Conservation, culture, and consciousness: awakening to a re-imagined vision of nature co-existence

Cebuan Bliss, Radboud University

Conservation, culture, and consciousness: awakening to a re-imagined vision of nature co-existence

Do you have a personal ritual in nature? A place where you feel particularly connected and in awe of the intricacy of it all? Perhaps there is a special tree under which you seek solace, or a walk you take at sunrise just to hear the dawn chorus of birds. This is not unusual, as humans we have revered the natural world in our cultural and spiritual traditions throughout time. Nature is recognised as essential for our physical and psychological health (White et al., 2019). However, awareness of its necessity for our spiritual health has been lacking, especially outside of traditional contexts. But this is changing, and it is likely to benefit conservation too.

Conservation programmes historically relied on the ecological and natural sciences to achieve their desired outcomes, such as the recovery of a particular ecosystem or species, sometimes at the expense of certain displaced groups of humans and non-human entities. For example, the ‘fortress conservation’ model where parks are fenced off and local people excluded. The narrative in recent decades has become more inclusive of traditional beliefs and practices, understanding them as advantageous to conservation (Hill et al., 2020). This ontological turn requires more direct engagement with and explicit acknowledgement of indigenous knowledge (Todd, 2016). Nevertheless, more can be done to re-awaken a sacred awe for nature, not only in traditional settings, but also in modern cities and developed countries, where many have become disconnected from the natural world. Doing so may enhance conservation outcomes in a more ethical and equitable manner.

This so-called awakening of consciousness, encompassing new, re-imagined or personal spiritual practices is already occurring.  For example, growing numbers of people are embracing plant medicine (which includes the likes of ayahuasca and psilocybin-containing ‘magic’ mushrooms) to heal themselves and to connect to a higher spiritual dimension (Gandy et al., 2020). With the psychedelic decriminalisation movement gaining ground in the United States, this age of ‘awakening’ looks set to continue. Certain modern mindfulness techniques are also practiced for and within nature (Willard, 2020). People exploring such practices often develop a profound sense of connection with the natural world, which encourages them to protect and restore biodiversity within their own environ and beyond (Gandy, 2019).

Preparation for plant medicine ceremony, Netherlands, July 2019 (photo credit: James Calalang)

On fieldwork in the Netherlands, Kenya and South Africa, when asking different types of people who do not participate in traditional cultural practices whether they have a spiritual connection with nature, the answer was a resounding yes. Through such personal spiritual practices, people are becoming more conscious of their ecological footprint. Often these are individuals living in developed areas, whose consumption habits have a disproportional detrimental impact on biodiversity through the resources that have to be extracted from natural areas (often far from where they live), in order to produce the products they use (Wiedmann & Lenzen, 2018).

Consciousness calling

Concurrently, our understanding of consciousness – the ability to have subjective experiences – is evolving, and not just of our own. The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness states that ‘humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness’, non-human animals also possess this ability (Low et al., 2012). This will have implications for what is considered ethical practice in biodiversity conservation. For example, there is increasing recognition of non-human sentience, such as enshrined in Article 13 of the European Union’s Lisbon Treaty (EU, 2012). There is also growing awareness of the sentience of cephalopods like octopus (Birch et al., 2021), and even plants are said to have their own form of intelligence (Calvo et al., 2019).

This recognition has paved the way for ideas such as compassionate conservation, in which the lives of animal individuals are valued in conservation, as well as species as a whole (Ramp & Bekoff, 2015), and multi-species justice, which sees non-humans as worthy subjects of justice (Treves et al., 2019). In practice, it is argued that ‘a comprehensive conservation ethic should promote an ethics-of-care together with the codification and enforcement of animal claims so as to provide explicit ethical guidance in our mixed-community’ (Santiago-Ávila & Lynn, 2020). Furthermore, some are calling for the recognition of animal agency in conservation, where interventions could even be co-designed with the animals themselves (Edelblutte et al., 2022; Hathaway, 2015). For example, choosing where to place wildlife road crossings based on the preferred routes of the animals living in the area (Greenfield, 2021). This would represent a radical departure from the conservation norm.

Lion in the Maasai Mara, Kenya, February 2022. Photo taken by the author.

Additionally, as more people begin to sense the inter-relationality of natural systems and beings, the important role of emotion in conservation is coming to the fore. It is argued that emotion is not detrimental to conservation (preserving our life-sustaining ‘Gaian mother’ is inherently emotive) and emotion can even be utilised to enhance conservation outcomes (Batavia et al., 2021). Such developments inevitably encourage the promotion of ethical and equitable principles in conservation.

Equitable beyond humans

In terms of making conservation more equitable, at least for the humans involved, strides have already been made. The Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) conceptual framework acknowledges different epistemological worldviews, including a spiritual dimension of ‘living-well in balance and harmony with mother earth’ (IPBES, n.d.).

Similarly, indigenous traditions and knowledge are recognised in the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) Post-2020 Framework, which is currently being finalised: ‘Recognition of intergenerational equity, including the transmission of knowledge, language and cultural values associated with biodiversity, especially by indigenous peoples and local communities’ (CBD, 2020).

In this wording, nevertheless, the spiritual dimension is omitted, and recognition of modern spiritual and cultural practices is missing. Therefore, at present, it seems that there is only tacit acknowledgement of more subjective worldviews. Lee et al. (2021) found in an analysis of leaders’ discourses at the CBD’s Conference of Parties (COP), that discourses which view nature as a spiritual entity were represented only marginally. Are we afraid to admit reverence for the scared in nature?

We needn’t be. Comprehending our relationality in this living system is prudent in order to secure ‘abundant futures’ for all (Collard et al., 2015). This could occur through a self-reflexive process of ‘worlding’; making plain and learning from the many ways we view the world, including in different spiritual dimensions (Inoue, 2018).

Poster at the Pretoria Botanical Gardens, South Africa, April 2022. Photo taken by the author.

Some are pioneering this model of nature connectedness. For instance Londolozi, a private wildlife reserve adjacent to the Kruger National Park in South Africa, is reimagining conservation through ‘consciousness awakening’ and partnership with nature (Londolozi, 2022).

Transformative conservation

Building a more holistic model of conservation which acknowledges and promotes humans’ innate connection to the earth is possible and there is scope for scholars to fill this research void, explicitly acknowledging and engaging with indigenous ontologies in the process. In striving for objective conservation science, we have often been working against our innate biophilia, or love for the natural world. Recognising the value of new and re-imagined cultural and spiritual practices, in addition to traditional beliefs, has the prospect of transforming conservation. This would have implications from an ethical perspective, for example in how we manage so-called ‘invasive alien’ species or ‘surplus’ animals.

As greater numbers of people embrace the spiritual dimension of nature, it may be possible to make conservation not only more effective in terms of protecting and restoring biodiversity, but more ethical and equitable for humans and non-humans alike. A question we may wish to ask ourselves is what sort of relationship do we want with nature?


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