Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Do What You Can--For the Earth

The air on my cheek is cool and moist. The room is silent. My opening eyes greet gray. It is 6:16 AM. My partner sleeps to one side; our infant the other. How can I move? I am sure to disturb someone.

Carefully, slowly, I wriggle out into the morning. I get dressed, go downstairs, eat a banana, lace up my shoes, and head out the door.

A rush of spring warmth hits my face and I breathe deeply. It is good to get out, be out, feel freely out. I need this walk. Why?

Is it my ecological unconscious? The ecopsychologist Theodore Roszak is convinced that we have one. Humans, he writes, have evolved with a fundamental biological need to be in nature, surrounded by nature, subject to its winding winds, its rhythms and rains. Doing so nourishes us, relaxes us, and stimulates our health. When we ignore this need, he claims, in avid pursuit of money and material goods, we make ourselves sick. We act in ways that make our earth sick. The pain of our psychological neuroses, he continues, are providing us with the impetus to move differently in relation to the natural world.

I walk along the road under a low white sky, wrapped with feelings of expectation. The earth looks silent, but I hear the birds singing of a soon-to-be springing, calling it forth. In days, every surface around me will ripple and hum with emerging shapes of life.

As I move my arms in large circles, the energy rises in me, pulling my legs into a jog. A cramp wrinkles my right hip. As I breathe down into the pain to explore its source, my right toe turns in, and the hip grip releases. How did my bodily self know what it needed?

I think back to Roszak. Our only hope, he claims, in addressing our mutually entwined psychological and ecological crises, is to learn to discern, trust, and move with our intimate, unending connection with the natural world. He writes: “What the Earth requires will have to make itself felt within us as if it were our most private desire” (47).

A flash of white by the side of the road catches my eye—a McDonald’s bag. Here, miles from any store, I find someone’s litter. If not a fast food wrapper, then cigarette boxes and butts, or beer cans or bottles. The people who put trash into their own bodies hurl their wrappers onto the earth’s body. Why are we so careless with our bodily selves? I pass by for now, vowing to pick it up on the way back.

Small trash. Big trash. I swallow a surge of righteous indignation. I pollute too. I know that the gas fueling my car spews toxic fumes; that the cheese wrappers and cereal-box bags we buy filled at the grocery store land in someone’s backyard; that at least some of the electricity fueling our lights, well-pump, water heater, and my computer is produced by processes that leach some burning byproduct into the atmosphere. Sure, I can pick up the bag, but who will remove my waste from the air, water, and soil?

Author Bill McKibben reminds us: there is no longer any place on earth where the atmosphere does not contain traces of human pollutants. For Roszak, any animal that soils its habitat as we are doing is by definition, crazy.

What am I to do? I can recycle and reuse, but the pile of trash keeps growing.

I turn the corner onto a dirt road. It is soft beneath my feet. The snowmelt has eroded the edges. Soon the mighty town Tonkas, running on my tax dollars, will pass through to rebuild the road, moving the earth so it can and will support our transportation habits.

A blast of stinging drops bounces off my cheeks. For a second I pause, surprised, then tuck my chin and keep going. But the shock has woken me up. I shake out my fingers and hand, rotate my shoulders, wiggle my hips, happy to be alone on this deserted stretch of dirt. I can make new moves, silly moves, playful moves, and feel the pleasure of doing so. I can take in the elements, and ride them. There is no one watching. Joy swells.

What new moves can we make to ensure the health and wellbeing of the elements that not only surround us but are us?

Yesterday I read a recent and rare interview with biologist James Lovelock, author of the Gaia hypothesis, now 90. He is not so sure we can learn to make new moves. As he says: “I don't think we're yet evolved to the point where we're clever enough to handle a complex a situation as climate change.” We have too much inertia. Our patterns are too entrenched.

I know what he means—we aren’t clever enough. But it is not because the problem is too big and complex. The sign that we are not clever enough is that we keep trying to address the problem by relying on the same patterns of sensation and response that got us here in the first place. We keep approaching the problem as a mind-over-body problem, sure that if we can just find the right argument, the right data, the right technological fix, we will have what we need to reign in the forces we have unleashed that are destroying our habitat.

But world pollution is not a problem that is amenable to mind-over-body solutions. Its roots wind way down into the very substratum of nearly every individual life that participates in western civilization at all. Simply by living in this country, we are complicit in economies, politics, policies, and patterns of consumption that are depleting our earth's ability to sustain life to an unfathomable, immeasurable degree.

As Lovelock admits, only some catastrophic event has the capacity to dislodge us from our inertia. As Roszak insists, it is a matter of desire.

To change our current course, we have to shed the selves that our participation in these economies have enabled us to become, and the expectations, hopes, values, and ways of being we have developed in response. It’s not just that we have to stop throwing trash out the window. We need to stop making it, buying it, and consuming it. There is no window. We are the earth and the earth is us.

The task sounds impossible. Is it? Can we grow into people who can and will and want to tackle the issues of how we humans are impacting the planet? What would it mean to be clever enough? What would it mean to be sane?

I reach the half way mark and turn around. I will be needed at home. It’s down hill for a while now. I ride on the gravity lift; my stride lengthens. My movement reminds me.

Do what you can.

It is not an all or nothing proposition. We can only begin where we are, and move towards where we want to go. And the first step is, literally, to be where we are. The first is to cultivate the kinds of sensory awareness that will allow us to discern the desire of the earth sprouting in us—a sensory awareness of our own absolute dependence upon the natural world. It is to discern the desire of the earth taking shape in our desires for food, for intimacy, and for spiritual fulfillment. It is to learn to find the wisdom in these desires, impelling us to ask questions, demand alternatives, and one by one, create the matrix of relationships that support us in becoming who people who can and will and want to honor the earth in us and around us.

