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Vital Signs

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'"Vital signs" are, of course, the basic physiological measures of functioning which health practitioners use to assess the gravity of a patient's predicament. This anthology focuses not so much on our physical predicament, with so many of the Earth's systems severely stressed and beginning to fail - there are plenty of other places to read about this Instead we focus on our psychological predicament, as news of the situation slowly penetrates our defences and we struggle as individuals and as a society to find an adequate response. By "vital signs" we also mean signs that such a response is beginning to take shape: signs of hope, signs of healing.We feel that ecopsychology in Britain has a distinctive voice and unique contributions to make. In doing so, we hope to facilitate debate and dialogue within the field, in the hope that this will lead eventually to more developed theory and practice. Things are still at quite an early stage in the construction of ecopsychology as a discipline, and the articulation of relationships of compatibility or incompatibility between various approaches. It will take time for the field to reach maturity, to agree on terminology (or agree to use different terminologies), and to develop organisational forms. This is a familiar process for any new way of looking at things.At the same time as recognising this slow maturation, we are of course equally aware of the extraordinary urgency of the external situation which it is one of the missions of ecopsychologists to address. While there would in theory still be an important role for ecopsychology if we were not facing environmental meltdown - exploring the complex relationships between human and other-than-human, and the therapeutic value of bringing the two together - in practice ecopsychology has been completely shaped by a sense of catastrophic loss, of the irreversible destruction of complexity and the impending threat to the systems which sustain life on this planet.From this point of view, ecopsychology is part of a much larger movement seeking to develop awareness of climate change together with all the other developing ecological crises (pollution, over-consumption of resources, destruction of habitats, etc). What distinguishes ecopsychology from many of the other players in this larger movement, however - apart from the psychological focus itself - is a very widespread perception of human beings as just one element in the global ecosystem; and an agreement, both ethical and practical, that humanity cannot save itself by throwing other species out of the sledge. The ecosystem stands or falls as a whole, human, other-than-human, and more-than-human; and a failure to recognise this is itself a symptom of our culture's dissociation from its place in the larger whole, which is one of the causal factors leading to our current situation.Among people who have been working in this area for some time, there is a growing question: what if we fail? What if our society does not manage a transition to a carbon-free economy - and all of the other transformations of culture and practice which are required alongside this? In all probability time is getting extremely short; considerable damage to global ecosystems is already certain, and runaway "tipping point" effects are predicted by many scientists.Although awareness of this crisis is far greater than it was a decade ago, there is still little sign of a serious shift in public attitudes. Indeed in the UK, and elsewhere, ecological concerns have been eclipsed by the recent economic crisis with seemingly little recognition that of course ecological, social and economic crisis are completely interwoven. While the future can never be predicted with certainty, there is not much concrete basis for optimism. What then?'- From the Introduction

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CHAPTER ONE: The darkening quarter: an embodied exploration of a changing global climate

ePub

Viola Sampson

I live on a hilltop who tips me out into the fresher winds and broader horizons to the north of the city. This hill shoulders old villages swallowed many years ago in London’s urban gobble. Its paths through ancient woodlands, of oak and hornbeam, jay and blue tit, will soon be softened by fallen leaves—the dank wind in my nostrils tells me it is autumn now.

Autumn. I share my days with yellow plums squashed underfoot near the bus stop, and rain-swollen blackberries cloaked in mildew. Ripe, green figs hang far out of reach in my neighbour’s tree. Heavy with fragrant sweetness, they empty ooze onto the roof of the shed, hanging slack before sliding to the ground and completing a year-long gesture of fruition and nourishment. Each year a flock of starlings descend in noisy feasting and leave in one quick swoosh. I am waiting for them. To me, they mark the season in this increasingly uncertain time, when the chemistry of the climate is stirred by humanity’s hand.

What of this home? This house on a hill in London. This city, a historical centre from where the great British set out to colonize lands, creatures, and cultures. A city perched at the base of a small, green island. This island, laid out on the northern face of this blue-green planet swooping through the heavens, and spinning on a midline pointing to the distant North Star. This face of the planet now tilted towards the winter skies in the outer reaches of the sun’s rays.

