Natural Change – a retrospective


This article by Anya Hart Dyke recently re-emerged out of the blue. It connected me straight back to the two WWF Natural Change Projects and especially to the wonderful, passionate people who participated. It reminded me how powerful and at the same time difficult this type of work is - simple in so many respects but also intensely complex and subtle. Although the projects were never repeated for WWF after 2011, their spirit is still alive and well in all the work I do, and of course, within the Natural Change practitioner community which continues to carry the banner.

It's interesting to see that this piece was originally published before the second Natural Change project in 2011 and played a direct role in embedding learning for sustainability into Scotland's national school curriculum. An outcome that eventually saw Scotland recognised as a world leader in learning for sustainability by UNESCO in 2015. As I have remained connected to many past participants, I know that the impacts of Natural Change continue to ripple outward. Sometimes it feels like it is achieving more now than ever, 11 years after it started.

Ecopsychology: motivating sustainability through interaction with nature -  by Anya Hart Dyke

Understanding that we are part of an ecosystem, not separate from our natural world, is the key to a lasting commitment to sustainability. WWF Scotland has developed a programme where individuals encounter the natural world on its own terms with no link beyond their immediate surroundings. In reconciling our sense of ‘who we are’ with ‘what we are’, participants have demonstrated a profound and focused commitment to minimizing our impact on the environment.

Louise Macdonald’s story is an inspiring one. The Chief Executive of national youth information charity Young Scot, took part in WWF’s Natural Change Project (NCP) in 2008 and says her motivation and desire to live and work sustainably is now probably stronger than ever. “Since the NCP I have been motivated from the heart, my core” she says. “I care passionately now”. Macdonald has managed to cut emissions at Young Scot by 30% and has been invited to sit on the Scottish Government Climate Change Act’s 2020 Group as a result of her achievements.

Macdonald has always been very active in the community and in politics but the green agenda had passed her by. “It just didn't stick”. She engaged on an intellectual basis, so recycled her waste because that was what good citizens did but overall she says she did very little.

Macdonald says her role, as a leader, was to nurture rather than issue edicts so having completed the NCP programme she suggested to her staff that they might look into Young Scot becoming a low-carbon organisation. “I unleashed the staff's energy and encouraged their ideas”, says Macdonald. They started from a strategic perspective and looked at things like whether those they did business with held the same values, introduced codes on the printers and photocopiers so that people used less paper, and gave eco-driving lessons to staff.

“My job was to keep staff motivated”, says Macdonald. “It took a whole year to measure our carbon footprint; it's extremely hard work and others need to know what kind of commitment it takes”. They have managed to reduce their carbon emissions by 30%.

Rosa Murray, Education Adviser for the General Teaching Council for Scotland (GTCS), participated in the 2010 programme. She explains how sustainable development has always been in models of learning and professional standards but she wanted to see it permeate them and the curriculum itself, to inform teachers and learners about new ways of thinking and being. “After the NCP programme, I felt it needed to be understood that we can play a part in making the world a more just and equitable place. Sustainability is about more than just knowing the facts”.

The NCP was established in 2008 by WWF Scotland, targeting a strategic group of professionals to foster leadership on sustainability. They chose wisely. Three former participants are now on Scottish Government Advisory Groups and another three are on Government Steering Groups. Grounded in Ecopsychology, there have been two invite-only programmes to date. The first, in 2008, targeted communications professionals from the health, education, private, youth, arts and NGO sectors in Scotland and the second programme in 2010 focused on educators.

Participants are expected to commit 16 days over six months. Each programme comprises two one-week-long residential workshops, held four months apart in the wilderness. A series of one-day meetings in urban settings are also held before and after these workshops. The main activities of the week-long residentials are ‘solos’ and group reflection. ‘Soloing’ means spending time alone, in silence and in the same spot, with no watch, phone or map. Some choose to fast during this time. Group reflection is an important part of the process because those listening are encouraged to reflect back on what they’ve heard. Their perspective brings further insight.

The programme began as a communications project, and the thinking was that WWF needed to engage a wider audience on sustainability issues. When the 2008 participants went on to become as active on sustainability as they have been, WWF thought that the second programme should target individuals who could embed change in the education system, so they focused on educators.

The NCP is about getting people to think about how nature works and how humans think. We may believe we think on our own but in reality, we are products of our culture. “If you wish to change society, you must first change yourself”, says Morag Watson, Senior Policy Officer (Education) at WWF Scotland, using a phrase borrowed from Nelson Mandela.

Programme designer and facilitator David Key explains that compared to other change programmes, the NPC does not demand any change of participants because psychotherapy practice suggests that not expecting change is important. “We’re also not working to any specific goals, participants are under no obligation to achieve anything and the atmosphere is open and relaxed”.

Key explains how it works. “We combine direct experience of wild places with psychotherapeutic processes. This leads to a wide range of responses, from bringing up personal psychological trauma to explorations of spirituality. We find that the issues that emerge naturally are usually those which most need to be worked with, to allow the participant to change”.

When you ‘solo’, and spend time on your own in the wilderness, you see how much culture colours our thinking. “For example”, challenges Watson “if I ask you to visualise ‘education’, I am pretty sure you’ll describe a classroom and a teacher. But is that the only or the best way to teach?”

‘Consumer psychology’ has meant we have come to think of ourselves as separate from, and superior to the rest of nature. “The aim is to get people into the wild so that they can experience themselves as part of an ecosystem. It doesn’t take long to realise we are nature”.

Evidence from social psychology says that change is most likely when personal, cultural and structural levels are all addressed. Watson explains how the NCP encourages participants to go back to their lives “to change things from within”. At a structural level, this means leadership and social action for sustainability in your respective company or organisation.

There are other courses out there that focus on personal change but none, according to Watson, that focus on bringing together peers for a specific purpose with such an emphasis on collaborative working.

The longer-term impact of the NCP has come in two forms. Former participants belong to a tight-knit community where people continually exchange ideas, support each other and work together on sustainability. It is a self-sustaining group although WWF continues to support former participants on an ad hoc basis, with ongoing mentoring and practical advice. Through participants’ activities in their respective organisations, others have come forward and expressed an interest in the Natural Change approach. They are encouraged to attend ongoing training programmes provided by those who devised and facilitated the NCP. They currently stand at a community of 40 people.

The real success of the programme has been the impact participants have had in their respective organisations. I would say that among the most significant impacts have been the values now embedded in teaching standards, led by Rosa Murray, Louise Macdonald’s work cutting her organisation’s carbon footprint by 30%, and teacher Roseleen Shanley ensuring Bucksburn Academy is in the final round for a Scottish Sustainable School Award.

The biggest challenge has been for prospective participants to be able to make the huge time commitment that the NCP requires. But as Key puts it, the first thing that needs to change is our relationship with and attitude towards time. “You can’t achieve lasting personal during a half-day session in a hotel”.

WWF continues to look for opportunities to apply natural change principles across their policy areas, although they are not considering a programme for individuals in very public positions, like MPs or MSPs. “Because the programme involves sharing experiences that can be very personal”, explains Watson, “this is a challenge for those constantly under public scrutiny”. WWF is, however, exploring opportunities to run another NCP programme, looking into how it could be adapted for business leaders, who operate with very specific constraints.

Jules Weston © 2018

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