The Whys and Hows of Faith-Based Behavior Change

WWF's Dekila Chungyalpa explains the common ground between faith leaders and conservation groups

dekila profile

Dekila Chungyalpa

Chungyalpa, director of WWF’s Sacred Earth program, meets with religious leaders in Kenya. She holds degrees in environmental studies and sustainable development. For six years, she led WWF’s work in the Mekong region, and she now forges partnerships with faith leaders and religious institutions to find faith-based paths to environmental sustainability.

With five languages, two degrees, and 20 years of experience under her belt, she is helping to create a new era of conservation by merging environmental priorities with people’s most deeply felt aspirations and beliefs.

At the age of 19, I had a difficult time deciding whether I should major in psychology or environmental studies. I was deeply drawn to behavior analysis as a topic, but ultimately felt too keen an urgency for the cause of protecting nature and jumped in neck-deep. It’s a decision I’ve never regretted.

Ironically, the longer I’ve worked for WWF, the more immersed I have become in the whys and hows of behavior change. After all, until we understand what makes our human species behave in ways that are harmful to ourselves and to the environment, we can’t help change those behaviors.

It is often assumed that behavior harmful to the environment takes place because people either aren’t aware of the negative impacts their actions have, or because they have preformed beliefs that counter the facts. The conclusion has been that behavior change requires fact-based education to increase public awareness. But environmental psychologists argue that environmental knowledge in itself does not lead to pro-environmental behavior, while "intention to be environmental" may.

However, creating that intention and then moving from intention to action often requires a number of factors: transformation or reawakening of individual values and motivations, confirmation of social norms, external validation from respected sources, and personal conviction that the individual has sufficient capacity and control to effect change.

Those factors relate strongly to the reasons why WWF works with faith leaders and religious institutions: because more than 80% of the human population follows a faith; because faiths influence beliefs, understanding, and preferences; because faiths offer behavior-reinforcing resources and interactions; and because faiths provide some of the oldest moral frameworks for social action.

So social science suggests that faith can be a powerful tool for creating a more sustainable world. But, other discussions are also profoundly important in the work we do. Several studies have shown that when religious or spiritual people set specific goals based on faith, they monitor themselves and are more disciplined in meeting them. In a world where simply balancing human needs and the protection of nature will require a massive shift in attitude and behavior, merging conservation and faith-based goals may be a critical avenue for effecting change at the scale required.

Moreover, there is a striking confulence in how conservationists and religious leaders view the place of humanity in the context of our larger world.

“To paraphrase [analytical psychologist Carl Jung]: We are biological components of our ecosystem, the well-being of our ecosystem directly affects us, and when we ignore that link we destroy ourselves and the Earth.”

Dekila Chungyalpa
Director, WWF's Sacred Earth Program

The father of analytical psychology, Carl Jung, posited that the reason for our social ills lay in our increasing separation from anima mundi, the soul of the world. He argued that the Earth had a living conciousness, that we ourselves were actually part of this larger soul, and that our growing disconnect with the world soul was what damaged us and the Earth. To paraphrase the concept in ecological terms: We are biological components of our ecosystem, the well-being of our ecosystem directly affects us, and when we ignore that link we destroy ourselves and the Earth. 

Anima mundi and the philosophies that preceded it—from indigenous faith systems to Hinduism, to Buddhism and Daoism, to the transcendental principles of Judeo-Christianity and Islam—assert that the human soul extends beyond the human body into nature, the cosmos, and all of creation. In many belief systems, it is the realization of this interdependence—whether an individual connection with God or an experience of seeing the self as emptiness—that leads to enlightenment and spiritual evolution.

This is the common ground for the conversation taking place between faith leaders and conservation groups such as ours around the world today: that sustainability begins with letting go of our own self-importance, and awakening to our oneness with the universe and our kinship with all of creation. 

All religions value nature, whether they couch it in terms of stewardship of creation or compassion for living beings. This common ground is what allows us to work with faith leaders and religious institutions as they motivate environmentally friendly behavioral intent, establish religious environmental norms, and validate positive environmental behavior.

Faiths and the conservation movement are not at odds with each other. In fact, many of us already share an understanding that we are but fractions of a larger ecological system—that we are all integral parts of a greater universal whole.

Lear more about Dekila Chungyalpa and WWF's Sacred Earth initiative.

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