Monday, April 18, 2011

Restoring mental vitality in an endangered world

Summary - Responding to climate disruption and resource descent requires behavior change on a massive scale. Many skills are needed to respond well to the coming downshift but none more central than the abilities to plan and manage our behavior, and handle the emotions coming from losing an affluent and stable lifestyle. These abilities require a mental state called vitality. Managing and restoring this capacity are preconditions to successful downshifting.
I personally have come to appreciate the many benefits of working in a park-like university setting. Outside my building is a commons that is forested and well manicured, free of undue distractions, and usually quiet by virtue of its seclusion from the lively commotion of the nearby town. In short, a tranquil and aesthetic natural environment kept just so. For me, recent encroachment which has brought with it added human vibrancy has only highlighted the importance that regular exposure to natural settings plays in managing the mental vitality essential to creative work and successful coping.

Unfortunately, we may have kept better care of university campuses than we have of nature in general. Our mindless misuse of the planet now threatens our survival. Many researchers and practitioners are responding by helping societies transition away from over-consumption of energy and materials, and away from policies and behaviors that treat the environment as if it were a costless waste sink. They are helping us to heal our relationship with nature by moving us toward sustainable living.

This transition is crucial and overdue but hard. The process requires that we think and act in clever, clearheaded and new ways. Yet such thought and action can wear us out mentally. Burned out people cannot help heal the planet. Thus we need to know specifically what mental capacity is wearing out, how it wears out and the conditions under which it can be restored. This paper explores these issues and:
  1. Suggests that coping with the environmental challenges we face demand a number of distinct mental and behavioral abilities.
  2. Suggests that these abilities each draw upon a mental resource defined as the capacity to direct attention.
  3. Explains what directed attention is, how it differs from another form of attention, how it fatigues, and the environments that help to restore it.
  4. Provides a prescription for maintaining this vital mental capacity.
By following the prescription offered we can restore and better manage our mental vitality. In a restored state we will have a greater ability both to pursue behaviors that heal nature and to learn to live well, within limits, on this one planet.

Coping with the Coming Transition

The central role that mental vitality will play in society’s imminent transition to sustainable living can be understood by briefly outlining our current situation. The world is facing multiple global challenges, each capable of shaking the foundation of modern civilization. Two of these challenges have become, only recently, a part of everyday conversation, however contested.

Climate disruption, once a mere hypothesis, is now empirically established. Through the efforts of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and other bodies, we are now familiar with the changes that will occur during this century and beyond. Recent scientific updates suggest that what were recently only worst case and distant scenarios are now happening. While efforts are underway to moderate these disruptions, few people suggest that our efforts will allow a return to a pre-industrial climate state. As a result, some groups are actively promoting efforts to cope with, rather than just mitigate, climatic change (Bierbaum, Brown, & McAlpine, 2008).

A second challenge involves global energy dynamics. Fossil fuels, that is, solar energy stored eons ago as hydrocarbon compounds, is the foundation upon which our industrial civilization has flourished. The finiteness of this hydrocarbon store is unquestioned but a new aspect of this finiteness has emerged: the rate of production from a reservoir peaks, sometimes abruptly, after which there is an inevitable and long production decline. The implications of a global peaking of the rate of production of fossil fuels are vigorously debated. The high emotions, competing competencies and huge stakes that play out in this debate, and the astonishing political and media silence, makes it hard to assess the urgency of fossil fuel peaking. But agreement on one key aspect is emerging: soon the production rate of liquid fossil fuels will peak, with other fuels and materials following. Exactly when these peaks occur is less important than the fact that they will occur. In fact, debating the exact timing can be a dangerous distraction. The task now is to make plans for living, and thriving, on dramatically less material and energy.

Although the situation will require far-reaching change, the transition need not be a collapse, nor a return to a distant and dark past. That said, if we are to transition gently then we need to quickly give up business-as-usual thinking and the misdirected hope that, given time, we can return to what appeared normal just recently. We must adopt a more appropriate pace, one austere yet potentially satisfying of our deepest needs. This is deep coping, a dynamic, ongoing, and long-term process that paradoxically can bring out the best in people.

In order to understand an individual-level aspect of deep coping, it may help to examine a review of World Made By Hand (2008), a recent piece of fiction by Kunstler about the coming transition which explores the behavioral implications of his non-fiction book, The Long Emergency (2005). Both books discuss individuals and communities coming to grips with a rapid collapse of social and ecosystem services, and both fall within what many call the gloom-and-doom version of environmental education. But a review of the former book by Thomas (2008) has an insight about the types of coping skills that may soon prove useful:
“If Kunstler is right, most of the “survivalists” today with their “stocking up” are locked into 2008 thinking in a thing-centric way when more complex, subtle and long-term preparation is required: real physical health, having the qualities that make one welcome as a community member, the ability to take and hold a leadership role, genuine kindness under stress, craft and music-making skills, stoicism and practical knowledge of the natural world are what will serve people and communities far better in 2025 than guns and ammo.”
Here Thomas interprets Kunstler’s work as suggesting the primacy of emotional stability and clear-headedness, the ability to maintain our pro-social inclinations, the capacity to plan and restrain behavior, and the willingness to continue building and using one’s competencies. As disparate as these aspects of coping seem, they share a common foundation: the ability to keep our wits about us in the face of potential chaos. Some writers doubt our ability to effectively manage our wits, and yet the question should not be whether we can cope, but rather under what conditions is such coping more likely. It is the focus of the rest of this paper to discuss one of the preconditions to effective coping, mental vitality, and to provide a simple prescription for its restoration and management.

Read full paper at: De Young, R. (2010) Restoring mental vitality in an endangered world. Ecopsychology, 2(1):13-22.

Raymond De Young
School for Environment and Sustainability
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48109

Archived version: April 18, 2011 at: