Environmental spirituality

1 Spiritual values

No society can function without some comprehensive framework of values. Every time we apply the Endangered Species Act or choose between carbon-derived energy and more oil-drilling, we are expressing a sense of what is important to us, how we ought to live, and what we regard with reverence. This is the spiritual dimension of what can be called secular environmentalism. A full understanding of environmentalism requires seeing it as a secular faith movement concerned with acting out green policies and campaigns based on ecological science.  Scientific reason is employed to answer ultimate questions about the place and purpose of humans in the world. In this respect the human mind in its dreaming, imagining and wandering modes is as much a part of nature as a boreal forest. Creating mythologies about origins, being and destinations is key.

The word ‘spiritual’, which relates to the human spirit, as opposed to material or physical things, does not imply a religious institution and many people who experience spiritual emotions about nature, including secular scientists, do not belong to a formal religion. Where does this kind of environmental spirituality come from?  It has to start with an understanding that there is more to our mental lives than the current content of our day to day awareness. 

Our conscious mind contains the immediate, critical thought function of our brains. The conscious mind is the part of the mind you identify with in everyday life.  Some, but not all, memories are here, only the memories you need on a day to day basis. The conscious mind uses the intellect to come up with choices and logical solutions to problems. It learns and understands through input from our senses. It also moves our body in the way we decide. 

In contrast, the subconscious mind (also known as the unconscious mind) operates all the body’s automatic systems.  It’s in charge of breathing, heart rate, kidney function, digestion and more. The subconscious is also the storehouse of  long-term memory, all of our experiences and emotions; everything we have ever encountered, everything we are unaware of that can be brought into play to inform our decision making process.  It learns from our experiences and stores the information. 

Our subconscious affects what we sense, think, feel and do. Remember something that has taken you completely out of yourself.  Perhaps it was a newborn baby or a thunderstorm, a beached whale or a piece of music. Try to remember how it made you feel in the moment when you stopped thinking and just let yourself be lifted out of your everyday experiences.  The subconscious is the powerful layer underneath that encompasses the awareness of all things the conscious mind cannot recognize. Our subconscious is continually chewing things over in the background of our minds and taking note of things without us knowing. The product of that subconscious analysis appears as our intuition; we suddenly know something without knowing why.  Items from this long term library of memories can pop up without warning or conscious control and enter our spiritual realm.

Spiritual values are innate mental energies common to the whole of humanity, which when fully embodied in individuals as a faith system can create harmonious relationships between individuals, nations, and ecosystems. All evidence points to humanity evolving towards a fuller alive expression of spiritual values.  So spiritual values are often recognized as aspirational goals. Gandhi pointed the way to achieve this evolutionary transformation irrespective of your faith system : “be the change you want to see”, he stated. Paradoxically, it is the striving of each individual to live by spiritual values that results in humanity adopting cultural ecology to conceptualise being part of nature in all that we do.  These innate mental energies come from being a social primate. We demand relief from the friction, chaos, and conflict engendered by lower regressive values, selfishness, separatism, greed, and the like. Spiritual values enable us aspire to love, wisdom, enlightenment, selfless service and goodwill in action, unity, harmony, and sacrifice.  Suffering, in this context, is merely the intuition of wrong relations based on wrong values.

Sam Harris argues that much of our unease with nonreligious spirituality, and the integration of science and spirit, comes from the narrow view of both camps:

Scientists “generally start with an impoverished view of spiritual experience, assuming that it must be a grandiose way of describing ordinary states of mind,” while New Age thinkers “idealize altered states of consciousness and draw specious connections between subjective experience and the spookier theories at the frontiers of physics” — a fault line that erupts with semi mathematical mysticism that leaves us with the lose-lose choice “between pseudo-spirituality and pseudo-science.”

