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Environmental Gratitude and Ecological Action

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Developing a sense of deep gratitude for our natural environment may be the best means of spurring the required action to live within its boundariesEnvironmental gratitude is an approach that can help to inspire ecological action. We need a new way of communicating the urgency of environmental action because it is becoming increasingly apparent that standard fact-based approaches are not getting through.

Environmental gratitude encompasses an approach that engenders a full compliment of sentiments required to augur change. As reported in Psychology Today, gratitude is a complex feeling that is capable of expanding our awareness and relating us to the wider world.

The importance of gratitude to the ecological movement is reviewed in great depth in a 2011 paper by Reed Elizabeth Loder, titled “Gratitude and the Environment: Toward Individual and Collective Virtue.” Professor Loder is an accomplished ethicist who teaches at Vermont Law School.

Defining gratitude

Loder’s paper systematically explores environmental gratitude, which she defines as:

“[A] finely tuned propensity to notice and feel grateful for one’s surroundings on a regular basis, which generates pervasive attitudes of concern for planetary welfare and commitment to contribute ecological benefits to the extent of one’s ability.”

Loder’s thesis is that individuals can cultivate environmental gratitude, which can help inform and motivate people to act.

She points out that the prevailing Western notion of gratitude is often characterized by a response to benefits bestowed by a benefactor. By contrast, a person who experiences “unattached” or “free-floating gratitude” is not beholden to particular benefactors and never runs out of motivation or ways to give back.

Environmental gratitude is more diffuse than most traditional forms of gratitude; it does not require mutual intentionality. A person may feel personally blessed by the very existence of the natural world. She may also feel graced by species connection and participation in larger nature.

“Environmental gratitude is a rich and complex moral response. It can evolve from fleeting feelings into a sustaining personal and public virtue…At its most varied and familiar best, environmental gratitude permeates overall attitudes and dispositions and commits environmentally grateful people to creative thinking about environmental problems. In its most diffuse forms, environmental gratitude percolates into character and becomes a way of seeing and responding.”

Psychological attributes of environmental gratitude

Environmental gratitude is intimately connected to reflection and wisdom. One of the most prescient attributes associated with environmental gratitude is receptivity to the facts.

“Knowledge acquisition which is pragmatic in the environmentally virtuous person who is motivated to work on solutions, and habituated to assess and revise personal attitudes and conduct in keeping with progressing understanding.”

In addition to a fact-based appreciation of the world people who experience environmental gratitude are morally concerned and intrinsically motivated to act responsibly. Such individuals deeply mourn ecological destruction and actively strive to preserve nature’s diversity.

“She is disposed to experience environmental losses and suffer shame for human inflicted damage. She is likely to feel personal guilt for deviations in personal habits, like laziness about consumptive temptations. She is resolved to correct faults and work toward more widespread improvements at the community, societal, and even global levels when her capacities permit.”

Hope is a crucial psychological element that is conducive to environmental action. Environmental gratitude lends itself to a hopeful disposition as well as sensitivities that capably engage the wider world.

“She is hopeful about the legacy of current humans while avoiding complacency about success. She recognizes the constraints of culture and individual capacity. She finds ways to establish environmental priorities while remaining open to other meaningful projects. She recognizes that environmental evangelism can alienate others and be counter-productive. She persuades with sensitivity and engages in self-reflection after open dialogue.”

Environmental gratitude also relates to other important attitudes like humility, caring, courage, and wisdom, all of which are necessary for bringing about the kind of changes we need to see.

Environmental ethics challenge the anthropocentric view that nature exists for human purposes, and resists the idea that environmental value must be measured in human terms. This view sees nature has having intrinsic value apart from its usefulness to people. It is a refutation of human superiority and centrality.

Social Factors

Loder argues that ecological action does not depend on widespread agreement. We should attribute value to environmental activism even though we lack consensus. Notorious ethical lapses like slavery and genocide clearly illustrate how prevailing morality can be profoundly flawed.

Philosophy considers gratitude to be an emotion that influences moral deliberation and action. Gratitude is pervasive in religion, law, literature, psychology, sociology and biology; it is time to make it a driving force in the way we relate to each other and the Earth.

“Environmental gratitude can also infuse social institutions and influence collective aspirations and values. It can influence the attunement and collective guidance that law provides.”

Environmental Laws

Loder advocates that explicit pronouncements of gratitude should be inserted into the growing battery of national and international laws and treaties on ecological services. Laws infused with environmental gratitude would recognize and protect nature’s intangible attributes.

Loder believes that laws should acknowledge debts to the environment based on gratitude. The idea is to shift the recognition from natural qualities which are there for human benefit to acknowledge our indebtedness to the natural world. According to Loder, environmental laws can convert abstract duties into emotional involvement that can promote a sense of personal responsibility.

