Environmental gratitude is an approach that can help to inspire ecological
action. We need a new way of communicating the urgency of environmental action
because it is becoming increasingly apparent that standard fact-based approaches
are not getting through.
Environmental gratitude encompasses an approach that engenders a full
compliment of sentiments required to augur change. As reported in Psychology Today, gratitude is a complex
feeling that is capable of expanding our awareness and relating us to the wider
The importance of gratitude to the ecological movement is reviewed in great
depth in a 2011 paper by Reed Elizabeth Loder, titled “Gratitude and the Environment: Toward
Individual and Collective Virtue.” Professor Loder is an accomplished
ethicist who teaches at Vermont Law School.
Loder’s paper systematically explores environmental gratitude, which she
feel grateful for one’s surroundings on a regular basis, which generates
pervasive attitudes of concern for planetary welfare and commitment to
contribute ecological benefits to the extent of one’s ability.”
Loder’s thesis is that individuals can cultivate environmental
gratitude, which can help inform and& motivate& people to act.
She points out that the prevailing Western notion of gratitude is often
characterized by a response to benefits bestowed by a benefactor. By contrast, a
person who experiences “unattached” or “free-floating gratitude” is not beholden
to particular benefactors and never runs out of motivation or ways to give
Environmental gratitude is more diffuse than most traditional forms of
gratitude; it does not require mutual intentionality. A person may feel
personally blessed by the very existence of the natural world. She may also feel
graced by species connection and participation in larger nature.
“Environmental gratitude is a rich and complex moral response. It can evolve
from fleeting feelings into a sustaining personal and public virtue…At its most
varied and familiar best, environmental gratitude permeates overall attitudes
and dispositions and commits environmentally grateful people to creative
thinking about environmental problems. In its most diffuse forms, environmental
gratitude percolates into character and becomes a way of seeing and
Psychological attributes of environmental gratitude
Environmental gratitude is intimately connected to reflection and wisdom. One
of the most prescient attributes associated with environmental gratitude is
receptivity to the facts.
“Knowledge acquisition which is pragmatic in the environmentally virtuous
person who is motivated to work on solutions, and habituated to assess and
revise personal attitudes and conduct in keeping with progressing
In addition to a fact-based appreciation of the world people who experience
environmental gratitude are morally concerned and intrinsically motivated to act
responsibly. Such individuals deeply mourn ecological destruction and actively
strive to preserve nature’s diversity.
“She is disposed to experience environmental losses and suffer shame for
human inflicted damage. She is likely to feel personal guilt for deviations in
personal habits, like laziness about consumptive temptations. She is resolved to
correct faults and work toward more widespread improvements at the community,
societal, and even global levels when her capacities permit.”
Hope is a crucial psychological element that is conducive to environmental
action. Environmental gratitude lends itself to a hopeful disposition as well as
sensitivities that capably engage the wider world.
“She is hopeful about the legacy of current humans while avoiding complacency
about success. She recognizes the constraints of culture and individual
capacity. She finds ways to establish environmental priorities while remaining
open to other meaningful projects. She recognizes that environmental evangelism
can alienate others and be counter-productive. She persuades with sensitivity
and engages in self-reflection after open dialogue.”
Environmental gratitude also relates to other important attitudes like
humility, caring, courage, and wisdom, all of which are necessary for bringing
about the kind of changes we need to see.
Environmental ethics challenge the anthropocentric view that nature exists
for human purposes, and resists the idea that environmental value must be
measured in human terms. This view sees nature has having intrinsic value apart
from its usefulness to people. It is a refutation of human superiority and
Loder argues that ecological action does not depend on widespread agreement.
We should attribute value to environmental activism even though we lack
consensus. Notorious ethical lapses like slavery and genocide clearly illustrate
how prevailing morality can be profoundly flawed.
Philosophy considers gratitude to be an emotion that influences moral
deliberation and action. Gratitude is pervasive in religion, law, literature,
psychology, sociology and biology; it is time to make it a driving force in the
way we relate to each other and the Earth.
“Environmental gratitude can also infuse social institutions and influence
collective aspirations and values. It can influence the attunement and
collective guidance that law provides.”
Loder advocates that explicit pronouncements of gratitude should be inserted
into the growing battery of national and international laws and treaties on
ecological services. Laws infused with environmental gratitude would recognize
and protect nature’s intangible attributes.
Loder believes that laws should acknowledge debts to the environment based on
gratitude. The idea is to shift the recognition from natural qualities which
are there for human benefit to acknowledge our indebtedness to the natural
world. According to Loder, environmental laws can convert abstract duties into
emotional involvement that can promote a sense of personal responsibility.
