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Green Is The New Black

Behind the climate and ecological crises, lies a crisis of connection

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Along with the climate crisis, we are also seeing a mental health crisis, a loneliness epidemic and widespread burnout. This is not a coincidence. Our connection to the earth was reciprocal and balanced for thousands of years. Now, our disconnection has led to us exploiting and exhausting it. And our disconnection from one another and from ourselves is causing parallel crises on an individual and societal level.

Humans have always searched for connection, for meaning and purpose. We are a naturally curious species. Some found answers in celestial bodies, some in deities and some in service to others. However, in the current era of consumption, we’ve been convinced that we can buy our way to happiness. And, our media exposure has escalated beyond the wildest imagination of generations before us. Our brains and our nervous systems can’t filter all these external messages and process them.

We are impressively adaptive but with the speed at which our world is changing, we haven’t allowed sufficient time to adjust. For all the good that progress has brought with it, it has also come with a fair amount of unintended consequences and disconnection is becoming a prominent challenge. There is no one answer, one solution that will solve all the world’s problems but rebuilding lost connections will create the solid foundation we need to live happy, healthy lives on a thriving planet.

Disconnection from nature

This is arguably the most obvious fractured relationship related to the climate and ecological crises. Going back generations, humans had deep connections to the places they lived. In order to survive, we needed to develop an intimate understanding of the nature around us; the weather and seasons, the landscape, the plants and animals. Our location had a profound effect on our lifestyle. It determined what food was available and when, and posed threats in the form of preditors or rough terrain.

Many factors have contributed to humans having less of a connection to nature. Without a doubt, agriculture and industrialisation laid the foundation. Instead of living in sync with nature, our ancestors began to manage and control their land. Some historians have even traced deforestation back as far as The Bronze Age. Farming replaced hunting and gathering. Industrialisation accelerated this “development”. Upon reflection, we have been moving far too quickly to really assess the impact of new technology, production and consumption. Not just on nature, but on ourselves too.

Displacement

Global migration, in all its forms, has also had a considerable impact on our connection to place. There was colonialism which moved Europeans away from their homelands and onto “new territories” in Africa, Asia, Australia and The Americas. In the process, the Indigenous people of those places were brutally driven from their ancestral homes too. Transatlantic slavery tore even more people away from the lands they had developed a kinship with.

All this large-scale movement of people from the places they knew intimately, disrupted our symbiotic relationship with nature. Migration, whether forced or voluntary, has meant that most of us are no longer living in a place with a connection to our heritage. As we crossed oceans and seas, we lost so much of our place-based knowledge and the connection we had with the ecosystems of our ancestors.

Private land

During this time, the commodification and privatisation of land also became cornerstones of the dominant culture. If you were wealthy, you had vast stretches of land to enjoy and do with as you pleased. Forests were felled, game was hunted for sport and manicured gardens of imported flowers and trees were favoured over wildflowers.

If you were poor, you faced criminal prosecution for daring to wander on private land that was not “yours”. People who had once foraged, and so had a vast knowledge of plants in the area, were no longer permitted to wander freely and enjoy the natural abundance.

Rewild yourself

Now, billions of us live in homes where we can control the temperature. Our food is no longer local and seasonal, determined by local weather and soil conditions. We purchase most things at supermarkets, covered in plastic and transported thousands of miles. Humans have become completely disconnected from the seasons, and the impact they have on our food systems.

So many of us travel daily, in air-conditioned vehicles, to air-conditioned offices, gyms without windows and giant shopping malls. Places where the closest nod to nature is an artificial plants. To spend time in nature, requires intention and effort for most people. Its no wonder that we have become estranged from the land.

Despite this long-term lack of connection, we still have so much evidence that spending time in nature is magic for our mental and physical health. It calms us, revitalises us, sustains us and brings awe and wonder.

No matter where you live, you can begin to reconnect with your environment. Whether it’s a baby step, like caring for your first pot plant or throwing yourself in the deep end with a camping trip in the wilderness, make space for that connection.

Disconnection from the self

We often forget that we are a part of nature and that we have also lost connection to ourselves. To our authentic, human nature.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, we were in the grasp of a mental health crisis. Despite all our progress with medicine and technology, despite increasing our life expectancy and material wealth, we are not exactly thriving. Depression and anxiety are commonplace. Loneliness is becoming a global health concern. In 2019, burnout was officially recognised as an “occupational phenomenon”. Just a few short years, and a global pandemic, later burnout is reaching almost epidemic levels.

The alarm bells that something isn’t working for us could not be ringing any louder.

Consumption

Consumerist lifestyles are packaged by the advertising industry and then delivered to us by celebrities and influencers who hold them up as aspirational. As the rich get richer, the bar is constantly being raised. There is a sense of urgency permeating the air as we chase endless trends trying to keep up. But, if we put down the devices for a moment and take the time to ask ourselves what we truly want, we quickly see that the feverish consumption is not bringing us joy. It’s burning us out at the same rate it’s burning our planet. As the saying goes, “we buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t like.”

