One of the things I love most about art is that it provides an opportunity to create and learn simultaneously. While the hands are lost in the creative expression of the mind, the ears can take in the wisdom of the world through audio books, podcasts, TED speeches, and so on.
While drawing DFA #1, books have carried my mind to every corner of the globe, and deep into the emotions of the heart. I am always amazed how often authors from entirely different worlds say the same things in their own unique ways. Whether on topics of love, nature, religion, philosophy, politics, or society, I hear the same messages again and again. For example, Dale Carnegie, the author of one of the best selling books of all time, How to Win Friends and Influence People, wrote “Everybody in the world is seeking happiness—and there is one sure way to find it. That is by controlling your thoughts. Happiness doesn’t depend on outward conditions. It depends on inner conditions.” Jetsun Jamphel Ngawang Lobsang Yeshe Tenzin Gyatso (a.k.a His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama) has said “Happiness is not something ready made. It comes from your own actions.” And in the words of Abraham Lincoln, “Folks are usually about as happy as they make their minds up to be.”
In this post, I attempt to dissect the relationship between nature and humans in the 21st century. I believe that an understanding of this relationship is critical to developing a sustainable human existence on Earth, while concurrently improving the condition of human happiness at a global scale.
I write of my own experiences, and of thoughts that have arisen within me from the books that I have learned from. My words here are divided into several parts, 1) I start with my own views on our place in the world with nature, 2) I present a few philosophical ideas for how the division from and oppression of nature arose, 3) I describe the dangers of unchecked adherence to beliefs, 4) I present statistics on human health to demonstrate the effects of our beliefs on human well-being, 5) I provide a little information on current environmental problems to reveal the effects of our beliefs on the natural world, 6) I present a few ideas that convey the importance of reuniting with nature, and 7) some food for thought.
Some readers may interpret my words as an attack on western religions, spiritual philosophies, and creation stories as a whole. This is not my intention. I espouse the virtues of religious and spiritual beliefs. I mean only to call attention to the nature and power of “beliefs,” and the troubles that can arise when large groups adhere strictly and unquestioningly to a belief system. I refer to western religions often because they have been instrumental in shaping the beliefs of modern, western society. I express some concerns about religious and social beliefs, but I am not suggesting that we shouldn’t embrace them. Indeed, it is beliefs that establish the foundation of morality, and right and wrong conduct in society. They can foster acts of kindness and charity, and impel people to live honorable lives. Beliefs are instrumental in forming and upholding peaceful communities. And perhaps most importantly, for many of us, we just need something to believe in. It gives meaning to our lives, and provides us with a foundation upon which we can better make sense of the world, and our place within it. Beliefs, in one form or another, are the initial stepping stone in the journey of human life on Earth. The trouble is, like a gun, beliefs have the power to destroy. However, while the gun requires conscious input to initiate harm, beliefs do not. Our actions are often directed by our subconscious adherence to our own beliefs. And so it is, that we can harm people, decimate wildlife, and ravage the entirety of the natural world without a second thought. They say, “the pen is mightier than the sword,” but it is beliefs that direct the actions of both.
If we seek to create a sustainable human existence on Earth, while improving human well-being, elements of our belief system will need to change. We cannot follow the predominant ideologies of the preceding generations, for they are the source of the environmental and social problems of our time.
One With Nature
“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature — the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.” ― Rachel Carson, Silent Spring
As a child, when the summer months rolled around, my parents would take me into the backcountry of the eastern Sierra Nevada mountains. Crystal clear lakes, meandering streams, and fields of emerald green, all crowned by colossal, granite peaks, provided a playground in which the endless curiosity of a child could adventure for eternity. As I grew older, my friends and I would spend time here fishing and reading. Time in the basin grounds mind and body, soothes emotions, and reestablishes the connection between nature and human.
It has been nearly eight years since I stepped foot in the Cottonwood Basin. On my last trek into this wilderness my friends and I were called to the aid of a hiker suffering from the effects of altitude; I assume acute mountain sickness or high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE). After nearly an hour and a half of CPR, we stopped. The man had passed. Today, what stands out most vividly in my mind from this incident are the man’s shoeless feet extending over the flat rock on which he lay, and down into a stream. He died with his feet in the flow; two feet, deep in the cycle of water, the cycle of energy, the cycle of life.