Regarding the question whether or not environmentalism is a religion, William James, a pioneering psychologist, defined religion as a belief that the world has an unseen order, coupled with the desire to live in harmony with that order. In his 1902 book The Varieties of Religious Experience, James pointed to the value of a community of shared beliefs and practices. He also appreciated the individual quest for spirituality — a search for meaning through encounters with nature. More recently, William P. Alston outlined in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy what he considered the essential characteristics of religions. They include: 

  • a distinction between sacred and profane objects; 
  • ritual acts focused upon sacred objects; 
  • a moral code;
  • feelings of awe, mystery, and guilt;
  • adoration in the presence of sacred objects and during rituals; 
  • a worldview that includes a notion of where the individual fits.  

A majority of like-minded people are happy to go along peaceably with this philosophy.  It is this kind of thinking that allows many people to adopt environmentalism as a religion.

As an ideology, environmentalism is based on ecological values applied to counter the excesses of industrial modernity. Secular environmentalism is a system of values, separate from religion or politics, that defines what people expect of themselves and of others.  The system is based on the beliefs they hold about their personal relationship to Earth and the wider cosmos. Such values can represent core principles that guide daily decision making. They help people determine which actions to take, and to make judgments about right or wrong and good or bad. The world’s most commonly practiced religions often have similar values, although variations exist in the way some values are prioritized over others. Since secular environmentalism has been a key part of the environmental movement from its inception to the present, it makes environmental politics particularly fertile ground for an alliance with religion. This alliance has been manifest in a host of particular circumstances from the common ground of spirituality.   

Environmentalism was born out of the industrial revolution and has no mythical template from the past with which to create the good life.  As Michael Crichton notes:

There is no Eden. There never was. What was that Eden of the wonderful mythic past? Is it the time when infant mortality was 80%, when four children in five died of disease before the age of five? When one woman in six died in childbirth? When the average lifespan was 40, as it was in America a century ago. When plagues swept across the planet, killing millions in a stroke. Was it when millions starved to death? Is that when it was Eden?

And what about indigenous peoples, living in a state of harmony with the Eden-like environment? Well, they never did. On this continent, the newly arrived people who crossed the land bridge almost immediately set about wiping out hundreds of species of large animals, and they did this several thousand years before the white man showed up … And what was the condition of life? Loving, peaceful, harmonious? Hardly, the early peoples of the New World lived in a state of constant warfare. … The warlike tribes of this continent are famous: the Comanche, Sioux, Apache, Mohawk, Aztecs, Toltec, Incas. Some of them practised infanticide, and human sacrifice. And those tribes that were not fiercely warlike were exterminated…

However, we can use this reality of an Eden-free past to be aware of what we have gained from economic growth, gains that must be protected whatever the future economy.

2 Sacramental awareness

Human beings are transcendent creatures oriented to myth, mystery and religion through sacramentalism.  Our innate faculty of sacramental imagination is the ability to form mental images in our minds of things we have not experienced through our senses.  We are ultimately striving for communion with ‘the other’. Richard McBrien sums up this process as follows: 

“A sacramental perspective is one that ‘sees’ the divine in the human, the infinite in the finite, the spiritual in the material, the transcendent in the immanent, the eternal in the historical.”  

Sacraments are signs and symbols that convey a depth of meaning. A sign specifically points to something beyond itself and communicates a sense that is deeper than the concrete object that it is. A symbol is a type of sign that often has numerous connotations and reaches beyond the sign itself to touch the imagination and emotions as a way of communicating feelings and ideas about place.  Therefore, symbols convey a series of meanings and delineate a path to the very depths of things. They allow us to see beyond the world of our senses, to feel deeply, and to contemplate on our surroundings. Symbols can take us to what we think are the depths of things, a pathway that can be experienced through contemplation and reflection.  

Artists often think symbolically and have a peculiar sacramental awareness that many people do not possess. Artists tend to reach toward mystery, the unexplainable, the existential. They extend us toward feeling, sensitivity, and reflective cognition.  We enter into the mystery while reflecting on human experience. Sacramentality involves taking objects as symbols and signs that need our contemplation, but not necessarily our decoding. For this reason, art employs symbols that reach beyond the tangible realities to deeper truths of human existence. We look at art and ask what it is that it desires of us, not what it means. This is the same of sacraments and sacramentality. We discover not what they mean but the deeper responses they bring up because signs always point us to something beyond themselves.  We must remember that visual arts are done precisely because words are insufficient to hold the concepts alluded to in the art form. An artist may attempt to give meaning in the title and an explanation. But the moment other minds see the work, because of their individual and unique thinking and perceptual patterns, they will bring their own impression of what the work may mean to them.

