Nature As Tonic For The Human Psyche

“Ahhhhhh……”

Nature is good for you in oh so many ways. So says Florence Williams in her upcoming book The Nature Fix, and in this Wall Street Journal preview essay. Sadly, we don’t behave as if we understand this, as two social scientists learned when they mapped where people are happy:

“[O]ne of the biggest variables for their subjects (who tended to be young, employed and educated) was where they were. They were significantly happier outdoors, especially in natural settings, than they were indoors, even when the researchers tried to control for the effects of being at work.

But there was a catch: Most of the participants didn’t behave as if they knew this, because they were rarely outside. They were indoors or in vehicles for 93% of their waking hours.

The Mappiness study reveals our epidemic dislocation from the outdoors—an indictment not just of the structures and expectations of modern life but of our self-understanding. As the writer Annie Dillard famously said, how we spend our days is how we spend our lives. Why don’t we do more of what makes us happy? Part of the answer is that we’re flat-out busy. But even when we have free time, we’re not always smart about how we spend it.

I have long been a believer in the connection between happiness, creative energy, and the outdoors. Put me on a bike or on a walk (throw in a dog for a multiplier effect) and I always come home feeling good and with at least three worthwhile insights into work or life. Put me on a boat and I come home transformed.

Busyness, as Florence notes, is a huge block to feeding our souls in the outdoors (and busyness is so often purposeless). Social media and cable news are also two indoor, soul-sapping, distractions (and connecting to social media while outdoors is a particularly odious felony). So do we have a formula for a better, happier, existence? I think we do: Fewer electronic distractions, less meaningless busyness, more time outdoors and unplugged. Pretty simple and pretty effective.

 

 

Yvon Chouinard–Outdoor Evangelist

He doesn’t think politics and politicians are capable of dealing with real environmental issues. But he made sure his company–Patagonia–lived up to his ideals. This long profile of Yvon Chouinard is inspiring and thought-provoking. But also depressing because voices like his are never let into the mainstream:

The Chouinards undertook an environmental audit of their products and operations. For a few years, they’d been tithing ten per cent of their profit to grassroots environmental organizations. Now they enshrined a self-imposed “earth tax” of one per cent of their sales: a bigger number. “The capitalist ideal is you grow a company and focus on making it as profitable as possible. Then, when you cash out, you become a philanthropist,” Chouinard said. “We believe a company has a responsibility to do that all along—for the sake of the employees, for the sake of the planet.”

Eventually, they went so far as to openly discourage their customers from buying their products, as in the notorious 2011 advertising campaign that read “Don’t Buy This Jacket.” It went on, “The environmental cost of everything we make is astonishing.” Manufacturing and shipping just one of the jackets in question required a hundred and thirty-five litres of water and generated nearly twenty pounds of carbon dioxide. “Don’t buy what you don’t need.” (Some people at Patagonia had been considering declaring Black Friday a “no-buy day,” to make their point about consumption.)

Considering the upstream costs of EVERYTHING you buy or do is at the core of any approach to living that prioritizes nurturing and conserving the Earth, and trying to find balance between humanity and nature. It’s one of the reasons I went vegan, and why I almost never buy anything unless I have an absolute need (drives my wife crazy). But there is so much more I can do (I’m working on it!), and it is nice to read about an icon who promotes these ideals.

Antibiotics And Animals

This could be significant: a federal court has ordered the FDA to follow-through on a 35-year old proposal to stop pumping farm animals full of antibiotics:

A federal court on Thursday ordered the FDA to follow through on a 35-year-old proposal that would have banned the use of certain antibiotics in animal feed because the agency was concerned that these drugs were overused in livestock and helped develop drug-resistant bacteria that can infect people.

The concern is that some antibiotics given to treat illnesses in people are widely used on animals to promote disease prevention and weight gain, as well as compensate for crowded conditions on ranches and farms. The prevalence of those antibiotics in livestock has been linked in several studies to the creation of drug-resistant “superbugs” that can spread to humans who work with or eat the animals.

Excessive antibiotic use to prevent disease in factory farm animals is not only a major threat to human health, it also allows industrial farming operations to crowd large numbers of animals together. Restricting antibiotic use could (this is just the first step toward a ban and agribusiness has a lot of lobbying power) push industrial farms to do more to avoid crowding and conditions that lead to diseased animals, because diseased animals hurt the bottom line.

Put aside the fact that a potential ban is being motivated mainly by concerns over human health, not animal welfare (a reminder of the self-interested way in which humans view the world and its animals). This would be a step in the right direction for animal welfare, as long as it led to some changes in industrial farming practices, or even made such practices less feasible.

Human Engineering

Sometimes I think humans are so clever we can engineer our way out of all the problems and challenges we create with our politics and culture. Then I remember that engineering itself–cars, factory farms, for example–is a big part of the problem. But still. It’s hard not to be hopeful when you stumble across genius at work, in all its diverse forms.

(Backstory is here, and hat tip goes here.)

This next one is more subtle, but perhaps even more promising because, as you know, Biking Can Save The World (here and here).

