Cultural Enticements to Sustainability and Environmental Learning and Action

When I talk about cultural enticements, I mean those external and collective enticements that stem from our society's historical, religious, scientific, technological, economic, and political foundations and parameters.

Renowned environmental educator, David Orr, believes that cultural change is necessary to monitor and curb human demands on the biosphere. He advocates "the institutionalization (or ritualization) of restraints through some combination of law, coercion, education, religion, social structure, myth, taboo, and market forces" [68].

Worldwatch's Gary Gardner suggests that cultural transformation will be easier and faster if enticements can be focused on "the opinion leaders—the innovators and early adopters ... [who will] help the innovation or idea to spread" [37].

I divide the cultural enticements into 10 categories.

(Numbers in square brackets refer to the References page. Feel free to contact me if you need exact page references.)

1. Reconnecting with Nature Through a New Spirituality

Orr believes that the environmental crisis is "above all else ... a crisis of spirit and spiritual resources" [68]. Devall asserts that for human animals, however important environmental ethics are, ontological concerns (the nature of being and existence, the meaning of life) are paramount [27].

If this is true, then a crucial first cultural enticement would be an invitation to reconnect with Nature through a renewed spirituality. Darlene Clover and her colleagues [21] contend that we must passionately rekindle our connection with the rest of Nature.

Suzuki and McConnell, Cohen, and Chard present specific suggestions for how to rediscover our spiritual covenant with Nature on a community, personal, and psychological basis, respectively. For example, Suzuki and McConnell say, "We have many rituals that could be built upon — Thanksgiving, Halloween, seasonal festivals celebrating fruits, vegetables, water or some special local feature" [88].

Cohen explains that "when people make thoughtful contact with nature, they become more sensitive to life. They build personal, social, and environmental relationships in more enjoyable, caring, and responsible ways. The beauty and integrity of nature inspires them. Their spiritual relationship with the outdoors empowers and guides them. Natural areas nurture them" [22].

As a psychologist, Chard offers his patients "behavioral prescriptions" or ceremonies that are "based upon profound contact with the healing capacities of the Earth" [19].

Some might view spirituality as a personal (psychosocial) enticement, rather than a cultural one, but a culture's relationship with spirituality (and yes, religion, too) is part of its zeitgeist (spirit of the age, or intellectual and cultural climate). When Western culture became more lenient towards religion and more secularly-oriented, we didn't stop being spiritual beings. We simply started worshipping at a different altar — the altar of money, celebrity and crass consumerism. But a spiritual void remains for many people ... that's why a spiritual reconnection with the rest of Nature (Creation Care, or myriad other names) can serve as an enticement to environmentally benevolent ways of being in the world.

2. Encouraging the Examination of Our Worldview

Several authors suggest transforming, or at least examining, what Gregory Bateson called "the pattern which connects," the metapattern or "pattern of patterns" in a society. Bateson explains that "the world partly becomes — comes to be — how it is imagined" [6].

Suzuki and McConnell encourage us to "think deeply about some of our most widely held assumptions; many underlie the destructive path we're on" [88]. O'Sullivan says we must change from "an exploitative anthropocentrism to a participative biocentrism" [69].

Deep ecologist Bill Devall proposes that people in bioregional groups work together to "delegitimize the dominant mechanistic worldview and present positive models for social change" [27]. He recommends deep ecological practice (versus only talking about changing paradigms), and encourages "stroking pigs, thinking like mountains, and respecting wild animals"; in other words, interacting with the rest of Nature in new ways to create what David Orr calls "an ecological enlightenment which revolutionizes our world and worldviews" [68].

3. Focusing on Sin versus Sinfulness, Hope versus Pessimism

If Western culture is to change its dominant paradigm, Dominican scholar Matthew Fox suggests changing the dominant religion's doctrine of original sin and fall/redemption to an emphasis on original blessing and creation-centered spirituality [34]. "To teach original sin and never to teach original blessing creates pessimism and cynicism," he says.

David Orr agrees that "older notions of virtue found in antiquity" could guide us back to a sense of interconnectedness. "Virtue once implied actions that were harmonious in a larger commonwealth" [68].

Certainly there are many different religious leaders and groups around the world who now recognize environmental trespasses (such as pollution and unmitigated global warming) as sins, following the lead of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

"Environmental awareness is a matter of education and education does not only take place in school."

— Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the Green Patriarch

4. Thinking Like Ancestors — If We Love Our Children

Suzuki and McConnell ask us to project our minds far ahead into the future and consider the problems that we are leaving as a legacy for our children and grandchildren [88].

Several authors believe that appealing to the love and concern that adults feel for their progeny (if not their descendants) will help create a future "free from intergenerational remote tyranny," a term coined by green designer, Bill McDonough [58].