John Shea explains: 

“Sacramental consciousness does not desert the concrete, historical world but turns it into a symbol.” 

Poets do this with language. The Jesuit priest and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins sees the beauty present in nature as an expression of deep ecology, and exclaims, 

“The world is charged with the grandeur of God. It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.” 

He observes a spiritual presence in trees that shines forth with brilliancy more than natural light can convey. He sees the sacramentality present in creation of the universe, in the light flickering off the leaves, in nature’s wondrous beauty. His is a sacramental awareness which goes on in his head.  His poetic expressions on a page prompt others to share the mental image.  

Sacramental awareness is transferred to canvas in such master artists as DaVinci, Carravaggio, Rembrandt, Cezanne, Matisse, John Singer Sargent, Georgia O’Keefe, as well as in contemporary artists such as Jay DeFeo and Jasper Johns. It is also present in the works of filmmakers such as Ingmar Bergman.  

Sacramental imagination refers to the everyday events, persons, situations, and experiences that are moments of revelation.   A contemporary example in art is ‘Jalobayu’ (climate in Bengali). This is Monica Jahan Bose’s collective performance piece. Bose uses the sari, eighteen feet of unstitched handwoven fabric that is commonly worn by women in South Asia, to represent women’s lives and the cycle of life on our planet. The sari she uses in the show is written on and worn by a group of coastal women in Bangladesh. Jalobayu juxtaposes women’s words on their sewn together worn saris stretched against the backdrop of the rising ocean in Miami Beach. The intent is to raise awareness of climate change and link Miami Beach to coastal Bangladesh, both of which face devastation due to climate change.

Modern mother and child images of today are the most up-to-date symbol of our planetary home, a sacrament encoding the extreme demands that we, her most demanding offspring, are making of her. In one way, it’s a twist on Leonardo’s Madonna Litta, with its knowing baby gorging himself on his mother’s milk. But in new planetary versions of this image, the infant’s excessive demands have left Mother Earth far from serene.

The demands of mass production are symbolised in Chris Jordan’s series of pointillist paintings Running the Numbers.  This series presents the subject of human consumption, human waste, in fact our whole buy-it-now-throw-it-away-later culture. His method is to start with a statistic, say, the 2 million plastic beverage bottles used in the United States every five minutes and to create an image that translates those astonishing numbers into something you can see at a glance. From a distance, his “Plastic Bottles, 2007” looks like an abstract-expressionist painting, buzzing with texture and colour. Step up closer and it begins to resolve itself into discernible shapes. Zoom right in, and there are all our empty soda and water bottles: an infinite wasteland receding in a strangely thrilling vanishing perspective.  In Oil Barrels, 2008, he presents 28,000 barrels in a mandala-like formation of concentric circles, recalling the volume of oil burned in the United States every two minutes. Of course his message has to be explained to the viewer in words that travel with the image because the barrels by themselves are meaningless.

Having a sacramental imagination means that we can see beyond the physical to contemplate tangible realities as conveying something of deeper meaning and purpose. This is an incarnational perspective of the world and human experience which runs wider than religion.  Our sacramental imagination moves us beyond signs and symbols to the deeper spiritual meaning conveyed by everyday experiences, situations, objects, and persons. These deeper spiritual meanings have been called “revelations of secular grace.” In Christanity grace is believed to be a divine influence acting within a person to make the person morally strong. For the non-believer, secular grace defines grace as the expression of a mental capacity to integrate the various components of an experience; the human with the non human, the physical with the mental, the unconscious with the conscious. Secular grace is not regarded as an expression of the divine.  It is a mental process triggered by an object or place that fulfills the very human need to experience connection, belonging, awe, wonder and most of all love. It asserts human worth, dignity and rights and attempts to ethically follow all the implications from these assertions. It calls forth a prescription on how to live life well and thrive as a human being in all of its diverse expressions. 