“Existing and new law could directly acknowledge human thanks and debts for the varied bounties of the natural world, justifying concomitant legal responsibilities of human beneficiaries. In the evolving law of ecological services, expressing gratitude could heighten public awareness of environmental values and moral responsibilities…they could remind us of our ecological dependency and encourage our respect, inching us toward appreciation of inherent environmental value.”

The law can also serve an important educative function. These laws should afford legal protections that are much more broadly based than than economics which reduce the environment to commodities.

The Economics of Ecology

Economic approaches to environmental stewardship are problematic. Loder argues that we need to go beyond our current conceptions of commerce.

Longstanding individual and institutional attitudes about the earth as a commodity has taken a toll on collective environmental character….Expressions of public gratitude could surpass ecological economics as the predominant basis for protection.”

When people receive payment for conservation, it leads to demands for compensation that tend to exceed the available financial resources. This approach can also erode laudable human attributes like generosity.

Paying owners for ecological restraint raises psychological concerns. Psychologists often refer to a phenomenon known as the “over-justification effect,” which hypothesizes that inducing a person to engage in an activity for an extrinsic goal undermines that person’s intrinsic interests. To be successful in inducing the scope of required changes, we must develop an internal ecological sensibility, not one driven solely by external factors.

Further, it is logistically difficult if not impossible to adequately enforce environmental law. While laws and enforcement will always be necessary, a more effective approach involves encouraging people to inculcate an ecological ethic which internalizes their moral obligations to the Earth.

“An emotion like gratitude seems quaint and impotent because we are so accustomed to treating our surroundings as available to us and endlessly bountiful. Expressing reasons to be grateful for natural services could at least disrupt complacency and remind us to notice the fruits of our surroundings as a first step toward accepting responsibility for their continued existence.”

Nature as teacher

Gratitude for nature as a teacher is a pervasive idea in many traditions. Gratitude can make us more receptive, which can help us to correct tendencies to see ourselves as either separate from or dominant over the natural world. Even when nature appears to turn against us, environmental gratitude can help us to understand that these forces that harm human interests (e.g. extreme weather) are actually opportunities to grow our awareness.

In addition to being a source of erudition, contemporary eco-psychologists attribute therapeutic value to the natural world. They have noted that the healing role of nature commonly stimulates feelings of gratitude. The natural world inspires a wide range of cultural expressions of gratitude.

Dating back to the early cave drawings of human prehistory, nature has been a perennial form of expression. The environment can also be a cultural unifier that reveals a common humanity and calls us to acknowledge the inseparability of the human and non-human worlds.

“From concrete sustenance to abstract spiritualism, the ultimate subject of environmental gratitude is gratitude for everything, for all there is. How a person treats her surroundings depends on whether she sees them as instrumentally useful or pleasing, or worthy in their own right.”

Most can understand how we depend on natural resources like water for our very survival. The key is to extend that understanding to include things like wetlands, marshes, oceans and forests. As our appreciation of biodiversity widens, we begin to grasp our interrelatedness. This is ethically transforming and can auger action on a planetary scale.

Impediments to implementation

Loder identifies 7 factors which inhibit the cultivation of environmental gratitude.

  1. Vice: Environmental virtues are difficult to cultivate and sustain because humans have so many interests in exploiting the natural world.
  2. Anthropocentrism: Hubris about the centrality and privileges of humanity leads to disrespect and mistreatment or neglect of the natural world.
  3. Self-Interest: When people feel entitled to environmental resources, they fail to experience thankfulness
  4. Ignorance: Gratitude too often fails to surface because of ignorance, both innocent and willful.
  5. Injustices: Uneven distribution of environmental benefits is a form of structural injustice. On the level of nations, it is similarly unjust for developed countries, or rapidly developing countries with very high carbon emissions, to refuse extra burdens in international environmental agreements on matters like climate change.
  6. Upbringing: Birth to parents who have inculcated positive values is good fortune. Upbringing surely gives the morally fortunate a head-start, but it also gives the unlucky something to overcome.
  7. Organizational Structures: Environmental decision-making occurs in organized groups. Organizations like governments, corporations, are commonly averse to environmental gratitude.

Conclusion

The shortsighted pursuit of profit has led humans to ravage worldwide resources. Environmental gratitude may enable us to counteract this nihilistic tendency and expedite ecological action.

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Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, green investor and author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, eco-economics and enviro-politics. He is the owner of The Green Market Oracle, a leading sustainable business site and one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. Find The Green Market on Facebook and follow The Green Market’s twitter feed.

Image credit: Andreas Krappweis 

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