Our environment is so full of external noise, much of it filled with messages about what we should be doing or how we should look. All this chatter makes its way into our internal dialogue, making it difficult to know the difference between what we truly want and what we are being told we want. Add that to cultural and familial expectations and it’s hardly surprising that so many of us are “going through the motions” instead of living a life as unique as we are, aligned with our values and full of the passions that light us up. 

Emotions

In the dominant culture, we learn to ignore or numb emotions that we perceive as negative. We pacify anger. Distract from sadness. Numb loneliness. Whether it’s shopping, alcohol or comfort eating, Capitalism provides many opportunities to push our feelings down. But our emotions serve an important function.

When we learn to listen to and identify our emotions, we give ourselves the chance to explore what might be bringing them up and begin to find healthy ways to use them to act. The instinct to block out certain emotions is another crack in that connection to ourselves.

Anger is not a “bad” emotion. It doesn’t feel good to experience but if we know what is making us angry, it can spur us into action to create change.

“Dolce far niente”

The joy of doing nothing. Rare are the opportunities for us to connect deeply to ourselves. We are working long hours and our evenings are filled with life admin, caring responsibilities, and social obligations. There is so much to do. We are told that our value lies in this busyness – our productivity, our value as it is perceived by other people.

Meditation, journaling, and therapy are all tools that support self-discovery and require a certain stillness and slowing down. But in some ways, they are still “work” or productivity. Counter to what Capitalism tells us, we can actually decide to do absolutely nothing and there is immense joy in that.

Laying in the grass with the sun gently warming your skin and gazing at the clouds as they shift above you like moving art. It costs nothing, it produces nothing. The value of peace and quiet contentment is beyond quantification.

It’s in these moments, where nothing is expected of us and we can simply be, that we find the joy of connection to our authentic self.

But, and it’s a big but, there is only so much healing and rest we can find in solitude. The real transformation happens in community.

Disconnection from community

In our relentless pursuit of individual success, we have become increasingly disconnected from one another and an overall sense of community. 

From a young age, we absorb messages like “be in charge of your own destiny” and “pull yourself up by the bootstraps”.  We’re told that we already have everything we need to “succeed”, we just need to knuckle down and work hard. In essence, the message is that each person is responsible for themselves. Of course, “success” in this sense is generally social status and financial gain. This idea ignores so many fundamental aspects of the human experience. We are a species that survived and evolved because we learned to cooperate with one another. 

When we interrogate the idea of an individual’s success, we quickly realise that even the most hard-working and tenacious entrepreneur did not achieve their status in a vacuum. Whether it was a social safety net like free education or a familial one like financial support and business connections, support in some form is what enables us to live well.

What do we owe to one another?

Often, when we think about caring for others we see it as an act of charity or altruism. But, caring for each other is caring for ourselves. Thriving communities means thriving individuals. Now, with so many of us experiencing mental health struggles, our instinct is to turn even more inwards rather than reaching out to support one another. 

When we focus solely on trying to heal ourselves with self-care or self-development, without seeing the bigger picture, we are bound to fail. A yoga retreat in the forest may bring some restoration and clarity. But when we go back out into the world, we are immediately faced with all the injustice and unbalance that still exists around us. We were never meant to do all of this alone.

We must realise that our own healing and the healing of our communities must happen in tandem. Healing communities means dismantling harmful systems and building just ones so that everyone can thrive. In the words of George Orwell, “Either we all live in a decent world, or nobody does.” In the same way that a reciprocal connection with nature sustains us, so too does a connection with our communities. 

The revolution will be unionised

Bell Hooks wrote that, “One of the most vital ways we sustain ourselves is by building communities of resistance, places where we know we are not alone”.

The resurgence of the labour union movement is a beautiful example of people seeing the power in the collective and working together to make positive change. Chris Smalls and Derrick Palmer established the first unionised branch of Amazon with grassroots, community organising. The pair listened to their colleagues. They cared for one another and built trust. They organised cookouts and helped set up GoFundMe pages. Now, members of the union can leverage their collective bargaining power to improve everyone’s working conditions and as a result, their quality of life. 

If the system in place is not meeting our needs, we can subvert that by meeting each other’s needs. Through mutual aid, grassroots projects and unions. This is not only powerful in the way that it builds new systems but also because working together is a part of who we are. The antidote to burnout is sharing the load. The antidote to loneliness is living in communities that look out for one another.

“…all flourishing is mutual.” ― Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants

IMAGE: Photo by Sam Manns on Unsplash  | IMAGE DESCRIPTION: Two girls are lying in the grass. They both have flowers in their long, flowing hair. They are covering each other’s eyes and smiling happily. 

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Leanne has worked and volunteered in the NGO sector in Asia and the UK for almost a decade. She is a proud and passionate fundraiser who is motivated by connecting people to causes that they care about and giving them the opportunity to make a real difference. Since growing up on the West Coast of Ireland, she has always been a lover of nature, especially the ocean. Her journey towards living more sustainably and consciously started slowly through an interest in minimalism, plant-based diet, yoga and the zero-waste movement. She has attempted all of them with varying degrees of success! Seeing the Extinction Rebellion April actions in London this year was the biggest wake-up call to learn the truth about the scale of the climate crisis and Leanne now considers herself a bone fide, but imperfect, environmentalist keen to share the infinite benefits of slowing down and living more mindfully with anyone who will listen!

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