Most people agree that the moment of grace at the heart of Japanese haiku poetry is what’s called the haiku moment.  This is when you are so struck by a scene – like snow covering apple trees – or an event – such as hearing a flock of geese – that you can’t help but want to share it with someone.  the philosophy of haiku has been preserved: the focus on a brief moment in time; a use of provocative, colorful images; an ability to be read in one breath; and a sense of sudden enlightenment and illumination.     The haiku moment has a “whoa!” quality to it. You are so taken by the scene that you may literally stop in your tracks. Whoa! If someone were with you, you might have said, “Did you see that?!” The haiku moment happens quickly.  We need to pay attention or we will miss such moments.”

Cultural artifacts engage our sacramental imagination and sacramental imagination allows us to view their reality through the lens of faith where the finite mediates the infinite, and all of creation can be a mediation of integration of the two graces. Both kinds of grace are needed today in order to transition to a world of no growth and equal opportunity.  They generate a long-term equilibrium state of deep ecology, where the basic material needs of each person on Earth are satisfied and each person has an equal opportunity to realize his/her individual human potential. The equilibration requires trading certain human freedoms, such as producing unlimited numbers of children or consuming uncontrolled amounts of resources, for other freedoms, such as relief from pollution and crowding and the threat of collapse of the global ecosystem.  But the downsizing and the sharing, would have to be voluntary and an orderly and cooperative descent toward a socially-just sustainability for all.

In 2008, Peter A Victor pointed to what a zero-growth economy could look like? He said:

“There are lots of things that can grow in a zero-growth economy. For example, well-being, literacy, life expectancy, fairness, security, conviviality, community-mindedness, environmental quality, and the resource efficient sectors of the economy can all grow, in principle. However, the material and energy throughput of the economy must stabilize and even go down. Human population must likewise stabilize or even go down. The stock of physical capital and artifacts—infrastructure and all the things that we build—requires a huge amount of resources just to maintain, let alone grow, and thus may also need to stabilize or even contract”. 

Many of these positive features that could thrive in a zero growth economy highlight the emphasis that most individuals still place on the personal benefits derived by their spirituality.  But education is needed to promote them alongside ecological awareness and concern for protecting the environment.

Deep ecology bridges sacramental awareness with ecological awareness.  It does not separate humans nor anything else from the natural environment. It sees the world not as a collection of isolated objects but as a network of phenomena that are fundamentally interconnected and interdependent. Deep ecology recognizes the intrinsic value of all living beings and views humans as just one particular strand in the web of life.  Here are some of the questions that stand between ecological awareness and its applications to the economics of everyday life.

  • How does ecological awareness inform spiritual practice?
  • What does it mean to have faith in something transcendent yet seek to protect the material world?
  • Is environmentalism in conflict with spirituality?
  • How does faith influence ecological perspectives?
  • Should communities of faith be doing more to protect natural resources?
  • Is sustainable living possible as prescribed by religious tradition?

All economic value is derived from nature by way of society.  Economic value is therefore rooted in human values and ultimately in the spiritual values that give purpose and meaning to human life.  In the absence of purpose, there is no logical motivation for sustaining human life or sustaining human economies. Thus, economic sustainability is deeply rooted in spirituality.  So, fundamental challenges to achieve sustainability in all its dimensions are ethical, moral, and ultimately spiritual rather than technological or economic. Therefore, sustainability ultimately depends on creating a deep, moral and ethical culture that gives long term ecological sustainability priority over short term economic expediency. This deep sustainability goes beyond the normal shallow or instrumental strategies which focus on resource efficiency and substitution, motivated by economic incentives. Deep sustainability explores the philosophical, ethical, and transcendental roots of ecological, social, and economic integrity. In so doing, it calls for a spiritual-rooted, cultural revolution. This revolution must be motivated by an understanding that the pursuit of economic sustainability is synonymous with the pursuit of authentic happiness, which is inherently social and spiritual as well as material. A degrowth economy would be one which simply provides the material requisites and means for a pursuit of happiness motivated by a spiritual sense of wellbeing.  “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” were the lode stones for spiritual wellness established by the first European settlers in North America and are evident in this phrase embedded in the United States Declaration of Independence. The phrase gives three examples of the “unalienable rights” which the Declaration says have been given to all humans by their creator, and which governments are elected to protect.

