In our ongoing search for solutions and indications of progress, we come across many opportunities and possibilities. We are much inspired by the creative forces around the world that persevere to serve humankind and the environment in the best possible way.
We see many possibilities to make the future more fulfilling, inspiring, healthy and equitable. But the future depends on people seizing those opportunities, people who won’t wait, but do what they can. That means the fate of the future really depends on us. On you and me.
By Katie Conlon, Ph.D. Candidate in Sustainability Studies, Optimist Emissary
“Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.” – Einstein
What is it about profound moments in nature that inspire a new perspective on the world? I feel close encounters with nature bring a new sense of belonging. One such life-shifting awareness of nature occurred when I found myself looking out across the endless, windswept desert expanses of the Sahara as a Peace Corps volunteer in Mali. This desert void was brimming with mystery, parts visible and others hidden just below the surface – an apt metaphor for life.
Before I arrived, I misguidedly thought the Sahara was a sweeping emptiness. However, what I encountered was actually an ecosystem teaming with animal, plant, and human life, coexisting and even thriving in these harsh conditions over millennia. I was awestruck at the vastness and stillness of the desert, and the subtle energy that resonated in this terrain through this complex, resilient web of life. In this environment, I felt so small, so vulnerable, and humbled at being part of something much greater than myself. Being present in such a stark but energetic landscape created a feeling of fundamental interconnectivity with all beings. In the Sahara, I saw the proverbial universe in a grain of sand.
Essentially, this feeling of interconnectivity is what I turn to when I feel small in the face of complex global challenges like climate change. It is contrary to what one expects, to be in a place that seems to be one of the most remote spots on the planet – the Sahara – and then to feel this sense of greater universal belonging and connection. Yet, I have heard of similar, dichotomous, remote-connectedness feelings experienced by others, such as mountain climbers on the summit of Everest, or when astronauts see the earth from outer space, also known as ‘the overview effect.’ Ironically, it can require being vulnerable and being out-of-one’s element to realize this sense of universal belonging for the first time.
The erroneous human-nature divide is a Western cultural myth, and one of the greatest stumbling blocks of the modern age and why many are so emotionally lost in this world. Reflective, solitary breaks from society used to be a core rite of passage, a journey of self-discovery, to connect with one’s self and one’s purpose. Rituals like vision-quests and long passages in nature were commonplace for grounding the human spirit. Unfortunately, Western society triumphs values of dominance-over-nature and not harmony-with-nature. Most people never get the chance to experience universal belonging and understand themselves fully, as an integral part of nature.
I spent years living within self-sustaining communities in West Africa, and the better part of my twenties living with traditional cultures around the globe. From these experiences I realize that the environment is not the problem, and the climate is not at fault. Western society has fundamentally a crisis of connection, not of climate. There is a tendency to project problems onto the outer world, but really, it is the inner realms of value and culture that require nourishment; the healing we long for comes through communities of care, collaboration, and collective-consciousness.
A sustainable, climate-resilient society cannot be achieved by maintaining and/or reinforcing unbalanced worldviews and practices. Flipping the discourse on climate change is long overdue, from changes in climate to an examination of human behavior. Profits matter more than the well-being of people and other sentient beings. Triumphant individualism kills community, and suffocates people’s awareness of the suffering of the world.
To illustrate skewed social norms, children in the global north can recognize hundreds of company brand logos, but go silent if asked to identify local plants. Yet, care, appreciation, and value come through familiarity. How can current and future generations steward the environment if it is foreign to them? How can people understand what is being lost if there is no awareness of what was there to begin with? The alienation of modern society from the environment is the result of thinking humans are outside of nature. Too many have never felt a sense of belonging with nature, and thinking will never get us there.
In order to heal modern society’s divide, we need to feel our way back into connection with nature. Solving the climate crisis requires Western society to become more sensitive, humane, and more connected with the intuitive and creative energies that can transcend our current heart and will-power blockages. We owe our very being to the pulse of the universe, only the disillusioned ego thinks they can control nature.