The Cottonwood Basin, and the experiences that I have had within it, have contributed considerably to the development of my own spiritual belief. Though, it is not really a belief at all. Rather, it is an acceptance that I am nothing more than an assemblage of matter and energy in the natural cycle of life in the universe. I believe in that which remains when the human element is removed. I believe in what I can see before me. I am wary of the beliefs of the imagination for the mind is master of deception. I do not doubt that there is some spiritual force, or some mysterious spark of life, but I have never met anyone who can convincingly explain to me how this all works. I remain open-minded, but skeptical.
“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” – John Muir
The cycle of life is all around us and all within us. We are interwoven into the fabric of existence. Perhaps even more extraordinary, is that all biotic and abiotic forms exist together and within one another. The abiotic elements, such as water and oxygen, give life to the biotic, and the biotic enrich the cycle of abiotic elements within the ecosystems.
Take a look at your hands. While not visually discernible, at the cellular level they are undergoing a process of continual decay and rebirth. Each cell of the epidermis will be replaced in roughly 10 to 30 days. The body disposes of billions of dead cells every day. The ingredients required to produce new cells are obtained from the world around us. The matter of our bodies and the matter of our surrounding environment are in a state of constant exchange.
To smell the fragrance of the rose, to taste the mesocarp of the pear, to hear the waves upon the shore, to feel the wind upon your face, to watch the sunset upon the Earth, is to be immersed in the everlasting cycle of matter and energy in the cosmos. The pulse of our hearts is a cycle of the elements of life, no different from rain drops descending on a journey to the sea, or the budding and withering of leaves in the spring and the fall.
In life and in life beyond, we remain in this system. We are together forever, giving life to one another. What it is within us that we see in the mirror, is no different than all that we see around us. In this moment the matter of existence may be divided by space, but in the next moment it is united. Time brings all together and all apart and all together again; this is the rhythm of the universe.
When we pass on from what we call “life,” we become evermore a part of all that is around us. Decomposition of the body is quite literally a transfer of matter and energy. We become the next generation. We become the budding flower, we become its nectar, we become the infant hummingbird, we become the young hawk, we become the matter and the energy that is within all. We are reborn into every shape and form. And what is more beautiful than new life? Life in its infancy is the most extraordinary form of being. What a beautiful privilege to be a part of this system.
I find peace in knowing that all who I have loved, and who have moved on, remain around me forever. If we wish to be with those who have passed, we need simply to sit a while in nature and relish the beauty that is all around us, for that beauty is the new and present face of those who have journeyed on from their previous form. Isn’t this extraordinary enough to soothe the mind? Do we really need beliefs to give us peace? Must we separate ourselves from nature, to feel significant?
Apart From Nature
“Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” – Genesis 1:28
In college, I took a class in environmental ethics. The course dove deep into the realm of environmental philosophy. It was one of my favorite classes because it addressed the origins of ideologies that justify human dominion over nature. One philosophical movement that resonated with me is termed ecofeminism. This movement explores the rise of patriarchal domination, and provides several explanations for the division between humans and nature, and the origins of global oppression.
Many ecofeminist see the rise of patriarchal religion as the origin of division and oppression. “They date the origin of the oppression of nature back to 4500 b.c.,… when the shift from goddess-worshipping cultures to male deities began. In the goddess religions, both the earth and women’s fertility were seen as sacred. There was no gender hierarchy, and divinity was seen as immanent. With the advent of patriarchal religions, people worshipped a sky god, and nature was seen as his creation. The role of the male in reproduction was elevated above the role of the female; women were compared to fields which would gestate and bear the male seed… In the Judeo-Christian tradition, a great chain of being was established with god at the top, appointing Adam to be in charge of his entire creation. Woman was created from Adam’s rib and placed below him, and below the divinely appointed heterosexuals were the animals and the rest of nature, all to serve man. The patriarchal domination of both nature and women was divinely commanded.”1
Other ecofeminists look to concepts of self and dualisms in patriarchal culture. “Value dualisms give rise to value hierarchies, where all things associated with self are valued, and all things described as other are of lesser value. These dualisms of self/other are manifested as culture/nature, man/woman, white/non-white, human/non-human animal, civilized/wild, heterosexual/homosexual, reason/emotion, wealthy/poor, etc. Domination is built in to such dualisms because the other is negated in the process of defining a powerful self. Because the privileged self in such dualisms is always male, and the devalued other is always female, all valued components of such dualisms are also associated with the male, and all devalued components with the female. Ecofeminist who use this approach see the self/other separation as an effective means for explaining the twin dominations of women and nature, since both are always configured as ‘other.'”2
Ecofeminists also provide other explanations for the separation between humans and nature and the emergence of male dominion, including the scientific revolution and gender roles established during early human evolution.
