What Is Eco-Connection, and How Can We Cultivate It?

New research on untranslatable words shows how we can better connect with nature

Posted Dec 16, 2019

Pxhere (Creative Commons)
Source: Pxhere (Creative Commons)

The global environment is increasingly seen as imperiled, with foreboding statistics on the rate and effects of climate change emerging almost daily. For instance, a recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change charts the rapid melting of glaciers and ice sheets, and argues that we may realistically only have until 2030 to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees (the threshold past which runaway climate change is thought likely to occur).

This crisis has great existential significance for human beings. As such, the situation, and our response to it, has a considerable psychological dimension, as found in emerging constructs such as eco-anxiety1.

As the world struggles with this ever-urgent predicament, various ways of appraising and addressing the situation can be seen across the globe, from scientific analyses and technological innovation to moral persuasion and public activism. An example of the latter is the recent Extinction Rebellion movement, which concentrates on the role of government inaction in exacerbating this state of affairs and aims to compel their action through civil disobedience.

Seeking eco-connection

Among these varied approaches, one important strategy will be to address how we think about our relationship to nature, psychologically and culturally2. Recent centuries have seen the rise to global dominance of a mode of relationship that is fundamentally extractive and predatory. In this, nature is constructed as a resource to be exploited rather than a commonwealth to be protected.

This perspective is particularly dominant in industrialized nations, and Western ones in particular (although, given the complex dynamics of globalization and cultural change, one can see signs of this mode worldwide). This toxic mode of relationship helps explain why people have damaged the environment so badly, since this way of relating both encourages and justifies such behavior.

So, if we are to live on this planet in more sustainable and adaptive ways, we will need to develop more harmonious, respectful modes of "eco-connection" with nature. Crucially, such modes have been cultivated historically, and indeed can still be found, particularly in less-industrialized cultures, but also in industrialized ones (albeit in non-dominant ways). To that end, I have just published a paper exploring more adaptive and sustainable modes of relationship between humans and the environment3.

Exploring untranslatable words

Specifically, the paper analyses modes of eco-connection by studying "untranslatable" words (i.e., those without an exact equivalent in another language: in this case, English). Such words are significant for many reasons, including that they signify phenomena or ideas which have been overlooked or downplayed in one’s own culture (hence the lack of a relevant word), but have been noticed and conceptualized by another. In the case of eco-connection, then, such words draw our attention to adaptive ways of relating to nature that have not been prominent in English-speaking cultures.

Indeed, given the largely English-centric nature of the field of psychology, such words can help expand its conceptual network in all aspects of life, providing a more nuanced lexicon. It’s for that reason that over the past five years, I’ve been developing a "positive cross-cultural lexicography" of untranslatable words relating to well-being4. This currently has over 1,200 words. My approach has been to analyze the words thematically to create an enriched conceptual "map" of well-being5.

As it stands, I've identified 12 main categories (each featuring numerous themes and subthemes), which can be clustered into four meta-categories: qualia (including positive feelings6, ambivalent feelings7, cognition, and embodiment); development (including character8, spirituality9, competence, and understanding); and relationships (including love10, prosociality11, aesthetics, and eco-connection12). I have further sought to conduct detailed analyses of each category, and have so far published seven of these (as indicated by the superscript numbers in the list above), with the most recent being the topic of this post, eco-connection.

The elements of eco-connection

By analyzing the words within this category, I was able to identify three main themes around eco-connection, each with three sub-themes, as shown in the figure below. The first theme of sacrality recognizes that, throughout history, humans have often regarded nature as sacred in various ways, including through perspectives such as animism, polytheism, and pantheism. The second theme of bonding encompasses the different ways in which people see themselves as connected to nature, including being intertwined with it, rooted in it, and longing for it. Finally, the third theme articulates various modes of appreciation for nature, including acts of savoring, sensitivity to its details, and attention to aesthetics.

Tim Lomas (International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health)
The elements of eco-connection
Source: Tim Lomas (International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health)

Hopefully, this kind of analysis can help enrich our vocabulary in relation to this vital phenomenon of eco-connection. In turn, developing such a vocabulary may even play a role—however minor—in helping us develop more constructive relationships with nature, which we will surely need to do in order to live sustainably on this beautiful planet of ours.


[1] Pihkala, P. (2018). Eco-anxiety, tragedy, and hope: Psychological and spiritual dimensions of climate change. Zygon, 53(2), 545–569.

[2] Carmichael, R. (2019) Behaviour change, public engagement and Net Zero. A report for the Committee on Climate Change. Available at https://www.theccc.org.uk/publications/ and http://www.imperial.ac.uk/icept/publications/

[3] Lomas, T. (2019). The elements of eco-connection: A cross-cultural lexical enquiry. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 16(24):5120.

[4] Lomas, T. (2016). Towards a positive cross-cultural lexicography: Enriching our emotional landscape through 216 ‘untranslatable’ words pertaining to well-being. Journal of Positive Psychology, 11(5), 546–558.

[5] Lomas, T. (2018a). Experiential cartography and the significance of “untranslatable” words. Theory and Psychology, 28(4), 476–495.

[6] Lomas, T. (2017). The spectrum of positive affect: A cross-cultural lexical analysis. International Journal of Wellbeing, 7(3). https://doi.org/10.5502/ijw.v7i3.608

[7] Lomas, T. (2017). The value of ambivalent emotions: a cross-cultural lexical analysis. Qualitative Research in Psychology, https://doi.org/10.1080/14780887.2017.1400143

[8] Lomas, T. (2019). The roots of virtue: A cross-cultural lexical analysis. Journal of Happiness Studies, 20(4), 1259–1279

[9] Lomas, T. (2019). The dynamics of spirituality: A cross-cultural lexical analysis. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 11(2), 131–140.

[10] Lomas, T. (2018). The flavours of love: A cross-cultural lexical analysis. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 48(1), 134–152.

[11] Lomas, T. (2018). The dimensions of prosociality: a cross-cultural lexical analysis. Current Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12144-018-0067-5

[12] Lomas, T. (2019). The elements of eco-connection: A cross-cultural lexical enquiry. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 16(24):5120.