The California Chaparral Institute exists to help everyone better understand and appreciate the chaparral, California’s dominant and iconic plant community. Our ongoing battles to protect nature requires activities like sending in comment letters concerning ill-conceived habitat clearance projects, attending public hearings, negotiations, and ultimately letting adversaries know that we are more than willing to go to court — and we win. But we have come to the realization that our victories are only temporary, and they will be back at it again. Why? Because there is a systemic problem within our hearts that has not only separated us from Nature, but from each other.
This separation is evidenced by the general response to the 2017 wildfires. Despite the massive losses of life and property, the post-fire response has been similar to all the other past fire events – conferences where the usual players talk at each other without creating solutions, sanitized after-action reports, calls for more clearing of habitat, logging forests far from where our families have been devastated by wildfires, and repealing environmental protection laws, etc. People in authority are unwilling to tackle the difficult problems – land use changes, planning, creative approaches to reduce the flammability of homes and communities from within. For example, the city of Santa Rosa is ramping up more building in the same devastating fire corridor.
Yet, rather than being discouraged, recent realizations have inspired us to change the way we see our mission as advocates for Nature. If we intend to really make a difference, we must go straight to the heart. We discovered through our research on nature centers in Southern California that what matters most to the public is not the content on display, but the enthusiasm of the people who are eager to share their love for Nature.
Can you remember a time when you welcomed and absorbed new information, when learning was effective and easy? Chances are it wasn’t during a lecture or a Powerpoint presentation, or scrolling down a social media feed. People learn best when we are involved in the process — mind, body and soul. This is what happens at the best nature centers when confident and competent people are willing to share what they know about nature from a place of love. Unless information is presented in that way, everything just goes in one ear and out the other. We all know this intuitively, and it’s well supported by research. Nevertheless, classrooms beyond elementary school are dominated by telling. And conferences are composed of talking heads who rush through their presentation with little or no time for questions. Content is king: we must “cover” the material! But what’s the good of it all if everyone leaves the lecture and can’t remember anything about it several days later, or worse, conforms it to already preconceived ideas in support of incorrect paradigms?
This tendency to talk at each other rather than to truly engage is one reason why America has become so polarized. Our natural tendency is to isolate ourselves in a comfortable information bubble, which ensures that we stop learning. The bubble is exacerbated and magnified by social media, as we scroll through curated news feeds rather than actually connecting with other people. The polarization of America is illustrated by this sad but un-surprising statistic: the number of people who say they are lonely has doubled from 20% to 40% over the past 30 years.
In our Nature advocacy work, we have noticed that this situation seems especially true for people who want to protect the natural environment. Every media outlet is saturated with stories of environmental degradation and accelerated climate change, while the frontal assault from within the Federal government on environmental protection regulations conjure mental images of gleeful tycoons lining their coffers with profits from the callous exploitation of the nation’s natural resources. People who feel compassion for the “voiceless” plants and animals that fall victim to human activity tend to villainize the natural resource exploiters, while those on the other end of the spectrum often dismiss the Nature advocates as tree-hugging do-gooders (or worse).
The relentless momentum of negativity affects people’s perception of their own ability to offset the negative drumbeat. One hears young people — including college students majoring in Environmental Studies — wondering “Why should I even try? The damage is already done, the climate is already too far gone to change anything, the cities are already built. How can I possibly hope to make a difference in the grand scheme?” But this “learned helplessness” narrative is based on radically incomplete logic. Sometimes simply challenging the “Why try?” thinking is enough to slow it down or stop it altogether, but a structured approach is needed to strengthen one’s self agency enough to overcome a sense of powerlessness. So, after some intensive soul searching, research into brain research (how we learn) and ecopsychology (how we relate to nature), we believe we have a positive response to much of what ails us today. The antidote to environmental despair is based on two principles:
1. Rediscovering our True Nature
In this age of industry and technology, Nature is perceived as “other”. We don’t see the connection to our natural heritage and surroundings like our ancestors did. People simply don’t go outside much anymore. It’s an astonishing phenomenon, driven by spending more time at school and work desks than ever before in history. This growing divide between humans and Nature produces measurable increases in behavioral and health problems such as hypertension, poor immunological response, and aggression, to name a few. It’s a grim picture of modern life: polarized, lonely people with health problems that could be mitigated by being in Nature.
Korean and Japanese researchers in the forefront of research on the impact Nature has on our physical and mental health have produced a wealth of science clearly showing how our divorce from nature causes problems, while being in Nature mitigates them. A government-sponsored movement in Japan aims to provide open space parks across the country to facilitate “forest bathing”, in which people are invited to simply soak their senses in a natural setting as a counter-measure to the pressures of urban existence.
Over millions of years we evolved ways to sense and respond to cues Nature provided in order to survive. And survive we did: throughout human history our extraordinary perceptive and problem solving abilities have led to remarkable discoveries in Nature that have enhanced our fitness. This truth has led to efforts in America and Europe to quantify what Nature can provide to human society, based primarily in economic terms such as “ecosystem services” and “natural capital.” But we believe that economically-based evaluations of Nature often miss the point. This is because humanity doesn’t get things from Nature, humans are Nature. Nature is our family, and is what created us over millions of years. Our departure from Nature has torn us away from the very thing that we have grown to depend on. Not unlike a broken family, our divorce from Nature has caused significant amounts of personal and social pathology that we are just now beginning to understand.
The emphasis on an intellectual approach to nature is one of the main barriers to truly reconnecting with Nature and bringing it back into our lives on a permanent basis. We have elevated the intellect at the expense of the emotional part of ourselves, and in so doing have cemented the schism between Nature and human society. Every time we teach our naturalist courses, we ask people to close their eyes and imagine the 8-year-old wild child within, enjoying running fingers through the mud, jumping over a little stream, falling on the grass. Many people find it hard to let this happen because their intellect raises doubts, makes judgements, dismiss the exercise as stupid. We are thinking ourselves to death.
We must get out of our heads, back into our hearts, and go out into Nature.
Since we evolved in Nature, just simply getting into a natural, wild space, opening one’s senses to the majesty and mystery, or just recalling a sense of wonder or fun from one’s youth is enough to trigger a cascade of positive physiological changes that can counteract the negativity of despair. It may be appropriate to feel worried or aggravated about this or that piece of bad environmental news, but staying there emotionally drains the will to act. It is therefore necessary to learn new skills to overcome the sense that nothing can be done, and it starts by recalling the regenerative power of simply being in Nature!
2. Toward Reconciliation
So, rather than fight this battle from the standpoint of intellect, as if our brains could outmaneuver the historical momentum toward ill-conceived exploitation, we are inviting a radical shift toward heart-based connection with Nature as it is, not what an economics-obsessed society wishes it was. This is not soft science or capitulation. On the contrary, it is grounded in cutting edge human performance research that has resulted in concepts that are being implemented by high performance groups in military, athletics, academia, and commercial enterprises. Building on the research about intentionally reconciling our modern existence with Nature, we intend to introduce structured processes to heal the divide between society and nature. We believe that doing so can bring us closer to our shared values as humans, which we believe can usher in a new era of reconciling with each other.
The California Chaparral Institute is therefore building a new Nature education program based on the simple principle that the brain forms new neural pathways and expands creative flow if it is allowed to learn in its native environment through engaging educational experiences. Our new program will include workshops and curriculum that incorporates state-of-the-art resilience training, which will be even more effective in a natural setting. In this manner, we hope to produce a new crop of freshly-invigorated Nature advocates who know how to reconnect with their source of power so they don’t become depleted. We believe, once our Natural family is reunited and we can truly engage with each other, that our authentic selves will emerge.