Ecology: Time to go deeper…

For the third part of our series with Ashridge Business School, Chris Nichols delves into 'Deep Ecology'; what it is and why it matters, explaining why the MSc in Sustainability & Responsibility course spends a week at Devon's Schumacher College with resident ecologist Stephan Harding.

If I could give the world a gift, it would be for every leader to spend time with Dr Stephan Harding.

Stephan is a most unusual man. He’s been resident ecologist at Schumacher College since its foundation. As a result he has worked with almost every major holistic ecological thinker and activist. He’s worked with James Lovelock, NASA scientist and originator of Gaia theory – the systems view of the earth as a series of interconnected systems that sustain life. He’s spent time with Arne Naess, the pioneer of Deep Ecology.

Stephan has come to embody deep ecology. He is a scientist who loves the Earth. He teaches with a passion that leaves no one untouched.

Earth wisdom

Deep Ecology is more than ecological science. The empirical study of how living things exist and relate to each other is valuable and vital, but it cannot in itself teach us how to live a life as part of this Earth: for that, a deeper form of ecological wisdom is required.

Arne Naess lived his life in pursuit of what he came to call “ecosophy” – a dynamic and evolving sense of the wisdom, of how to live wisely and in harmony with the living earth. For Arne Naess, deep ecology has to be lived.

It starts with having a ‘deep experience’, a moment that touches us and, with a gasp, allows us to see and feel the intricate marvel of the web of life of which we are a part. The deep experience leads to ‘deep questioning’, inquiring into our purpose and our relationship to the intricate and interwoven wonder of Life.

To allow space for deep experiences to arise we spend a full day walking with Stephan, on Dartmoor or on the coast, doing a Deep Time Walk. This involves walking, slowly, for 4.5 kilometres. Each kilometre represents one billion years of earth history. Stephan tells the story as we walk, of the earth forming, cooling, creating an atmosphere, the arising of life. We take time to draw, act, to feel in our bodies the story as it unfolds.

Long parts of the walk are silent, as the vast history of our planet awaiting a telling. Right at the last step, Stephan pulls out a tape measure: human civilization. And in the final tiny centimetres, modern industrial society, and all our innovations, hungers, impacts. When we see and feel history on this scale we are unable to stand aside – it is a Deep Experience …

Labour of love

It’s not the only one… Alongside the powerful teaching, we live in the Schumacher College community for the week, which it itself an expression of ecosophy – an experiment in living more in harmony with the earth. In that community, we undertake our shared inquiry into what it means to sit more gently with life in all our work. We do this by deep questioning using many ways of knowing and exploring, from time in nature to meditation. We work together to make and sustain the community: sharing community time, cooking, cleaning, gardening, play and conversations. We ask, what does it take to live in a spirit of deep commitment to and harmony with the earth?

From our shared work at Schumacher, there always arises a ‘deep commitment’, to live and work in ways that respect that wisdom. And that is the depth of commitment we need. Working to transform, to recreate, our organisations and our economics systems, is difficult and laborious work. It cannot happen on the basis of intellectual persuasion alone. It cannot be moved by expertise. 

It is a labour of love and it takes lovers to do it.

We spend a week with Stephan, and living in the Schumacher College community, because the experience changes peoples’ lives.

We do it because like Arne Naess we believe the world need leaders with an “ecosophy” – and we need business that genuinely seeks the wisdom of how to live in harmony with our living planet.

We do this because we believe the future of life on our planet requires nothing less.

Chris Nichols is a business director at Ashridge, where he is co-director of the Ashridge Masters in Sustainability and Responsibility programme and deputy director of The Leadership Experience. 

edie has partnered with Ashridge Business School for this series of articles focused on growing international debate and practice around sustainability. The next part is titled ‘Developing for resilience’, exploring the practices and processes that allow leaders and organisations to develop businesses, products, services and an economy that will respect the living world and will be resilient into the future.

Read all parts of the series so far here.

*On Friday, 10 July, Ashridge Business School is hoilding an online event for potential students to find out more about the MSc in Sustainability & Responsibility course; the faculty and the programme team. Click here to register.

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