The Ecological Worldview: Hearing the Cries of the World

How comprehending the interrelatedness of all phenomena inspires empathy, compassionate action, and hopeful engagement.

The Ecological Worldview: Hearing the Cries of the World

I've been thinking recently about the ecological worldview and the ways in which comprehending the interdependence of all life serves to inspire empathy, compassionate action, and hopeful engagement.

This perception of interrelatedness has been at the heart of the work of the Center for Ecoliteracy since our founding in 1995 and is grounded both in ancient knowledge and modern scientific understanding. We are encouraged lately to hear so many voices from around the world expressing this perspective in arenas from the planetary to the personal for the sake of life on Earth.

A "High Level Meeting on Wellbeing and Happiness: Defining a New Economic Paradigm" was convened at the United Nations in New York in April 2012 by the government of Bhutan. The meeting followed a 2011 United Nations General Assembly resolution calling for a more inclusive, equitable, and balanced approach to questions of economic growth. The resolution was cosponsored by 69 nations and passed without dissent. The prime minister of Bhutan honored me with an invitation to participate in the April meeting at the UN.

Thirty years ago, the king of Bhutan proclaimed, "Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product." It's easy to trivialize personal "happiness" as a goal, and for that reason I find "well-being" to be a more helpful concept, but the analysis of the Bhutanese government, under the leadership of its remarkably eloquent prime minister, Jigmi Y. Thinley, is sophisticated. This happiness, he says, differs markedly from the common use of that word to denote an ephemeral, passing mood due to some temporary external condition like praise or blame, gain or loss. "Rather it refers to the deep, abiding happiness that comes from living life in full harmony with the natural world, with our communities and fellow beings, and with our culture and spiritual heritage — in short, from feeling totally connected with our world."

The prime minister is saying, in effect, that an enduring sense of well-being is one consequence of the ecological worldview. The ecological worldview has both cognitive (how we think) and affective (how we feel) dimensions. We explore these dimensions in the book which our communications director Lisa Bennett and I have coauthored with psychologist and author Daniel Goleman, Ecoliterate: How Educators Are Cultivating Emotional, Social, and Ecological Intelligence (Jossey-Bass, August 2012).

The Cognitive Dimension

The cognitive dimension of the ecological worldview entails perceiving the ways that natural and social systems function as networks of relationships. Understanding relationship, connectedness, and context is central. As Center cofounder Fritjof Capra writes, "the members of an ecological community derive their essential properties, and in fact their very existence, from their relationships."

Charlene Spretnak artfully examines this orientation in her recent book, Relational Reality: New Discoveries of Interrelatedness That Are Transforming the Modern World (Green Horizon Books, 2011). She contrasts two systems of knowledge: In one, which has been predominant in Western thinking, "all entities in the natural world, including us, are essentially separate and ... function through mechanistic ways of interacting." In contrast is a very different, yet elegantly simple, idea: "All entities in the natural world, including us, are thoroughly relational beings of great complexity, who are both composed of and nested within contextual networks of dynamic and reciprocal relationships.... It is not merely a matter of having relationships, but of being relationships."

In Relational Reality, Spretnak considers in particular four major areas that are being transformed by this relational understanding: the economy, health and healthcare, community design and architecture, and education and parenting, where she cites the Center's contributions to shifts in thinking in K–12 education.

The United Nations meeting in April was inspired in part by a desire to rethink economics from a relational perspective. "We are acutely aware that what we measure is what gets policy attention, and that what we count signifies what we value." Prime Minister Thinley convened spiritual and environmental leaders from around the world to advocate for a model, more adequate than Gross Domestic Product, that looks beyond profit and acknowledges the externalized costs of our economic system: "Cherishing self-interest and material gain, we destroy nature, degrade our natural and cultural heritage, disrespect indigenous knowledge, overwork, get stressed out, and no longer have time to enjoy each other's company, let alone to contemplate and meditate on life's deeper meaning."

