Interconnection: Humans vs Nature
“A nation that destroys its soils, destroys itself.”– Franklin D. Roosevelt
Mother Earth, The Feminine & Our Pain for the World
“Greetings, Nature, mother of all creation!”– Pliny the Elder, Natural History
‘Nature’ derives from the Latin ‘natura’ meaning birth. This cyclic translation eludes to Mother Earths innate correlation to the planet’s life-giving properties and association with fertility, as well as the greater connection with the feminine. The cultural lens of ‘Mother Earth’ is particularly intriguing as it instigates the following questions; What is the relationship between humanity and nature? What separates humans from the natural world? and Are humans apart of or apart from nature? Joanna Macy, PHD scholar, author and environmental activist answers this by supporting just how deeply interconnected we as humans are to the natural world.
Throughout “Working through Environmental Despair,” (Macy, 1995), Macy provides a passionate literary performance, which presents feelings of a pain for our world. This “pain” can be measured by forms of climate anxieties that are present throughout modern society. In addition, Macy’s illustration of the word compassion is significant in relation to humans relationship with the environment. Macy examines eco-anxiety, environmental despair and ecological doom by uncovering the “original meaning of compassion; suffering with” in order to explore the idea that we are truly “suffering with” the changing world in which we live. To live in suffering with the loss of mother earth, reflects itself in everyday media headlines, the deterioration of natural landscapes and local and international planetary catastrophes. This level of compassion generates feelings of stress, responsibility, guilt and anxiety for the world, to which unfortunately no one is exempt nor immune. In many ways, this is also a measure of humanity, masking itself in sensations of fear, anxiety, sorrow, guilt and anger. Whether or not, modern society is aware, we are “suffering with the changing world,” which mutually reveals our essential interconnectedness. This being revealed in the oneness of all things, despite humanity seeing themselves as separate to the natural ecological world. The original meaning of compassion reinforces the ideology that we as humans, are not separate, but are one.
“When part of that body is traumatized – in the sufferings of fellow beings, in the pillage of our planet, and even in the violation of future generations – we sense that trauma too.” Macy considers our pain for the world with reference to the shadow limb theory. This distinctive analogy points to the experiences from an amputee of shadow limb syndrome which are comparable to those who experience “pain that belongs to a separate part of our body- a larger body than we thought we had, unbounded by our skin.” The condition consists of experiences and sensations from an amputated limb, which can act as a metaphor for ecological distress and humanity’s true connection to the world in which we live. This can show how deeply we are truly connected to the world as “the web of life both cradles us and calls us to weave it further.” We feel the pain for the world because it is a part of us, just like an amputee would experience sensations in inflicted areas that were once apart of them.
Mother Earth vs Modern society
“There must be some force behind conservation: More universal than profit, less awkward than government, less ephemeral than sport, something that reaches into all times and places. I can see only one such force: a respect for land as an organism.”– Aldo Leopold
“The Time to Act is Now: A Buddhist Declaration on Climate Change” refers to the destruction and relationship society has with mother earth by rendering the Earth as a mother and a home to all living beings where “the umbilical cord binding us to her cannot be severed.” Ecological destruction affects us in more ways than we know, “when the earth becomes sick, we become sick, because we are a part of her.” This is our pain for the world, the oneness of all things and all connected natural and ecological aspects to mother earth. Global warming can be defined under a Buddhist perspective as, “the ecological consequences of our own collective karma.” This statement was made in relation to the impact of anthropogenic processes on the natural world and sets an explanation as to why global warming is taking place at such a rapid and global level. (Ven, Bodhi and Stanley, 2015) The term, Karma refers to the Law of Karma, which directly effects the Buddhist concept of rebirth and has been popularized in western society. The idea is future based, in so far that the natural law determines future outcomes based on past actions, whether those actions are determined bad or good. Buddhists aim to cultivate good karma and ultimately avoid bad karma by shaping their “karmic conditioning” (BBC, 2009) by mindfully choosing moral actions. The Karma of human processes is apparent in the modern world and is strengthened by the traditional Buddhist view that “we are in control of our natural fates.” (BBC, 2009) Humans negative effect on the natural world and similar lack of action to sustain mother earth, leads to adverse karmic consequences.
The Dalai Lama urges all to act for a complete attitude change in relation to how we perceive mother earth. The idea that humanity believes they are in control of nature is a complete false perception which needs to be redirected towards a more compassionate and mindful approach by reinforcing our human ability to change our behaviour. This can also be interpreted in a more optimistic light, by reinforcing the impact of positive environmental human activity and psychology to mitigate climate change incidents and future mitigation strategies. The actions we choose to take or not to take with retrospect to our “natural fates” can have a direct impact on our surroundings on a universal scale. The scars we leave upon the earth are our human downfall, which is negatively affecting our present ecological status at an alarming rate.
