Inner change for sustainability: Science, worldviews and faith.

By Chris Ives

The normative position of sustainability science has been well accepted for a while now. As sustainability scientists, the way we define problems and the work we do to promote justice and environmental integrity is based on strong beliefs about how the world ought to be and what a good future looks like. It’s recognised that these normative goals do not come from our science, but that our science can be useful to inform how to achieve these goals. Typically, we don’t spend very much time arguing about why sustainability is a good thing; we take this as a given and get on with our research. However, you only need to talk with a few people in the street to realise that not everyone shares these same normative goals and values. In the Leverage Points project, we’re most concerned with understanding and transforming the goals and intents of systems to bring about positive change for sustainability. In order to do this, I believe the time has come for sustainability science to engage more deeply and explicitly with the various belief systems that are at the heart of individuals and communities. It is these belief systems that provide the power to either activate or disregard the science that we hope will inform action.

Joern’s recent blog post highlighted the importance of transforming inner and outer worlds in order to transform society towards sustainability. I think our inner worlds have been largely neglected in sustainability discourse. I recently came across research by Annick Hedlund-de Witt on worldviews – the lenses through which we comprehend and interpret the world. What I really liked about this work was the way it broke down our ‘inner worlds’ into five discrete components:

  1. Ontology: a perspective on the nature of reality, often enriched with a cosmogony. What is the nature of reality? What is nature? How did the universe come about? If there is such thing as the divine–what or who is it, and how is it related to the universe?
  2. Epistemology: a perspective on how knowledge of reality can become about. How can we know what is real? How can we gain knowledge of ourselves and the world? What is valid knowledge, and what is not?
  3. Axiology: a perspective on what a ‘good life’ is, in terms of morals and quality of life, ethical and aesthetic values. What is a good life? What kind of life has quality and gives fulfillment? What are our most cherished ethical and aesthetic values? What is life all about?
  4. Anthropology: a perspective on who the human being is and what his/her role and position is in the universe. Who or what is the human being? What is the nature of the human being? What is his/her role and purpose in existence?
  5. Societal vision: a perspective on how society should be organized and how societal problems and issues should be addressed. How should we organize our society? How should we address societal problems and issues?

 Together, these five components comprise different worldviews. And worldviews have a very powerful influence on how we interpret information and how we behave. For example, a study by researchers at the University of Durham explored different ‘narratives’ that fed into the public debate about nanotechology. They found that the “scientific” debate was actually a proxy for deeper philosophical views about nature and the world. These narratives included seeing nature as ‘Pandora’s box’ (risk of nature’s revenge), seeing nature as a sacred entity that should not be messed with, or viewing the world in terms of the rich becoming richer and the poor becoming poorer. It was these stories that influenced most dramatically the public’s attitudes towards nanotechnology. This shows that our worldviews and broader narratives filter and interpret the scientific information we’re presented with.

From this point some key questions come to mind, such as how are these worldviews shaped? Which aspects of different worldviews are more or less compatible with sustainability? And how can they be influenced? Clearly the answers to these questions lie (in part) in a deeper engagement with value and belief systems, in particular the fields spirituality, religion and faith. The spiritual dimension of our lives is a significant part of being human yet has been largely neglected in sustainability research. This is despite the fact that the vast majority of the world’s population identifies with some kind of religious belief system. Joern Fischer and colleagues wrote in 2012 that “[r]eligion can provide metaphorical or experiential explanations for the underlying causes of unsustainable human behaviour”. I agree with this, but would add that religion also contributes perspectives on what a good and purposeful life consists of, what humanity’s relationship with the natural world ought to be, and what is of ultimate value. It also connects these ‘ideas’ to deeper concepts such as faith, hope and love that provide greater meaning and motivation to people’s lives.

Further, if indeed changing our ‘inner worlds’ is what we need, then religious traditions have much to offer. I see there being two aspects to changing our ‘inner worlds’: (i) transforming how we want to live (linked to how the world should be), and (ii) transforming how we live. We typically focus on the first aspect: “if only people would start caring more about other people or the planet and less about themselves then we wouldn’t be in this mess”. However, wanting to live differently is only part of the story – I might want to eat more healthily but at the end of a long day at work I can find myself ordering a pizza instead of making a salad for dinner. Religious traditions have focused strongly on the processes of inner (and outer) transformation, through spiritual disciplines and practices. I think sustainability science would do well to engage more strongly with these.

Recently some colleagues and I have been reading through Pope Francis’ recent letter to the Catholic Church on the present ecological crisis, “On care for our common home”. Given Christianity is the largest religion in the world, I thought it is worthwhile providing a summary of its main messages, how it connects to ideas of global sustainability transformation and what worldview it represents. I’ll outline these in a coming blog, so stay tuned…

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One thought on “Inner change for sustainability: Science, worldviews and faith.

  1. Pingback: Christianity and sustainability – Reflections on Pope Francis’ Encyclical on the environment | Ideas for Sustainability

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