It is time to move.

I pick up the bag, a candy wrapper, and beer bottle, and make it home. The rubbish in my hands reminds me: do what you can. I turn off a few lights. Brush crumbs off some not-so-dirty plates. Fold the clothes that have only been worn once. Toss bottles and boxes and cans and white paper into the recycling bins. So little, never enough. But the actions remind me: Do what you can.

Later in the day, sitting at my computer, I follow a news trail to a People's Petition to cap greenhouse gases that is being circulated by I remember to sign it. You can too.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Obesity Is Inevitable, Or Is It?

When it comes to obesity, our solutions are perpetuating the problem.

Take the welter of posts in response to a NYTimes article this week. The range of comments was typical. The article could have been any one of a number of articles reporting on obesity facts or findings, causes or cures.

There is always some disagreement regarding: the name (is it an epidemic?), the definition of obese (how much is too much?), and the relationship between weight and health (too thin isn’t good either). In general, however, researchers have tracked trajectories of obesity-related diseases well enough to establish cause for concern.

Beyond that, suggestions for what to do fan out along a familiar spectrum.

At one end, commentators argue over which “lifestyle” factors are the most relevant. We read stories of how, when, what, and why people should eat, exercise, and sleep; we learn what he cut out and what she added; what she lost and what he gained. One refrain repeats with a rhythmic drone: eat less, exercise more.

At the other end of the spectrum, commentators blame the biological parameters of our bodily selves, citing genes, metabolisms and, as the Times article describes, the ever wily wiggles of our energy-storage systems. For those at this end, hope for a “cure” lies in finding the right drug or surgical procedure, in public policy changes or simply in a greater social acceptance of what are now the fat facts.

Despite the apparent range of these responses, however, all points on the spectrum share a common value that both drives modern western culture and renders obesity an inevitable component of contemporary life.

What is that value?

It is one that equates goodness with mental control over material bodies of various kinds, whether earthen, animal, and human. We want bodies to fit into whatever measurements and expectations “we” set for them. Whether we aim for health or wealth, achievement or invention, work or relaxation, art, entertainment or climate optimization, “we” want bodies to do what they are told. We value anything that serves, supports, or expresses such control as good. Mind over body is who we want to be, who we practice being, and who we come to believe we are.

Given this value that our culture places on mind over body control, obesity is inevitable. Why? When we practice ignoring and overriding our bodily sensations, we are “free” to develop patterns of eating that bear little or no relation to what our bodily selves actually need to function.

We come to believe that we can eat whatever we want regardless of how it affects our bodies. We want it to be true; we act as if it were. If the food we eat makes us sick, we take drugs to hide the symptoms—drugs that lower cholesterol, adjust blood pressure, speed digestion, or tamp down indigestion (a weight-loss pill still eludes).

In short, we want to be "free" to eat whatever we want to eat and have the results of our eating conform to whatever we want our bodies to look like. We equate this mind over body freedom with pleasure to such a degree that we can’t even acknowledge our own pain or discomfort until it is too late: the problem seems beyond our control.

I am not blaming people of any size. Nor am I blaming bodies or genes or desires or cultural habits for eluding our control. There is a deeper logic at work in which we all participate that is addictive and self-sustaining. When we think that we can think our way to health and wellbeing, whether through individual will power or scientific research, we perpetuate an ignorance of our bodily selves that finds expression in a disconnect between what we eat and what will give us the pleasure of being nourished. Whether we overeat or undereat, the logic is the same.

However, once we can recognize how embedded in our ways of living the problem is, we can also find seeds of hope. For we begin to remember how hard we practice to make our mind over body beliefs seem true. We discern how the movements that we make as we eat (or not) are making us into people who think and feel and act as if they are minds over bodies. We see the contradictions:

--Diets “work” to addict us to the idea that a diet will work.
--Biological determinism calls on the power of our minds to assert the powerlessness of our minds.
--Lifestyle changes appeal by promising that our sense of ourselves need not change: we can retain the same mind over body control we want to believe we are.

In each case, we may alleviate some of the symptoms, but not address the source.

However, because we see the power of our own movement in making us, we can begin to acknowledge the sources of our strength.

We are not who we think we are. If we are really interested in addressing eating practices and attendant health problems, we need a change that is both subtle and huge. We need to practice sensing and discerning what our bodily selves know. We need to engage in movement practices that help us do so (as I have been describing in recent posts 1 and 2). In relation to food, we need to learn to give ourselves an experience of being nourished, by following the arc of our pleasure to a sense of enough. It is a life time practice.

This is not a question of “reconnecting” with our bodies, or being “mindful” of what we are eating, or even of “listening” to our bodies. All of these models leave intact the privilege of mind over (a now closer) body. Rather, we need movement practices that help us shift our experience of who we are and where our wisdom lies. We need to learn to find, trust, and discern the wisdom in our desires—and not just our desire for food. As I demonstrate in What a Body Knows, our desire for food is thoroughly entwined with our desires for sex and spirit.

From this shifted way of being, we will be able to create new values that express the care and attention to our bodily selves that we are practicing.
The obesity epidemic is a recent social phenomenon, but that does not mean that its proximate causes are new. We have arrived at a point in history where values that have guided human enterprise and invention for centuries have generated a critical mass of technologies, habits, and practices that are tipping us into an untenable situation.

Where the physical actions of a day’s labor, the lived experience of art and entertainment, and the personal contact with family and friends used to provide a counterbalance to mind over body practices, now many of us are “free” to sit in front of screens all day. We are making movements that are making us. Again, it is not just a matter of a sedentary life, it is a matter of the values that our arrival at this sedentary moment in history is expressing.

Until we are free to do what we must for our health and wellbeing, we won’t be free.