Spiritual wellness, as the European colonists of North America were only too aware of, comes, in general, from having connections to something greater than yourself.  It is about having a set of values, principles, morals and beliefs that provide a sense of purpose, hopefulness and meaning to life. By spiritual is meant that which affects and directs the moral compass of human beings.  It is the everyday orientation by which we navigate our jobs, our homes, our friendships, our minds. The important outcome for education is the application of secular grace to form better citizens, neighbours, professionals, colleagues and families.  Applying those principles as a guide to actions generates a personal prosperity of hopefulness that can make life worthwhile in a steady state economy. It is in this sense that everyone has to navigate a personal spiritual trail to establish and maintain a happy position in a non-monetary economy.  If we are lucky, this position will inevitably bind us to a material place where the spiritual gateway first appeared. Here, deep ecology runs alongside deep place where we can reencounter the past in the hope of a better today.

3 Grace through cultural heritage

Rodney Harrison discusses the ways in which “natural” heritage projects, focusing on the use of wild resources by Indigenous Australians, simultaneously raise questions of economic, social, cultural, and scientific concerns. If one holds that Wedge-tailed Eagles are one’s kin, then questions of their conservation management touch on more than the utilitarian values of biodiversity, but are equally concerned with what we might, under existing heritage taxonomies, refer to as “social” or “spiritual” values. Harrison describes this way of understanding heritage in terms of “connectivity ontologies”.  These are modalities of a mindful process of attaining secular grace. Life and place combine to bind time and living beings into local continuities of history, These work collaboratively to keep the past alive in the present and for the future. Harrison says:

“I still considered the world’s religions to be mere intellectual ruins, maintained at enormous economic and social cost, but I now understood that important psychological truths could be found in the rubble.”

These sentiments, it turns out, are shared by about a quarter of the population, who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious”,  a seemingly paradoxical proposition that, Sam Harris argues, captures the crux of our ancient struggle for integration with the environment:

“Although the claim seems to annoy believers and atheists equally, separating spirituality from religion is a perfectly reasonable thing to do. It is to assert two important truths simultaneously: Our world is dangerously riven by religious doctrines that all educated people should condemn, and yet there is more to understanding the human condition than science and secular culture generally admit”

Although Harris uses the word rubble in a metaphorical sense there are spiritual messages in real ruins.  ‘Ruins’ refers to the actual material traces of a bygone era and are the defining feature of former economic growth.  Ruination is a process incorporating such traces with cultural experiences and perceptions that continue into the present  For example, recent ruins have emerged as symbols of deindustrialization and are most often associated with a former failed capitalist modes of production. As Peggi Eyers says

“When the stories a society shares are out of tune with its circumstances, they can become self-limiting, even a threat to survival. This is our current situation.”

Because of their symbolic nature, ruination and decline are enduring urban themes in popular culture, literature, history, and urban sociology. From classical ruins of ‘great’ civilizations, to bombed-out buildings in the aftermath of war, to abandoned factories and derelict cinemas, ruins have provoked reflection for centuries  Ruination brings the dynamics of the infrastructure of human ecology to a spiritual focus because infrastructure is the basic physical and organizational structures and facilities (e.g. buildings, roads, power supplies) needed for the operation of a society or enterprise. Ruined infrastructure carries social messages about institutions, economic systems, and media forms and produces intellectual trajectories dreamt up by human ingenuity and expressed materially.   Infrastructure is meant to last but in reality is doomed to be outmoded, ruined, and exceeded. 

