Date of Award

Fall 1998

Project Type


Program or Major

Natural Resources

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

First Advisor

Paul Brockelman


In highly developed countries like the United States, conventional approaches to environmental change emphasize systemic measures such as policies and regulations. Yet many intractable environmental problems appear to be rooted in the perspectives and practices of individual citizens. Efforts to restore 'outer ecology' may depend, therefore, on transforming 'inner ecology'--the constellation of spiritual and moral values that guide action. This dissertation examines the inner dimensions of ecological change, demonstrating how individuals redefine their relation to earth through a process of 'ecological conversion.'.

In assessing the dynamics of conversion, this work relies primarily on the testimony of six 20th-century American writers: Edward Abbey, Rachel Carson, N. Scott Momaday, Scott Russell Sanders, Alice Walker and Terry Tempest Williams. An interpretive analysis of their autobiographical works illustrates key catalysts and characteristics of the conversion process. Ancillary research in ecological philosophy, religious studies and ecopsychology informs the hermeneutical analysis of their narratives. Through this interdisciplinary study, significant commonalities in their spiritual and ethical transformations emerge. Six thematic chapters discuss the recurrent patterns evident in their life narratives: remembrance (formative childhood influences); reflection (introspective periods); revelation (epiphanic insights); reciprocity (ecological interdependence); resistance (public testimony); and re-storying (narrative and ritual arts). Collectively these elements constitute an exploratory model of ecological conversion (in the context of contemporary Western culture).

Through the conversion process, individuals cultivate an ecological practice--a deliberate and sustained set of actions intended to reinforce their responsible participation in the natural world. This practice represents a spiritual discipline, a mindful effort to renew and deepen connections with the greater whole. Each practice reflects a convert's particular worldview and circumstances, as well as shared values and visions. This work describes parallels evident in the ecological practice of selected writers. While the findings are preliminary and based on a small sample, they reveal dynamics of 'inner ecology' that could prove significant in efforts to transform environmental attitudes and actions in American culture.