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sustainability as cultural and psychological transformation

By: James Miller

Light within all living beingsIn a fascinating article on metaphors for progressive politics, George Lakoff summarizes succinctly the message that progressives need to be communicating as regards the issue of sustainability:

The economic crisis and the ecological crisis are the same crisis. It has been caused by short-term greed.

I fully agree that the economic crisis and the ecological crisis are deeply interrelated, and that we must overcome the stupid political divide of “economy” versus “environment.” The issue here is how to overcome short-term thinking: how do you get people to think longer, deeper and further than their own immediate context? This demands a cultural revolution and a psychological revolution, because sustainability at its heart involves a different way of imagining oneself in the world. It involves:

  • Imagining oneself not as an autonomous individual but as part of an ecosystem
  • Imagining oneself to occupy a duration in time that extends deep into the grave and far into the future
  • Imagining oneself to be a world that extends deeply in space and time beyond one’s own body

Sustainability requires people to broaden the context in which they make decisions. It involves their feeling beyond the narrow context of their immediate place in the world so as to consider their actions extending far and wide across the world. It involves feeling beyond the narrow context of their immediate time so as to consider their actions extending deep into the future. It involves feeling beyond the narrow context of their body so as to consider their very being as extending widely into the world.

This is very hard, for an important psychological reason and an important cultural reason. They psychological reason is that our intuitive psychological apprehension of the world is that our “environment” is a thing outside us: the “world” is apart from us, not a part of us. That is our default intuition generated in the deep basement of our psychic apparatus. We intuitively perceive the world to be outside of us, separated from us by the skin.

The cultural reason is that the culture of modernity builds upon and reinforces this intuitive perception to create a complex civilization founded upon normative dualisms in which the thinking self is divorced from the material world.

The new sciences of evolution and ecology, however, teach us that this default intuition and its normative culture are false: that our thinking selves are the product of 13.7 billion years of cosmic evolution; and that our bodies are permeated by the worlds they inhabit and impact upon it in powerful and destructive ways.

The movement for ecological sustainability depends on embedding the holistic picture that has emerged in the new sciences into the operative norms of our culture. This requires transgressing the conventional norms of modern culture and, what is harder, the intuitive psychology whereby we perceive the world as a space outside our bodies. Sustainability depends for its success on these cultural and psychological transgressions.

Is it possible that religious traditions can help us to imagine how to transgress the normative culture of modernity and the intuitive dualism of self and other? In so doing, can they point the way to fostering a culture of sustainability?

In raising these questions, I am implicitly arguing that environmentalists have not been nearly radical enough in advocating for the harmony of human beings with each other and with their biological matrix. So long as environmentalists urge people to respect, heal, or value nature as an object beyond the hermetically-sealed walls of our bodies, they unconsciously reinforce the default dualism that posits an absolute separation between human beings and their lived environments. What is necessary therefore is to rewrite the discourse of ecological sustainability so as no longer to perpetuate the false reification of nature as a thing outside our bodies.

The movement for ecological sustainability depends on a deeper transformation in the way that people feel and perceive their place in the world. Sustainability at its deepest level is an aesthetic transformation, changing the way human beings sense, feel and cognize their location in space and time.

In Religion is Not About God, Loyal Rue proposed that we understand religions not so much as doctrines, but as effective systems for training people in the cultural habits and emotional responses that shape their experience of the world. Religions are mass cultural habits that train some people, for instance, to feel disgust at the thought of eating pork. In so doing they shape people’s perception of the world and educate them emotionally to respond to the world in certain ways.

This gives us a clue about how to deploy the techniques of religions for the benefit of training people not to feel disgust at pork, but to realize psychologically and culturally the hard truths that the new sciences are telling us: that we are implicated in a ecological matrix much bigger and more complex than we had previously imagined. In a sense, religions that train people to think about themselves sub specie aeternitatis have been doing this for a long time. But thinking of oneself from an eternal perspective is too big a deal. If only we can train people and politicians to think about themselves from the perspective of the next twenty years, that would be an enormous improvement.

Categories: Blog, Opinion, Questions


  1. James, some very good points about psychology, modernity and the ability to think/feel outside the body. Great thinking.
    Three problems
    1)”Imagining oneself to occupy a duration in time that extends deep into the grave and far into the future” most of the environmental movement is trying to tell me that x is better than y and that I need to change this instant or disaster will strike. “Off by a little now, off by a lot later,” works on both sides of the argument.
    2) The term sustainability is in desperate need of rehabilitation or redefinition. Dynamic changability is just as important, no?
    3) Progressive’s seeming inability to come to terms with the notion that some systems are not Zero-sum, makes it’s contribution to the debate very un-aesthetic.

    –did you know that Lakoff is in my first taijiquan lineage?

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