news&views /

I Am Ecological: changing the story of ‘self’


I Am Ecological: changing the story of ‘self’

Pella Thiel considers the question how do we perceive the self?
This is a blog by Pella Thiel
Pella is helping to build the Common Cause network in Sweden.

The Common Cause report shows us that intrinsic values, such as equality and connection with nature, are associated with actions and attitudes towards a fair and sustainable society. Our ability to act for a greater good – as individuals, as a society – in other words depends on how altruistic or unselfish we are, how important it is for us to act in the interest of others than ourselves. In Schwartz´s model, those that he calls ‘self-transcendent’ values are in tension with the ‘self-enhancement’ values on the other side of the circumplex.

The self seems fundamental here. How do we perceive the self? Here is one perspective.

The story of the Separate Self

At the roots of our society is the story of the Separate Self: ‘You are not necessarily a part of anything; you are alone in a world of other separate selves.’ This is an old story, but it has become more obvious in the light of today’s globalization and erosion of community. If you don´t get what you need, you can buy it. If the person who grows your food, builds your house, or takes care of your kids, moves or dies, you can just get it from someone else. If all the fish in the seas get eaten, you can just buy fish from another sea. We don´t belong anymore (and for want of belonging, we instead focus on belongings…).

The notion of ‘self-transcending’ values can be said to be part of this story of separation. Because we are separate from others, we must transcend self-interest in order to care for them.

This logic is often reflected in the way NGOs present issues such as climate change or world poverty. We should do something about it because it is the right thing to do. We should care about other people, even if they are far away and we have never met them. Sustainability becomes a moral issue, and this can feel pretty overwhelming.

How powerful are morality and altruism as motivations for social change?

Picture taken from
Picture taken from

Moving away from altruism and sacrifice

Not only does the story of the Separate Self breed loneliness, competition and stress. It also provides a weak foundation for action on the behalf of the world. If we understand ourselves as essentially separate, we preach altruism (the latin term ‘alter’ being the opposite of ego). This is not only philosophically unsound from the perspective of deep ecology and other non-dualistic teachings, but also ineffective. We simply don´t love or take care of others for mere moral reasons. The extensive moralizing within the ecological movement has given the public the false impression that they are primarily asked to sacrifice, to show more responsibility, more concern, and better morals. (Ecology of Wisdom: Writings by Arne Næss. Berkeley, CA. 2008)

Changing the story

According to Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess the notion of the separate self is an underestimation of the human nature. He proposes the idea of the ecological self, which he defines very simply, as: ‘whatever the person identifies with.’  With sufficient maturity we cannot help but identify ourselves with all living things. Tell me what you love and I will tell you how big you are.

The worldview that the ecological self implies, that everything is part of everything else, is revolutionary from the perspective of the industrial, mechanistic society. However, it has always been part of ecology and of indigenous cultures around the world. It is a worldview that manifests for example when the Shuar of Ecuadorean Amazon stand between their forests and ”development” in the form of gold mines and say: ”to get the gold they will have to kill every one of us”. When understood in the light of the ecological self, the consequences of forests turned into strip mines become all the more horrific.

If the self is understood in a wider sense, as interbeingness, we don´t have to transcend it to act in the interest of other people or other beings. We just have to expand it. When we have a wider and deeper understanding of who we are, when we perceive ourselves as part of a greater whole, ‘altruism’ just means taking care of ourselves.  Love for myself is not something different than love for others. And love is a solid foundation to build on.

A call to action

Writer and social change activist Michael Edwards and professor in public policy Gita Sen calls for NGOs to work with personal change as a crucial part of social transformation.

The first principles for such change lie at the heart of the teachings of all the great religions – “Love thy neighbour as thyself” in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, “See God in each other” in Sanskrit. It is fascinating to recognise that the core of religious teaching concerns our feelings towards each other – a deeply social statement as much as it is profoundly personal. But to love our neighbours as ourselves, we must come to understand our own inner being – to recognise that in our deepest essence we are compassionate, capable of giving love, and worthy of receiving it.

It then becomes easier to empathise with what it means to be the “other” from whom we usually distance ourselves in subtle or overt ways. That shift is crucial because it provides the foundation for personal behaviour which is more expansive and less damaging to others – for why would we damage the life-chances of someone who is as much a part of our Selves?

Edwards and Sen go on to say that confronting this challenge – an inner transformation on a scale not realised in any period in history – squarely and with honesty is the need of the hour.

The understanding of interbeingness is the foundation of a new story. It changes what is real, possible and important. When we as people, as activists, hold each other as ecological selves, when we act from this understanding, when we dare to be great and consequently freely share our work with each other, we become very much more powerful.

It is the new story of the people. Acting from our inner values we realise the potential of our larger beings, our ecological selves. So called ‘self-transcendent’ values are all the more powerful if we conceive of self as connected, rather than separate.  We then don´t have to act morally, we only have to act beautifully.

What a relief!

Share with people you love

Skip to content