Which self needs changing?

If we are to adapt to ecological change, we need to change ourselves. But this begs one of the most important questions any of us will ever ask: what is my ‘self’?

The evolution of modern psychology quickly arrived at an idea of the human self that has become highly popularised. I rarely meet anyone, for example, that isn’t familiar with the term ‘ego’. Today if you ask someone to point to themselves, they will point to their body. “I” am contained within my skin. This makes perfect sense because that is what we have been taught for hundreds of years by the dominant stories of industrial culture.

But it isn’t true.

Skin and wave

Our skin is a semipermeable membrane across which there are billions of ongoing interactions. Some of these are molecular, some atomic and I imagine many more are sub-atomic.“I” am not just inside my skin.

I find a helpful metaphor here is that of a wave in a river. You can see the wave, you can photograph it, you can draw or paint it, you can point to it and other people will see it: it has an ‘intersubjective’ reality, as Edmund Husserl would say. But if you scoop it out of the river in a bucket, it will vanish - only to be replaced by ‘another’ wave.

The wave is created in a form that we experience as a ‘wave’ by the rocks on the river bed, by the friction of air on the surface of the water, by any material moving through the water, by the dimensions of space the water has in which to flow, by the interactions of light and energy. The wave is a product of its environment. It is the result of an infinite amount of different relationships with everything around and inside it. When it is removed from these relationships, it vanishes.

Physicists would go further and say that this isn’t even a metaphor. We are waves!

So if we are the product of our relationships with everything else in the world, then the self does not stop at the skin. We do not exist in a vacuum - we exist in relationship. This is very important.

Our vanishing self

Our dominant culture is not based on this profoundly simple realism. In our modern daily lives we live like we are separate from the rest of nature. That makes it possible for us to destroy the rest of nature, believing this is somehow beneficial. But because we are part of nature, we are destroying ourselves as well. If we remove ourselves from the relationships that define us, we are diminished - or we cease to exist altogether. Like the wave, we vanish.

Going deep

If you want to challenge and change our dominant culture, then you cannot use this narrow pseudo-self definition. The skin-bound ego will always be in conflict with the ‘others’. Always misguidedly seeking to maintain its hard shell shape, unaware that it can only fully exist without it.

Unfortunately, nearly every change programme I have ever seen stops short of asking what self (or selves) it is trying to change. They focus on knowledge and technique, dialogue and values, strategy and policy, technology and implementation. These things are important, of course, but they are not at the root of change.

That is why, I believe, we haven’t yet successfully responded adequately to the ecological crises of our time: we haven’t gone deep enough yet.

We must start with the premise that we need to - first and foremost - facilitate processes that allow people to make the shift from a narrow, skin-bound sense of self to one that is understood as a product of its relationships, including those beyond the human realm.

Without this foundational shift in selfhood, without personal change at the site of our identity, social change will always be shallow and temporary.

Sustainability leadership development in the 2020s


  1. stuart hill24th February 2021

    Hi David – a nice summary – and it is what we have taught in Social Ecology for 40+ years; and I have been writing about for 50+ years! – see our latest book: Social Ecology and Education: Transforming Worldviews and Practices – Edited by David Wright and Stuart B. Hill: https://www.taylorfrancis.com/books/9781003033462

    Collegially & Supportively, Stu

    P.S. Your ‘buttons’ for your CV and publications are not working

    1. David Key24th February 2021

      Thanks Stu!

      Very good to hear from you and thanks for commenting.

      Yes, it isn’t news for many of us but utterly amazing how this simple and empirical fact is almost entirely missed in our dominant culture!

      Have fixed the links – thanks.

  2. Mark17th December 2020

    Thanks Dave. Well said. M

    1. David Key21st December 2020

      Thanks Mark!


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