Sparking action: How awe can reconnect us to our planet

I am sure you have already lost yourself in the vastness of the universe. Felt like time had stopped, and with it the liberating feeling that the presentation you had to give the next day might not be that important after all. Imagine if we could harness the transformative power of these experiences to address society’s most pressing challenges.

The Anthropocene

Humans are a planetary force. Since the Agricultural Revolution, 12’000 years ago, we have reduced the number of trees by half and increased carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere by 44%. Dumping all the concrete ever produced would cover the entire globe with a layer two millimetres thick [1].  
It is clear that we cannot continue on this destructive path, but how can we turn the tide?

The answer lies buried deep in the paradigms and structures of our societies, especially in the Global North. They shape our environments, the choices we can make, right down to our most intimate desires and even our fantasies of what the world could be like. As the saying goes “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism”. If we want to enable the good life for everybody on this planet within the ecological limits, we must first of all break these chains of conventional thinking.

Igniting action

But where do we start? Just like a chemical reaction needs energy, we also need a catalyst that ignites something within us. We all know that being bombarded with facts, figures and how-to guides does not feel motivating and it can even make us feel worse. It is time to harness the force of emotions and specifically the power of awe.

Defining awe is a lost cause, for it reigns where words fall short. When you are in a state of awe, you are immersed in your surroundings, your inner monologue quietens, your ego falls by the wayside. You feel small on the one hand, but all the more deeply connected on the other. Your mind is filled with curiosity and wonder.

You might argue that you can also feel this when you lose yourself in surfing, playing table tennis or whatever it is that gives you the feeling of flow. And you are absolutely right. But there is one dimension of awe that we have not yet talked about. That is, how it makes us think and feel about nature.

Photo: Unsplash

Reconnect to nature

Written texts from the past 500 years show us that awe has always been an important element of experiencing nature. Ever since, it has also been described as a challenging experience marked by tension, overwhelming and captivating feelings at once. Awe differs from beauty in its power and limitlessness. Through awe, nature escapes control and domestication. It is not belittled like a well-tended garden, but admired and respected. Consistent with this, psychological research has found that awe enhances people’s connection to nature [2, 3, 4, 5, 6]. It actively works against the belief that humans dominate nature. Instead, it favours an ecological worldview that sees humans as one creature among many, co-existing in the biosphere.

The solution to our problems will not be to leave one half of the earth to its own devices and continue to ruthlessly extract what we think we need from the other half. The problem is not the human species, but our current relationship with the natural world. We need to move beyond the black and white thinking of either destruction or protection. It is about a new engagement with nature, and I am convinced that awe can be a stepping stone to that.

Awe and sustainable lifestyles

Awe can catalyse the transformation to sustainable lifestyles in various ways. First, it diverts attention from ourselves, which evokes feelings of humility and connection. Applied to sustainability, it can strengthen the motivation to protect people and the environment, even if this involves personal sacrifice. The effectiveness for promoting altruistic behaviour is also supported by the possible evolutionary origin of awe. This implies that awe is adaptive for individuals precisely by taming the dominance of self-interest for the benefit of the social collective. It enables individuals to gain perspective and find their place in the group. In light of this, awe has lost none of its importance over the past millennia. We should harness the moral capacity of awe at a time when the primacy of individualism is bringing us to the brink of an ecological disaster.

Above all, experiencing awe as a positive emotion is a valuable experience in and of itself, leading to increases in mood and well-being. It may also change the perception of time and reduce impatience, which is a significant effect in a chronically stressed society.

Finally, awe seems to encourage people to find meaning in their lives, engage in experiential activities and favour communal over commercial relationships. Overall, the experience of awe is a prime example of the idea of a symbiotic relationship between human well-being and environmental conservation.


Whenever you feel like it’s impossible to change the system, awe can be the shift in perspective that helps you look at the world with a sense of possibility. When you feel stressed, awe can give you the space to breathe. When you feel like you never have enough, awe can give you a sense of gratitude. And finally, when you feel lonely and isolated, awe can be the connector that provides you with a sense of belonging.

We can use awe in art, in architecture, in spatial planning and in communication. But the easiest way is to walk through the world with your eyes wide open, ready to be touched and awed.


[1] Lewis, S. L. & Maslin, M. A. (2018). The Human Planet. How We Created the Anthropocene. London: Penguin Books.

[2] Bai, Y., Maruskin, L. A., Chen, S., Gordon, A. M., Stellar, J. E., McNeil, G. D., … Keltner, D. J. (2017). Awe, the diminished self, and collective engagement: Universals and cultural variations in the small self. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 113(2), 185–209. Link here

[3] Bethelmy, L. C. & Corraliza, J. A. (2019). Transcendence and the Sublime Experience in Nature: Awe and Inspiring Energy. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 509. Link here

[4] Yang, Y., Hu, J., Jing, F. & Nguyen, B. (2018). From Awe to Ecological Behavior: The Mediating Role of Connectedness to Nature. Sustainability, 10(7), 2477. Link here
[5] Wang, L., Zhang, G., Shi, P., Lu, X. & Song, F. (2019). Influence of Awe on Green Consumption: The Mediating Effect of Psychological Ownership. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 2484. Link here

[6] Zhao, H., Zhang, H., Xu, Y., Lu, J. & He, W. (2018). Relation Between Awe and Environmentalism: The Role of Social Dominance Orientation. Frontiers in Psychology, 9, 2367. Link here

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