“Sustainability is about our relationships”
Why aren’t leaders or citizens doing enough to address the climate crisis? One answer is that an outer transformation of politics, technologies and behaviours is not enough. According to researchers, we also need to be aware of the inner causes of the crisis.
“Climate change is due to a crisis in our relationships with ourselves, each other and nature,” says Pprofessor Christine Wamsler of Lund University.
An interest in inner transformation is growing. This year, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) along with the UN Development Programme and European Parliament have stressed that an inner transition must be linked to the outer one.
“The way we think and take action around sustainability has reached the end of the road,” Wamsler says. “One important reason is that the vast majority of sustainability scholarship, education and practice has, so far, only focused on the external world: ecosystems, socio-economic structures and technology. But in reality, it is our ways of thinking and being as individuals and as collectives that are the root causes of the catastrophic changes we are seeing today.”
In recently published studies, Wamsler, together with Jamie Bristow from the Mindfulness Initiative, describe how people’s inner lives are connected to environmental and social sustainability in four different ways.
Political space for action is shrinking
First, according to the researchers, sustainability crises make us feel bad. Climate anxiety, worrying, a sense of powerlessness, guilt, burnout and other forms of mental illness are on the rise in the wake of the climate crisis.
And second, several patterns of thought exist that are preventing us from taking action on climate change. For example, cognitive bias, our brain’s attempt to simplify information processing, can cause our thinking to become polarised or short-sighted. To avoid anxiety, we may blame others or deny the climate crisis. And when our instinctive fight or flight response is triggered, we become less empathetic, more extremist, and more likely to think in terms of us-versus-them.
“All of this ultimately reduces the political space for collective action on climate change,” Wamsler says
A vicious cycle
The third way, how we think as individuals and collectively, is also a major cause of the climate crisis. According to Wamsler, countries like Sweden have a view of life that values individualism and independence above all, where nature is seen as an object and a resource for people to exploit. As an example, she points out that our use of technology is governed by the GDP, not by values and capacities like kindness and compassion, and that this can lead to environmental degradation and exploitation.
“Instead, we need to feel that we are deeply connected with and depend on everything living on earth,” Wamsler says. “This would reduce the exploitation that lies behind both social and environmental injustices and increase care for people and nature.”
The fourth aspect is that these three ways risk leading to a vicious cycle. The worse we feel, the less we can be bothered to engage in change. In the worst case, the consequences will have directly negative implications for the planet.
“For example, if we try to reduce our climate anxiety by going on a shopping spree – not entirely uncommon in Sweden today – it drives unsustainable consumption and resource use,” Wamsler says.
An opportunity for holistic learning
In an article and a report, the researchers also offer a number of specific suggestions on how we can transition from a vicious to a virtuous cycle. On an individual and collective level, they propose spaces, learning environments and practices that can support people’s inner capacities to connect with themselves, others and nature.
For example, both schools and the healthcare system could enable people to devote themselves more to holistic learning with the help of artistic and contemplative practices, such as training in mindfulness and compassion.
“These capacities help us to self-reflect and deal with worries and grief, and they also nourish positive emotions and capacities such as social connection, care, hope and courage that are critical in the collective response to the climate crisis.”
According to Wamsler, the connection between our inner transition and sustainability must also be managed more systematically at the policy and institutional level, such as linking sustainability efforts and inner transformations in policymakers’ goals, budgets and approaches.
Shaking up the established system
Wamsler emphasises that her and her co-authors’ work is about integrating both inner and outer changes at the individual, collective and systemic levels. Inner transformation is not navel-gazing, but a necessary part of shaping more sustainable cultures and systems.
“It shows that individual, collective and planetary health and well-being are deeply interconnected.”
The authors hope that their research will shake up the prevailing system and thus contribute to more impactful ways of addressing the climate crisis.
“Understanding the intersection between mind and climate change shows that sustainability crises are inherently about how we relate to ourselves, each other and the environment. Changing the way we engage with each of these relationships can help bend our story towards a more sustainable path.”
THE MINDFULNESS INITIATIVE
The Mindfulness Initiative was founded in 2013 to support British politicians who wanted to introduce mindfulness in their policymaking. Its partners include British universities and non-profit associations that carry out research, educational initiatives and other work around mindfulness.
Mindfulness, or attentiveness to the present moment, has been a central practice in many spiritual and religious traditions for thousands of years and has had an impact in the global North through healthcare. It is an inherent human ability that helps us to be intentionally present in the moment with an attitude that is open, curious and caring.
Source: Christine Wamsler
Article by Christine Wamsler and Jamie Bristow on why inner transformation is important in relation to the climate crisis: Wamsler, C., Bristow, J. (2022). At the intersection of mind and climate change: integrating inner dimensions of climate change into policymaking and practice, Climatic Change, 173(7).
Report on the potential for mindfulness and compassion: Bristow, J., Bell, R., Wamsler, C. (2022). Reconnection – Meeting the climate crisis inside-out, policy report, The Mindfulness Initiative & LUCSUS.
More about the research project
More about Christine Wamsler’s work
A new report for the United Nations Development Programme: Wamsler C., Bristow J., Cooper K., Steidle G., Taggart S., Søvold L., Bockler J., Oliver T.H., Legrand T. (2022). Theoretical Foundations Report: Research and evidence for the potential of consciousness approaches and practices to unlock sustainability and systems transformation. Report of the UNDP Conscious Food Systems Alliance (CoFSA), United Nations Development Programme UNDP.