Double Depravity: Dolphins Die So Sharks Can Be Finned

Sorry if you just had breakfast. Because this photo essay by Paul Hilton on the fishing practices he documented in Lombok, Indonesia is not easy on the stomach, or the human conscience. (Hilton recently won a World Press Photo award for a series on shark finning, and his work is well worth a look).

The basic story is that fishermen capture dolphins, use the meat to longline for sharks (to fin), and sell any surplus at local markets. It’s like a perfect storm of destruction. It’s the pictures, though, that really illustrate how sad this is.

Here’s Hilton, describing the scene:

In August of 2011, I headed to Indonesia to investigate. On the first morning I woke to the sounds of prayer at the local mosque, grabbed my camera and a notebook and headed down to Tanjung Luar, the largest fish market in Eastern Lombok. The smell was over powering. The crowd was a mix of tourists and locals.  I watched as the crew of two Indonesian longliners, tied up alongside each other, started dumping large fish over the sides into the shallow waters to be dragged into shore. I quickly made a list of species being offloaded. Scalloped hammerheads, thresher, mako, blue, silky, bull, tiger and oceanic white-tips sharks, manta and mobula rays, spinner dolphins and pilot whales. All coming off the same two boats, and not a tuna in sight.

The pictures, and the fact that this sort of fishing is going on–both killing highly intelligent mammals, and contributing to the destruction of shark species–can easily inspire outrage and condemnation (as it should). But it is important to remember the underlying cause of such a destructive practice is poverty. It may be easy to judge, or to assume that we wouldn’t make the same choices these fishermen are making, but many are subsistence fishermen simply trying to feed their families (though I have only scorn and antipathy for industrial shark finning operations that are all about corporate profit).

So anyone who really cares about ending human exploitation of dolphins and sharks (and other species) has to face this inconvenient truth: these practices (along with so many other destructive environmental practices) will not stop until the world gets serious about addressing global poverty. That’s not easy to do, but it is something that rarely gets acknowledged in policy and political debates.

Poverty and environmental destruction and cruelty are intimately linked. So if you want to oppose what you see here, it is incumbent on you to open your mind to what can be done about the underlying problem.

The Terrestrial World Is Giving The Ocean World Flu

Parasites and pathogens that infect humans, pets and farm animals are increasingly showing up in marine mammals.

This isn’t really surprising, but it’s just one more reminder that EVERYTHING humans do matters to the system as a whole.

Here’s the gist (full story here):

Between 1998 and 2010, nearly 5,000 marine mammal carcasses were recovered and necropsied along the British Columbia and Pacific Northwest region of the U.S., including whales, dolphins and porpoises, sea lions and otters.

“Infectious diseases accounted for up to 40 per cent of mortalities of these marine animals,” says Stephen Raverty, a veterinary pathologist with the Animal Health Centre in the British Columbia Ministry of Agriculture and Lands, and an adjunct professor in UBC’s Marine Mammal Research Unit.

“In many cases, the diseases found in these marine mammals have similar or genetically identical agents as those infecting pets and livestock. We don’t yet know how these diseases are affecting the health of marine mammals” says Raverty.

There are no obvious policy responses, except to say that it is increasingly important that the earth be viewed as a single, integrated, system with no barriers.

How Would You Like Your Test Tube Burger?

Right now they are very rare (get it?). But scientists, as they will, are plowing ahead with the development of in vitro meat, also dubbed Frankenmeat.

Isn't technology fun?

From a moral and environmental point of view, the logic is unassailable:

So-called test-tube meat is being developed to slash the environmental impacts of factory farming, improve consumer health and lessen the suffering of animals. Last June, an Oxford University study concluded that compared with conventionally grown and produced meat, “in vitro” or “cultured” meat would generate 96% lower greenhouse gas emissions, use 45% less energy, reduce land use by 99% and cut water use by 96%.

“Animal farming is by far the biggest ongoing global catastrophe,” Patrick Brown of the Stanford University School of Medicine told reporters, AFP says. “More to the point, it’s incredibly ready to topple … it’s inefficient technology that hasn’t changed fundamentally for millennia.”

From a culinary point of view it sounds (and looks–so far) pretty disgusting.

Yum. Can't wait.

The meat-eating world is already starting to argue that it will be incumbent upon vegans and vegetarians to eat the stuff, to help it take off commercially.

Actually, I think it is incumbent upon me to keep making the argument that the simplest thing is for people to stop eating meat (why do some technological solutions sometimes seem so grotesque? Not sure I want to see what unintended consequences Frankenmeat will arrive with). And that meat should be taxed according to the environmental and health costs it imposes on the planet (it would be impossible to quantify or even compensate for the suffering factory meat-farming inflicts on animals).

Simply making people pay what meat really costs would be by far the fastest and simplest way to solve the meat problem (and the strongest incentive for going vegetarian). And for any die-hards who would prefer test-tube meat to no meat at all, the right price on factory-farmed meat would make lab-farmed meat commercially viable in a hurry.

So, no thanks. I’ll pass on that Frankenburger.

Annals Of Excellent Ideas: Buy Nothing Day

#BuyNothingDay. Well, it didn’t really work since Black Friday and Monday turned into an orgy of consumerism (is there no marketing gimmick Americans can resist?).

