Is attachment to things a barrier to caring for nature?

Nature is in crisis and human behaviour is the cause. The UN Secretary-General has summarised the situation starkly, “Humanity is waging war on nature”. There is global recognition that a sustainable future requires a new relationship with nature. While much research has studied broadly carbon-cutting pro-environmental behaviours, there has been far less research into habitat creating pro-nature conservation behaviours. Our latest research looks into the relationship between nature connectedness, engagement with nature’s beauty, nonattachment and dualism and how these factors explain pro-nature conservation behaviours. The paper has just been published in Ecopsychology, where the final version can be accessed. The accepted version is available here. The thinking underpinning the study is quite involved and can be read in the full paper, but a flavour is given in this summary.

It starts long ago, with the once-dominant worldview, still found in Indigenous peoples worldwide who have spiritual traditions such as animism – where objects, plants, wildlife and places are viewed as having a spiritual essence. This embedded relationship with the rest of the natural world has great relevance to nature connectedness. It also raises interesting questions about how nature connectedness relates to the philosophy of consciousness and our modern relationship to the objective world.

Famously, the Cartesian view sees the subject as separate from the object, and this is reflected in nature connectedness, most accessibly through a key measurement tool. The Inclusion of Nature in Self scale uses overlapping circles to reflect the extent to which an individual’s view of self is separate from nature. This reflects a fundamental construct in Western thinking; the disembodied Cartesian self is a common notion in Western societies. And those that place themselves outside nature tend to show less care for nature – and have lower levels of wellbeing.

Gregory Bateson saw this Cartesian dualism as a key cause of the destruction of nature, writing that if humans continue to think in that way, “it is doubtful whether a species having both an advanced technology and this strange way of looking at its world can endure”. So the study included a measure of dualism.

In Buddhist thought, suffering arrives from our attachment to these separate external objects and impermanent states. Here a more accurate worldview is that all things, including people, are devoid of a ‘self’. So, dualistic behaviours, including craving for things we desire, perpetuate a cycle of suffering – whereas being free from this cycle involves nonattachment. A non-dualistic form of awareness is a central concept of Buddhism. Nonattachment is a state of detachment from objects and concerns, overcoming an attachment for things. Ultimately, all of us are temporary – attachment can’t be a permanent state. Nonattachment is the second measure in this study.

The lotus symbolizes nonattachment in some religions owing to its ability to grow in muddy waters yet produce an immaculate flower.

Human thought has considered beauty for millennia. Western philosophy considers beauty a fundamental aspect of our existence that strongly influences our behaviour. Our relationship with nature includes the beauty of nature – engaging with it is a pathway to nature connectedness. Gregory Bateson felt that engaging with beauty was key to a closer relationship with nature and the wider ecology. Although a link between nature connectedness and engagement with nature’s beauty has been established, the link to pro-nature conservation behaviours has received little attention. Therefore, a measure of engagement with nature’s beauty was included in the study.

These measures, plus one for nature connectedness and pro-nature conservation behaviours, were included in a survey. As well as looking at the relationship between these factors, the analysis looked at the relationship to nature conservation behaviours. The insight gained potentially informs new ways to encourage people to take action for nature’s recovery.

The strongest relationship between the factors was found between nature connectedness and engagement with nature’s beauty, which was linked to pro-nature conservation behaviours. There was a weak to moderate relationship between nonattachment and nature connectedness and a weak, yet somewhat surprising, association between dualism and nature connectedness. In comparison, nonattachment was unrelated to a dualistic worldview. These are discussed in the paper.

Of more practical interest, the significant predictors of pro-nature conservation behaviours were nature connectedness, nonattachment, and engagement with nature’s beauty also having a role. Nonattachment and engagement with nature’s beauty explained similar levels of pro-nature behaviours, with nature connectedness having a stronger relationship, about twice as strong.

The results build on previous work showing the importance of nature connectedness in explaining pro-nature conservation behaviours. They also provide some initial insight into other factors that explain a person’s inclination to actively care for nature. This suggests that in addition to nature connectedness, interventions that foster nonattachment and appreciation of nature’s beauty may have a role in effective programmes to aid nature’s recovery.


Barrows, P. D., Richardson, M., Hamlin, I., & Van Gordon, W. (2022). Nature Connectedness, Nonattachment, and Engagement with Nature’s Beauty Predict Pro-Nature Conservation Behavior. Ecopsychology.

About Miles

Professor of Human Factors & Nature Connectedness - improving connection to (the rest of) nature to unite human & nature’s wellbeing.
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