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Nature is a showoff, and we’re moved to stand in awe of its ostentatious spectacle and question our very lives. Before it we shrink, ignorant of the fact that we are meant to be a part of nature’s drama, the writer, actor and stagehand, instead of a mere spectator gazing on it in wonder.
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I blame it on the National Parks. These spectacular public places to which people flock for vistas as inspiring as great art and as distant as the answers those made woozy by them seek. But those who founded the National Parks made a grave mistake: They took out all the people.
Before the parks were established people lived in, adapted to and shaped these lands, and their daily rhythms were accompanied by the pulse of the world around them. They lived within the limitations of what they were a part of, and pushed those limits with new ideas, ever aware that with one simple flick nature could obliterate all they’d gained. But those people were a part of nature’s palette and whenever set back they would reconsider, reposition and rebuild.
But then they kicked the people out, and all that was left of the parkland was tourism. Places to visit, experience and never truly be a part of. This bifurcation of us and our aspirations and nature and its opportunities left us with a duality we still struggle with whether we face questions of property, climate or mental health. We struggle with the separation of ourselves from the land and whenever we enter these natural places, faced with permits and budgets, we are reminded that we are no longer a part of this.
Yet deep down inside a more ancient protest stirs. Something real but snuffed out awakens. Yes we are a part of this.
Any time we separate ourselves from something we are so intimately tied to, our relationships, our jobs, our history, nature, we set ourselves up for an undeserved and unwinable struggle with our self. We become isolated not only from the people around us and the culture we live in, but from the earth from which we draw our lives. Denied the possibility to not only live within but to act on and change our world we lose our humanity in the idea that we stand apart from nature, that we have harmed it, and fill ourselves with the hubris that we know better how to fix it.
Tracing back to ancient time people have always struggled within nature to improve their lives. Rivers were diverted, desserts were made fertile, resources were drawn from the earth, great cities were built and lives got better – for centuries. And it was ok as long as we saw ourselves as part of the nature we manipulated to grow.
But today is different. Today we forget all the good, good in material wealth, human rights, health and quality of life that have come from our deep interaction with the world we live in and, instead of a promising future beset with problems the best of us will solve, and be rewarded for, we see nature as an enemy of our growth, a changing thing we have lost our ability to adapt to and manipulate, and look forward to lives of deprivation instead of bounty for the first time in our history as a species.
We fool ourselves with the misguided, selfish idea that we know better than nature herself, and insist on some optimal equilibrium that is best for us, as if we are gods acting on a garden, and say “this is enough, no more changes,” to a natural system from which we are born and in which we thrive that has only known change. We look at the world as a curator of a painting we must restore as we insist that this painting the way it is right now is better than anything we can do anymore. We have the audacity to believe nature is in trouble and we must save it. Truth is, no matter what happens to us, nature will be just fine. Inevitably different, as it is now from what it was centuries ago, and centuries before that, but just fine.
However, we may not be. We live with a pending sense of doom, or a denial of changes that are obvious, as we grip onto lives in an uncertain future that, in the absence of all hope and the ignorance of all history, we are told can only be worse. People look at the issue of climate change and argue about whether or not they believe the science, when science has nothing to do with belief. Science is the opposite of belief. Belief is certain and views certain questions with skepticism. Science, always questioning, is never entirely sure, but always moves closer to some knowledge with which we can manipulate our world. People go to war over belief, but science determines the victor. Unfortunately, today science has combined with belief to render the lives we have lived as damaging and to demand wholesale changes to our lives that will be as life altering for so many, in a bad way, as some probability of outcome that is just beyond conjecture.
The people who seek to end life as we know it, the people on either side of the debate on climate change, look at an extraordinarily complex system, a system with infinite variables that, when changed, can yield extraordinarily unexpected results. Yes, we must prepare for what may happen. And no, faced with such complexity that goes way beyond the models our computers can churn out, we have no idea what is going to happen.
Once again we have stepped outside of nature and see it as something that happens to us, something dangerous, instead of the very life that runs through us. Yes, we act on it. But it acts on us as well. We are inseparable from the world around us.
What does this have to do with mental health? I think two things. First there is the science. Like the climate our brain is an extraordinarily complex system forever influenced by infinite variables. One is the exhibition of symptoms. Another is a range of moods. Another is our physical health, including the food we eat, the exercise and sleep we get, the diseases comorbid with many mental illnesses. Then there is our diagnoses and the treatments psychiatry and psychology prescribe for us. Yet many of these treatments contradict one another, and while many people, like myself, improve by applying the latest science, many more just don’t get better. Despite all of the science that has been developed to improve our mental health, more people than ever suffer from mental illness. Perhaps, in some cases, the accepted science of psychiatry even does harm. And yet psychiatrists continue to prescribe meds with mediocre track records but huge advertising budgets as if they know better than the data. Like all science, psychiatry is a collection of hypotheses and probability that one day seems certain and the next is laughed at as simple-minded or recoiled from in horror. Let that be a warning to all who insist they believe the science. Science changes more than the climate.
The second thing is climate anxiety. How can we plan for a future of prosperity and promise if we are constantly told that much of the lives we live and the things we aspire to can only wreak havoc on the earth around us, can only be destructive, and that bleakness awaits unless we accept nothing but limitations on our behavior and our lifestyle. For the first time in our existence as a conscious species, for the first time in our being a part of nature, many of us anticipate a future that will be worse than the present. We’re beset by messages that we will face an uninhabitable world and we are to blame. How can we face the future with anything but anxiety?
Let the cautionary tale of our struggles with developing treatments for mental illness, full of bright successes and devastatingly dark failures, be a cautionary tale as we approach action to be taken to thwart climate change. Science tomorrow will smirk at, if not outright disregard, missteps we make now with limited and imprecise information available. At the same time, an elite group of people will benefit and masses more will suffer from wholesale, mandated change to a system that has worked well for most for an awful long time. All the while, anxiety will spread, especially amongst the young. You can only tell a generation that their future is an ominous question mark and the world of their parents that gave them a life of such privilege and prosperity is to blame. Instead, we must inspire them, and give them the proper foundation of an education in science presented without bias, to face any looming problem as an opportunity, as we always have.
Nature is not doomed, and if we view ourselves as an integral piece of nature, instead of as an enemy of nature, neither are we. We suffer from the anxiety of both a dark, hot future and the limitations on liberty and upward mobility mandated by the solutions floated to keep us cool. Still, we have so much to be thankful for and we have so much to be optimistic about. Endless hammering by evermore influential chicken littles can only lead to anxiety and hopelessness. Like any episode of anxiety, a mindful look at the truth of our situation, rather than repeating worst case scenarios, can help us stay present, calm down, consider the truth of our present, and face the future prepared to do the work and reap the rewards that careful and sensible reason, belief and science make possible. Yes, we need to do something about climate change, but reason is impossible under episodes of great anxiety. Let’s begin by ceasing the preying on people’s anxiety that guarantees bad decisions will be made.
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