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Education The Faculty Graduate Schools Graduate School of Behavioural and Social Sciences Research Master
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Resonating with nature

Date:04 February 2022
Author:Carolin Belz
The way one behaves is driving how Western people relate to nature
The way one behaves is driving how Western people relate to nature

Throughout my educational path, the triangulation of female empowerment, different cultures and the concept of nature has been central to my interest in studying sustainable transformation so far. After reflecting upon those three topics, focussing on culture and nature appeared to be most feasible for a Master thesis.

Given the freedom to choose a research topic, the research itself was also my responsibility. With this high level of autonomy and control, I could become creative and cross disciplinary boundaries while my supervisor, Rafael Wittek, supported me with challenging questions and critical reflection during the process.  In my master’s I explored philosophy and anthropology. For my research, I interviewed people from different cultures around the central question: “How do you relate to nature?”

Rosa’s Theory of Resonance
The Theory of Resonance has been accompanying my academic career for many years because it takes an alternative approach in describing, analysing and understanding contemporary societies. As such, the theory deconstructs the climate crisis as a crisis of relatedness.  It analyses resonance as the opposite of alienation.  Instead of positioning the exploitation of natural resources at the core of the climate crisis, this approach steps back and looks at what might be the root of unsustainable behaviour by re-formulating the problem: humans lost nature as a room for experiencing resonance. Formulated as a critique of the (western) post-modern world, it argues that culture impacts experiences of resonating with or alienating from nature. 

Concepts of nature
In line with this approach, many scholars and policymakers indeed consider a change in human´s connectedness to nature as a necessary means for reducing unsustainable lifestyles.

On a macro-level, there is the idea that through meta-processes such as industrialisation, technological developments, global trade and urbanisation we lost touch with the ecological environment and consequently feel less responsible for taking care of nature. Moreover, Economic growth is still not measured in biodiversity or natural resources but still with GDP.

Additionally, a cultural change driven by enlightenment and positivistic perspectives, which favours rationalistic thinking is argued to contribute to rejection of non-western perspectives in science, disappearance of nature-references in conversations and decreased knowledge about nature. 

Against this backdrop, on a micro-level, “research shows that psychologically, people benefit from spending time in nature. They show not only more altruistic but also more pro-environmental behaviour. But when you look at this research, you see it operates mostly on pre-defined concepts of relations to nature while staying within disciplinary boundaries. Considering those limitations of existing research, we wondered what does connection or disconnection from nature actually mean? We stepped back and asked: “What is nature to different cultures?”

Two cultures
For my research, I conducted a trans-regional, comparative analysis to assess whether the critique of late-modern unrelatedness actually holds and to examine the dominant way of engaging in human-nature-relations. For this, I interviewed ten informants.  Five people were from the Lake Constance area in Germany (Bodensee culture), and the other five were people with indigenous Maori heritage, living in New Zealand. Both cultural groups are considered to be surrounded by mountains and water, which allowed us to apply a most-similar-research-design. In each group informants' ages ranged from 20 to 80, increasing representativeness of our sample. 

The operationalisation
In the first part of the interview, informants listed all kinds of words that came to their mind when asking  ‘What is nature to you?’, “How does the natural environment affect people sharing your cultural background?” and “how do they act in nature?”. Performing a Cultural Consensus Analysis on those resulting lists of words enabled us to derive cultural shared knowledge of what nature and the relation to nature means for each culture. 

The other part, the in-depth interview, entailed descriptive and contrasting questions to explore and understand what are the drivers and effects of resonating and alienating experiences in the context of the cultural specific definition of nature. Accordingly, I asked in what situations people with their cultural background feel touched, hugged and supported by nature. To understand what is alienating them from their understanding of nature I asked in what situations they feel ‘cold’ and repelled by nature.  The cultural consensus model yields a powerful analytical framework for conceptualizing nature experiences in different cultures. Applying this framework allowed us to check to what extent there is consensus among the informants' descriptions, and to what extent there is no coherence in how they experience relating to nature. Thus, within and between differences were examined. 

 So, what does nature mean?
The way one behaves is driving how Western people relate to nature, while how people feel in nature is driving the relation to nature for people with Maori heritage.

When people from Bodensee culture talk about nature, they talk about touristic destinations, what can nature offer them, what elements give them a sense of peace. The idea of nature is always imagined as something without humans, something clean and quiet.
When people from Maori heritage talk about nature, they talk about a sense-making process, because their relation to nature is bound to their identity. Passing on knowledge through generations or that they now feel a cultural momentum after their past of colonisation are central elements to them.

For Bodensee culture, it is about the tangible elements of nature. They understand nature relative to the human-made environment, always in contrast. Naturalness nature is a driver of resonance, enabling one to relax. When you look at what purpose nature has, for South Germans, it is about counterbalancing a stressful daily life.
For Maori culture, it is about the intangible element of nature. They understand nature in reference to their cultural meaning. The purpose of nature lies in the cultural learning path: to know where you come from, what your roots are, who you are.