But it is a great concept, and part of a growing #OccupyXmas movement (you can imagine what a feast that will be for Bill O’Reilly and his “War On Christmas” meme). Here’s the #OccupyXmas pitch:

This years’ Black Friday was a resounding success. Fifty-five billion dollars chimed through cash registers across the USA. Two hundred and fifty-thousand people went into the malls and spent on average 400 hundred dollars each, the biggest shopping day ever. Some notable purchases included ten limited edition Ferraris with matching luggage from Neiman Marcus’s exclusive holiday catalogue, $395,000 each, gobbled up in under an hour.

We in the 99%, alongside our sympathetic friends in the 1%, need to challenge this “normal” way of doing Xmas and come up with a new normal. The holidays need another paradigm.

So what are we occupiers going to do different this season? For starters, we’re going to take the personal plunge and move our money. We’re going to take it away from the big banks and put it into our local credit unions. And that will be the one great first step in breaking beyond the encampments and into the new Xmas imagination.

Ok, that’s not the most compelling pitch ever. Move our money? But it’s a start. And the underlying message against consumerism is absolutely critical. You don’t need to buy more crap just because it is Xmas. You can give the money you would otherwise spend to a worthy cause. You can try cutting the number of gifts you give to your kids and family in half or more (and explain that Christmas and the holidays really aren’t about buying things).

Part of reinventing our economy and culture is to change our idea of what we really need (or want), and abandon the idea that our economy and future depends on consumers buying more and more stuff. There is another way. Buy less. A lot less.

 

It’s All About Consumption

MANILA, PHILIPPINES - OCTOBER 28:  People walk...
Image by Getty Images via @daylife

So today is the day that population experts believe the seventh billion human will join us on earth. Here’s how we got here:

The first billion people accumulated over a leisurely interval, from the origins of humans hundreds of thousands of years ago to the early 1800s. Adding the second took another 120 or so years. Then, in the last 50 years, humanity more than doubled, surging from three billion in 1959 to four billion in 1974, five billion in 1987 and six billion in 1998. This rate of population increase has no historical precedent.

That’s a lot of people, and we’ll likely hit 10 billion be the end of this century. The important point about population, though, is not the raw number of people sharing the planet. It is what they consume from the planet. And that is where the scale of the challenge the human race faces, as the human population continues to expand its consumerist, material lifestyle, to every nook on earth, is eye-opening.

According to Scientific American “[t]he human enterprise now consumes nearly 60 billion metric tons of minerals, ores, fossil fuels and plant materials, such as crop plants and trees for timber or paper.” And while the cost of extracting, refining, and mainlining a metric ton of material has gone down, it doesn’t change the fact that we will continue to nibble away at our planet’s dwindling resources and, as long as we continue to consume on the scale we do now, we better start looking for a new planet.

So what is the consumption challenge? SA says:

Ultimately, the quantity of resources consumed by the nearly 7 billion of us on the planet will need to average out to six metric tons per year per person—a steep cut in the resources currently enjoyed by people in Australia, Canada, Europe, Japan and the U.S. As it stands now, an average American uses 88 kilograms of stuff per day and, all told, our modern gadgets require at least 60 different elements, ranging from the toxic to the treasured, such as gold.

88 kilograms of stuff per day translates into 32.12 metric tons a year. That means the average American would have to cut consumption by more than a factor of 5. Now ask yourself whether our culture and our politics offers any prospect of reducing consumption on that scale. Okay, you can stop laughing.

The point here is that we need to 1) become aware of the degree that the scale of the challenge before us completely overwhelms our politics, our economic trajectory, and our definitions of wealth, and the steps we are currently taking, or plan to take; 2) that the only way to make that sort of paradigm shift is to revolutionize the culture and economy which drives that level of consumption; and 3) we will definitely need some technological silver bullets.

Its long past time to think big, and go big. We need to, um, reinvent humanity. So let’s get started.

Course, here’s the most classic take on stuff (note for the sensitive–George Carlin likes to swear):

Think Different

Yes, I am typing this on a Mac, and I recently got an iPhone. But the message of this ad (narrated by Jobs), is perhaps Jobs’ most important legacy.

Think different. Which is an echo of Lincoln’s great–and ever more pertinent–exhortation:

The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise — with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.

Think Different
Image by secretagent007 via Flickr

Ironically, the next rebellion, the next paradigm shift in thinking we really need, is not about engineering cool, new stuff, that will make our lives easier or more amusing. It will instead take us away from a lifestyle built around acquiring exactly that sort of stuff.

But it is a testament to Jobs, and the fact that his engineering does so much more than divert and amuse, that if I had to make a list of 100 things to keep, his technology would definitely be on it.

PS: The quote above was from Lincoln’s Annual Message To Congress, Dec. 1, 1862, as he tried to lay the ground for the Emancipation Proclamation. He also said, and I add this because it resonates so powerfully in a time in which Congress knows what to do but won’t act, for partisan political reasons:

Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this administration, will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation. We say we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this. We know how to save the Union. The world knows we do know how to save it.

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