently sacred by most of the interviewees. The Druid and environmental educator stressed that everything is sacred, thus this includes our relationship with nature. The meditation teacher and artist both highlighted the sacredness of the earth as a living conscious being, and the inherent spiritual nature of humans. The cultural analyst related to the spiritual in terms of one’s experience of expansion in consciousness when one is connected with nature. Similarly, the ecotourism guide expressed that the experience of "oneness" with nature is inherently spiritual.

3. Could you briefly describe the practices you employ or promote which you believe can facilitate people’s connections with nature?

This question allowed for an insight into the general approach used to facilitate human-nature connections. All interviewees agreed that the work they do aims to strengthen human-nature connections. The responses to this question varied greatly between interviewees as they were chosen to represent a diversity of approaches. The main themes emerging reflect approaches that operate either at the level of the individual or at the level of the culture, or on both levels.

The activist views his role as using non-violent actions to increase awareness of nature and to break down "the false reality of the consumer paradigm". Thus he is operating at a large scale of influence. The cultural analyst is also working at a high scale level to influence greater cultural systems. He sees his work as inspiring social change through inviting people to develop ecological lifestyles in nature and in small communities, thus promoting an alternative to the urban-industrial consumer lifestyle.

The artist uses her photographs and poetry to influence individuals. She uses images of nature as a metaphor for human experience and to allude to the spirituality inherent in nature and our interconnectedness with nature. She also does talks and discussions to encourage awareness of our nature connections. The regeneration specialist works with volunteers in planting programs, thus providing opportunity for participants to directly experience nature with their senses and to increase their ecological awareness.

The natural therapist uses massage, essential oils and meditation and relaxation techniques to facilitate clients’ connections with their own bodies, and hence with their nature-connectedness. Natural bodywork and relaxation techniques are also used by the ecotourism guide, along with direct sensory experiences in nature, including visiting sacred sites.

The meditation teacher uses guided visualisations to connect people with nature and also encourages people to tune in to nature using repetitive drumming, looking for natural signs, and holding ritualistic gatherings to mark natural events such as full-moon. Likewise, the Druid also facilitates ritual gatherings and meditations in nature, with an emphasis on encouraging listening to nature, both physically and spiritually.

4. How do your practices facilitate human-nature connection? ie: what are the key elements or tools, which forge connections between people and nature?

This question aimed to identify common elements, which create connections. All interviewees commented that sensory experience of nature was important for forging connections. In some cases this was direct experience in nature, as with the regeneration work, ecotourism, rituals and meditations in nature, and environmental education. The artist sees her work as stimulating the senses with images of nature. The cultural analyst views direct contact with nature as a way to promote a love for nature and hence a desire to live ecologically. A similar theme that emerged was the importance of connecting with the physical body to deepen our connection with nature, as stated by the natural therapist and the ecotourism guide.

In many cases, the importance of creating an emotional response through nature was recognised. The environmental educator uses activities to enhance emotional responses; the artist inspires with her images and words; the cultural analyst sees emotional shifts as the key to changing behaviours; the ecotourism guide emphasises the importance of the feelings of his participants, particularly of relaxation and safety.

Conceptual understanding and increased awareness of nature was considered important by the activist, the regeneration specialist and the artist. The meditator and the Druid both drew attention to the importance of drawing awareness to natural cycles and signs through observing nature.

5. What is the role of nature in the practices you use to connect people with nature?

All interviewees identified that nature has an integral role to play in the human-nature connection. Nature is seen as the vehicle of inspiration by the artist, the environmental educator, the activist and the regeneration specialist. Nature reflects our experiences (ecotourism guide) and is a teacher (activist). Nature guides us in our practices (Druid and meditation teacher).

