Maybe the light of sustainability is beginning to dawn. With the economic system collapsing more and more in spite of the biggest infusion of new capital ever, and the environmental world becoming sicker everyday, people are starting to realize that both losses play havoc with their psyches and their ability to flourish in general. A couple of articles today focused on this growing human concern, but from two different perspectives. Both illustrate the importance of the human dimension of sustainability as flourishing, and recognize the interconnectedness of our health and that of the environment.
The first raises questions about the treadmill economy that has been revealed to many who have been knocked off of it, not by choice but by the loss of jobs. The writer, Colin Beavan, wonders if we should think of reducing our consumptive lives beyond what is needed to preserve the environment. It begins with some disturbing data: the US sports the highest frequency of mental disorders on the globe.
I asked a psychiatrist friend if the fact that the United States sports the world’s highest rate of depression (not to mention, by the way, obsessive-compulsive or panic disorders, which together affect another 18 percent of Americans) is related to problems with our individual brain chemistries or problems with our way of life.
Although it may have to do with individual differences, that alone cannot explain why our rates are so large. That leaves our culture as the probable cause. After pointing to another US fact–we work harder and longer than any other industrialized people–Beavan wonders about the potential of cutting back. Maybe smell the roses.
We tend to think of using fewer resources for the sake of the environment as some sort of belt tightening, a sort of deprivation. But what if using fewer resources meant needing less money, meant having to work less hard, meant less depression and anxiety? What does such a possibility tell us about how we should live our lives? What does that tell us about the possibility that living environmentally might be better for us as well as for the planet?
Of course, this begs the question of what our priorities should be on a personal level. I, for one, am going to try to let go of my attachment to achievement and take time to take care of myself. But it begs big policy questions, too. The overarching economic policy has always been to increase economic throughput — and therefore planet-destroying resource throughput — on the assumption that this would bring greater happiness to the greatest number of people.
Of course, in these times of such economic distress, we can’t be cavalier about the importance of economic throughput. But at the same time, the question becomes: should it represent the be all and end all of Government policy? Perhaps — again, with the exception of those who are in economic distress — our policy should not be about getting more money into everyone’s pockets but more time into their lives.
That could be one way to help deal our epidemic of anxiety and depression. It might also help us use fewer resources and save the planet.
I think it is more than just a “might also.” It is critical to recover the caring or being quality that underlies our species uniqueness. We must take care of ourselves before we will be able to care for the planet. The next article today reveals the circularity of this problem. We need a healthy planet to flourish as human beings.
Humans have evolved within the context of their natural environment, and in these last few centuries- even the last few decades, really- the environment has been dramatically sullied and changed. It makes perfect sense to me that this would put undue stress on our mental and physical states, as we are unable to physically evolve as quickly as our environment, and that we as a species would react with aggression and fear.
However, I am also heartened to learn that the human animal is resilient. These studies indicate that we are able to derive physical, psychological and social comfort from whatever natural spaces we encounter, even in the heart of a city.
Simply being near trees, noticing the buds as they bloom, or taking note of the flight and song of backyard birds, is rejuvenating and essential. What is required of us, as parents and citizens, is to make sure that some sort of green space is available to everyone, and that we make time to spend time in them.