I believe some combination of the above is very likely responsible for the emergence of a patriarchal society and the oppression of women and nature throughout history. Male dominance may have initially been established via inherent behavioral characteristics (males typically more competitive, aggressive, violent…) and physical qualities (males larger, physically stronger…). This is the case in the animal kingdom, why wouldn’t it be true of us. After all, we are just animals. Survival of the fittest is often, but not always, established by the strongest male outcompeting the other males and subduing the female for reproduction. Male dominance could be an evolutionary development, established through the forces of nature to encourage the proliferation of those genes most suitable for the present environmental condition. Patriarchal religion most certainly has played a role as well. Nearly all the major religions and spiritual philosophies follow the words laid down by a male figure; God, Jesus, Moses, Muhammad, Buddha, Confucius, Krishna, Lao Tzu, and so forth. In Greek Mythology, the Earth and sky, the oceans, and the underworld are ruled by three brothers, Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades. The beliefs of the world have also done their part in upholding dualisms. Everyone is at the center of their own universe. The rest of the world is everything else, thus dualisms arise naturally. However, the relationship between ‘self’ versus ‘other’ is defined through social conditioning, and religions and philosophies are hugely influential in shaping the condition of the human mind.
In developing a sustainable human existence and improving human well-being, we must understand the power of beliefs. Beliefs can keep us grounded, but they can also lead us into oblivion.
The Trouble With Beliefs
“Three blind men come across an elephant. The first man happens upon its leg, and concludes it’s a tree. The second man bumps into its trunk, and concludes it’s a snake. The last blind man feels its tail, and concludes it’s a broom.”
In speaking of “beliefs,” I am not only referring to religious beliefs, but also those that uphold social, political, and economic ideologies. However, much of the development of western society has been influenced by religion, as attested to by Thomas E. Woods Jr. in his book, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization. With western religion a driving force in the development of western society, and a fundamental player in upholding beliefs that justify human dominion over nature, I do wonder how compatible some interpretations of the scriptures are with developing a sustainable human existence. It is evident that the Catholic Church itself is concerned about this, as demonstrated by Pope Francis’ efforts to clarify the human obligation to protect nature. He has said, “If you are a Christian, protecting the environment is part of your identity, not an ideological option,” and “A Christian who does not protect creation, who does not let it grow, is a Christian who does not care about the work of God; that work that was born from the love of God for us.” Clearly, the Pope is working to dissuade interpretations of the Bible that suggest that humans have a right to destroy the whole of nature to fuel their material desires. This is the trouble with beliefs, they are open to endless interpretation, and when embraced by the masses they can carry tremendous momentum and inflict immense harm.
Humans like to explain everything, to identify and name all the elements of the universe, to have an answer for all things. Consequently, beliefs abound. I think this is dangerous. Personally, I don’t follow the school of thought that we need a human contrived answer for everything. Why do we have to believe? Why do we feel a sense of guilt or fear if we do not embrace the doctrines of society? Why do we feel a sense of comfort from embracing society’s convictions? Social conditioning, perhaps?
I do not believe that humans are “qualified” to accurately define and explain all the mysteries of the universe. To be blunt, I do not believe that humans are so brilliant as to have a “true” answer for so many of things that we attempt to explain. A review of human history reveals how often all the things we think we know, just aren’t so. Or as Mark Twain put it, “What gets us into trouble is not what we don’t know. It’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.”