6. What is the role of the social in the practices you use to connect people with nature?

All interviewees stressed the importance of the social in facilitating human-nature connections. The most common theme was the importance of sharing for validating personal experience and learning from each other (Druid, environmental educator, artist, regeneration specialist, and ecotourism). The importance of a sense of belonging was also recognised (meditation). The social is seen by some as the domain in which their influence can be expressed. Social change manifests through communication, shared understandings and education of the many (activist, cultural analyst).

7. What is the role of the sacred or spiritual in the practices you use to connect people with nature?

All respondents recognised a role for the sacred or spiritual in facilitating connections. Some saw spirituality as a key for raising awareness and shifting behaviour and attitudes (cultural analyst, artist, activist). The sacred was described as emerging from one’s service for the environment (meditation teacher, activist, and regeneration specialist). For some, the spiritual was seen as permeating their practices as a core component of the human-nature connection (Druid). The environmental educator and artist both aimed to assist people to recognise the spiritual in nature. Some emphasised the importance of allowing people to discover their own interpretations of the spiritual, rather than forcing interpretations on people (artist, meditation teacher, and ecotourism guide).

8. What do you know or believe are the outcomes of your practices?

Iinterviewees had varying degrees of insight regarding the effects of their practices on people and the environment. One common theme was the increased awareness of the natural world. The environmental educator, natural therapist and artist believe their work has facilitated increased spiritual and emotional awareness of nature. The activist believes that people derive a greater conceptual awareness of nature. The ecotourism guide has observed that people are more clear, vital and purposeful, and that this change in people leads to flow on effects energetically to the environment.
In terms of environmental behaviours and attitudes, there was noticeably scarce evidence of any effects. Most interviewees believe that their practices should theoretically lead to behaviour changes, but few know this with certainty. The environmental educator claimed he had had feedback regarding children adopting more environmental behaviours.

The literature review revealed that there are various models and theories which aim to account for the human-nature connection. This undoubtedly reflects the complexity and multidimensionality of of the human-nature connection. Thus it follows that approaches addressing the healing of our disconnection from nature will reflect this diversity and complexity.

The results of the survey of Australian approaches to connecting people with nature revealed a variety of techniques aimed at facilitating connections, These approaches can be grouped into categories and then further grouped into "levels of analysis, or target audiences". Thus some approaches focus on the psychological and spiritual dimensions of reconnecting individuals to nature (the theoretical psychospiritual dimension); whereas other approaches focus on a larger scale of social change (the theoretical sociocultural dimension) to address the disconnection. The approaches surveyed recognise the spiritual and the social as having varying degrees of importance in creating human-nature connections.

The interview results reflected a small sample of contrasting approaches to creating human-nature connections. The results reflect a diversity of conceptualisations of the human-nature relatioship, yet a common belief that the connection can and needs to be enhanced. All interviewees recognised the role of spirituality and the social in facilitating human-nature connections. For some, these were crucial aspects, whereas others did not prioritise their importance. This was particularly true for the spiritual dimension, which was viewed by some as the fundamental basis for their practice, whereas others viewed spirituality as abstract and less significant. Virtually all practices recognised that the social dimension of the human-nature connection was one of the main catalysts for the connection process. It was possible to identify the key features of the practices, namely the power of the social group, sensory contact with nature, emotional and spiritual shifts and conceptual shifts. There was a marked lack of evidence that these nature connecting programs are achieving results, although all interviewees believed this to be the case.

Overall, the results of the present research indicate the need for further research to clarify the links between theory and practice of the human-nature connection, and most importantly to evaluate the program outcomes. The results here suggest that the approaches may well achieve good results, but there is a need to learn from the diversity of approaches and exchange insights. For example, there is a disagreement on relative importance of spirituality in the programs, and this needs to be addressed so that programs may be modified accordingly to achieve optimum results. Some programs may also benefit from harnessing the power of the social group to accelerate change. What is needed is a structured model of the processes of connecting and how the key elements of this process can be harnessed. This model should also allow for the diversity and complexity of the human-nature connection. In this way, there can be a coordinated and integrated but flexible response to healing the split between humans and nature.

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