Connecting to the biosphere is not only about a mental understanding argues a recent study. The authors emphasise the importance of also accounting for our physical immersion and experience of the biosphere. Photo: J. Lokrantz/Azote

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connecting to the biosphere

It’s not all in your head

New study explores new ways of describing the connection between people and planet

Story highlights

  • Reconnection to the biosphere isn’t only about a new mind-set
  • Separating the mind from our bodies or actions may reinforce the same divide that social-ecological systems researchers are trying to bridge
  • Using perspectives from environmental humanities and social sciences can bring important insights for resilience research

At the foundation of social-ecological resilience research lies the realisation that humans are inextricably linked to and dependent on the biosphere. Many of the issues we are facing concerning the environment are thought to have at least some basis in the fact that we seem to have forgotten this connection and dependence.

Researchers therefore try to remind us and illustrate our dependence and impact through for example the Planetary Boundaries, and urge a shift in mindset towards a reconnection to our biophysical reality, a reconnection to the biosphere.

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Mind over matter?
In a recent study centre PhD student Simon West and researcher Wijnand Boonstra, together with Benjamin Cooke from the Centre for Urban Research at RMIT University in Australia, examine how resilience concepts such as Planetary Boundaries and Reconnect to the Biosphere frame the connection between humans and the environment in terms of mental understandings and physical realities. They find that there is often an emphasis on the need to reconnect to the biosphere mentally, in our perception of the world.

The authors argue that a sole focus on promoting a shift in mind-set towards reconnecting to nature and the biosphere might in fact be a limitation, hindering a deeper integration between the social and the ecological.

“Our thinking is that referring to the need for connection only as a mind-shift in itself creates a separation between the mental and the biophysical which could in fact reinforce the separation between the social and the ecological,” explains West

Let’s get physical
Using the concept of “dwelling”, Cooke, West and Boonstra instead outline a more embodied form of connection between humans and the biosphere. Seen from this perspective the connection between humans and the biosphere is not only a product of our minds but happens constantly through the interactions between mind, body and the environment. This highlights that humans are part of the biosphere and are constructing it through their everyday actions.

“The dwelling perspective makes it clear that humans are not just mentally, but also physically and materially immersed in their immediate environments,” says Boonstra. “It paints people as active participants in the making of the biosphere and also recognises that how we experience the biosphere will shape our understanding of it.”

Dwelling has been explored by resilience scholars before, for example in the 2003 book Navigating Social-Ecological Systems, by Fikret Berkes, Johan Colding and Carl Folke.

Cooke, West and Boonstra say their choice of the dwelling perspective is not to be seen as a prescription for complete integration of it into resilience research, but rather that they wanted to build upon previous work to help open up a space for broadening the discussion of what connection to the biosphere is about, and to stimulate greater cross-fertilization between the fields of environmental humanities and social sciences, and global environmental change and resilience research.

Bridging the mind-body gap
The authors conclude with some insights obtained from exploring ideas from environmental humanities and social sciences together with resilience and global environmental change research.

Using concepts such as dwelling can help researchers to maintain a holistic viewpoint in the process of analysis, by highlighting the actions and practices that steer, regulate or change a system rather than looking at the components of the system separately. It also allows researchers to think about the biosphere as an ongoing relationship between people and the environment, and can generate new insights in resilience research.

“We notice that increased understanding of an issue or problem does not necessarily change the way humans behave in relation to that issue or problem, even in cases where they express concern and about it,“ says West.

“While the mental connection to the biosphere and the realisation of our dependence on it is very important, the more embodied connections that exist between humans and nonhumans are key to how we live and act in our direct surroundings. Understanding the breadth of this connection can potentially help us understand and bridge the discrepancies between peoples’ expressed attitudes and their behaviour,” West concludes.

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Related info

Cooke, B., S. West, W.J. Boonstra. 2016. Dwelling in the biosphere: exploring an embodied human-environment connection in resilience thinking. Sustainability Science 11(3): 1-13. doi: 10.1007/s11625-016-0367-3

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About the centre authors

Simon West is a PhD student at the Stockholm Resilience Centre and the Department of Systems Ecology at Stockholm University. He is interested in how social learning can be enhanced by deliberative governance techniques, how environmental knowledge is created and mobilized, and how different social constructions of environment affect management outcomes.

Wijnand Boonstra is particularly interested in understanding how individual use of ecosystems aggregates to form so-called regimes of ecosystem use. Describing and explaining the complex set of social and ecological conditions and their interaction at micro and macro scales that cause these regimes to shift, is a key research objective.