 

CHAPTER TWO: “It’s snowing less”: narratives of a transformed relationship between humans and their environments

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Susan Bodnar

For the past several years, I have been researching the transformed relationship between human and their ecosystems, assuming that the human relationship to the physical environment was another object relationship (Bodnar, 2008). I also stated that the same societal forces that adversely affect the environment also have a negative impact on people. This chapter brings forth more field data collected in the northeastern urban community of New York City. The people interviewed bring forth in their narratives how they have been affected by the same social practices that have altered the human relationship to the ecosystem.

Psychologists have approached the interface of psychology and environmental issues from a variety of theoretical positions (see Du Nann Winter & Koger, 2004 for an overview). Krupnik and Jolly (2002) present field studies from the Arctic. These indigenous observations demonstrate how physical environmental changes segue into transformations in cognition and meaning. Weather can’t be predicted, the fishing is different, and the ice is shifting. Others, like Kahn (1999) have researched the ways in which human development is linked to relationships to the natural world. His studies in an under-resourced black community in Texas, in a small village in the Brazilian Amazon, in Prince William Sound (children affected by the Exxon Valdez disaster), and children in Lisbon Portugal demonstrate that there is an intense human need to affiliate to life (“biophilia”: Wilson, 1984). Further Albrecht (2005; Albrecht et al., 2007) describes “solastalgia”, a type of psychic distress brought on by environmental change.

 

CHAPTER THREE: Gaia living with AIDS: towards reconnecting humanity with ecosystem autopoiesis using metaphors of the immune system

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Peter Chatalos

The most important characteristic of an organism is that capacity for internal self-renewal known as health.

—Aldo Leopold

While health is a desirable condition for humans to achieve, it is increasing being used as a metaphor in conjunction with ecosystems. This paper argues that this “health” metaphor can be developed further, to state that the planet’s ecosystems work as an immune system, protecting its biotic community from disease/ illness. It is further argued that without realizing their interconnected-ness within the planet’s ecosystems, humanity is increasingly straining this immune system, which is detrimental to the health of humans and ecosystems alike. The metaphor that the planet’s ecosystems are suffering an autoimmune disorder may have a place in helping humanity to realize its embeddedness within nature and to recognize the consequences of its actions.

This paper comprises three main sections: the first looks at ecosystems’ ability to maintain health, and the dynamic interface between disease, environmental degradation, and human behaviour. The second focuses on the role of humanity’s mental and emotional disconnection from nature’s self-renewal processes. The final section discusses how employing the metaphor of the immune system, to aid understanding and empathy, might ameliorate this.

 

CHAPTER FOUR: Longing to be human: evolving ourselves in healing the earth

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Paul Maiteny

Every fifteen to twenty years since the 1960s, a wave of ecological anxiety has washed over “western” society. In the 1980s/1990s wave, Al Gore (1992) had already described our species as perpetrating “ecological holocaust” on planet earth. The focus then was tropical deforestation, the ozone hole, seal hunting, and whaling. Climate change was still taboo in mainstream scientific circles. Peak oil was hardly mentioned. Now, with these as the main anxieties, I see a similar sequence of reaction as before: “environmental” anxiety around a trigger issue followed by optimism about solutions and possible economic opportunities. Then, economic recession hits and takes priority, diminishing enthusiasm for pro-ecological action. Each time, discrediting of environmental scientists has also fuelled public scepticism and media shut-down on the issues.

This is disheartening. In each wave’s wake comes despondency or exasperation about whether humans can ever change. Each time it comes a little deeper and darker, to the point where it is seen by some as a sign that Homo sapiens is an ecological aberration, an evolutionary dead-end.

 

CHAPTER FIVE: The ecology of the unconscious

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Margaret Kerr and David Key

The sun shines not on us, but in us. The rivers flow not past us but through us.