We have a tendency to interpret the creations of the imagination as reality, and then to pass on that reality to the next generation. Why do older members of society impel children to adopt their beliefs, and to varying degrees, shun those who do not adopt them, or those who do not embrace them as vehemently as they do? True, beliefs uphold the presently accepted “reality,” but what if that “reality” upholds prejudices, fosters hatred, fuels bloodshed, or justifies the annihilating of the natural world? Should not that reality be altered? Our reality is the product of the human imagination. The whole of the material realm, with all its beliefs, and social, economic, and political ideologies are a product of the human mind. We can transform any element within the material kingdom to better serve humanity if we desire to. Take a look at the world around you. From obscene political behavior, to senseless environmental destruction, to a rapid decline in human mental and physical well-being, problems abound. Have we learned nothing? Have we not seen what works and what doesn’t? Why must every generation start from square one, making all the same mistakes as the previous? If we wish to improve anything, is there any point in revisiting what doesn’t work? Of course not, yet we force upon our children the same way of thinking that led to all the mistakes we have made in our past. This form of social conditioning forces generation after generation into the same school of thought, with the same ideologies, and inherently all the same misconceptions and biases. No wonder we cannot achieve world peace.
Children are not born biased towards others. They adopt negative or positive biases via social conditioning. And even if one’s beliefs are grounded in love and understanding, the very act of believing creates dualisms. There remains an underlying credence that this belief is right, and that belief is wrong, or this group is right, and that group is wrong. And so, even within a peaceful community, we see divisions. As the saying goes, “Birds of a feather flock together.” And humans certainly “flock together.” We divide ourselves into nations, then into political affiliations, then into religious groups, then into racial associations, then into ethnic communities, then into college or sports affiliations, and on and on. Research suggests that it’s simply human nature to band together. There are clear advantages to doing so. According to Herbert A. Simon, “Organizations are visible everywhere in all civilizations, ancient and modern, and they provide key social mechanisms because we are so ready to form attachments to them, and to orient our behavior to the accomplishment of their goals. Governmental organizations, corporations, formal and informal associations, and traditional groups like the tribe or family all depend on our loyalties for their effectiveness and utility.”3 However, there are also strong, social disadvantages that arise from group formation. To quote Simon again, “loyalty to groups creates in us a strong tendency to evaluate events and prospects in terms of whether they are good or bad for ‘our’ group, whatever their effects on others. We divide the world into ‘we’ and ‘they’, and when the outcomes for ‘we’ and ‘they’ diverge, we have little hesitation in choosing the outcomes favorable for ‘us’, whatever may be the detriment to ‘them’. When the conflict becomes acute, as it often does, we are quite ready to visit harm on ‘them’ if we believe it will protect ‘us’ from harm, or even if we believe it will simply lead to gains in the achievements of ‘our’ goals. So war, conquest, and slavery have been with us from the earliest history of humankind.”4
At the heart of any group is the belief system upon which the group is founded. It is beliefs that drive a group to engage in productive or destructive behavior. Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon that often arises from within groups. It is an event in which members of a group make irrational, dysfunctional, or non-optimal decisions “fueled by a particular agenda or simply because group members value harmony and coherence above rational thinking”5 The concept of the “American way of life” is an example of groupthinking. At the first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 George Bush Sr. declared, “The American way of life is not up for negotiations.” And millions of people buy into this belief because it is our God-given right in the land of the free. Unfortunately, the American way of life is the most destructive force on the planet. It is entirely unsustainable. “With less than 5 percent of world population, the U.S. uses one-third of the world’s paper, a quarter of the world’s oil, 23 percent of the coal, 27 percent of the aluminum, and 19 percent of the copper,”6 according to Dave Tilford of the Sierra Club. Mathis Wackernagel, director and co-founder of the Global Footprint Network, and his colleagues have calculate that “it would take four Earths – or to be precise, 3.9 Earths – to sustain a population of seven billion at American levels of consumption.”7 Clearly, in Terms of achieving sustainability, beliefs can be a very big problem.
Firm beliefs can prevent the mind from questioning the validity of “truth,” and can foster blind allegiance. This has fueled many of the most egregious atrocities of humanity. The numerous events of ethnic and religious cleansing throughout human existence are a prime example of blind allegiance in action. However, blind allegiance fuels violence and oppression of every form and scale. Feelings of hatred and/or acts of cruelty towards others because of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or physical and mental disabilities initially arise from social conditioning and blind allegiance to the condition of our own individual “reality.”
