Getting in touch with your human ecosystem

FEMA_-_38998_-_Local_Resident_looks_toward_his_missing_homeDo you feel uneasy? Maybe your local ecosystem has taken a turn for the worse. According to ecopsycology, we humans suffer profound discomfort when our habitat feels like it is being degraded. As discussed in an article in this week’s NY times magazine. Ecopsychology proposes that “an imperiled environment creates an imperiled mind”, and an imperiled planet can have the same effect.

It is certainly true that “natural” environments can be deeply soothing. And a sudden loss of trees in one’s neighborhood might be experienced as an emotional loss- it would certainly lower my spirits! Yet some folks in the neighborhood would probably applaud the loss of trees- it might let in more light and help their lawn grow better. There is just no accounting for taste in ecosystems!

I completely sympathize with the idea that humans respond emotionally to their native or habitual ecosystems- I know I do. And changes in my local habitat away from what I am used to can certainly bring me down. But I still have a very hard time believing that there is some sort of “natural” ecosystem that is optimal for human mental health. Earlier, we discussed the idea of “human habitat”, which might in theory be such an ecosystem, and might resemble the grasslands and savanna habitat in which we originally evolved, in Africa (. I grew up in the East Coast of the USA, yet I’ve probably felt most at home ecologically in the Mediterranean climate of the Northern California Coast- much like those ancestral savannas perhaps? On the other hand, I also remember feeling a profound sense of angst living in LA when it didn’t rain for 3 months- perfectly normal there, but I’d never experienced it before. If you ask ten people about their most emotionally comfortable environment, I’ll bet there are ten answers; for some the ancient village, for others the beach or wild forests.

So, while I fully agree that our local ecosystems effect us emotionally at a very deep level, and that changes in these can cause angst, I just can’t buy the idea that we humans are inflexible about which habitat is best for us emotionally. Or that global climate change and its effects on local ecosystems will be emotionally harmful in themselves. We all have different needs, at different times and are also profoundly adaptable. More importantly, Homo sapiens usually engineers its own habitat. If we all agreed on some well-defined “natural” habitat that made us feel best- wouldn’t we all be living there? Or maybe the problem is who gets to choose their own ecosystems- versus those who must deal with the results of everyone else’s choices. I’d put my money there. Now with our changing climate, we are all in that boat together.

ARTICLE in NYT: Is There an Ecological Unconscious? A branch of psychology says that there is — and that ignoring it puts not just the planet but also our minds at risk.