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UTSA professor explores spirituality as a way to fight climate change

UTSA professor explores spirituality as a way to fight climate change

MARCH 16, 2023 — Despite decades of public messaging about the effects of climate change, there continues to be a struggle with motivating action.

In an effort to see some movement, Jessica Eise, an assistant professor of social and environmental challenges in the UTSA College of Liberal and Fine Arts’ (COLFA) Department of Communication, is diving deeper into how spirituality interconnects with the environment, specifically climate change.

Eise, a former director of communications for Purdue University’s Department of Agricultural Economics, specializes in research focused on climate change, food security, technology and communication. Eise is the founder of the blended academic/social project Clima y Café (Climate and Coffee), a climate change initiative that uses grassroots outreach strategies to support climate change adaptation in the Colombian coffee sector.

UTSA Today spoke with Eise about taking a new approach in her recent research on spirituality and environment.

Briefly describe your new research connecting spirituality and environment.

JE: Today, one in four adult Americans identify as spiritual but not religious. This is a substantial and rapid demographic shift that will have ramifications. For instance, as recent as the 1960s, only 2 to 3% of Americans didn’t claim a particular religion. Due to the nature of this shift, concerning spiritual beliefs in unaffiliated and unorganized groups, it has been understudied.  Yet spiritual beliefs can dictate behavior, attitudes, choices, values and wellbeing.

I conducted an exploratory study to try and explore the beliefs of those who are leaving religion, but still cultivating spirituality. Of our main findings, one of the key points was that these individuals tend to believe in a spiritual connection to the environment. As an agricultural and climate change researcher, this naturally sparked an interest. I’m now building off of this study with a much more extensive and wide-reaching survey related to spirituality, ethics and climate change attitudes and messaging. Our results are already coming in, and are fascinating.

How does spirituality relate to climate change?  

JE: We have been aware of climate change for literally decades. It is the single most severe threat to human life. Yet we are not taking adequate action to counteract it because we cannot find the social consensus and motivation to do so. It’s safe to say at this point that we aren’t approaching the issue with a successful strategy.

Rich ties between spirituality and environmentalism have existed for millennium and still do in many cultures and groups around the world. But mainstream Western narratives have generally – and rather severely – divorced spirituality, ethics and morals from ‘scientific’ issues such as climate change and environmentalism. It has become a polarizing political issue, when it arguably should not be a political issue at all. Better understanding these shifting spiritual trends in the United States and the beliefs that underlie them could help us better understand how to gain consensus and take action to address the climate crisis.

What is the Sense-Making approach? 

JE: Sense-Making, developed by Brenda Dervin, is an approach to try to understand a particular segment of the public. It is based on an understanding that people cannot be neatly segmented into discrete boxes due to the complexity of identity and ever-changing cultural norms. It is a pushback against the static audience segmentation traditionally deployed by organizations. It makes quite a bit of sense when trying to understand individuals who are rejecting religion but seeking out spirituality, as they do not exist within an organization, are rapidly evolving and not well understood.

This was a very helpful approach for us, because some classifications would label those who are spiritual but not religious as an ‘inactive public’ or an ‘apathetic public’ as they don’t engage in an organization, but that would be limiting in this situation and not appropriate, as our findings supported.

⇒ Visit COLFA’s Department of Communications to learn about programs and degrees.

Why is crafting the right message to the public so important in the fight against climate change? 

JE: Human behavior is complex. It is motivated by values, incentives, emotions, cultural expectations, etc. The messages we receive across our lives inform our values and build our culture, which in turn influence our actions. There is research suggesting that positive self-efficacy frames for climate change can make a difference in driving action. Efficacy is our belief in whether we can solve a problem.

When people feel doomed and hopeless (which is how most people who believe in climate change feel right now), they are less likely to fight the problem. Also, climate change messaging has become heavily politicized into an “us” versus “them” problem. We need to reframe our messages to an “everyone” problem that we can solve and for which we have reasons to hope. Spiritual and ethical messaging that emphasizes connection to one another and the environment has a lot of potential in this light.

Michelle Gaitan

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of The University of Texas at San Antonio.

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