The more entrenched we are in our beliefs, the more our sphere of influence decreases. We read books, watch shows, associate with people, and engage in conversations that uphold our beliefs. We shun those who threaten our beliefs, and in the process, we may exclude the bulk of the wisdom and knowledge in the world from our sphere of influence. We lose our capacity to learn and grow. We trap ourselves within the box. Why? Perhaps, it is because of fear. To quote David Bayles, “Nature places a simple constraint on those who leave the flock to go their own way, they get eaten.” Yet, time and time again we see that growth arises from leaping out of the box. To quote Bayles again, “We do not long remember those artists who followed the rules more diligently than anyone else. We remember those who made the art from which the rules inevitably follow.” The innovators of human society, including the revered spiritual and religious leaders form our past, are remembered because they wandered far beyond the box. They chose their own path. However, in their wake, new boxes were formed, and the vast majority of people jumped into them. Society loves to make boxes, and people love to jump into them. However, no one can reach their full individual potential when they are glued to the footsteps of someone else, especially when those footsteps have been obscured, often beyond recognition, by many generations of interpretation. Such is the way with footsteps. They fade away with the wind, the rain, and time. What remains is only interpretation. And interpretation is subject to the follies of the human imagination, and worse yet, to the desires of the human agenda.
Perhaps it is simply human nature to bend, twist, reshape, and manipulate information until it is in harmony with our own ideological reality. For humans, subjective reasoning often forms the foundation of logic. One might argue that this is not a very strong foundation. I would agree. One might also argue that this would lead to a world of biases, disagreements, violence, and war. Look around you.
The Destruction of Nature
We live in a world that has been radically altered and redefined by the human imagination. We live in a material kingdom that grows and grows under the guise of progress. What is our destination? Is progressing for no other reason than to progress, a good thing? We are racing forward into the unknown without a map. We are burning up the planet’s finite resources to fuel a way of life that is not sustainable, nor beneficial to our emotional and physical health. What are we doing?!!!
Earth is the only home we have ever known. Our livelihood is dependent upon the condition of this planet. The natural world provides us with all the resources we need to survive, and it is in fast decline. Climate change is only one of the many problems that we face. Overpopulation drives human consumption of natural resoucres at a pace far beyond the planet’s biocapacity. Species extinction threatens the balance of ecosystems and undermines their capacity to provide the ecosystem services that make life on Earth possible. Our oceans have become the largest landfills on Earth, with the amount of plastic expected to outweigh pound for pound the amount of fish by 2050.8 Air quality, the world over, poses risks to respiratory health in many of the major cities of the world.
The list of environmental issues goes on and on, yet we remain stubborn to change our ways.
FYI, the following animals are critically endangered. They represent only a tiny fraction of the total number of species listed as critically endangered or endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Primary threats include habitat loss to humans and loss of genetic variation within populations. The later is largely as a result of overhunting and poaching.
Cross River Gorilla
Eastern Lowland Gorilla
Western Lowland Gorilla
Sri Lankan Elephant
South China Tiger
The Destruction of Ourselves
Do we really prefer parking lots to paradise? Is the material world so amazing that we should destroy the entirety of the natural world to uphold it? Are we creating a world that is in tune with the natural emotional and physical condition of our species? I mean this quite literally. Is the material kingdom the ideal habitat for Homo sapiens? What is the true cost of living within the world created by the human imagination? I rarely, if ever, hear people asking these questions. Yet, I believe they are the most important questions that we can be asking ourselves as we attempt the creation of a sustainable human society. There are many indications that the current state of modern society is wreaking havoc on human physical and mental health.
Modernization has brought forth the sedentary lifestyle, and with this, a gamut of health problems. According the the World Health Organization (WHO), “approximately 2 million deaths per year are attributed to physical inactivity, prompting WHO to issue a warning that a sedentary lifestyle could very well be among the 10 leading causes of death and disability in the world.”9 “Sedentary lifestyles increase all causes of mortality, double the risk of cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and obesity, and increase the risks of colon cancer, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, lipid disorders, depression and anxiety. According to WHO, 60 to 85% of people in the world—from both developed and developing countries—lead sedentary lifestyles, making it one of the more serious yet insufficiently addressed public health problems of our time. It is estimated that nearly two-thirds of children are also insufficiently active, with serious implications for their future health.”10 Clearly, the world that we have built is not in tune with the natural condition of the human mind and body.
