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From environment to nature: Psycho-social investigations into practices of relating to nature

Zegers, Rembrandt Ernst

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Rembrandt Ernst Zegers


How might we understand relating to Nature and what potential insights to sustainable leadership practices can be offered from that understanding? Those were the overall aims of this research. As Nature is omnipresent, yet not represented in mainstream culture that largely operates as if humans are split off from Nature, the question is: where has Nature gone in the psycho-social domain? If Nature is paradoxically both omnipresent and yet not consciously present, then where is it hiding? It must have gone unconscious and people must work hard to keep it there. But if that is so what relation is kept, or how does such relation (both omnipresent and not consciously acknowledged) manifest itself? This project puts emphasis on relating to Nature as the key problematique of inquiry. Translating this into researching lived experience, a psycho-social approach using Hollway and Jeffersons interview method was chosen in order to focus on the unconscious aspects of relating to Nature, the relating ‘below the surface’ (Hollway and Jefferson, 2013). This was combined with elements of Gendlin’s protocol of ‘felt sense’ to be able to expand the research to the unconscious aspects of relating to Nature, as Gendlin (and others) base themselves on Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy of perception that has introduced the unconscious relating to Nature into psycho-analysis (Ferro and Civitarese, 2015). Furthermore, Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy is considered a philosophy of Nature as it emphasises the intersubjectivity and reciprocity of that relation. Through Merleau-Ponty, it is the preconscious role of the senses that is considered the primary area of knowing.
In the empirical part of the project, 15 people’s lived experiences within five different practices of working with Nature are distilled. The insights are used to comment on literature, answer the research questions and highlight contributions to psycho-social studies as well as directions for further research. The insights are used to show how relating to Nature is a continuous process of meaning making; a process that enhances a dynamic ecocentric ethics, based on experience. In opening up to the idea of ‘preconscious knowing through relating’, agency of non-human others becomes an important source of developing an ecocentric ethics from experience.
In the current sustainability discourse, meaning making is limited to meaning making within existing human culture, which keeps it within the boundaries of neo-liberal thinking and its reproduction3. That means people’s liberties (without constraints to comfort and material wellbeing) are advocated and enhanced at the cost of the survival of other species and ecosystems. It also means relating to Nature is limited to ‘managing the environment’. It is argued that working from a position of acknowledging Nature having agency, will allow for meaning making itself to take central stage, bringing back relating to Nature out of its mental hiding place, into the space of lived experience.
Recognizing the agency of non-human others is therefore crucial in developing ecocentric ethics. It construes relating to Nature as a dynamic process in leadership, instead of a static one based on a list of prescriptions (Fox, 1995). This opens up possibilities for innovations in culture through paying attention to the dimensions of meaning making that start with the senses.


Zegers, R. E. From environment to nature: Psycho-social investigations into practices of relating to nature. (Thesis). University of the West of England. Retrieved from

Thesis Type Thesis
Deposit Date Aug 12, 2019
Publicly Available Date Sep 1, 2020
Keywords Bodily knowing; ecocentric; ecosystem; lived experience; nature's agency; non-human; non- representational unconscious; nature practices; psycho-social; relational; self; socioeconomic
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