What story do you want to live?

What do your thoughts and intentions have to do with the climate crisis we are living in? Quite a lot, if we believe emerging science. Let’s look at how they influence not only our personal, but also our collective story, and why they are key for creating a more sustainable future.

Today’s society is characterised by increasingly complex sustainability challenges, notably climate change and its impacts on biodiversity, food, energy, water, and human health. We know that without additional efforts and measures, there will be catastrophic, irreversible impacts globally.

It’s clear that — despite the high profile of sustainability as a concept, and the goals and targets that have been set since the 1980s — the dominant approaches have not catalysed the necessary change.

One important reason for the current situation is that the vast majority of sustainability scholarship, education and practice has, so far, only focused on the external world: ecosystems, wider socio-economic structures, and technology. The origins of the problem relate to the fact that much of this work originated in the biophysical discourse, which framed climate change as an external, technical problem. Consequently, a second aspect of reality has been vastly neglected: people’s inner life and their mindset.

Today, we know that climate change and other sustainability challenges are internal, relationship crises. In other words, they are the result of the human story of separation. This story assumes that we are all separate from each other, that some humans are superior to other humans, and that human beings are both separate and superior to the rest of the natural world.

Our society is rooted in this story of separation, which plays out in our institutional and cultural structures. In its most extreme form, it manifests as war, racism, classism, and sexism, which relate to issues such as economic or territorial gains, or nationalism.

The story of separation is perhaps most vividly seen in the human-nature separation. Treating the environment as a resource that should be managed for the benefit of humankind has ultimately led to its abuse and destruction. Today, the world economy has become the end, and nature and humans have become resources for the economy, whilst the end should be planetary and individual wellbeing.

Believing ourselves to be separate and superior is having severe consequences for sustainability. Such thinking supports the idea that we can use limitless natural resources to feed material prosperity and an unquestioned principle of consumption. Today, we are seeing the results of this understanding. There is only so much production and consumption the planet can support without environmental degradation and climate catastrophe.

There is a better alternative: interconnection and oneness. The story of interconnection recognises that all phenomena co-exist in relationship with each other. From this perspective, things do not appear separate and individual, but rather in community with everything else that co-arises with them.

Today’s sustainability crises are, thus, inherently about how we relate to ourselves, others, the environment, and the future. Changing the way we engage with each of these relationships can thus change our story towards a more sustainable pathway. This applies not just to individuals, but to all groups and organisations, including governmental and private institutions.

We are all familiar with the ironies of modern life, notably our communication and education structures. While we are increasingly connected through social media, we are isolating ourselves in our individual worlds. Even when physically together in the same space, individuals are more interested in what is happening on their cell phone, reinforcing separation. We are also increasingly addicted to reading about or watching stories of separation, whether in the news, on television, in books or in the latest cinematic blockbuster. We are too busy to listen to our children, who are increasingly experiencing climate grief and anxiety. We educate them by stuffing them with ‘facts’, embodying the story of limitless growth and separation, instead of nourishing their sense of oneness and compassion towards themselves, others and the world around them. Reflexive, contemplative approaches can also serve to reinforce the story of separation, if they are designed as an individual practice that benefits resilience in a capitalist world. It is important to change this narrative.

As we become conscious of our interconnections and oneness with the world, we can see our own agency and are called to act from a place of care and respect towards all beings. Inner transformation can be understood as the powerful unleashing of human potential to care, commit to, and effect change for a more sustainable life. Such transformation compels us to participate in creating social change, so that society reflects the reality of our interconnection. When we apply this understanding to the groups and organisations that we are part of, we can see shifts at the collective and the systems level. Examples of attempts to create a new narrative are illustrated by the degrowth movement, restorative justice, regenerative agriculture, transition movements, and transformative learning models in education.

A key challenge in addressing the climate crisis is to re-examine the story of separation, and develop an interconnected perspective that encompasses all sectors of society. We can achieve this by bringing this new understanding into our organisations, workplaces and schools.