Ruination is a lived process that continues in the present and can be an important process to project lessons learned from the past into the future.  Processes of decay and disintegration can be culturally, as well as ecologically, productive. Caitlin DeSilvey says; 

“Where the process of physical decay is going on, and nature is moving in, we can try to see this in a positive light and ask ourselves what we can learn from those changes.”  

Theodor Adorno’s long view of the future is: ‘eternity appears, not as such, but diffracted through the most perishable’  

Interest in processes of ruination has correspondingly focused on the capacity for material decomposition to expose the conceptual limitations of modernization, notably through the literally deconstructed ideas of planned, ordered, Cartesian space and of linear progressive time.  In a landmark account of the modern experience, the political scientist Marshall Berman remarks: 

“One of the distinctive virtues of modernism is that it leaves its questions echoing in the air long after the questioners themselves, and their answers, have left the scene.” 

Ruins are a platform for spiritual awareness and the search for secular grace.  But, what lessons do we learn from ruins? One is about the failure to learn. Arguably, this is the root cause of the decline of all enterprises. The people,usually beginning with their leaders, reach a stage at which they fail to understand and adapt sufficiently to the new threats and opportunities that lay before them. They do not comprehend their own fragility.  This is illustrated by nations who are currently defying planetary logic by clinging hopefully to economic growth. 

Another lesson from ruination that sets the scene for experiencing secular grace is the spirituality of monastic remains.  The question that often arises is whether monasticism, especially Christian monastic life, has any relevance in our modern world?  How could a movement that occurred nearly 18 centuries ago be of any value for us today, especially in our Western acquisitive culture which has very little tradition or exposure to this form of religious life?  What real value do the monasteries and monastic men and women have in the modern age?

First, we need to understand that even back in the 3rd century, the very idea that someone would sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor, then spend his life living in hunger, poverty and solitude in a tomb in the desert was considered extreme even for those distant times.  This was the life of the christian Saint Anthony. Some would say that monastic life goes completely against “human nature,” which has always been defined by the world as seeking out the most comfort and the highest level of status that we can possibly achieve in our lifetime. To withdraw from the chaos of the world is considered by most to be “insane.”  The rest of the world is constantly competing with your time and resources, trying to convince you that the ways of the world are the only right way to live. But, the inner voice is more often heard in the quietness and stillness of our solitary retreats to discover secular grace through contemplating the sustainable lifestyle the monks and nuns were trying to develop.  

The monks and nuns of today are not that much different from the rest of us: They have parents, siblings, and friends and loved ones.  They came into the world much like everyone else and someday they, too, will die. They are tempted by the same demons and face similar challenges that we must encounter as well.  Monastic ruins provide for us an island for peaceful focus, where we can spend time in contemplation, allowing us to recharge our spiritual batteries and thus be prepared for further battle with our daily demons, helping us to find the inner stillness we all desire.

Where did modern Earth storytelling begin? Perhaps it was with Rachel Carson, who challenged people to think about the potential long-term effects on the environment. Maybe it began with Walt Whitman or Henry David Thoreau, nature lovers and pioneers that viewed nature as an inspiration. Or maybe it’s today, in the digital age, with someone like Paul Nicklen, a National Geographic photographer.  He has produced powerful images that transform our minds and hearts to the conviction that we need to take action now. The UK Natural Environment Research Council brings together stories of scientific endeavour in its Planet Earth news platform.

Pegi Eyres says we have to make new Earth Stories.  So, what are they? Eyers believes they are narratives that arise from our localized re-landing and her thoughts and “chapters” may be a good beginning:

  • To return to our pre-colonial Paganism or indigenity knowing we are all children of Earth, and that our place is within, not above, the circle of creation,
  • To reorient our consciousness toward a more integral relationship with the Earth,
  • To move toward a paradigm shift that includes the land and the other-than-human world,
  • To look to nature as a knowledgeable and inspiring teacher, providing us with the stories for a new era,
  • To address ecological solutions that maintain and improve the health of natural systems and the diversity of all life,
  • To revive and embrace the natural law of species diversity in a multiplicity of ethnicities, belief systems, partnerships, unique societies and Earth communities,
  • To revalue our bodies, the dignity of materiality, and working with our hands,
  • To live each day as a sacred act,
  • To love the land as central to our most cherished dreams and memories, to care for and restore the Earth, and
  • To take a stand for ecological defence.