Increasingly, research is revealing correlations between increasing use of technology and decreasing life satisfaction. According to an article published by UNICEF, “Too much passive use of social media – just browsing posts – can be unhealthy and has been linked to feelings of envy, inadequacy and less satisfaction with life. Studies have even suggested that it can lead to ADHD symptoms, depression, anxiety and sleep deprivation.”11 Jean Twenge, a professor from San Diego State University, found a significant increase in major depressive episodes among teens between 2011 and 2015. “With more examination, Twenge recognized that the rise of the smartphone among teenagers coincided with the rise of teens’ feelings of uselessness, as well as with the fall of their satisfaction and happiness.”12
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) “depression affects about 16 million American adults every year.”13 That’s nearly 5% of the US population. In my mind, this is an enormous number people trying to make sense of the world that they are living in. I have read that many indigenous tribes have no concept of depression or anxiety. And research has shown that there is a strong correlation between urbanization and declining mental health and increasing behavioral problems. “The range of disorders and deviancies associated with urbanization is enormous. Some of the [these] are severe mental disorders, depression, substance abuse, alcoholism, crime, family disintegration, and alienation.”14
Additionally, in the US, “suicide rates have been rising in nearly every state. In 2016, nearly 45,000 Americans age 10 or older died by suicide. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death and is one of just three leading causes that are on the rise.”15 Am I missing something here? If the field of psychology is truly advancing, if our understanding of the human mind is improving, if the effectiveness of our medications is progressing, how on Earth are these conditions and statistics possible?
Recently, I watched Salif Mahamane’s TED speech about his life with ADHD and his research on the origins of this condition. He remarked that researchers have recently discovered that “men of a certain nomadic group in kenya who had a genetic variant that’s implicated in the restlessness and shifting curiosity [characteristics] of ADHD were better nourished than their counterparts without the variant, but in a group of those same people who had split off to live sedentary lives, the men with the variant were undernourished compared to their counterparts.” This research suggests that ADHD may very well be an adaptive trait, and has raised new discussion as to whether ADHD should even be pathologized. In other words, behavioral characteristics that psychiatrists have associated with the term ADHD, may simply be normal human behavior in a unnatural, material world. I am not a medical professional, but I cannot help but wonder how many behavioral patterns pathologized by medical “professionals” and stigmatized by society are simply normal human responses in a world of concrete, steel, congestion, and noise pollution. Imagine how a mind evolved to identify a flash of color in a forest of green must react on the streets of a bustling city, with all the colorful billboards, honking horns, shouting people, and not a tree or deer in sight. Could it be that many of the patients that psychiatrists shower with medications are simply struggling to cope in a world completely, and unknowingly, alien to them? Perhaps more concerning, is that a dozen psychiatrists may each prescribe a slightly or entirely different concoction of drugs to the same patient. Do we really know what we are doing?
What was it Mark Twain said? “What gets us into trouble is not what we don’t know. It’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.”
One of the fundamental tenets of evolution is that it generally occurs over long periods of time; at the very least, multiple generations. There are examples of species evolving in relatively short periods of time (several decades), such as the finches of the Galapagos Islands studied by Peter and Rosemary Grant, and the peppered moth of England during the Industrial Revolution, but generally when we speak of evolution, we are referring to events that occur over thousands or millions of years. For example, if you embrace the scientific origins of Homo sapiens, then modern-day humans are the product of roughly six million years of hominid evolution. Species evolve as environmental conditions change, and in nature, these changes generally do not occur rapidly. Through natural selection and genetic variation, species better adapted to the present environmental condition outcompete those with less favorable traits. Sound familiar? As I wrote above, researchers have recently discovered that “men of a certain nomadic group in kenya who had a genetic variant that’s implicated in the restlessness and shifting curiosity [characteristics] of ADHD were better nourished than their counterparts without the variant, but in a group of those same people who had split off to live sedentary lives, the men with the variant were undernourished compared to their counterparts.”