—John Muir (1911)

From many years of professional practice leading groups, it is obvious that taking people into wild areas can improve their psychological health. This is now well supported by research (e.g., Davis-Berman & Berman, 1994; Kaplan & Talbot, 1983; MIND, 2007). Other research also suggests that these experiences can lead to “pro-environmental behaviour” (e.g., Palmer et al., 1998; WWF, 2009). Our intention here is to offer a deeper understanding of how experiences of wild and green spaces can heal the self as part of our larger ecology.

We believe that at the heart of this healing process is our capacity to open up both ecologically, as we realize our biological interdependence with the rest of nature, and metaphysically, as we go beyond our narrow egoic sense of self. In emphasizing interrelatedness and immanence, our practice is aligned with feminist (Wright, 1998) and “descending” strands of transpersonal theory (e.g., Sabini, 2002; Washburn, 1995) rather than with the “ascending” perspective of Wilber (Daniels, 2005). It is also informed by Taoist and Buddhist approaches (Preece, 2009; Prendergast, 2003; Watts & Huang, 1975) and the shamanic practices and worldviews of indigenous cultures (e.g., Brody, 2002a; Celi & Boiero, 2002; Siri, 1998; Williams, 2007).

 

CHAPTER SIX: Remembering the forgotten tongue

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Kelvin Hall

In folktales throughout the world, humans and animals converse, exchange pledges of mutual assistance, even take on each other’s form. In an old Hungarian story, a peasant saves a snake from the flames, and in gratitude he is granted the power to understand everything that the creatures around him are saying. In contemporary Britain, many individuals have discovered a fluency in their communications with other creatures which enables smooth co-operation and safe intermingling. They testify that this offers humans access to some previously buried part of themselves. This phenomenon is part of a spectrum of intimate connection, which can include that with plant-life, landscape, and the elements. Within the psychotherapy profession, a version of this has also been arising. A growing number of therapists have been incorporating the intervention of, say, dogs, horses or wild creatures into their work, and the richness and resolution this has uncovered for some clients has been striking. A profound but hidden need seems to be met in all this. Indeed, the frustration of that need is a major factor contributing to our cultural discontent, sense of impoverishment, and drive to consume. When the yearning for connection is met the hunger to consume is less. Identifying this need offers the possibility of a nourishment which may be much needed in turbulent times to come. It may also be one of the less widely recognized tasks of therapy.

 

CHAPTER SEVEN: Restoring our daemons

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G. A. Bradshaw

Out of my experience … one fixed conclusion dogmatically emerges, and that is this, that we with our lives are like islands in the sea, or like trees in the forest. The maple and the pine may whisper to each other with their leaves, and Conanicut and Newport hear each other’s foghorns. But the trees also commingle their roots in the darkness underground, and the islands also hang together through the ocean’s bottom. Just so there is a continuum of cosmic consciousness, against which our individuality builds but accidental fences, and into which our several minds plunge as into a mother-sea or reservoir. Our “normal” consciousness is circumscribed for adaptation to our external earthly environment, but the fence is weak in spots, and fitful influences from beyond leak in, showing the otherwise unverifiable common connexion.

—William James (1911, p. 204)

Physical fences were no accident in James’ world. The psychologist and his brother Henry and sister Alice were raised when the American wilderness began to be stalked in earnest. Miners, hunters, and settlers poured across the continent in the last half of the nineteenth century. Ax blows and saws silenced Longfellow’s murmuring pines and hemlocks. Miles of fences rapidly converted seamless landscapes into complex quilts of ownership. By the time James had died on the eve of World War I, the American wilderness was well underway to domestication.

 

CHAPTER EIGHT: Ecopsychology and education: place literacy in early childhood education

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Inger Birkeland and Astri Aasen

This chapter will explore how ecopsychological ideas are relevant in educational settings. It is co-written by Astri and Inger together. Between 2005 and 2009 Inger was doing collaborative research on sustainable place planning in Tinn municipality in Norway. One part of the project focused on place-based learning with two kindergartens and four primary schools in the rural areas. The starting point for the collaboration was the question: What happens when we see schools and kindergartens as resources for the local community, and not only the local community a resource for children’s learning and development? Through a focus on learning in, with, and for place, the research aimed at strengthening children’s and adults’ ties and relationships to each other and to the place and local community where they live.