4 Economics of cultural heritage

Being able to connect oneself to the past, and to the collective past of others via the recollection of, or re-creation of specific memories and histories, is a form of cultural capital that relates to heritage’.  Heritage, if properly managed, can be instrumental in enhancing social inclusion, developing intercultural dialogue and shaping the identity of a territory. This proposition is behind a growing movement to engage a new biocultural heritage agenda for a steady state economy.

Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of cultural capital formulated in 1986 describes the skills and knowledge that people accumulate within the course of their lives and how these skills can be employed culturally in a way that resembles the use of economic capital. Being able to connect oneself to the past, and to the collective past of others via the recollection of or re-creation of specific memories and histories, is a form of cultural capital that relates to heritage.

The British Council produced a report in 2018 exploring the notion of Cultural Heritage for Inclusive Growth. Cultural heritage in this context is used to mean many things, from the built environment through to cultural traditions such as music and language. It also includes artworks, manuscripts, monuments, archeological sites, oral traditions, festivals, the performing arts and traditional crafts. Inclusive growth means working with and for all levels of society in order to reconcile the divide between economic growth, and rising poverty and inequality. By working inclusively with communities and wider society the British Council believes that an economy can be developed, that benefits a far wider cross-section of the community, and works to reduce the gap between rich and poor.

Biocultural heritage is about relationships between people and the natural environment. It consists of biological resources, from genes to landscapes. But biological heritage also consists of human history, from practices to pools of knowledge and the way humans shape their surroundings and vice versa.The definition of cultural heritage considered in its widest sense includes: 

• Built heritage: industrial, significant architecture, world heritage sites, historic cities and property, and ancient and indigenous sites 

• Intangible heritage: festivals, exhibitions, showcases, performances, markets, hubs, media, language, traditions, folk art, craft 

• Natural heritage: eco-villages, caves, underwater, landscape/scenery, resources (minerals etc.) 

• Museums: visual art, archives, cultural objects, libraries.

The British Council classifies the types of interventions to implement a heritage agenda as:

• Contemporisation and innovation 

• Digitisation and the use of digital technology 

• Community engagement 

• Preservation and protection 

• Capacity building 

• Promotion and outreach 

• Policy influence 

• Networking and collaboration Expected outcomes 

• Local ownership and sustainability 

• Professionalisation of the sector 

• Growing the market 

• Learning from exchange and best practice 

• Network and relationship building with partners and experts 

• Internationalisation and cultural relations

Cultural heritage, in its widest sense (as a sector, physical space and intangible practice), can be found to contribute to an economy that is inclusive and sustainable, if approached in a person centred, creative development way. This approach can particularly benefit emerging economies, which otherwise risk excluding individuals and communities from society and the economy. Through new and innovative ways of encouraging people to engage with, share and manage their cultural heritage, quality of life can be improved, value can be created for communities, and economic prosperity can be more fairly distributed across society and between nations.

The British Council report was couched in terms of a growth economy. According to the International Institute for Environment and Development, some 370 million indigenous people in the world depend directly on natural resources — they rely on their biocultural heritage for survival. Biocultural heritage also influences religious beliefs, sense of place (especially sacred places), and sense of self. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the tangle of connections when considering the biocultural heritage of a good or a service — maybe that’s why food is a good place to start when trying to get a feel for it. But an astute observer can recognize that other goods and services, such as medicinal plants, tourism, or even health services, also flow from a rich biocultural heritage  Claudia Múnera states the principles of biocultural heritage in a steady state economy as follows:

 “Protecting the biosphere comes down to making sure enough ecosystems around the globe maintain their structures and functions. A strong appreciation of biocultural heritage is a key to doing this job, especially in the face of pressures from ongoing economic growth. Local economies in which people maintain a sense of place and a sense of their ecological and cultural limits provide an alternative, resilient model to the infinite growth paradigm”.

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