In her keynote address to the UN meeting, Laura Chinchilla Miranda, the president of Costa Rica, showed how different criteria for well-being can yield contrasting results:

"I am honored to open this conference as president of a country convinced that the purpose and meaning of development is not the sheer accumulation of wealth, but the well-being of the people and the pursuit of their happiness.... Our first head of state was a teacher. And, since our independence, in 1821, we began building a nation based upon democracy, solidarity, the rule of law, a cult of peace, and respect for the integrity and dignity of all our inhabitants....

"In 1870, primary education became free and mandatory, many years before any other Latin American nations, and even the United Kingdom or the United States. Seven years later, we abolished the death penalty. In 1942 we established our social security system, which covers the entire population, including half a million immigrants....

"In 1948 we decided to consolidate the best of our civic values, and abolished the army. We chose to solve our disputes through the ballots, not the bullets; we decided to invest in schools and teachers, not garrisons and soldiers. This uninterrupted path turned Costa Rica into the most stable and longest-living democracy in Central America...."

The Affective Dimension

The affective dimension of the ecological worldview moves from understanding relatedness cognitively to experiencing interrelatedness. In our new book Ecoliterate, we present five practices of emotionally and socially engaged ecoliteracy. The first practice is "developing empathy for all forms of life." By shifting from a consideration of humans as separate from and superior to the rest of life on Earth to appreciating our place as members of the web of life, students broaden their care and concern to include the web in its entirety.

In her presentation at the UN meeting, Joan Halifax, anthropologist, author, and founding abbot and head teacher of the Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico, speaks to both the cognitive and affective dimensions, "cultivating the courageous and wise qualities of mind and heart" in "principled compassion."

"We must," she says, "consider the importance of the development of moral sensitivity so that we can feel and assess the crisis we are in and consider the magnitude of the global social and environmental catastrophe that we will be facing in the not too distant future. In addition, we must develop moral character to have the resolve to take steps at this time to engage in decisions and actions that mitigate suffering now and in the future. And finally, we must commit to a path of moral responsibility, a path of compassionate action and personal and collective discipline that draws us away from the environmental and psychosocial danger zones that we are creating as we commodify our Earth and even each other."

Her own practice embodies and cultivates compassion in the people who study and collaborate with her in work that includes environmental activism, peacemaking, "being with dying," and programs within prisons.

Active Hope

Compassion is profound, and often disturbing. I'm reminded of the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, who hears the cries of the world. When we open our hearts to the cries of the world, there is the risk that we can be overwhelmed.. "The very act of looking at what we love and value in our world brings with it an awareness of the vast violation under way, the despoliation and unraveling," write Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone in their recent book Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We're in without Going Crazy (New World Library, 2012). "If we fear that the mess we're in is too awful to look at or that we won't be able to cope with the distress it brings up, we need to find a way through that fear," they write.

Macy and Johnstone offer an empowerment process (see an excerpt on our website), a spiral that travels through four stations: The first station, Coming from Gratitude, "helps build a context of trust and psychological buoyancy that supports us to face difficult realities in the second phase." In the second, Honoring Our Pain for the World, "Our pain for the world alerts us to danger but also reveals our profound caring. And this caring derives for our interconnectedness with all life." The third, Seeing with New Eyes, "reveals the web of wider resources available to us through our rootedness within a deeper ecological self." Finally, Going Forth "involves clarifying our vision of how we can act for the healing of our world, identifying practical steps that move our vision forward."

A compelling insight offered by Fritjof Capra is that the environmental and social crises we face are at their heart crises of perception. Embracing the ecological worldview requires a shift in understanding  to a  “systems view of life" (the title of our June 2012 seminar with Fritjof, Richard Heinberg and others). Seeing from the ecological perspective changes the way we look at everything — at the natural environment, the purposes of economics and education, and our relationship with the other beings with whom we share the Earth. This ecological perception leads to empathy, compassionate action, hopeful engagement  — and a greater sense of happiness and well-being.