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Developmental Psychology and Environmental Sustainability

Is the the ecological self a stage of human development?

What an eventful time for the environment! On the one hand hundreds of people are dying from Pakistan's deadliest heat wave on record, scientists have declared that we are going through the sixth great extinction of species on Earth, and California is enduring a drought of historic proportions. On the other hand, the pope has issued an encyclical stating that humans are causing global warming and reminding us of our responsibility to protect the environment, the development of renewable energy is proceeding at a rapid pace, and there are signs that corporations are taking steps to be more environmentally and socially responsible as exemplified by Apple’s creation of a new executive role, vice-president of environment, policy, and social initiatives, who will report directly to CEO Tim Cook.

Soon many world leaders will meet in Paris to try to reach an agreement to reduce the emissions that contribute to global warming. Will they be successful? Earth overshoot day, the day on which the world population has used up a year’s worth of natural resources, will occur in August this year. Will enough people take meaningful steps to reduce their ecological footprint soon enough to avoid large-scale ecological collapse?

In a recently released book by Steven Schein, A New Psychology for Sustainability Leadership: The Hidden Power of Ecological Worldviews, Schein posits that sustainability leaders have developed an ecological self, a postconventional worldview, and an enhanced systems consciousness. In my interview with him, Schein described the transformation of his own worldview from that of a corporate CEO to an ecological worldview.

Drawing on insights from ecopsychology, deep ecology, ecological economics, social psychology, environmental sociology, indigenous studies, integral ecology, and developmental psychology, and based on interviews with 75 global sustainability leaders in more than 40 multinational organizations, he shows that effective sustainabiilty leaders are deeply motivated by an ecological worldview, which he defines as seeing one's relationship to the natural world through the lens of ecology. In the interview, Schein discussed how the integration of a post-conventional, ecological worldview and systems consciousness into university business courses could rapidly produce a new generation of business leaders who would be capable of implementing large-scale changes. In the interview, he also described his vision of ecological concepts being taught at all levels of education, which could result in a transformation of society within one generation.

The perception of self can include only the individual or can expand to include his or her family, community, nation, or the entire planet. A person with an ecological self experiences him- or herself as interconnected with all people and as part of the environment. Thus to harm the environment is to harm oneself; to enhance the well-being of the environment is to enhance the well-being of oneself.

Societal systems that enhance the well-being of all people while protecting the environment can become a reality through a shift in one's self-perception and a realignment of one's values. What could be more important?

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