Conservation, culture and consciousness

How can psychedelics improve nature conservation?

Image credit - Jake Kobrin

Do you have a personal ritual in nature? A place where you feel particularly connected and in awe of the intricacy of it all? Perhaps there is a special tree under which you seek solace, or a walk you take at sunrise just to hear the dawn chorus of birds. This is not unusual, as humans we have revered the natural world in our cultural and spiritual traditions throughout time. Nature is increasingly recognised as essential for our physical and psychological health. However, awareness of its necessity for our spiritual health is lacking, especially outside of traditional contexts. But this is changing and it is likely to benefit nature conservation, too.

Conservation programmes historically relied on the natural sciences to achieve their desired outcomes, such as the recovery of a particular ecosystem or species, sometimes at the expense of certain displaced groups of humans and non-human entities. For example, the ‘fortress conservation’ model where parks are fenced off and local people excluded. The narrative in recent decades has become more inclusive of traditional beliefs and practices because they are beneficial to conservation, underpinned by an understanding of co-existence with the natural world. Nevertheless, more can be done to re-awaken a sacred awe for nature, not only in traditional settings, but also in modern cities and developed countries, where many have become disconnected from the natural world. Doing so may enhance conservation outcomes in a more ethical and equitable way.

This so-called awakening of consciousness, encompassing new, re-imagined or personal spiritual practices is already occurring. For example, growing numbers of people are embracing plant medicine (which includes the likes of ayahuasca and psilocybin-containing ‘magic’ mushrooms) to heal themselves and to connect to a higher spiritual dimension. With the psychedelic decriminalisation movement gaining ground in the United States, this age of ‘awakening’ looks set to continue. Certain modern mindfulness techniques are also practiced for and within nature. People exploring such practices often develop a profound sense of connection with the natural world, which encourages them to protect and restore nature close to home and beyond.

A psychedelic facilitator, whose retreats mostly attract North American business people, agrees: “I've witnessed journeyers' deep connection with Nature. Afterwards, they have more respect and gratitude for Mother Earth. They feel they are part of it and not separated from it. It is sometimes a real ‘ah hah’ moment of their journey.”

Preparation for plant medicine ceremony, The Netherlands (photo credit: James Calalang)

On my recent fieldwork in the Netherlands, Kenya and South Africa, when asking different types of people who do not participate in traditional cultural practices whether they have a spiritual connection with nature, the answer was a resounding ‘yes’. Through such personal spiritual practices, people are becoming more conscious of their ecological footprint. Often these are individuals living in developed areas, whose consumption habits have a disproportional detrimental impact on biodiversity through the resources that have to be extracted from natural areas (often far from where they live), in order to produce the products they use.

Consciousness calling

Concurrently, our understanding of consciousness – the ability to have subjective experiences - is evolving, and not just of our own. The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness states that ‘humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness’, non-human animals also possess this ability. This will have implications for what is considered ethical practice in nature conservation. For example, there is increasing recognition of non-human sentience, such as enshrined in Article 13 of the European Union’s Lisbon Treaty. There is also growing awareness of the sentience of cephalopods like octopus, and even plants are said to have their own form of intelligence.

This recognition has paved the way for ideas such as compassionate conservation, in which the lives of animal individuals are valued in conservation, as well as species as a whole, and multi-species justice, which sees non-humans as worthy subjects of justice. In practice, some people are calling for the recognition of animal agency in conservation, where interventions could even be co-designed with the animals themselves. For example, choosing where to place wildlife road crossings based on the preferred routes of the animals living in the area. This would represent a radical departure from the conservation norm.

Lion in the Maasai Mara, Kenya, February 2022

Additionally, as more people begin to sense the inter-relationality of natural systems and beings, the important role of emotion in conservation is coming to the fore. It is argued that emotion is not detrimental to conservation (preserving our life-sustaining ‘Gaian mother’ is inherently emotive) and emotion can even be utilised to enhance conservation outcomes. Such developments inevitably encourage the promotion of ethical and equitable principles in conservation.

One guest at a psychedelic retreat in Europe reflected: “I notice Nature more – it’s more present in my life, I’m aware of flowers and bees pollinating; the cyclical process of life. It’s made me more conscious of what I’m doing to hurt the environment. I’m now vegetarian and I don’t buy new clothes anymore. We are all connected and we need to be gentle.”

Equitable beyond humans

In terms of making conservation more equitable, at least for the humans involved, strides have already been made. The Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) conceptual framework acknowledges different worldviews, including a spiritual dimension of ‘living-well in balance and harmony with mother earth’.

Similarly, indigenous traditions and knowledge are recognised in the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) Post-2020 Framework, which is currently being finalised: ‘Recognition of intergenerational equity, including the transmission of knowledge, language and cultural values associated with biodiversity, especially by indigenous peoples and local communities’.

In this wording, nevertheless, the spiritual dimension is omitted and recognition of modern spiritual and cultural practices is missing. Therefore, at present, it seems that there is only tacit acknowledgement of more subjective worldviews. Are we afraid to admit reverence for the sacred in nature?

We needn’t be. Comprehending our relationality in this living system is prudent in order to secure ‘abundant futures’ for all. This could occur through a self-reflexive process of ‘worlding’; making plain and learning from the many ways we view the world, including in different spiritual dimensions.

Some are pioneering this model of nature connectedness. For instance Londolozi, a private wildlife reserve adjacent to the Kruger National Park in South Africa, is reimagining conservation through ‘consciousness awakening’ and partnership with nature. Perhaps such spiritual safaris will become more common place as people actively seek out deeper and more profound experiences for their holidays.

Transformative conservation

Building a more holistic model of conservation which acknowledges and promotes humans’ innate connection to the earth is possible. In striving for objective conservation, we have often been working against our innate biophilia, or love for the natural world. Recognising the value of new and re-imagined cultural and spiritual practices, such as through non-traditional plant medicine ceremonies or mindfulness practices, has the prospect of transforming conservation. This would have implications from an ethical perspective, for example in how we manage so-called ‘invasive alien’ species or ‘surplus’ animals.

As greater numbers of people embrace the spiritual dimension of nature, it may be possible to make conservation not only more effective in terms of protecting and restoring biodiversity, but more ethical and equitable for humans and more-than-humans alike. A question we may wish to ask ourselves is; what sort of relationship do we want with nature?

Poster at the Pretoria Botanical Gardens, South Africa, April 2022