At the time of research, Astri worked as a kindergarten teacher and department leader in Vesletun kindergarten, a private kindergarten that participated in the project. Astri had also enrolled on a further education course in pedagogical development for kindergartens at Telemark University College. She decided to use the project in Vesletun to write her project report. Astri received much praise for her work, which explored pre-school children’s place-making activities in an innovative way (Aasen, 2007). Inger invited Astri to join in the writing of this chapter; Astri’s contribution is mainly the section that describes how Moss Cottage was created as a good place to be for the three- and four-year-olds at Vesletun kindergarten. She documented the activities in the project and explored those aspects she saw were important for the children’s play and well-being.

 

CHAPTER NINE: The ecology of phantasy: ecopsychoanalysis and the three ecologies

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Joseph Dodds

We are in a planetary pyramid scheme, getting into an ecological debt from which there can be no bail outs. We live on a finite planet with an economic system predicated on unending growth. Scientists estimate human demand already exceeded the biosphere’s regenerative capacity in the 1980s (Wackernagel et al., 2002, p. 926), yet somehow this just doesn’t hit home, our behaviour doesn’t match our knowledge. Why? I draw on ideas from my recent book (Dodds, 2011) to explore the possibility of a nonlinear ecopsychoanalysis with which to respond to a climate at the edge of chaos.

The current crisis is not only an ecological crisis, but a crisis of theory. While our fields of knowledge continue to fragment into ever more narrowly defined subjects, climate change embodies a world of unpredictable, multiple-level, highly complex, nonlinear interlocking systems. There is a need for a “meta-theory” able to integrate the disparate strands: not a “master-theory” so distrusted by postmodernists, but rather what Bion (1984) calls the work of linking, which he connected with the alpha function and the dreamwork. Bion describes the building of links between mental objects, and the attack on linking characteristic of psychosis. When “alpha-function” is compromised, we are left with undigested fragments of experience or “beta-elements” incapable of being woven into the tapestry of our psychic landscapes. From this perspective academia has divided human thought into a schizoid fragmented space. We require a means of linking diverse elements together without losing their specificity.

 

CHAPTER TEN: Did Lacan go camping? Psychotherapy in search of an ecological self

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Martin Jordan

This paper explores how psychotherapy might begin to facilitate the development of an ecological subjectivity in post modernity. I will take a critical look at the concepts of nature and subjectivity: my argument is that we need to start to re-imagine the ecological subject and how an “ecopsychotherapy” might help in facilitating the development of an ecological self. I will explore how the process of ecological communication occurs between mind and nature at the present time in history. We live in an age where the environment can no longer be positioned as a passive backdrop; climate change, species extinction, environmental degradation and potential catastrophe lurk both in the forefront and in the hinterlands of our consciousness. Nature and subjectivity are not static entities, both are in flux, multiplicities that assemble and disassemble in a process of becoming. The paper will explore how the human and the natural need to be re-imagined in order to understand and develop ecological subjectivities suited to merging and emerging postnatural contexts. I will not explore psychotherapy practice in natural environments in any depth, but instead focus on the subject at the heart of an ecopsychotherapeutic project: the ecological-psychological subject which ecopsychology aims to foreground in an attempt at reconnection to the natural world as a reciprocal process.

 

CHAPTER ELEVEN: Ecological intimacy

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Mary-Jayne Rust

The universe is a communion of subjects not a collection of objects.

—Berry (1990, p. 45)

Most people claim to love nature. Yet we all collude in seriously damaging the web of life we inhabit and depend on. In psychological terms, this would be described an ambivalent relationship between humans and the rest of nature; arguably this lies at the heart of our ecological crisis.

For those of us who have grown up within a Western mindset it is taken for granted that human welfare and human law should be prioritized over the needs of the nonhuman world. The earth has become a set of objects, a bunch of resources to be used for human purpose. These attitudes, which have been called “species arrogance” (Prentice, 2011) are in many ways enmeshed within Western philosophy, religion and the law, as well as how we live and organize what is often thought of as “our” world. This is a human-centric view.

