Oxford Brookes research reveals how spiritual-nature bonds safeguard our planet

green forest

The spiritual connection between nature and humanity is very common across political and religious divides and is so strong that it can affect industrial development and political voting.

A new study co-authored by Dr Adam Baimel and published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology carried out psychological research to better understand the moral consequences of this spiritual connection with nature (referred to as ‘ecospirituality’).

The study administered online surveys in the USA, Canada, UK, and Singapore and participants were represented from many religious backgrounds.

Adam, a Lecturer in Psychology in the Oxford Brookes Faculty of Health and Life Sciences, explains that ecospirituality is associated with considering the natural world, and parts of it, as sacred.

When something is sacred, we are constrained about “how one ought to act” in relation to that sacred thing. In this way, the spiritual and moral elements are closely related.

If a forest is viewed as the domain of spirits, then clear-cutting that forest would be morally perceived as desecration. Whereas if the forest is viewed as just cellulose, then clear-cutting the forest would be seen as a business transaction.

In general, any degradation of nature is viewed as an increasingly negative moral violation by ecospiritual people.

In addition, moral values attached to how people treat the natural world can in of themselves take on the quality of being sacred. When someone holds a moral value that is sacred to them, no amount of economic arguments will persuade them to change their mind about an issue related to the environment. 

They will assess a situation in nature based on their own principles, and not on any cost-benefit analysis. The extent to which people hold sacred values thus very much influences environmental decision-making because people place importance on rules, duties and principles in any decision related to the environment.

Highly ecospiritual people hold nature close to their hearts - not quite as close as they would hold family members and close friends, but at least as close as they would hold neighbours - in terms of their circles of moral concern.

People exhibiting high traits of ecospirituality tend to be agreeable and open, but that does not preclude them from having negative emotional reactions to environmental propositions that call for a tradeoff between protecting nature and economic gain.

They may even feel outraged at such a proposition. Ecospiritual people would refuse to make any monetary trade-offs when it comes to issues of the environment.

If it means that high costs will be incurred in order to protect the environment, people may choose to endure the costs because consideration of costs are not factored into their ecospiritual evaluation of what is best for the environment.

The study also looked at a form of decision-making that affects all voting adults, namely political decision-making, with a focus on votes for the Green Party in the UK and Canada.

The moral element present in ecospiritual peoples’ views is associated with how they vote. Highly ecospiritual people are more likely to unconditionally vote for the Green Party.

While more research is needed, this research raises the question, while ecospirituality seems to be widespread, how can we foster ecospiritualtiy in our communities and harness its potential pro-environmental consequences in face of the climate crisis?

Without highly principles and moral views, the risk is that nature could just be valued for the functions it serves. If it no longer serves those functions, the need to protect it may diminish thus placing nature in danger of, for example, becoming a polluted site.

Another potential hazard to nature is that the real economic value of nature could be severely underestimated and mistakenly justify environmental degradation. Without ecospirituality factors in decision-making, this poses a real threat to nature.

Sustainability requires immediate personal and society-wide economic sacrifice (e.g., paying a premium for green goods). If there is a lack of ecospirituality, the motivation to protect nature gets reduced as people view distant costs as unappealing and not morally worthwhile.

Adam is the Group Leader of Applied Social Psychology. He recently completed a research project titled the ‘greening of religion’, which examined how religious meaning systems are adapting to the climate crisis.

Alongside co-authors Matt Billett and Ara Norenzayan at the University of British Columbia, Adam is currently studying the structure, causes and consequences of ecospirituality in 15 culturally diverse populations around the world.

The 15 populations represent a broad assessment of the world’s cultural and religious diversity (Buddhists in Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand; Christians in Argentina, Brazil, the Philippines, South Africa, South Korea and the UK; Hindus in India; Jews in Israel; Muslims in Egypt, Indonesia, Nigeria and Pakistan). This work is part of the Evolution of Science and Religion as Meaning-Making Systems project funded by the Isaachar Fund. 

Adam is a member of the Oxford Brookes Sustainable and Resilient Futures (SRF) Network.

All Brookes staff, research students and external partners are invited to join the SRF Network.