“The world is not something that is given to us but something we engage in by moving, touching, breathing, eating.”
Francisco Varela (1999)
More than ever we are realizing that change and uncertainty are part of being human, especially living with a pandemic and in a rapidly changing world of complexity. In working with students this summer, we have used dialogue to deeply understand each other through a portal of shared meaning-making, to consider how we arise to emerging challenges in uncertain times that affect not just us, but people and communities across the globe. What is bubbling up is it is not so much the patterned and habitual knowledge frameworks and mindsets that guide us into the future, but it is the emergence of new ontological mindsets, or ways of knowing, being, and doing in the world, that are important in enabling resilience and adaptability to dramatic change around us.
We Are of Nature
This shift in thinking seems new to us in ‘our business as usual’ thinking but according to the Canadian anthropologist, Wade Davis, we have been ‘doing’ adaptive change for over 60,000 years. Historical evidence shares that our ancestors first ventured out Africa’s Rift Valley, spreading out across the planet, and adapting to changing land and seascapes, and new ways of life as they went. Fast forward to today’s modernity we have established knowledge frameworks that have been led by scientific discovery, and capitalistic approaches to learning and doing business. This has enabled us in the Global North to prosper and progress from a human development perspective. However, this approach has also objectified and commodified our world, leading to a binary separation from our natural world of where we come from. Nature1 is seen as a resource to be used (water as drinkable water, animals as livestock, land as real estate, trees as timber); nature is place outside of us and as something ‘out there’ for our taking. It is suggested that this lost connection to Nature, or nature deficit disorder, is what has created the societal grand challenge of climate change that looms before us. This decoupling effect from Nature is not a good thing and moves us far away from the traditional practice of ancients before us, of interdependence to the biosphere. Though it is worth noting, Indigenous knowledge frameworks and practices have persisted in holding onto this reciprocal or ‘two-eyed seeing’ approach of sensing the interconnections with the planet.
1 I capitalize the word ‘Nature’ throughout the text to recognize my perspective of the subjectivity and interconnected relationship humankind has with Nature. For hundreds of years we have placed Nature outside of the human inter-relational domain and have recognized her as an object, and unfortunately, too often as something to exploit. As I capitalize the name of a family member to show honor and respect, I do the same with Nature.
The Nature Experience & Voices
This summer, along with integrating the scientific frameworks of the UN’s sustainable development goals and 2030 Agenda into the business ethics course curriculum, we have introduced an assignment called the Nature Experience (NX). This assignment is grounded in Indigenous knowledge frameworks. In this assignment students are asked to design and spend at least 30-minutes in the sacredness of Nature and to share a report with their cohort on this experience. The student’s reaction to the NX assignment has been surprisingly wonderful and wonder-filled. First, students cannot believe they get a chance to do this type of experiment in a business school environment, and it stands out as a highlight. Second, students carry out diverse and meaningful designs in carrying out the NX, from hikes along shorelines, to writing poetry in the woods, to running or biking actively along a trail, and starring in the cosmos at night. In the student narratives you hear their senses coming alive, and a revived awakening. Feel the sense of connection and learning in the following three shared student NX narratives:
- The waves and wind were loud, which reminded me of how powerful the water is. It is the deepest lake in North America, which made me appreciate living in Canada where we have abundant We stayed for over four hours, fishing and watching boats pass. I felt grateful to Yellowknives Dene First Nation to be on their beautiful Chief Drygeese Territory that had such a history before me. It amazed me that my family crossed the ocean to allow me to be sitting where I was.
- In touching the tree with most of my spine, sitting cross-legged at the base, I felt tingles in my legs and trunk area, certainly a healing, earthy At the same time, my heart was connected to another energy which was finer and lighter than my own. In this energy field, I was not able to access some small, worrying thoughts that I have had lately. In leaning forward, I was no longer connected physically, and the tingly healing in my legs and trunk ceased, however, the fine, iridescent energy remained, making me feel lighter and happier. In an organizational setting, we need to nurture ourselves so that we can be the tree. If we can gain the serenity and strength of our trees, we can provide this healing and happiness to our colleagues.