Stepping outside this perspective is to go against the flow of two thousand years, or more, of western history. It is no surprise, then, that culture change takes time, and meets with plenty of resistance, even when we know the situation at hand is so urgent. It is a process of making conscious and understanding the old story we have been living by, while piecing together the different parts of an emerging new story about eco-centric living. Navigating our way through this liminal space can be turbulent, chaotic, and confusing as old identities and cherished ways of being unravel.

 

CHAPTER TWELVE: The politics of transformation in the global crisis

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Mick Collins, William Hughes, and Andrew Samuels

The current ecological crisis confronts us with an opportunity for a radical revision of what it means to be a politically active human being. It poses serious challenges for our collective ability to respond to change. Any serious notion of transformation in the current global crisis will have political implications; however, the reductionist mindsets and political ideologies that have contributed to the crisis may not be fit to lead the changes required. The question is, where will the impetus for change come from? It is becoming evident that a radical vision for living sustainably in the twenty-first century will require a much deeper relationship between human consciousness and nature. We propose that the scale of collective change within the current global context represents an archetypal level of transformation.

In this chapter, we depart from conventional discourses which attempt to find professionally crafted solutions to the current crisis, and investigate how consciousness may already be attempting to redress the balance of modern humanity’s one-sided materialism. We contend that archetypal patterns of change arising from people’s encounters with spiritual emergencies should be viewed as “solution bearers” for a state of emergent transformation. Spiritual emergencies could be a catalyst helping to inform a deeper relationship to learning, citizenship, democracy, culture, ecology, and human occupation as part of a re-sacralized political vision for the twenty-first century.

 

CHAPTER THIRTEEN: “Heart and soul”: inner and outer within the transition movement

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Hilary Prentice

Perhaps one of the most exciting aspects of this time of planetary turmoil, breakdown, potential, despair and hope, is that it confronts us so strongly with profound questions about what we are like, as human beings. Is it “human nature’ to be greedy, and not to change until we are forced to? Are we a technologically brilliant, dominant species who will easily solve our current problems with our rational minds? Or are we, actually, rather a bad lot, and the planet will recover and be better off without us, if we shortly create our own demise? These are very common first-off responses, ones I have heard many times as people are confronted with some piece of challenging information about our environmental situation. What they have in common, I feel, is precisely that immediate beginning to face up to ourselves just a bit as a species.

As someone passionate about ecopsychology for nearly twenty years, I have been present at many events where there is, essentially, some space and safety for people to explore their responses to the developing environmental crisis at a somewhat deeper level. As well as painful emotions or numbness (fear, anger, despair, disbelief, grief, cynicism), there often arises this deeper wondering about humanity: What is our nature? How did we get into this situation? How do we need to change? Can we change? What is in the way of that? And, ultimately, what is being called forth from each one of us, as we endeavour to really respond to what we are seeing?

 

CHAPTER FOURTEEN: “What if it were true …”

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Jerome Bernstein

We see and hear what we are open to noticing.

Several years ago I was in session with a woman I call Hannah (You can read more about her in Bernstein, 2005, Chapter Two). We had been working together for a year and a half. During this session Hannah became so angry at me that she took her shoe and began slamming it on the floor—in large measure to avoid hitting me with it. She was angry because she was sharing a deeply moving experience she had had involving two cows being hauled in a truck to market. I was interpreting her experience as more symbolic than real.

Two years ago, the father of a ten-year-old boy reported that his son recently had said to him, “I’d rather be an animal than a boy. I like animals better.” When I pursued it, he said that his son was not upset when he shared this intimacy with him and that he seemed well-adjusted and happy with life, including with his friends. But given the choice, he would choose to be with animals, particularly in the wild, more than with people. The father wanted to know if I felt he should do something about this.

 

CHAPTER FIFTEEN: Back to nature, then back to the office

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Tom Crompton

Proportional responses to environmental challenges like climate change are unlikely to emerge without far stronger expressions of public concern about these issues—and commensurate public pressure on governments for more ambitious action. Regardless of whether such public concern and pressure is expressed—for example— through ambitious life-style changes or through participation in direct action campaigns, there is extensive evidence that it will be underpinned by particular goals and values that people hold to be important.

