Vital Signs: Psychological Responses to Ecological Crisis turned out to be a great companion read to Braiding Sweetgrass. Both talk about climate change and our relationship with nature and ways we might go about repairing it but they do it in two very different ways. Braiding Sweetgrass took a personal, Indigenous American approach, offering a vision of what it might mean to recognize how humans are part of nature (as we always have been) and what we might do to repair and heal our relationship with the other-than-human world.
Vital Signs takes a distinctly industrial western approach through the lens of psychology, but it too comes down to discussing how we might create a reciprocal and sustainable relationship with nature and the other-than-human world. Since it approaches the topic through the frame of psychology and science, it might be more palatable for people who don’t go in for touchy-feely things like talking to plants and trees.
When we see headlines like ones from yesterday’s Scientists Sound Alarm on Climate or hear about the press conference during which President Obama announced the launch of a new government website of climate change data, it is so easy to get depressed, to feel like there is nothing we as individuals can do so why bother? Or it is easy to get angry – I’m already doing everything I can, I recycle, buy summer vegetables at the farmer’s market and drive a hybrid car why can’t someone make all those people driving trucks and SUVs change their ways? The thing is, if we are going to get ourselves out of this climate change mess, we are all going to have to do quite a lot more than recycle and drive hybrid cars. And, we are going to have quite a bit of grieving to do, not for the planet, but for ourselves and the way of life we have come to feel entitled to in the industrialized west.
The things that drive climate change are many but at the root of it all is how humans have chosen to see themselves as separate from nature. While industrialized societies certainly have created a sense of safety, believing we are not part of nature is a mistake. We are and always have been part of nature. We evolved like every other creature on this planet and to say that we have somehow gone beyond and escaped Nature is hubris of epic proportion and has brought us to where we are today.
Believing we are separate from nature leads us to see everything around us as a resource to be exploited and commoditized. It also makes us think that we can somehow fix the problem of climate change with technology and ingenuity — someone just needs to invent something and then we can keep on keeping on as usual. But why would we want to?
Cutting ourselves off from nature has caused all sorts of mental health problems. We have forgotten who we are and what our place in the local and global environment is. We have lost a sense of identity and meaningfulness that a relationship with nature provides and to fill the hole we buy things and make the problem even worse. As one of the essayists in the book says,
We live in a world where identity is contingent and unstable, supported through relationships with material goods…And if lifestyle purchases are being used to support a very fragile sense of self, then demand for change may threaten personal breakdown and will be defended against. (Randall, ‘Fragile Identities and Consumption.’)
In other words, who we are is very much tied up with what we own, and when that is threatened we are likely to get really defensive when we are told we aren’t doing enough.
The way we talk about climate change puts us in danger of making it worse. We talk about reducing our carbon footprint as though it were a new kind of diet. This is not the right approach insists Mary-Jayne Rust in “Ecological Intimacy” because anyone who has tried to diet knows it ultimately does not work:
This is a top down approach which is all about being “good.” The inevitable then follows: breaking the rules to binge on “naughty” food, a sensual orgy not unlike the sexual excitement of having an affair. The carbon diet urges people to love the good green life, while rampant consumerism and life in the fast lane can easily become part of the naughty, exciting sensual orgy of modernity.
Stopping climate change from getting worse is going to take nothing short of a complete lifestyle makeover. We have to figure out what it means to have enough and live with that. Of course, figuring that out isn’t going to be easy. Rust suggests we have to ask:
what is it we are really hungry for? Spending time in the garden, listening to the birds in the local park, lying on the beach and feeling the rhythm of the waves, are all experiences which nourish our sensual selves in a more satisfying way than consumer goods. Such experiences open portals into the timelessness of simply being — as opposed to the frantic doing, compartmentalized into hours, so prized by our cultural norms.
One or two of the essays in Vital Signs mentions the changes we need to make as sacrifices. I found this a bit bothersome because I don’t see it as a sacrifice at all because we will be gaining so much more. Rather than a sacrifice it is a transformation and a renewal. It makes a difference how we talk about these things. Back when Bookman and I first became vegan I used to talk about what I had give up and as a result I would sometimes feel like I was missing something while at the same time I’d get ego strokes from people saying how disciplined I must be to give up cheese and ice cream. But as the years have gone by and I have eliminated other things from my diet like trans-fats and high fructose corn syrup, I have stopped seeing them as something I have given up since it is no true sacrifice. Instead when I talk to people I say I choose to eat other things and those other things are so much healthier and taste so much better that I do not feel any loss at all.
I know making lifestyle changes is not easy, I have struggled with them and I still do. But searching for what is enough is not a sacrifice, it is an opportunity to grow and discover and create something else even more meaningful than what existed before. And I think that is what the many people who contributed essays to Vitals Signs are trying to bring to their therapeutic practices as well as to the book. I won’t lie and say the whole book was really interesting and exciting but overall this collection of essays is worth the time and effort if for no other reason than feeling like you aren’t alone or powerless.