It is important to note that the aim is not to change people’s beliefs, values, and worldviews — as this turns them into objects to be changed instead of subjects of change. Instead, we need to value different perspectives and meaning-making, and create spaces and conditions that can nurture a culture of inner growth, mutual support and engagement toward sustainability, from a space of shared, universal values and interconnection.

It could be said that we need to decolonise our minds. We must examine how we have internalised deep cultural messages of separation, superiority and instrumentalisation and develop our sense of interconnection. Much progress can be made by adopting contemplative practices to nurture transformative qualities of awareness, compassion, insight and purpose. Social neuroscience and neuroplasticity provide clear evidence of our life-long ability to enhance such qualities, leading to lasting changes in our neural networks.

Thought patterns and mental structures are not personal: we internalise the values, norms and messages present in our culture. If we examine our habitual thinking, we can begin to see how we have internalised many social patterns. We can take the example of our eating habits. As we rush through our lunch in order to get back to work, we embody the collective story of separation, and make it our own story. Contemplative practices can help us to realise how our eating habits relate to wider society’s focus on productivity and economic growth, and its underlying mechanistic worldview. As we bolt down our food, we are seeing ourselves as a machine that simply needs to consume enough energy to continue working, reproducing the story of separation with every bite. Food is just a means to an end, and we eat as quickly as we can to get back to work as soon as possible. This is another example of the observation that the economy has become the end in everyday life.

Learning to eat more consciously can help to connect us with each bite. We become aware of the connection to where the food was grown, the conditions of the workers or farmers who harvested or picked it, the fossil fuels that were used to transport it, and all of the other processes that were involved — including economic structures and exploitation. Eating becomes a part of everything.

These may seem like small, individual acts. However, science suggest that these small choices have a far greater impact on others than we realise. Inner transformation can have profound impacts when we let go of mental habits, decolonise our mind and begin to question how the story of separation is maintained. How we think and act in the world means something.

Social network analysis, complexity theory and quantum social science can help us to understand the interconnections between inner transformation and social transformation. Social network analysis explores the power of our social networks. It shows, for instance, that what we do not only affects our friends, but also affects our friends’ friends’ friends. It even affects people we do not know. The chances that an individual will vote increases if that individual’s friends’ friends’ friends vote, and vice versa. Our influence is broader than we realise, and complexity and quantum social sciences show that this influence is even more complex and far-reaching, leading to collective and systems change. Pro-social and pro-environmental behaviour, founded on a deep sense of interconnection and entanglement, can thus impact others and systems in powerful ways.

Social network analysis and climate mainstreaming theory also provide insights into how we can best create the conditions for a new story to emerge. They show how we can spread our ideas and understanding within groups and organisations. For instance, ideas circulate and are shared most effectively in groups where a few people know each other, but where there is a continuous influx of new members, with new ideas and new connections. These groups are a powerful platform for ideas to spread. In addition, mainstreaming interconnection perspectives should be approached in the same way as we have addressed other mainstreaming issues, such as gender equality — through the systematic revision of organisations’ vision statements, communication and project management tools, working structures, policies, regulations, human and financial resource allocation, and collaboration.

In sum, to change the narrative of separation and address the climate crisis, there are two powerful ways to link inner transformation and sustainability. On the one hand, we need to support learning environments and practices that help us discover our individual thinking and internalised cultural patterns, and increase our sense of purpose and interconnection. This can help us to let go of habits that are an expression of the narrative of separation, and understand wellbeing and sustainability as qualities we can nurture. On the other hand, we need to include related considerations into our current political and institutional landscape, by systematically mainstreaming them in existing systems and structures, thus creating the conditions for a new, more sustainable story to emerge.

For more information, please see the Contemplative Sustainable Futures Program at Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies (LUCSUS), related research and projects, such as Mind4Change, TransVision & ActivateChange.

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Christine Wamsler

Professor, Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies (LUCSUS). Founder and Director of the Contemplative Sustainable Futures Program. Mind&Life Fellow.