Sunday, January 25, 2009

Eco-Anxiety: Breaking the Over-Consumption Habit

An obscure anomaly in our brains enables us to be tricked into denying what we truly want and pursuing a lifestyle that circumvents our well-being and contributes to the economic and environmental conditions we face today.

As Linda Buzzell and I point out in The Waking Up Syndrome, feelings of guilt and powerlessness often follow when we awakened to the fact our current way of life is not only unhealthy for us in terms of stress-related illness, but is also wreaking havoc on the planet and contributing to the ecological and environmental problems we face today.

These feelings may are becoming more intense now as we hear our President call for shared sacrifice over the years to come. How are we to understand and help others understand our role in the mess we're in without wallowing uselessly in guilt and despair? How do we extricate ourselves from a way of life that is ingrained into every aspect of our society? How do we find satisfying lives even as we sacrifice aspects of life we've valued but now must abandon?

I find that sharing the following explanatory background at opportune times combined with nature-based re-patterning activities can replace guilt with a realization that the way we're living now can't provide what we truly want from life, but that there are other satisfying ways to live. In this way we needn't continue blaming ourselves for our participation in the mess our species has created as long as begin to change the way we live now. Even if we can't reverse the damage, we can halt its progress. Here's the kind of background I try to provide. (Sources and citations are included here for professional references only unless further information is requested by my clients.)

How We Get Fooled into Believing We Want the Opposite of What We Say We Want

You have probably noticed there is a marked discrepancy between how we live today and how we say we would prefer to live. For example, we talk of wanting more time for family, friends and children, doing community activities, and pursuing personal interests, but we spend most of our time working to earn money so we can keep our lives as we know them afloat.

While we say we want to eat healthfully, exercise more and watch less TV, we live on fast food and crash in front of the tube. We say we want to stop to smell the roses, but instead we sit in hours of stalled freeway traffic and smell the exhaust.

By studying the relationship between the natural environment and our mental, psychological and physical health, Pioneering professionals in many fields from environmental psychologist Roger Barker to environmental educator Michael Cohen, entomologist Edward O. Wilson and Jungian analyst Marion Woodman are finding that this discrepancy arises because we are no longer attuned to the vast bioecological system of which we are apart.

We are endowed with inborn energetic connections to this natural system and are thereby naturally attracted to those aspects of life that will simultaneously sustain and support both us and nature as a whole (Cohen, 1997, pp 43-50), but once this connection is severed, we lose our sense of what we want and need and our desires can be easily subverted.

Disconnection from this web of natural attractions not only weakens us mentally and physically but also effects the system as a whole. (Cohen, 1997, p 67) In this sense we can see how the vast majority of our personal, social, psychological and environmental problems are nature’s way of calling our attention to this disconnection and attempting to bring us back into alignment. They are either a plea for help, a release from, or a sedative for, the lack of natural gratification that is our birthright as part of the natural world.

In reviewing history, we can see that our disconnection from nature began long ago. As Jeremy Rikfin points out in The End of Work, the Industrial Revolution was especially alienating. Leading scientists, economists, educations, and philosophers of that era, like French mathematician Rene Descartes and later psychologist B.F Skinner, “stripped nature of its aliveness, reducing both creation and all creatures, into mathematical and mechanical analogues.” (Rifkin, 1995, pp 43-44).

Or as Thomas Carlyle declared in 1829, “Were we required to characterize this age of ours by any single epithet we should be tempted to call it, the age of machinery in every outward and inward sense of the word. Men have grown mechanical in head and heart, as well as in hand.” (Carlyle, 1997, pp. 229-231)

With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, nature was no longer our source of sustenance, but became a resource to be conquered and used for the progress of mankind. We no longer considered ourselves part of the nature world, but as adversaries to its forces that must be tamed, measured, dissected, and harnessed for our use.

We didn't always shop 'til we drop; we've been entrained to over-consume.

Considering that just a little over one hundred years ago half of the U.S. population still lived on farms or in small towns, the gulf between ourselves and the natural environment has grown far wider in the 20th Century as the U.S. shifted from a producer culture to a consumer culture. Rifkin points out how during this time natural human desire, or our natural attraction to life around us, was intentionally manipulated so we would begin wanting things other than what we actually wanted. The result has been a convoluted way of thinking that has magnified over the last century to its pinnacle today.