Over 50 years ago, Carl Jung critically noted the direction of the fast-paced, Western world, and warned that urban society builds impressive monuments to modernity, but the outer ostentation is a façade for a vacant and lost interior – which has only been amplified through the generations, by those living in the Western, consumption-driven society. When it comes to having the inner strength and moral bearings to solve the complex problems of the modern age – climate change, nuclear war, refugee crisis, soil depletion – modern society has no compass.
Ironically, having arrived at the pinnacle of human technical knowledge, Western society still struggles with the root goal of living in peace and balance. Great sages and mystics throughout time preached of a shift needed along the same veins as what is needed today, as Western society is lost and in need of moral direction: live simply, do not accumulate possessions, do no harm, take care of your neighbors, and look out for the weak and vulnerable. Collectively, humanity may have arrived at a more ‘modern’ time in history, but essentially, we still have work to do in mastering the same fundamental lessons, with no time more pertinent than the present.
In the past decade, for the first time in human history the majority of global population shifted from rural to urban; by 2050, the UN estimates 70% of global populations will live in urban environments. Western society more readily favors economic arguments than listening to nature, a sign of a sick society. The current economic paradigm puts forth the erroneous narrative that we live in a world of scarcity and competition, when really we live in a world of abundance and cooperation. How are citizens in face-paced, individualism-centered, urban environments supposed to connect with their ecocentric, interconnected identity? Only humans insist on living outside of the inherent pulse of nature’s collective. The further Western society removes itself from nature, the less inclined we are to act as stewards of healthy human-nature relationships and a balanced society.
Repeatedly and regularly allowing oneself to recharge in nature, without urban noise, without electricity pulses (from cell phones), without distractions of business – all will heal nature deficit disorder. The first step requires acknowledging that the core human needs for nature-connectedness cannot be filled in an urban environment, and being empathetic and nurturing to heal this divide. A fruitful start includes detaching from the pseudo-reality of the techno-world with weekly ‘unplug sessions,’ and spending ‘self-medicating’ time immersed in nature. The art of forest bathing, moon gazing, outdoor meditation, and long walks in natural environments are remedies for the soul. While in nature, the heart settles into a natural cadence, heals damaged relationships, brings clarity to misunderstandings, and fosters a sense of universal belonging.
Another means to help deepen connection and belonging is through rituals that help internalize connections with nature. Most holidays used to do this, but they have been commercialized to the point where nature has no value in the celebration, or if it does, as commodity. We need a refocusing of values and a shift from retail therapy to natural therapy. Another positive step towards shifting values and time commitments in favor of environment and community, would be to subsidize 10% of the work week (by employers or government) to allow means for all employees to volunteer for the community and/or the environment. A conscious and engaged citizen body starts with facilitating ways for all citizens to participate with their community; people should not be expected to spend all their creative, energetic efforts in pursuit of monetary gains, at the expense of community collaboration and environmental values. Stewardship roles should be open for all, not just a luxury for those who have the time and resources. Allow for these shifts and watch the community and environs blossom.
Essentially, our relationships with each other start with the natural world we are grounded in. The food we eat connects us to the earth; the minerals we absorb will one day be earth again; our bodies are seventy percent water and equally a part of the water cycle; we are codependent on these life-cycles, and rooted in earth. No matter how ‘modern’ society becomes, we abide through the web of life and it is foolish to act otherwise. Focusing on the thinking-centric, outer environmental crisis will only continue to manifest symptoms of our unsustainable, human-environment, eco-divide in the real world. The real change starts from within and spreads like a nautilus spiraling outward.
About the Author
Katie Conlon is a PhD student at Portland State University in Portland, Oregon. Her research explores sustainable solutions for global urban environments, with a commitment to finding solutions that relieve both social and environmental pressures. Specific areas of interest for Katie include finding ways to foster community engagement; mitigating consumption and plastic pollution; seeking alternative energy sources; and supporting localization movements of the economy & our food systems.
Ms. Conlon has a masters in International Peace Studies, and is active in sustainability, social justice, & climate issues in her hometown Portland. Katie also has firsthand experience in sustainability and climate issues in Bhutan, Vietnam, Trinidad, and Hawaii; research on social vulnerability to climate change for USFS; permaculture training; and a diverse array of community project experience in her 3.5 years in the Peace Corps in West Africa.
Reprinted with permission from Katie Conlon, @Copyright 2017 – Global Forward.