Can wilderness workshops create a new generation of natural leaders?
Louise Macdonald has always been very active in her community and in politics, but until recently the green agenda had passed her by. “It just didn’t stick”, she says. The chief executive of youth information charity Young Scot, Macdonald engaged with the idea of sustainability on an intellectual basis, and recycled her waste because that was what good citizens did, but overall she says she did very little.
Then in 2008 Macdonald took part in WWF Scotland’s Natural Change Project (NCP), which involved two week-long residential workshops in the wilderness. The project radically changed her perspective on sustainability, and after finishing it she set about turning her charity a low carbon organisation. Macdonald and her staff took a strategic approach, looking at things like whether those they did business with held the same values, introducing codes on the printers and photocopiers so that people used less paper, and introducing eco-driving lessons for employees.
“Since the NCP I’ve been motivated from the heart, my core”, she says. “It took a whole year to measure our carbon footprint; it’s extremely hard work. My job was to keep staff motivated”. Young Scot has managed to reduce its carbon emissions by 30% and Macdonald has been invited to sit on the Scottish Government Climate Change Act’s 2020 Group.
The Natural Change Project was established in 2008 by WWF Scotland to foster leadership on sustainability. It invites professionals in positions of authority to attend residential workshops in the Scottish wilderness, based on ecopsychology. So far attendees have been drawn from the health, education, arts, charity and private sectors.
“The aim is to get people into the wild so that they can experience themselves as part of an ecosystem” say programme designer and facilitator David Key.
The main activities of the workshops are ‘solos’ and group reflection. ‘Soloing’ means spending time alone, in silence and in the same spot, with no watch, phone or map. Group reflections allow participants to share their thoughts and experiences. As well as trying to inspire people to live more sustainably, the project also equip participants with the skills, insights and motivation to lead others towards a more sustainable future.
David Key explains that compared to other change programmes, the NCP does not demand any change of participants because psychotherapy practice suggests that not expecting change is important. “We combine direct experience of wild places with psychotherapeutic processes. This leads to a wide range of responses, from bringing up personal psychological trauma to explorations of spirituality. We find that the issues that emerge naturally are usually those which most need to be worked with, to allow the participant to change”.
The project is about getting people to think about how nature works and how humans think. “We may believe we think on our own”, says Morag Watson, Senior Policy Officer (Education) at WWF Scotland “but in reality we are products of our culture.” The project is about challenging assumptions about the way that organisations and individuals operate, and making space for change. “If I ask you to visualise ‘education’, I am pretty sure you’ll describe a classroom and a teacher.” she says. “But is that the only or the best way to teach?”
Three former participants are now on Scottish Government advisory groups for sustainability and another three are on government steering groups. Former participants continue to exchange ideas, support each other and work together on sustainability issues.
The real success of the programme has been the impact participants have had in their respective organisations. The biggest challenge remains getting prospective participants to make the huge time commitment that the project requires (16 days over 6 months). But as Key puts it, the first thing that needs to change is our relationship with, and attitude towards time. “You can’t achieve lasting personal change during a half-day session in a hotel”.
WWF is currently exploring opportunities to run another Natural Change Project programme, looking into how it could be adapted for business leaders.