Rifkin documents how at the turn of the last century, economists noticed that “most working people were content to earn just enough income to provide for their basic needs and a few luxuries, after which they preferred increased leisure time over additional work hours and extra income.” But if the economy was to continue to grow, they concluded, people had to “want things.” So they launched a concerted commercial campaign to convince us that we needed to buy more and more things. And within only a couple of decades, the “dissatisfied consumer” was born.

This shift was accomplished by massive advertising efforts in which “home-grown,” “natural,” and “handmade” items were denigrated while the “store-bought” and “factory-made” ones were extolled. Once “frugal Americans were converted into a hedonist culture in search of every new avenue of instant gratification.” (Rifkin, 1995, p 19-23)

By 1929, Herbert Hoover’s Committee on Recent Economic Changes reached a glowing conclusion that their surveys “proved conclusively … that wants are insatiable. … Economically we have a boundless field.” (Recent Economic Changes, 1929, p xv).

Until the recent financial breakdown, it appeared he'd gotten that right. As of last year there were 22.2 square feet of commercial shopping space per person in the US compared to 2 and 3 square feet per person in other first world countries.

But How Could This Happen? Surely We Know What We Want

We do, but not if we're convinced otherwise. Recent discoveries in neuroscience suggest how such hijacking of human desires occurs. The neural systems of the human brain that detect and evaluate social reward circuits are located in the mid-region of our brain where they generally operate outside of our conscious awareness. So, as reporter Sandra Blakeslee concludes in her review of this research in the New York Times, February, 19, 2002, “In navigating the world and deciding what is rewarding, humans are closer to zombies than sentient beings much of the time.”

Neuroscientists now believe that since we are highly social beings, our brains are shaped from infancy according to what we encounter in the external world. From an ecopsychology point of view this means that by spending 90% of our time in an indoor manmade world, we become disconnected from the natural sensory attractions that would subconsciously direct us to what is best for our well-being, as separate from what would benefit the economy. Instead of attaching to nature’s natural ways, the brain easily attaches to the social rewards defined by our consumer society, as well as to addictions that help ease the pain of our disconnection from our true desires.

By using magnetic imagining scanners, California Institute of Technology neuroscientists Steve Quartz and Annette Asp are observing the effects of advertising on the human brain. Their findings further explain how we end up not knowing what we need, much less knowing how to fulfill our needs. It seems that networks of neurons in our brain act in concert in response to experience. So, just as practicing the piano or learning to read physically alters areas of the cerebral cortex, intense, repetitive marketing can do more than change our minds. It may alter the brain itself.
[1] We are not only what we eat, but also what we hear, see, and otherwise experience most often.

Armed with this information marketers have become ever more sophisticated at -- to use their term – "branding our brains" with what’s called neuro-marketing techniques.

The Painful Result

Once we disconnect from our natural attractions, our desires become insatiable because they’re not what we really want. No matter how much we consume, we remain dissatisfied. In a hopeless effort to consume enough to feel fulfilled, we consume more and more, so we have become the richest nation in the world, but not any happier.

As psychologists David Myers and Ed Diener wrote:

"People have not become happier over time as their cultures have become more affluent. Even though Americans earn twice as much in today’s dollars as they did in 1957, the proportion of those telling surveyors they are “very happy” has declined from 35-29 percent. Even very rich people are only slightly happier than the average American. Those whose incomes had increased over a 10-year period are not any happier than those whose income is stagnant. Indeed, in most nations the correlation between income and happiness is negligible – only in the poorest countries … is income a good measure of emotional well being."

David Blanchflower, professor of economics and associate dean of the faculty of social sciences at Dartmouth College points out from his review of dozens of surveys, “Even as many people have grown richer, they’ve also grown less secure and less satisfied because of relentless competition that forces us to work harder and puts our jobs in constant danger.” (Blanceflower, 2001)

In his book The High Prince of Materialism, Tim Kasser (2002, p 8-9) presents a formidable body of research that highlights what for most of us is a counter-intuitive fact: Merely aspiring to have greater wealth or more material possessions is likely to be associated with increased personal unhappiness,” including more symptoms of anxiety, a greater risk of depression, and more frequent somatic irritations, watching watch more television, using more drugs, and having more impoverished personal relationships.

Making matters much worse, as we produce and consume more, we also consume natural resources faster than they can be replenished and we create vast amounts of waste, garbage, pollution and other fall out that damages the natural environment and has resulted in the energy depletion and climate issues we face today.