In line with our theoretical background, both groups describe urbanisation, industrialisation and technologisation as drives of alienating experiences in nature. However, for people from Bodensee, alienation is an inner tension due to stress and urban lifestyles. They live in the city and go out into nature to find relaxation, which indicates a rather short-lasting dynamic between tension (alienation) and relaxation (resonance).
For people with Maori heritage, alienation takes place when people lost their Maori heritage and do not know about the cultural meaning of nature. It is not a dialectic relation, but a more static condition: either your whole self knows where you are coming from, knows your ancestors, your history or it does not.  Being connected to the cultural identity (resonance) and being disconnected from cultural identity (alienation) build two poles and their relationship points at the time pre and post colonisation. We could show that the time horizons are completely different in both cultures.

Most striking result
What I find most striking is that people from Bodensee are constantly switching between being in resonance with nature and being alienated from it. Through activities, sensation, social interaction with others (like a rowing club), they escape from the alienating environment where they feel tension to the naturalness nature where they can relax. Interesting to me was that people from Bodensee appear to have a rather individual approach to nature, driven by leisure activities and seeking relaxation and pleasure. But how they describe their engagement with nature is very similar. They all feel the same way when they are in nature and the relation to nature appears to be less intimate. It is as if there is a pool of possible actions which everyone within the culture knows and applies.
This was exactly the opposite for people with Maori heritage. They describe their relationship to nature as a very personal one. They gain all their knowledge from their cultural heritage, but how they transform this relation into an intimate relation is very personal. People with a Maori background engage personally in an individual way with their culture and history, which results in a resonating relation to nature.

Knowledge transmission and raising awareness
My research assures that for people from Maori heritage, relating to nature is about generational connection. For them transferring knowledge about their heritage is of great importance, because that enables future generations to resonate with nature. And accordingly, taking care of nature in terms of biodiversity or ecosystem protection is important. Only when taking care of knowledge transmission through other generations, can they assure that their nature will also be protected.
For Bodensee people, since they only experience resonance with nature when they are in nature, it is important to provide opportunities for people to be in natural nature so they can connect to the experience. You could have little islands of nature in cities for people to resonate with nature, and then people would feel that outside these islands they feel alienated. That could be a good way to raise awareness.

I felt responsible and honoured
I am a passionate advocate of interdisciplinary approaches. They are inspiring and nourishing. Of course, it is necessary to have scientific alignment, like thesis structure and such, but that can also hinder the thought process. I hope for more open approaches at the university in the future, because new things can emerge from that.

Doing this research has taught me so much. I learned about new techniques to conduct qualitative research, other statistical analysis and new software programmes.

My informants were all super interested and curious to hear what I found out. But this was also a big responsibility. For the Maori people, it is a very intimate topic. Two of them started crying when I asked them ‘What is nature to you?’ I was shaken but also felt that it was an honour to be able to speak to them. Two of them were originally indigenous and were born in the bush. I asked all of them to provide a picture of what nature is to them and they felt happy to show their images. It was really amazing to conduct this research, especially with the support of Rafael with whom I had a one-hour meeting once a week. That was intense but constructive. I have to say, I am very happy with his supervision since he has seen my strengths and weaknesses and supported me accordingly; someone who responded to me instead of imposing standardised approaches.

This project changed a lot for me in terms of how I relate to nature. There is so much research out there that says urban life is not necessarily good or contributing to a better world. I gained all this knowledge throughout my academic career, and now I want to make use of it for myself. Not only for an outcome that is academically speaking, but also to make personal decisions based on those insights.

Now, next and after
I now live in Scandinavia in my van and work on self-sustaining farms that live off-grid and I interview the farmers. My vision is to find a piece of land in North Spain, where I can build a farm with animals and vegetables while having a job of 20 to 25 hours where I can use my brain. A balance of manual and intellectual work. Maybe at a research institute, or perhaps a think tank with people who are eager to think about and contribute to a positive change of society.

I aim to publish an article out of this thesis this year, And at some point, I would like to have the opportunity to maybe conduct my own research about nature and cultures, or to write in a more free way maybe about my observations or writing a novel.

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About the author

Carolin Belz
Carolin Belz

Carolin Belz (27, Berlin, Germany) finished her Bachelor in Culture, Communication and Management at the Zeppelin University in Friedrichshafen. She enrolled in the research master Behavioural and Social Sciences because she was looking for a master’s programme with an interdisciplinary approach and always wanted to live in the Netherlands at some point. In the theme Sustainability in a Changing Society, she stretched the interdisciplinary boundaries of the master by incorporating philosophy and even anthropology in her project.