by Lael Ewy
A recent article in National Geographic noted that exposure to the natural world increases human health, reduces stress, and increases critical thinking skills. This is all fine and good; we need more appreciation of the ecosystem on the whole and our local environs in particular. But the major bent of the article was what nature can do for us and how it can make us better able to return to our soulless offices, shallow relationships, and consumerist ways of being. In other words, the article is about how exposure to the natural world can make us better equipped to perform the business of destroying the very natural world that has prepped us to the task.
The article points out a major philosophical problem in the western world, one that floods in from many different streams of thought. Rationalist thought insists on mechanistic explanations and direct means of causation. Using the rationalist ways of thinking that still dominate the sciences and all other “outcomes based” human activity, we insist that all things happen for a reason and that all things that happen therefore must have reasons for being allowed to happen.
Thus a means of inquiry becomes a method of being; a way of doing science drifts into a way of making value judgments about what humans ought to do.
By imposing this rationalistic value judgment on human activity, we lose the idea that anything we do has an inherent value: there always has to be a why, and that why always has to be justified within an interlocking system of causations.
The ultimate limit of this way of thinking appears when we start to ask questions about prime movers, ultimate causes, the first event in the great chain that leads the universe inevitably to us, at the present moment, contemplating how we got here, thinking about how the universe was gracious enough to lead up to us, a set of beings so smart as to contemplate how it was the universe’s duty to create beings who can think about how they got here.
Only recently, string theory, ideas contemplating multiple universes, and quantum mechanics have begun to dissolve some of these first mover quandaries, but they have yet to devolve into popular thought.
In the lives of those living in the United States, this problem is compounded by puritanism, which underscores the lockstep linearity of rationalism with a very specific goal: eternal salvation. By focusing only on those activities deemed holy, we both assure our places in heaven and avoid the temptations of those things we do for fun, because fun things lead us to inevitable perdition.
But neither science nor puritanism are quite as powerful in our lives as the free market business model. While it is true that organizations like The American Enterprise Institute, backed by laissez-faire billionaires such as Charles and David Koch, have done a lot to promote free market thought in the last 40 years, the ideas go back much farther than that. After all, Charles Dickens was already savagely critiquing the point of view that every human activity must be geared toward the bottom line in the 1840s through works such as “A Christmas Carol.” Dickens’s writing was informed by the conditions of early industrialism, and we’ve gone a long way toward denying those conditions are still with us, primarily by offshoring to other parts of the world the nasty work to be done by people of whom we don’t think much.
But the rationality of industrialism still dominates our new, supposedly more creative, and “knowledge-based” economy. Instead of being part of a literal machine, we use strict schedules, quality assurance measures, and monitoring technologies to make sure people are not goofing off at their desks. The Taylorist factory has given way to the open floor plan office. The 12-hour factory shift has given way to smartphones and laptops that assure constant contact with the people at work.
Pressure on lawmakers by business-backed groups such as the American Legislative Exchange Council have turned what was supposed to be a government by, for, and of the people into one dominated by business interests and interested only in maintaining the bottom line. Changes to work rules, taxation, and even the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech have oriented the purpose of American society entirely toward the generation of profit. These changes have devolved social power ever more towards employers and financiers and away from those who actually do the work.
As the National Geographic article implies, all of this has been devastating to our health. Rates of stress-related diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension have skyrocketed. Rates of depression, anxiety, and suicidality are also on the rise. At this point in history, nearly one in four American women are taking antidepressant medications, as they are asked to do all of the aforementioned work underlining the bottom line, plus clean the house, raise the kids, cook for the family, and put up with sexual harassment, all for 30% less money.
“Helpful” websites abound, full of techniques for busting stress and overcoming the blues, full of advice for simplifying life and streamlining our vanishing personal time. But few of these sites promote such things for their own sake; we meditate and do yoga, journal and run marathons not simply to do them but because doing them makes us better workers, more “highly effective” people,” “better” moms and dads. All of this desperate chilling out and throwing out, pumping up and efficiency creation exists against a backdrop of genuine existential threat: in the United States, in particular, one is only allowed to be fully human when gainfully employed or independently wealthy. Everyone else is sanctioned by legislation, internally displaced, forced to live in squalor, incarcerated. For those deemed “disabled,” a life of poverty and medication awaits. For those able-bodied folks who happen to be un or under employed, benefits are tied to a progression of increasingly demeaning and intrusive tasks and to standards of employability that only exist within the delusional and paranoid thoughts of the legislators who enstated the rules. And for too many there is homelessness, increasingly made illegal by laws ostensibly about “cleaning up” the civic landscape, as if the bodies of the unfortunate were so much misplaced refuse cluttering up the view of yet another Tuscan styled strip mall.
In other words, when our lives are bent entirely toward the cause and effect relationship posited by industrial capitalism that has as its end point greater profits and increased market value, most people suffer. It becomes not just immoral but impossible to think of anything worth doing for its own sake, and those things we do to “recharge” become distractions from our misery: mindless and violent video games, awful blockbuster movies, increasingly sensationalistic television, and any number of mind-numbing substances of varying degrees of legality (and lethality). These latter chemicals, when dispensed by physicians, are purchased through a system that is itself driven by market factors and not person care, no matter how well-intentioned the caregiver may be.
Environmentalists have long argued that industrialized capitalism is unsustainable. At some point, it will deplete the finite resources it relies on for its model of continual growth, if it doesn’t first so poison the ecosystem or so warm the planet that civilization becomes impossible to maintain. But there’s another, deeper reason it can’t go on like this: it demands that people devote themselves to nothing of inherent value; it demands that most of us devote most of our time and all of our usable energy to helping other men hoard wealth.
Another article comes to mind as I write this, this one from The Guardian, warning against a newfound interest in the western world in ancient, eastern meditative practices. Mindfulness, the article warned, is not always pleasant. It doesn’t always calm you down or chill you out. Bottom line, it’s not for everybody, so don’t throw out that bottle of Paxil quite yet.
But, of course, calming you down or chilling you out is not the point of mindfulness meditation; mindfulness is. If you’re looking to it to do those other things so that you can be a better worker, more well-adjusted to a crappy system, you’re doing it wrong. We have become so devoted to using such tools to become better worker bees that we have forgotten about the hard (and sometimes unpleasant) work we need to do to become better people. We have lost sight of becoming —and maybe even lost the ability to become—fully engaged in those things we do as fulfilling activities in and of themselves, of entering those places where judgments about being “better” employees or even “better” people tend to fall away.
Meditate for the sake of meditation.
Work for the sake of work.
Create for the sake of art.
Rationalize for the sake of clarity.
All else falls unto the worship of false gods.