“Existing and new law could directly acknowledge human thanks and debts for
the varied bounties of the natural world, justifying concomitant legal
responsibilities of human beneficiaries. In the evolving law of ecological
services, expressing gratitude could heighten public awareness of environmental
values and moral responsibilities…they could remind us of our ecological
dependency and encourage our respect, inching us toward appreciation of inherent
The law can also serve an important educative function. These laws should
afford legal protections that are much more broadly based than than economics
which reduce the environment to commodities.
The Economics of Ecology
Economic approaches to environmental stewardship are problematic. Loder
argues that we need to go beyond our current conceptions of commerce.
“Longstanding individual and institutional attitudes about
the earth as a commodity has taken a toll on collective environmental
character….Expressions of public gratitude could surpass ecological economics as
the predominant basis for protection.”
When people receive payment for conservation, it leads to demands for
compensation that tend to exceed the available financial resources. This
approach can also erode laudable human attributes like generosity.
Paying owners for ecological restraint raises psychological concerns.
Psychologists often refer to a phenomenon known as the “over-justification
effect,” which hypothesizes that inducing a person to engage in an activity for
an extrinsic goal undermines that person’s intrinsic interests. To be successful
in inducing the scope of required changes, we must develop an internal
ecological sensibility, not one driven solely by external factors.
Further, it is logistically difficult if not impossible to adequately enforce
environmental law. While laws and enforcement will always be necessary, a more
effective approach involves encouraging people to inculcate an ecological ethic
which internalizes their moral obligations to the Earth.
“An emotion like gratitude seems quaint and impotent because we are so
accustomed to treating our surroundings as available to us and endlessly
bountiful. Expressing reasons to be grateful for natural services could at least
disrupt complacency and remind us to notice the fruits of our surroundings as a
first step toward accepting responsibility for their continued
Nature as teacher
Gratitude for nature as a teacher is a pervasive idea in many traditions.
Gratitude can make us more receptive, which can help us to correct tendencies to
see ourselves as either separate from or dominant over the natural world. Even
when nature appears to turn against us, environmental gratitude can help us to
understand that these forces that harm human interests (e.g. extreme
weather) are actually opportunities to grow our awareness.
In addition to being a source of erudition, contemporary eco-psychologists
attribute therapeutic value to the natural world. They have noted that the
healing role of nature commonly stimulates feelings of gratitude. The natural
world inspires a wide range of cultural expressions of gratitude.
Dating back to the early cave drawings of human prehistory, nature has been a
perennial form of expression. The environment can also be a cultural unifier
that reveals a common humanity and calls us to acknowledge the inseparability of
the human and non-human worlds.
“From concrete sustenance to abstract spiritualism, the ultimate subject of
environmental gratitude is gratitude for everything, for all there is. How a
person treats her surroundings depends on whether she sees them as
instrumentally useful or pleasing, or worthy in their own
Most can understand how we depend on natural resources like water for our
very survival. The key is to extend that understanding to include things like
wetlands, marshes, oceans and forests. As our appreciation of biodiversity
widens, we begin to grasp our interrelatedness. This is ethically transforming
and can auger action on a planetary scale.
Impediments to implementation
Loder identifies 7 factors which inhibit the cultivation of environmental
- Vice: Environmental virtues are difficult to cultivate and
sustain because humans have so many interests in exploiting the natural
- Anthropocentrism: Hubris about the centrality and
privileges of humanity leads to disrespect and mistreatment or neglect of the
- Self-Interest: When people feel entitled to environmental
resources, they fail to experience thankfulness
- Ignorance: Gratitude too often fails to surface because of
ignorance, both innocent and willful.
- Injustices: Uneven distribution of environmental benefits
is a form of structural injustice. On the level of nations, it is similarly
unjust for developed countries, or rapidly developing countries with very high
carbon emissions, to refuse extra burdens in international environmental
agreements on matters like climate change.
- Upbringing: Birth to parents who have inculcated positive
values is good fortune. Upbringing surely gives the morally fortunate a
head-start, but it also gives the unlucky something to overcome.
- Organizational Structures: Environmental decision-making
occurs in organized groups. Organizations like governments, corporations, are
commonly averse to environmental gratitude.
The shortsighted pursuit of profit has led humans to ravage worldwide
resources. Environmental gratitude may enable us to counteract this nihilistic
tendency and expedite ecological action.
Source: Global Warming is Real
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Thanksgiving: Living in Harmony with the Planet
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