Is it any wonder that 49% of Americans have voluntarily made changes in their lifestyle over the past five years to earn less in exchange for a better way of life and that most of them happy with this change?
[3] Now as we begin to wake up to the disconnect from our natural inclinations, more of us are in the process of making substantial changes. In addition the economy is forcing others of us to make similar changes, albeit sometimes unwillingly.

Reconnecting with Nature Can Help Us Make This Shift

The same information that explains how our brains get hijacked into thinking we want the opposite of what we really want and need also points the way for how we can take back our brains. If the neural networks that define what we want are shaped by what we experience, we can re-shape them by reconnecting with nature and re-experiencing our natural desires and attractions. Organic psychologist Dr. Michael Cohen’s Natural Systems Thinking Process (NSTP) is designed to enable us to do that. NSTP provides a specific way to go into nature where we can enjoy culturally unmediated experiences and thus rewire our brains to consciously reconnect our neural reward circuits to natural as opposed to artificially induced attractions.

By spending time relating to nature in specifically defined ways, be it in an urban park, a remote wilderness, a backyard garden or with a potted plant in the kitchen windowsill, we can become aware again of our natural attractions and experience the difference between natural and artificially manipulated rewards. With this sensory awareness intact, we can also begin to reconnect with our natural attractions in other areas of life.

Representative comments from those who have used NSTP are evidence of the positive life-changing effects this process can have:

“These activities helped to make clear the gap between the part of me that lives in my stories of who I need to be and the part of me who knows who I truly am.”

“Immediately from doing this activity I had the sense that I was part of everything, not an alien here. It increased my feeling of self worth.”

“This is who I really am (we all are) at my core beyond what modern society has "taught" me to be.”

“This activity led me to feel that I can trust letting go of all my inner debris, allowing my emotions to be washed away to their organic place in the universe. Nature transforms them to beneficial energy. What remains are my roots, my trunks of strength, my rocks embedded in Mother Earth. This is my core essence, yet all is intertwined and constantly progressively changing. I can remember this place even when I am in my car rushing around the outskirts of this oasis and once again connect.”

“In those moments in nature all was right with me and with the world and I felt merged into all things.”

“I find myself singing, even dancing, through the day when relating to or engaging in these particular activities. This is in contrast to pushing or forcing myself to complete other activities because I will like the result some time later.”

“I can use examples in nature to describe and define parts of myself when with others. I can use these same examples to better understand the core of other people. I can feel more fully connected to a person by sharing our mutual experience with a part of nature. The experiences don’t have to be the same, but the fact that we both have them gives us something in common to each other and nature – like the root systems of the aspens!”

Resources and References

The Continuum Concept, In Search of Happiness Lost by Jean Liedloff. New York: Da Capo. 1996.

Ecological Psychology by Roger G. Barker. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1968.Education and the Cult of Efficiency by Raymond Callahan. University of Chicago Press, 1964, pp. 50-51.

Educating, Counseling and Healing with Nature by Michael J. Cohen. Institute for Global Education, 2008.

“High Cost of Success” by David Blanchflower. USA Today, January, 2001.

The End of Work, The Decline of the Global Labor Force and the Dawn of the Post Market Era by Jeremy Rifkin. New York: Tarcher/Putnam, 1995.

The High Price of Materialism by Tim Kasser. MIT Press, 2002.

“Hijacking the Brain Circuits with a Nickel Slot Machine” by Sandra Blakeslee. New York Times, February, 19, 2002.

“Marketing Might Brand the Brain” by Robert Lee Hotz. Los Angeles Times, February 27, 2005.
“Signs of the Times” by Thomas Carlyle. Edinburgh Review 49, June 1829, pp. 239-359, reprinted in abridged version as “The Mechanical Age: in Clayre, Alasdair, ed. Nature and Industrialization: An Anthology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997)\. Recent Economic Changes, Committee of Recent Economic Changes. New York, 1929).

Reconnecting with Nature, Finding Wellness through Restoring Your Bond with the Earth by Michael J. Cohen. Corvallis, Oregon: Ecopress, 1997.


[1] “Marketing Might Brand the Brain,” by Robert Lee Holtz, Los Angeles Times, February 27, 2005.
[2] The High Price of Materialism by Tim Kasser. MIT Press, 2002, p 3.
[3] “The American Dream Survey,” Center for a New American Dream Widmeyer Research and Polling, August, 2004.

(c) Sarah Anne Edwards, 2009

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