Inner Transformation: A New Approach to Sustainability

It is time to open ourselves up for new approaches to sustainability?

by Jessica Böhme, January 12, 2018
inner transformation

There are various methodologies and approaches when it comes to sustainability. In fact, the terms sustainability in itself has many different definitions and applications. Usually we rely on governments, policies or companies to promote sustainable behavior. But what about us? Can we be more sustainable within our own selves, within our consciousness? 

In this op-ed piece, Jessica Böhme takes a closer look at one area that has been left out of consideration in the sustainability movement - us. Read on to explore how an inner transformation might increase the well-being of the individual, and our planet.

When I first began to understand the social and ecological problems we are facing, I became a bully. When I was out for a pizza-dinner with my friends, I lectured them about the consequences of eating anything that’s not plant-based. When my parents, who have always lived a simple life, told me that for the first time in their lives they wanted to fly somewhere for vacation, I started an argument. How could they be so selfish and fly?

Fortunately I realized pretty shortly thereafter that lecturing people about all the things they are doing wrong doesn’t change a thing, except my social life. It took a while before I was invited for pizza again.

Three years after my first encounter with my inner-dictator and a lot of mind struggle later, I came to a conclusion. Whatever made me change, and especially what made me change with ease and even joy, was not awakened by any know-it-all, but rather it was a shift in consciousness, in my beliefs, values, and world-views. It was an inner transformation that led to outside changes in my behavior.

The origins of the discussion surrounding inner transformation lies in rather spiritual, even esoteric, teachings. But recently it’s been gaining traction in scientific discussion as well, especially when talking about sustainability. Usually, when talking about sustainable development, the problems are framed as political or economic shortcomings. We try to find solutions through technological advancements or stricter political regulations. Or in my case, strict regulations about eating pizza.

But technology and politics are not enough. Scientists have discovered that technological advancements that are supposed to minimize the ecological impact often make it worse or have little overall impact. This well-known phenomenon is called rebound effect and a common problem when trying to solve environmental problems through technical solutions only. Political regulations often also lack impact. Due to lobbyist’s and voter’s wants and needs, they are usually very weak. A great example is emission trading, which failed to offer an incentive for industries to invest in energy efficiency. 

The absence of real or desirable results from technological and political solutions has led people from various backgrounds to start questioning the common approach and instead search for a more underlying, profound way of change. Some even argue that we are not facing an economical, technological, ecological and political crisis, but a philosophical, psychological, cultural and spiritual one.

Various studies reveal that skills like awareness, compassion, empathy, resilience and non-material values provoke an inner transformation that might not only increase the well-being of the individual, but also foster sustainable behavior. Here are some skills that have been proven to support sustainable action:

  • Values: The psychologist Tim Kasser found out that our values determine in many ways if we act sustainably or not.
  • Connection to others: The neuroscientist Gerald Hüther states, that one of the reasons for our overconsumption lies in our missing connection to others.
  • Empathy: The neuroscientist Tania Singer could recently prove that people can learn empathy through meditation.
  • Self-actualization: The psychologist Marcel Hunecke identified self-actualization, among six skills (the ability to enjoy, self-acceptance, awareness, making sense, solidarity) that people need in order to evoke sustainable behavior from within.

But how do we get those skills?

You might have heard it before, but the first step in learning any of the skills mentioned (and beyond) is to be aware. To be aware of your values, of missing connections, of your ability to sympathize, of who you are and of what you want.

Tania Singer, for example, built a meditation app in order to learn empathy. But you don’t need to meditate for hours every day in order to get there. To start out, an easy to implement method is to put a few notes (3-5 is enough) around your house and workplace stating STOP. Whenever you see the note, pause for 30 seconds, and try to find out what’s going on inside of you at that very moment. Questions you can ask yourself are: What am I thinking about? How do I feel? Am I tired? Does my body hurt anywhere? Do I like what I am doing right now?

It sounds simple. Even trivial. Pausing and breathing alone is not going to save the world. But what can come from involving yourself in these kinds of practices might. Scientists are starting to get some proof for that, while many spiritual teachings have been claiming it for a long time.

Maybe it’s time to act on it, to open ourselves up for new approaches to sustainability.


About the Author

Jessica Böhme is researching at the interface of inner transformation, digitalization and sustainability. If you are interested in learning more about the topic of inner transformation/sustainability, you can join the discussion at one of the regular meetups. To find upcoming events, go here


Kasser, T. (2002). The high price for materialism. (A. G. Services, Ed.) (1st ed.). USA.

Hüther, G. (2013). Was wir sind und was wir sein könnten. Fischer e-books.

Singer, T., & Ricard, M. (2015). Mitgefühl in der Wirtschaft. München: Albrecht Knaus Verlag.

Hunecke, M. (2013). Psychologie der Nachhaltigkeit. München: oekom.

Originally published April 6, 2017