More and more, I am stumbling upon arguments for lost hope and a throwing-in-the-towel for our planet.
This backlash is seemingly based in fact: if you are just an average human and not a CEO, head of state, or president, who can make significant changes to the practices and infrastructure of the fossil fuel industry, then you are off the hook. Why bother? It no longer matters what you do, or don’t do, so just quit obsessing about climate change.
I feel a grief coursing below the surface of these bleak words. This argument, although seemingly rational, is missing a larger question at its heart:
Who are we becoming as human beings?
When we see pictures of the earth from the space station, a blooming growth of lights and activity, our human attendance is represented in the swish and blur of satellites and airplanes. Yes, that is us down there amidst the lights and sound and chaos. Do we still recognize ourselves as beings who belong to this earth? Or are we quickly evolving into something different entirely, no longer wild, luminous creatures but civilized robots of sorts?
Modern people have become pliantly trained, having traded in our inner wilderness for the opium glow of screens and more screens. Our sedentary, indoor lifestyles express our true domestication, the Latin word for domesticus, or “belonging to the house.” For in the now 11 hours a day that Americans spend on screens, or 90 percent of the day that we are inside, anything that was once wild in us has now laid down, obedient.
The lonely touch of keyboards; the stale, recycled air of the indoors; the plastic perfection of having everything new—this is what has become the normalized expectation of our consumeristic culture. As Rewilding author Micah Mortali describes, “We have come to see the earth as an endless resource instead of the source of our lives.”
Instead of living for survival and self-consumption alone, let us wonder what a beneficial presence on this planet would look like. Waking up to an inner rewilding process, we are called out of our digital world and into the true world, the pulsing, breathing lattice of life all around us.
Here are some ways to move our mindset toward reciprocity with nature, even for those living in the most urban of environments:
1. Wake up your senses. Look for color, texture, and the vibrant voice of everything around you. When you open a window or briefly walk outside, take care to observe more carefully, watching the push of everything to move toward life, even in the thickest of concrete jungles.
Let your senses go mad for the intensity and beauty of what you find: the endless imagination of shifting clouds, the rebellion of outcast weeds growing in asphalt, the beast of a storm brewing in the distance—and be glad it is not another windowless office, another track house, another soulless doctor’s office, another plastic-filled bargain superstore, another supermarket full of hormone and terror-crammed meat. Let there be enlivening thunder and sunbeam arrows and a zillion other acts of defiant beauty to shock us out of our quiet numbness.
2. Which leads us to one of the biggest reasons we don’t go outside: a fear of sensation or discomfort. Don’t be afraid of weather; just come prepared. Let the feelings of being outside stir you up, fill you with emotion, even if it is a little inconvenient. With less automatic judgement, we can see weather as neither good nor bad but having a life force of its own.
Go into the wind and find it exhilarating, invigorating. Let yourself be blown over, endlessly curious, freshened up, and made anew. Standing in just-birthed snowflakes, let the cold wizen you, its crispness brightening your mind.
3. Practice gratitude and insight for how the living world offers abundance and supports you in even the smallest things all day long, from the air you breathe, to the fabric of the clothes you wear, to the paper of a humble book in your hands. Follow the connections and contemplate the lines of interaction all the way back to the beginning.
When you chew those carrots in your dinner, think of them as tiny, wispy seeds tucked into the earth, then growing in their dark soil womb, to be plucked out into sunlight by gentle hands and laid on display by the man with the soft green eyes and mandala tattoo on his right forearm at the grocery store. And then give thanks that their rooty sweetness made it all that way to you.
4. Be curious about your local environment. Most people today recognize more company logos and brand names than they do native plants living close to them. Learn the names of the green creatures that grow around you or wonder what kinds of animals make night visits to the bushes outside your window. Know the history of the land where you walk and what indigenous people lived there before. What were the sounds of the words they used, the tones of the names they gave to river, waterfall, or land?
5. Fight against your own tendency toward distraction and self-consumption, or what author Richard Louv calls “place blindness.” If we don’t even see it, how can we love it or engage with it? Wake up and observe what lives around you.
6. Rewrite your dominator’s outlook, or the unconscious views that lend us toward a false sense of separation and superiority. Our consciousness is so disjointed from the natural world that we have come to believe that the earth’s generosities are ours to relentlessly privatize for our own gain. We believe that everything should be bought, sold, owned, or controlled in some way. Nothing is sacred or off-limits anymore.
Author Barbara Kingsolver eloquently describes how,
“When we stand upon the ground, we first think to ask, Whose ground is this? And NO TRESPASSING doesn’t just mean, ‘Don’t build your house here.’ It means: ‘All you see before you, the trees, the songbirds, the poison ivy, the water beneath the ground, the air you would breathe if you passed through here, the grass you would tread upon, the very idea of existing in this place—all these are mine.’ Nought but a human mind could think of such a thing.”
Search out the subtle ways that the dominator’s training lives in your mind and comes out through your speech, or even in how you think about the land you live on. What is really yours to keep?
7. Imagine yourself creature-like. Feel it in your bones, for you are hardwired for wilderness. Yoshifumi Miyazaki, a researcher on forest bathing, says that, “Throughout our evolution, we’ve spent 99.9 percent of our time in nature. Our physiology is still adapted to it. During everyday life, a feeling of comfort can be achieved if our rhythms are synchronized with those of the environment.”
In other words, your body, mind, and spirit have a silent longing to be outside, and it is written in your DNA. Which explains why forest bathing has been found to reduce physiological stress and depression, improve sleep, lower levels of stress hormones, lower blood pressure and heart rate, and more.
8. Listen to what you value and live accordingly. Measure what is important in your life by hours spent outside, not by meetings, errands, screen time, and what stuff you own. Touch in with what makes you feel truly filled up with a sense of contentment and inner richness. Listen to what you really need before you take on more.
Professor and author Robin Wall Kimmerer tells us that, “In a consumer society, contentment is a radical proposition. Recognizing abundance rather than scarcity undermines an economy that thrives by creating unmet desires. Gratitude cultivates an ethic of fullness, but the economy needs emptiness.” Let’s not further feed into the kind of economy that can only function by increasing our own inner void and not-enoughness.
It is time to squarely confront what kind of humans we want to be, instead of letting hopeless resignation or amnesia take over.
Slow, pay attention, look, listen, and let us ask over and over again:
How we can be a beneficial presence on this earth, even if it is through our own small, thoughtful acts?
No, we are not yet off the hook. We must consciously turn toward our intimate belonging, a willing participant in this changing world.