One of the fundamental characteristics of the human material kingdom, is rapid change. Not only does technological innovation occur at lightning speed, it is encouraged because it fuels economic productivity. I propose, that we are manually altering the condition of our surrounding habitat at a rate that far outpaces our ability to adapt to it, and for no other reason than greed and “progress.” Genetic variation may very well favor some individuals over others, and so there are those who can cope with the changing environment. However, if there is any validity to evolutionary science, then there is every reason to believe that large numbers of people will struggle to exist in a rapidly changing environment such as ours.
Return to Nature
Through the ages, we have relocated our society from within the natural world into the modern, material realm. The innovations of humanity are extraordinary. There is no question about that. However, I do believe that we should more often question the effects of our innovation, and whether they are beneficial or detrimental to the condition of the natural world, and to our mental and physical health. It is very clear that in transforming our ideas into reality, we have failed to manage the planet’s resources sustainably. But there is also growing evidence to suggest that the condition of our well-being is in peril. Our inner world, comprised of mind and body, is in a battle against increasing depression, anxiety, obesity, heart disease, cancer, and so on. Clearly, a wave of evolution is needed to restore the balance of our outer and inner worlds.
Evolution is a change in the characteristics of an organism(s) over generations in response to a changing environment. Though, generally used in reference to species, I do believe that evolution applies as much to animate life, as to inanimate systems. Systems must also change to adapt to changing environments. There is sufficient reason to change our social, economic, and political ideologies. Those of the preceding generations are no longer suitable to guarantee the health of the natural world, the health of the material world, and the health of our inner world.
I think of Robert Frost, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.”
For humanity, the two roads are ideological. Both are “paved with good intentions,” but only one will lead us to our salvation. It is the road “no step [has] trodden black.” It is the path of evolution. We may as well embrace it, for whether we like it or not, necessity will hurl us down it. Increasing demand (overpopulation) and decreasing supply (dwindling natural resources) will foster increasing government regulation. New policies will redefine the ways we live our lives, they already are. The question is not, what will change? It is, what won’t?
I believe there is sufficient evidence to suggest that human health is dependent upon a connection with nature. Research is revealing that many of us possess traits that are best suited to natural environments. Additionally, research has shown that time in nature can reduce stress, lower blood pressure, boost the immune system, improve sleep, and speed up recovery from injury and illness.
Bill First, of Forbes writes, “Increasingly, healthcare and public health professionals are recognizing that the social determinants of health—including where we’re born, live, work, play and age—collectively have a far greater impact on our health outcomes than the healthcare delivery system. It’s estimated that healthcare services account for just 10% of longevity, while social and environmental factors account for twice that at 20%, genetics 30%, and individual behaviors an estimated 40%.” 1617 Additionally, First writes, “A 2006 American Scientist study on perceptual pleasure and the brain chronicles how viewing stimulating, dynamic natural scenes triggers an increase in interactions of the mu (opioid) receptors in the brain’s visual cortex—making viewing nature a physically pleasurable experience compared to looking at a blank wall or concrete-covered street.” 1819
I believe humans seek nature because it is where we naturally belong. We visit national parks, travel to foreign lands, and hike, and camp, and bike because we are inherently drawn to wild places. What it is in a view that captivates the soul, that leaves us speechless, and reawakens the sense of wonder that children know so well, must to some degree be the resurrection of a connection that wanes whenever we turn our backs to the world from which we came.
What is a life without nature? Every place we mine, or log, or otherwise decimate, is a place that will never be as it once was. There are places on Earth that only memories or photos can now describe. It saddens me to think that places of extraordinary beauty, such as Palau, Tuvalu, the Maldives and the Seychelles may be lost to sea level rise. And imagine a world without gorillas, orangutans, lions, rhinos, and elephants. What then? Increasingly, will our interactions with nature become virtual? Will we have to slip on a pair of virtual reality headsets and wait while nature loads? What will this do to our mental health?
We may know the lay of the land, but we are only just beginning to understand the way of it. Humans are not omniscient creatures. There is so much we do not know.
