Building ecological understanding
through connection with nature
The tenacity of the dominant worldview in the
developed world belies a more fundamental
problem: Human beings in industrialized nations are so disconnected from the natural systems they depend on that they do not know
what they do not know.
Human behavior can be responsive to local
environmental conditions, as demonstrated by
the use of traditional ecological knowledge
(TEK) by indigenous cultures around the world
(49). TEK, however, relies heavily on experiential
information (49). This suggests that developing
an ecologically consistent worldview may benefit
from reconnecting with nature so that humans
actually experience and develop a dynamic understanding of the world’s systems and human-environment interdependence.
Although worldwide trends toward accelerating urbanization have generally meant fewer
opportunities to encounter and build a connection to nature, urban dwellers need access
to nature in order to rediscover their interdependence with it and deepen their sense of place.
This, in turn, fosters understanding of the natural environment (50) and inspires efforts to
protect and preserve landscapes and their inhabitants (4).
Valuable nature experiences do not require
trips to “wild” nature such as old-growth forests,
but can be found in urban areas as well (52).
Fortunately, new trends in urban design may
help heal the human-nature divide. Recognizing
both conservation and public health benefits,
urban planners and architects are increasingly
incorporating green features such as community
gardens, walking and biking paths, and green
roofs (53) and integrating “biophilic” designs,
which echo natural forms and patterns (i.e.,
nonhuman animal and plant), in built environments (54).
Expanded access to urban green space not
only enhances human understanding of natural
systems, it provides critical contact with environments to which we are best adapted and in
which we can thrive both physically and psychologically. Research affirms that engaging with
nature improves both mental and physical well-being (55) and promotes healthy child development (53, 56).
Environmental degradation ultimately stems
from human behavior. Fundamental behavioral changes are thus needed to stop damaging
the natural world and adapt to a permanently
Psychological research suggests that humans
can move toward a sustainable society by creating conditions that motivate environmentally
responsible collective action—conditions that help
people surmount cognitive limits, create new situational drivers, foster need fulfillment, and support communities of social change.
Individuals whose actions are informed by a
deeper understanding of how the planet really
works can galvanize collectives to change the larger systems that drive so much of human behavior. To radically alter the way humans think and
live; educate the next generation; and design
physical, governmental, and cultural systems,
humans must experience and better understand their profound interdependence with the
Further psychological research needs to elucidate how to accelerate the adoption of ecologically grounded worldviews and how to
activate ecologically compatible engagement,
especially leadership, for the collective work
needed to become more sustainable. The future
of humanity—and indeed, all life on Earth—
depends on it.
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“Individual change is
already challenging. It
takes even greater courage
and perseverance to openly
question the dominant
worldview that forms the
bedrock of cultural norms.”