The Illusion of our Separateness
A Buddhist view on global warming incorporates the ideology that “collectively we are violating the first precept – ‘do not harm living beings.’” (Ven, Bodhi and Stanley, 2015) A Buddhist precept is a moral outline and law for the ethical and ideal way to live a good and enlightened life that is free from all suffering. The first Buddhist precept is one of five which offers a sustainable world view for respect to all living beings. This precept reflects the law to avoid and abstain from killing or harming any living beings which include reproduction and excessive consumption or any sort of ethical harming. In a more contemporary setting, modern society relates living beings to their human selves. From a Buddhist perspective, this is the problem associated with a changing world. Living beings, are all living organisms such as animals and plants that are earth dwellers. Earth’s inhabitants have been subject to planetary injustices around the world, due to unsustainable processes that have led to an increase in greenhouse gases. The first precept illustrates the common world view that society has on the natural world. Certain members of society often see the ecological world as separate to them, resulting in a lack of care and compassion for all living beings and their welfare. The lack of compassion expressed occurs circularly and makes its way back to human life cycles and planetary safety.
Thich Nhat Hanh, Vietnamese Buddhist monk and inspirational spiritual leader states “we are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness.” This supports the idea that humans often view themselves as habitually superior to the natural, ecological world and living inhabitants. It is this specifically mistaken attitude around the separateness of humans and other species of the living world, which is disrupting the circle of life. The prior attitude can be proven faulty when we examine the cyclical aspect of the world and its holistic eco-systems. For instance, when the world is harmed, the human population also endures. The killing and harming of various species across earth, leads to negative consequences for the well-being and karmic effect of human life. The detail provides insight into how Buddhism views the status of the natural world and the reasons behind suffering. The inspiring conclusion was reached at the 2012 Inter-Religious Dialogue on Climate Change and Biodiversity Conservation: “It is all connected; we are all connected.” (Sivaraska, 2014, pp.148) No matter how romantic or profound that statement seems to be, the implication provides a significant connection to negative connotations surrounding modern society and the restrictive view on the world.
Summer of 2019, Beijing China
Prior to the summer of 2019, I was blissfully ignorant to the true luxury that is the human ability to cleanly inhale and exhale. It was during this particular time that I was completing an internship placement at leading conservation-based organization, World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), which is a company that I have admired for their conservation work with species and habitats and extreme efforts towards the reversal of environmental degradation. Still, without fail during my daily commute I found myself choked by Beijing’s industrial pollution and poor air quality. My chest was tight and as the weeks passed by, I felt my breathing become more and more laboured. Similarly, I occasionally cycled around the city on weekends as I thought this would be the perfect opportunity and dual balance between exercise and exploration. I was so very wrong. This is the point where exercise becomes harmful. As something that I had always taken for granted, I realised the importance of the air we breathe and how even short-term exposure to toxic pollution and industrial substances can affect the human body and lung capacity exceptionally. Now, the first thing I do when I wake up in the morning is list all that I am grateful for. Number one being, I can take a clean deep breath in and out.
Psychological Distance & Human Health
Theodor W. Adorno, a significant philosopher and social critic in Germany after World War II mourned “What would happiness be that was not measured by the immeasurable grief at what is? For the world is deeply ailing. The almost insoluble task is to let neither the power of others, nor our own powerlessness, stupefy us.”
Society’s illusion of separateness to the natural, ecological world is mirrored in climate action barriers such as psychological distance. Failure to mitigate and adapt to a changing climate has been linked to psychological distance, which simply refers to feeling far away from the issue itself. This can determine one’s own perception of the climate crisis and general attitude and behaviour around the subject. Distance, as a theory is a powerful tool that can steer motivation elsewhere. This can prove to be somewhat of an obstacle to climate action due to the consequence delaying urgency and making it difficult to prioritise solutions in everyday decision-making. Geography, time, cultural similarity, and factual certainty all play a role for an event or object to be considered psychologically close. This measure results in the willingness of humanity to act at an imperative rate.
Air pollution is a current example which demonstrates just how significantly society is “suffering with the changing world,” (Macy,1995) in both a physical and mental sense. Defined by the World Health Organization, “Air pollutants, such as methane and black carbon, are powerful short-lived climate pollutants (SLCPs) that contribute to climate change and ill health.” Air pollution is an invisible result of climate change and yet subjection can leave devastating global impacts including illness and premature death stemming from respiratory related diseases. The Guardian reports that India is the region currently most affected and in turn blames coal burning as the primary root cause. Additionally, wildfires caused by the climate crisis is enhancing this to a further degree. Likewise, India Times details the dangers of the air and public health and compares the effects to the equivalent of smoking 15-20 cigarettes daily. The toxic air we breathe as a direct result of climate change represents how deeply interconnected we are to the living, natural environment. Consumerist culture has allowed the modern world to overlook that nature is part of the natural cycle of life and how it’s state directly impacts the wellbeing and permanence of the human race. This calls for a chronic need to develop positive environmental psychology and eco-centric approaches to real-world surroundings as well as radically meeting emission reduction targets. Air pollution levels prove that the effects are happening here and now and argue that society can no longer practice psychological distance as a means to wait any longer.
Likewise, the psychological effects of air pollution are equally as troubling as the physical strain toxicity places upon the human body. Recent studies indicate that toxic exposure may be linked to extreme mental health disorders. For instance, the World Economic Forum reports new research which proposes that “breathing in polluted air changes the brain” and how industrial air may increase the risk of anxiety and depression during adolescence. Similarly, The Guardian finds “small increases in air pollution linked to rise in depression” in 2020 study, whilst specifying “that people living in places with higher levels of particle pollution were twice as likely to experience mental health problems as those in the least polluted areas.” These disconcerting discoveries should further encourage emission reductions as cutting pollution levels may aid environmentally caused mental health issues as one of the most challenging social problems we face today.