- I took the Long Lake trail to connect with the biosphere. The sinuous path of the trail lined by tall trees along with the serpentine course of the lake, soon made me realize how our lives are circuitous as we pass through the ups and downs of our lives, whether we accelerate and descend through our careers or navigate through our relationships. As long as I am taking strides to move forward, continuously flowing like the rippling lake, I am making progress and following the model we received from nature. The next thought that passed my mind is how nature is in a perpetual state of communication. How all lives are connected together and reside in It deepened my understanding of the importance of communication and collaboration to create a meaningful, symbiotic coexistence and a vibrant community.
Above students share deep experiences of letting go of stresses and anxiety, to reflexive moments of new insights, to deep feelings of connection to our planet. From an observational perspective, these experiences seem to re-connect students to something once lost and creates a sense of revival of something new but old. Is this a connection to our past, and ancestral ways of being?
This makes me curious. Why has it become so strange for students to have Nature connections in a business school curriculum? This has not always been the way, the ancient Greeks, like Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle, embraced the organic and sacredness of the world. However, since the scientific revolution of Cartesian- Newtonian thinking, humanity has increasingly continued to decouple and estrange us from our origins of Nature; objectifying the world and using the biosphere to create profits and shareholder value. The problem with objectifying and externalizing Nature, we set up a duelist reality that Nature is different from humans…when scientific truth tells us that we are of Nature. Perhaps objectifying Nature makes it easier to exploit. Could this part of the challenge with business and society today, where we only view Nature as a resource to be used––creating an existential vacuum?
Benefits of Nature Connection
One might ask, how is this NX relevant to future business leaders? A whole paper or large volume could be written on this but succinctly in consideration of this short post there are several answers to that question, which included: (1) enabling systems thinking; (2) decreasing stress/anxiety levels and improving mental health; (3) de- coupling ontologies of separation; and, (4) de-centering students from patterned ways of thinking and opening creativity to create the world anew. Enhancing all of these elements has been strongly suggested as enabling leadership capacity and capability for embracing the increasing complexity of our rapidly changing world. I sense there is a real opportunity for a transformation of business school curriculums to include Indigenous knowledge frameworks and practice, that feature reciprocity and deep interconnections to Nature. Moreover, Pratarelli (2014) suggests that nature-based education can be redesigned to inspire the idea that humans are an equal part of the socio-ecological system:
That is to say, citizens, young and old alike, will require re-education to first accept that we are an evolved organism with biological needs that must be met, and afterward raise awareness and understanding of an individual’s personal contribution to the excessive exploitation of the planet’s limited resources. Furthermore, education will need to encourage self-evaluation from a psychological/mental health perspective. (p. 67)
Hope in Nature
In ending, my hope is that we can continue to innovate and transform school curriculum and develop new economic models and living plans that ultimately promote life on the planet that is held by the pillars of fairness, well-being, and sustainability. Furthermore, we need to explore the radical inter-relationality of our planet through the web of life. In doing so we can learn to re-connect to what it means to be human living on an interconnected planet full of networks of relationships. We have an opportunity to learn with Nature, not to just live and take from her, but to live in harmony. Walking this path will enable us to free our thoughts, our hearts, our agency, our identity, our happiness, our awareness, and our hope for desired futures (Escobar, 2020).
Kent A. Williams (DSocSci) is an Assistant Professor with the Faculty of Management and facilitates leadership studies for undergraduate and graduate students that focuses on the 2030 Agenda and enabling citizenry ethics and virtue that builds leadership capacity and capacity for action to create desired futures for humanity.
Davis, W. (2009). The Wayfinders: Why ancient wisdom matters in the modern world. Toronto: House of Anansi Press Inc.
Escobar, A. (2020). Pluriversal politics: the real and the possible. Duke University Press.
Pratarelli, M. E. (2014). The biopsychosocial model of human unsustainability: a move toward consilience. Global Bioethics, 25(1), 56-70.
Varela, F. J. (1999). Ethical know-how: action, wisdom, and cognition. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.