By Bonnie Hulkower
As Hurricane Sandy, aka the Frankenstorm, tore through the Northeast, I had been spending a lot of time thinking about resilience, connectivity, community and nature. These words were part of the overarching theme at the 23rd annual Bioneers conference in Marin County, October 19-21. In 2012, people are dealing more and more with uncertainty and stress from natural and manmade disasters, including hurricanes, floods and economic strains. The speakers at Bioneers tried to offer a blueprint of strategies for attendees to respond to difficult events and crises in proactive decentralized ways by reconnecting with nature, each other, and ourselves.
Bill McKibben, environmental activist and a professor at Middlebury College, highlighted the importance of resilient communities. He drove home the need for increasing renewable energy and local foods in our communities. He insisted that relying on renewable energy was not only more democratic but also safer. The solution, according to McKibben, is to build resiliency, collective knowledge, and to foster relationships in our communities so as to become more interdependent on a local level. For true community resilience, it is crucial to assess whether everyone in a community has enough food to eat, water to drink, and stable public power.
Dr. Gabor Maté, a Canadian physician and author of In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, most conveyed to me the importance of interconnectedness. He asserted that most diseases, including mental illnesses (like depression and ADD) are not individual problems, but reflections of a person’s relationship with their emotional and social environment. He argued that illnesses are often caused or exacerbated by feelings of stress and lack of control so that the only way to treat them is to address the root of the problem. Disease, according to Dr. Maté, is a manifestation of a lifelong problem of disconnection from ourselves and the planet. In current times, there is less intimacy and trust than there used to be, there are also many more people living in urban, concrete areas who don’t experience a connection with nature.
According to Dr. Maté, one of the obstacles to reconnecting with ourselves and with nature is that our society is based on externals and a “toxic materialistic culture.” Over the past few decades, we have as a society become more materialistic. From 1960 through 2006, even accounting for population growth, the per capita consumption of natural resources has tripled. This consumptive culture leads people to feel like they are missing something and that this lacking and feeling of emptiness can be filled with possessions. An April 2012 Northwestern University study showed that in situations that activate a consumer mindset, people showed signs of social disengagement. In the study, results showed that those who looked at pictures of chattel like cars, electronics, and jewelry rated themselves higher in depression and anxiety, and had less interest in social activities.
Contrast this with people who spent more time with friends and with nature. Research has shown that people who spend more time in nature, even just twenty minutes a day outdoors, experience an increased sense of vitality. When people feel more vital, they not only have more energy for things they want to do, they are also less stressed and prone to physical illnesses. We also end up being kinder, gentler people when we feel more in touch with the natural world.
A materialistic lifestyle leads many of us to overwork, to become more isolated, and to believe that the next big purchase may make us happy, even when we know it won’t. Living a more outdoorsy, simpler, localized, community-centered lifestyle would lead to our own increased sense of contentment and well-being.
By connecting with other people and nature, we become more resilient and resourceful. Resilience according to Dr. Maté is not an individual characteristic or an innate trait, but a social manifestation. He shared an inspiring intergenerational example that involved a baby Beluga whale, born in captivity, who had become ill. The baby whale’s mother, who had also been born in captivity, couldn’t teach the baby how to survive. The aquarium ended up bringing in the baby beluga’s grandmother who had been born in the wild and was able to nurse the baby Beluga back to health.
By building an intergenerational community and social capital, we can empower communities to solve problems and deal with the trauma of disasters. The best way to combat the stress and lack of control according to Dr. Maté is to regain a connection with nature and each other, much like the baby Beluga whale.