In this post, I want to introduce and briefly describe a somewhat challenging concept: The idea that “cultivating a globally sustainable self” is an important yet often overlooked part of creating stronger, more resilient human systems.


Where does this “Globally Sustainable Self” concept come from?

In working with colleagues across academic disciplines, geographic areas and cultural domains, it’s become clear that the connections between people and natural systems – including nature, the built environment, and other species – are sometimes poorly understood, or understood differently depending on culture or location. That lack of understanding can drive problems ranging from reduced mental health for people who are disconnected from nature, to the hunger felt by refugees fleeing their drought-stricken home countries. Better understanding can add tools to our toolbox for addressing a diverse set of societal problems.


The Globally Sustainable Self Summit Project

I am lucky to be a part an ambitious project to explore ideas of sustainability and the self, the James Madison University Cultivating the Globally Sustainable Self Summit Series. This is a multi-year, multi-institution initiative that brings together scholars, educators, practitioners, students, and leaders from around the world to address pressing issues of conflict resolution, global education, human rights, religious and cultural understanding, and environmental sustainability. A series of summit meetings, the most recent held this July in Banff, Canada has brought together researchers, teachers and professionals from psychology and other fields to explore various aspects of these complex questions. Insights and recommendations are to be captured in an upcoming edited book from Oxford University Press. My focus within the Summit, and in the Oxford book chapter I am helping to author, has been to ensure that the roles of the natural world, architecture and built spaces, and other species are represented as they influence people’s identity and sense of self.


Let’s break it down

The idea of a “globally sustainable self” is complex, so let’s look at some different facets.

“Self” means different things to different people. Some think about “self” in individual terms, while others see themselves first as part of a community. Gender roles may be more fundamental in some cultures compared to others. And a person’s relationship with the natural world may range from it being an afterthought to being something that informs every moment and every action. Any useful concept of a “self” has to respect the sheer diversity of people in the world.

The idea of “sustainable” or sustainability is equally multi-layered. For some, it’s immediately associated with environmental concerns, and the need to do no harm to future generations. But for others, it has more to do with whether or not their culture or people will be able to persist in the face of clear and present dangers like climate change. For the psychologists among us, sustainability can pertain to mental health in general and to resilience in the face of stressors in particular. It’s important to clarify our terms.

Finally, the “global” part of the idea explicitly recognizes the fact that all people share one world and that actions at home may have consequences far away. And, not only are humans part of a physical planetary system, we also have the ability to perceive the sense of a “global self” through images, real-time news and information technology, and though our scientific understanding of global systems, including climate and weather, geology, and human societies and commerce.

Perceiving a global self is a central psychological task in the 21st century. The sense of a global self can lead to wonder, awe and possibility. But, perceptions of social and environmental issues, crises, and injustices can also foster feelings of stress, confusion, guilt and powerlessness.


Three Paths to Explore a Globally Sustainable Self

My chapter team’s research on this concept explores three fundamental determinants of a global self: (1) our interactions with the natural world, (2) our interactions with the built environment, and (3) our interactions with other species – from pets to panthers. We approach these areas in terms of their benefits to people, in terms of (a) practical and easily measureable outcomes (e.g., improvements in physical health and wellbeing) and (b) the broader cultural and symbolic value of these interactions (e.g., on people’s sense of place and their cultural connections).

  1. The pragmatic benefits of access to healthy natural spaces is generally well recognized. These include better physical health and lower stress from spending time in the natural world or having restorative spaces nearby. Symbolic benefits are harder to measure, but no less meaningful. The beauty of nature and the connection people feel to scenic places can imbue people with a sense of awe, happiness, and spiritual transcendence. For many groups, the physical landscape is a key aspect of cultural identity. This can range from indigenous people’s earth-based livelihoods to urban people’s associations with recreation and restoration in treasured natural places.
  2. Meanwhile, the “built” environment can have equally powerful effects on people’s well-being. Healthy buildings with fresh air, lots of light, and comfortable temperatures can improve people’s moods and make them more productive. While “places of memory” – from cemeteries to battlefields, monuments to historic houses – can offer deep meaning and resonance with cultural and personal history.
  3. Our third path considers how humans can coexist with other species – from pets like dogs and cats to predators like mountain lions and tigers. These interactions offer yet another way to ground oneself in the natural world. The pragmatic benefits of healthy and biologically diverse ecosystems on land and sea underlie human society’s basic functioning. These ecosystem services are the foundation of our economic systems. From a larger philosophical and evolutionary perspective, human cultures arose in kinship with a myriad of other species. Humans’ relationships with other species in the modern era brings into consideration the rights and wellbeing of other animals in terms of farming and agriculture, free ranging wild creatures, and animals as pets and companions.


Why should we seek to cultivate a globally sustainable self?

This concept is ambitious in the ground it seeks to cover.  But creating a deeper understanding of what a “globally sustainable self” is could offer a wealth of practical insights and new academic frameworks. When we think about society and nature together, ideas abound for improvements to:

  • Urban design and housing
  • Human health, both physical and mental
  • Food systems
  • Ensuring access to clean air, water and food
  • Conservation and wilderness management
  • Ecosystem health
  • Resolution of regional conflicts caused by climate and resource issues
  • Healing the wounds of colonialism, wars and oppression
  • Addressing global climate change
  • Environmental education
  • Evaluating new technologies

And that’s only the scratching the surface.


What’s next?

Research on what is means to cultivate a globally sustainable self continues. I look forward to collaborating with my Summit colleagues in July. A book from Oxford University Press will be available in 2019.

Does this concept resonate with you? I’d love to hear your thoughts.


— Thomas Doherty, Psy.D.


Published by Thomas Doherty

Psychologist Thomas Doherty's work on environmental sustainability and health has been featured in publications like the New York Times and in talks worldwide. Thomas consults with individuals and organizations through his business Sustainable Self. He was the founding Director of the Ecopsychology Certificate Program at Lewis & Clark Graduate School and Founding Editor-in-Chief of the peer-reviewed academic journal Ecopsychology. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

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