We speak often of progress, yet by definition, progress is nothing more than moving towards a destination. As far as I can tell, humans have no clear, or universally agreed upon destination in mind. Perhaps destinations should be brought to the forefront of social, economic, and political debate. For only then can “progress” be substantive. I also believe it is important to distinguish between negative and positive progress. In my mind, positive progress means moving towards a sustainable human existence while improving human well-being. Positive progress is a process of evaluating the consequences of the actions of the past, accepting what has worked and what hasn’t, and not repeating the later. All too often, our beliefs and ideologies do not progress. They remain stagnant because we do not scrutinize their impacts on both human and planetary well-being. While in theory, technology and medicine are always progressing, in reality they cannot actually progress if our understanding of ourselves is not progressing. For example, we generally view innovations in technology as positive progress. Yet, correlations between increasing technology and declining mental and physical health suggest otherwise. Likewise, we typically view innovations in medicine as positive progress, but all too often these advances are simply remedies or band-aids to problems that we have created.
Achieving sustainability and improving human well-being are goals that can be obtained simultaneously. However, we will never achieve these ends, if we are unwilling to acknowledge the flaws of our belief systems. If we are to progress in a positive direction we must embrace ideologies that “truly” promote the well-being of nature and our place within her. The prominent Norwegian philosopher, Arne Naess wrote, “The ideological change will be mainly that of appreciating life quality (dwelling in situations of inherent value) rather than adhering to an increasingly higher standard of living. There will be a profound awareness of the difference between bigness and greatness.”
So much of the human journey throughout history has been characterized by a separation from nature. Carried on by our beliefs, we journeyed, physically and mentally, further and further away from her in our quest to build out the “big” kingdom of our imaginations. We tear down forests to build walls to keep nature out. We adorn our walls with windows to see the world, but through glass we cannot feel, hear, touch, and smell the world out there. We have created traps and poisons to kill every living creature that dares to enter into our domain, with not a care in the world for the pain we inflict. As our population grows, we push further into nature, forcing all the “vermin” to walk the plank toward extinction. And Increasingly, to view the world around us, we look not up, but down into a magical, electronic mirror.
Mirror, mirror, on the wall, show me the fairest life of them all.
In seeking “big,” many of us have diminished the quality of our lives to nearly zilch. We are holed up within our homes, within our rooms, at our desks, or glued to a screen through which we experience the majority of life. What a sentionally “big” life we have created.
It need not be this way. We can rediscover “great.” It comes naturally when we let go of “big.” When we stop seeking more, and strive to appreciate less, we discover a world of incredible depth. Perhaps Louis Armstrong said it best:
“I see trees of green, red roses too
I see them bloom for me and you
And I think to myself what a wonderful world
I see skies of blue and clouds of white
The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night
And I think to myself what a wonderful world
The colors of the rainbow so pretty in the sky
Are also on the faces of people going by
I see friends shaking hands saying how do you do
They’re really saying I love you
I hear babies crying, I watch them grow
They’ll learn much more than I’ll never know
And I think to myself what a wonderful world
Yes I think to myself what a wonderful world”
Yes, it is a wonderful world, and our happiness lies in believing that it is worth protecting.
From all of us here in the studio, thanks for reading!
When I first wrote this post, I was concerned that some people might find my words too aggressive, or my attack on the “brilliant” innovations of humanity, unjustified. I know I am strong in my own opinions. However, after writing this post, I began reading Silent Spring, by the renowned, American marine biologist, author, and conservationist Rachel Carson. Throughout the book, I have encountered striking similarities between her words and mine. I want to share a few words of hers here as I believe it lends credibility to the points I have made in this post.
“We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost’s familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road — the one less traveled by — offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of the earth.” ― Rachel Carson
“A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full or wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood. If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children, I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantment of later year…the alienation from the sources of our strength.” ― Rachel Carson
“The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.” ― Rachel Carson
“But man is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself.” ― Rachel Carson
1 Gaard, Greata, and Gruen, Lori, “Ecofeminism: Toward Global Justice and Planetary Health,” pp. 276-287 in Environmental Ethics: An Anthology (Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2003).
2 Gaard, Greata, and Gruen, Lori, “Ecofeminism: Toward Global Justice and Planetary Health,” pp. 276-287 in Environmental Ethics: An Anthology (Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2003).