Several authors suggest the rousing of our sense of responsibility for future generations as a cultural enticement. Wildlife artist Robert Bateman [5] and Bill Devall [27] hint at the notion of sacrifice. Referring to the Iroquois seven generations ethic, McDonough offers a particularly evocative question: "How do we love all the children, of all species, for all time?"

5. Learning from the Ecocentric Indigenous Worldview

Einstein is credited with saying that we humans cannot solve problems at the same level of thinking that created them. What does an ecocentric indigenous world view have to offer Western problem solvers?

Knudtson and Suzuki highlight a Native spirituality that places Nature at the centre of all decision making [51]. According to Black Elk, indigenous spiritual experiences help Native people "to realize our oneness with all things, to know that all things are our relatives" [cited in a wonderful book on North American Indian ecology by J. Donald Hughes, 47]. For example, Tatanga Mani explains that he learned a lot about the natural world by listening to the trees and "other voices in nature" [47]. Chet Bowers lists several traits of ecologically centered cultures that he believes educators should be at least teaching if not emulating [10].

6. Minding Our Metaphors

Cultural metaphors reflect our understanding of the human-Earth relationship. In Western cultures, the dominant metaphors used often reflect machine images, violence, and dominance over Nature. That is why, according to Chet Bowers, moving toward a new, ecologically centered ideology must entail changing our operative metaphors and raising awareness that "individual thought and behavior cannot be separated from the complex language processes that characterize a living culture" [10].

For example, psychologist Philip Chard points out that the image of the Earth as our mother is not "just a flowery metaphor" but reality. "Many of us understand this intellectually, but few of us believe it in our bones," Chard contends. He suggests that we start perceiving the Earth as a "thou" rather than an "it" in order to view our home planet as a living entity [19].

7. Involving the Family and the Community

Our Western societies tend to promote the individual and honour "rugged individualism," often at the expense of the common good.

An important enticement to environmental learning and action, therefore, is to go beyond individuals to involve their families and communities. David Orr agrees, saying that "the constituency for global change must be created in local communities, neighborhoods, and households" [68].

Environmental historian, J. Donald Hughes, points out that traditionally, Native North Americans did not define themselves primarily as autonomous individuals, but as members of their tribe and as parts of the whole of Nature [47].

Bill Devall calls on this indigenous worldview as well as deep ecology for the nurturing of a real community, a mixed one that includes many different species: "This vision of mixed community inspires us and draws us away from the shallow and narrowly anthropocentric concerns of contemporary society" [27].

8. Making Communication More Effective

Several authors remark that environmental messages can be delivered in enticing, captivating ways. Madison Avenue and Hollywood have "enticing" and "captivating" down pat for selling "the American dream" that is trashing the planet. But many of us in the environmental (education) movement have yet to learn this lesson. Steve Van Matre notes that educators must emulate advertisers if they are to capture attention; he insists that environmental messages be simplified and prioritized [91].

Gary Gardner of the Worldwatch Institute reports that people respond best to effective communication, the actions of their peers, direct appeals, and enticing incentives [37]. Social marketers McKenzie-Mohr and Smith explain that vivid, concrete, and personalized information stands out against competing messages, and is more likely to be remembered [59].

9. Creating Better Feedback Loops

As if to prove the point about vivid messages, Paul Hawken and his colleagues ask, "How clean a car would you buy if its exhaust pipe, instead of being aimed at pedestrians, fed directly into the passenger compartment?" [45]. (That image has certainly stuck in my mind since the moment I first read it.)

And remember that frog sitting in the slowly heating pot of water? Well, what if we warned the frog? Or, better yet, pulled it from danger? (That would be feedback for the frog!)

J. Donald Hughes points out that Native North Americans lived so close to Nature, and depended on it so completely, they got immediate feedback for any mistakes in their treatment of the natural world [47]. But people in developed countries today are quite far removed from the impacts of their actions — we have exported much of our pollution and deforestation to developing countries.

By the way, carbon feedbacks, methane feedbacks and other feedbacks such as the albedo effect are vital aspects of global climate change that we must teach our students.

10. Encouraging the Hundredth Monkey

The hundredth monkey was the hypothesized anonymous monkey on a Japanese island whose change in eating behaviour "meant that all monkeys [on neighbouring islands] would from then on wash their sweet potatoes before eating them," as explained by Bolen [8].

This story, taken as an allegorical tale, supplies hope that when enough people in a culture make a change, that culture changes also [61]. According to Bolen, "once a critical number of people make that shift, it becomes what we do and how we are as human beings."

In other words, fewer people are smoking because anti-smoking campaigns finally reached the majority of people. Our society is eating less and less meat because health concerns reached a tipping point. More and more people are composting their food scraps and yard waste, and recycling their paper, cans and bottles because, well, more and more people started to do it!

Once enough of us start treating the world with respect, others will follow suit. It will simply become what people do. The hundredth monkey — becoming part of a wave or new movement — is a powerful cultural enticement to sustainability.

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