From subject-object to subject-subject: new social norms to avert ecological catastrophe

In February this year I presented at the Leverage Points 2019 conference in Lüneburg Germany. Some of the key concepts are explored in more depth in my 2018 paper ‘How cognitive frames may affect felt sense of nature connectedness‘ in Ecopsychology Journal.


Language matters because it shapes how we think, act and relate to the world. In the English language human relationships with the rest of nature are predominantly conceptualised with a subject-object frame.

This frame is problematic because it positions humans as separate from and superior to other beings, and promotes the notion that the living world exists for humans to own, control and exploit for their own ends. These beliefs are the story upon which the project of modernity is founded, a story that pervades our political and economic systems and underpins global responses to ecological crisis. But this story is also a root cause of ecological crisis because it has led us to put human interests first and live as if there are no natural limits that cannot be overcome through human ingenuity. Such hubris has brought us to the brink of mass extinction, ecosystem collapse and climate chaos.

In this paper I call for a shift from subject-object to subject-subject frame, creating a new social norm in how we relate with nonhuman others. Here, other forms of life are recognised as other subjects that have needs, intents and purposes of their own.

This conceptual shift in salience is experiential – it is an embodied emotional experience not just an intellectual exercise, and it requires practices for cultivating this way of relating, that help develop capacity for close observation, sensory acuity, and qualities of humility, patience and slowness.

Creating new social norms also requires sharing of personal subject-subject experiences and – importantly – sharing our feelings about the harm we are causing these nonhuman beings, at the loss of wild nature that is unfolding right now before our eyes. These new social norms, I argue, are urgently needed to avert ecological catastrophe and to inspire and motivate adaptive systemic change.


An example is the phrase “being in nature”. Here, nature is conceptualised as an object  – a container – that you can be inside or outside.

Objects have boundaries that separate them from other objects, so this conceptualisation sets up the possibility for separation, which is precisely what we seek to overcome by “being in nature”. There is a conceptual implication that the default condition is outside the container

As Larson (2011) and Goatly (2007) have discussed, object metaphors enable the target to be manipulated and owned, which allows for commodification and exploitation. The notion of private property relies on the in-out orientation of the Container schema.

The word “nature” is a mass noun: it abstracts, generalises and homogenises the natural world and renders the particularity of individual living beings absent.


This frame is activated by language that evokes close sensory relationships with particular living beings or natural phenomenon, and that come from close observation. Robert Macfarlane studied nature terms in thirty languages, dialects and sub-dialects around Britain and Ireland, and found that many of these terms are dying out. They describe aspects of nature such as weather and terrain in highly precise evocative and situated ways that come from close observation, such as the Gaelic phrase ‘rionnach maoim’ meaning the shadows that clouds cast on moorland on a windy day.

So we need practices to cultivate an embodied relationship with a particular place and its inhabitants. It’s a discipline because we are continually being primed by the dominant culture of our society to be disconnected. Counteracting these powerful social primes takes conscious effort. The practices cultivate close observation, intimacy, humility (by asking permission to interact with a particular place, or plant or animal), patience, slowness and stillness. They cultivate mindfulness – I specialise in teaching mindfulness-based nature connection (e.g. see here and here).

Language of mindfulness
I have trained to teach the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course, and part of the training involves learning what language to use in guiding people in meditation. Crucially, it emphasises using the present participle: “feeling”, “noticing”, “sensing”, “attending”. At the Wisdom 2.0 conference in 2013, Jon Kabat-Zinn explained this as “the object and subject collapsing into the present participle – there is no big ME at the centre of the verb”. This relates to self-determination theory and its proposal that the self can be experienced in two different modes: self-as-object and self-as-process (Ryan & Brown 2003).

Self-as-object (also referred to as the Me self, narrative self or ego-self) places the self in the role of object, detached from its surroundings. This mode of self-concept is concerned with the creation, enhancement and protection of personal identity, identifying with particular beliefs and adhering to socially and culturally derived self-images. Whilst the self-as-object has a narrative focus and experiences the self across time, the self-as-process is an experiential mode focussed in the present moment. This is the mode of mindfulness. Rather than being an object, the self is the very process of integration and assimilation, bringing coherence to life experiences. In mindful state there is no fixed concept of self to protect or enhance, and this Ryan & Brown (2003) maintain, is the true basis for wellbeing.

Connection to nature = connection to self
By cultivating our capacity to notice, mindfulness helps us come into relationship with the different parts of the self such as the physical body, emotion and intuition – parts that have been associated with nature and separated off and devalued in modern industrial culture creating human-nature, reason-emotion and mind-body dualisms.  Humans are part of nature whether we want to believe it or not, and connection with nature means not just connection with other species but also with our own selves. This is why the practice of nature connection is often seen as a spiritual practice – it is a journey towards wholeness.

New social norms
In seeing other living beings as subjects, this opens us up to feeling pain and grief at the harm we are causing them. I have come to the view that one of the most important projects of this moment is to work on creating new social norms for expressing our feelings about climate and ecological crisis, and for mourning what is lost and what we must let go of. In this way we can create space for the new, for better ways of living – with each other and the Earth. The concepts of relinquishment, restoration, resilience in Jem Bendell’s work on deep adaptation are highly relevant here, and the dialogues that are happening around it. I also find Jonathan Lear’s (2008) concept of radical hope very helpful: “What makes this hope radical, is that it is directed toward a future goodness that transcends the current ability to understand what it is”.

Facing the facts of climate change and ecological crisis involves encountering powerful feelings that can be difficult to bear. How we deal with these feelings shapes how we respond to the crisis, and will be critical in determining whether our responses are ultimately adaptive or maladaptive.

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