A set of goals referred to by social psychologists as “intrinsic”, and a set of values referred to as “self-transcendent” are of particular significance here. Intrinsic goals include a concern for personal growth, affiliation to others, and community feeling. Self-transcendence values include concern for the welfare of all people and for nature (Grouzet et al., 2005; Schwartz, 1992, 2006).

Using a range of different investigative approaches, social psychologists have found that the more individuals endorse intrinsic goals and self-transcendence values, the more they also express positive attitudes and behaviours towards other-than-human nature (e.g., caring more about environmental damage or the value of other species; engaging in more behaviours like recycling and using public transport; and using less resources to support their lifestyles). This basic finding has been corroborated through studies on self-reported attitudes and behaviours, with game simulations of natural resource management dilemmas, and using nation-level archival data (see Crompton, 2010 for review).

 

CHAPTER SIXTEEN: Denial, sacrifice, and the ecological self

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Sandra White

During 2009, studies revealed that the proportion of people in the UK who accept that climate change is both real and to a crucial extent human-made is declining, despite increasing evidence that this is the case. (Norgaard, 2009; Crompton & Kasser, 2009.) This is known as “climate change denial” and subsequent opinion polls have revealed that this phenomenon continues to increase. (BBC, 2010). With the onset of financial crisis, government resources for and media attention to climate change have decreased, even though there is a general acceptance that rapid climate change is happening. In some quarters, this combination has produced more efforts to inform the general public with clearer scientific information. Yet we are discovering that better data are not reducing the prevalence of denial.

In this chapter, in order to help us think about how to address more effectively denial in the context of climate change and ecological sus-tainability, I will first look more deeply into the psychology of denial, what purpose it serves and how it functions. The ideas offered here sit alongside understandings that denial is rooted in neurobiology, where climate change is not yet close enough in space or time to trigger fight or flight responses, and also, conversely, that the size of the problem is so overwhelming that many people are closing down, in a freeze response.

 

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN: Fragile identities and consumption: the use of “Carbon Conversations” in changing people’s relationship to “stuff”

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Rosemary Randall

A number of writers (for example Hamilton, 2004; Layard, 2005; O. James, 2007) have explored the proposition that high levels of material consumption do not lead to a contented population. It is also clear that the economic growth that feeds these levels of consumption is unsustainable. (See for example Daly, 1977; Jackson, 2009; Victor, 2008). Changing this state of affairs is likely to be difficult however. Insights from psychoanalysis and psychotherapy suggest that, even without the demand for economic growth and the pressure of advertising, the relationship between identity and “stuff” may be too complex to allow a simple rejection of the “affluenza” lifestyle.

In this chapter I link ideas on the patterns of consumption in late modernity with trends in psychotherapy, ideas from psychoanalysis about the relationship of people to their objects and the challenges of climate change. I suggest that trying to persuade the public to live more sustainable lives may touch deep levels of crisis around personal identity. Finally I describe the Carbon Conversations project as one strategy that may help—but not solve—some of these difficulties.

 

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN: The Natural Change Project

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David Key and Margaret Kerr

In 1903 the Scottish-born conservationist John Muir took President Theodore Roosevelt on a camping trip to California’s Yosemite valley.

As a result of his experience, Roosevelt created five national parks … along with 150 national forests, 51 bird refuges, four game preserves, 18 national monuments, 24 reclamation projects, and the US Forest Service. The President’s experience also led him to argue that it was undemocratic to exploit the nation’s resources for present profit. “The greatest good for the greatest number”, he wrote, “applies to the number within the womb of time” (Roosevelt, 1916, p. 300). It’s hard to imagine more powerful social and environmental outcomes … from spending three days in the mountains!

This chapter describes WWF’s Natural Change Project, which develops the principle of outdoor experience as a route to personal and social change—so beautifully illustrated by the example of John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt. Following this principle, Natural Change works with people who hold positions of influence in society, offering them potentially life-changing experiences of wild places.

 

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