Just as a country runs a financial deficit when it cannot restrain its spending, we run a nature deficit when we cannot control our distraction habit.
With more distractions than ever before we’ve learned to distract ourselves so well that our attention has spiralled down to the point where we’re completely cutting nature out of our life equation.
We were born with an innate love of nature because we are nature. Yet we’ve so distanced ourselves from it that we view tribal lifestyles as backwards. We fear wild animals as if wild is something bad. Wilderness is uncontrolled, and that lack of control makes us uncomfortable.
So we stay tucked into the safety of our cocoons—into the artificial built environment that we’ve furnished to satisfy our every need. In those cocoons we use technology and other means to distract ourselves into a deficit of attention—a compulsion that eats away at us until we forget our true selves. So rather than connecting to nature’s simplicity, we opt instead for an excited mind to keep us occupied.
We desire this occupation because we are not content or comfortable with what we have or who we are. The simplicity of nature forces us to look desire in the eye and face it—precisely what a distracted desirous being does not want. And so, we implicitly force nature out of our lives.
What place does this compulsion towards distraction come from? For it to be so strong to uproot us from our very essence—our own nature—it must be a powerful force.
At the centre of this distraction is a fear. A deep fear of facing ourselves. Of discovering our true nature. Of setting free the wild animal inside us hurting to unshackle itself from the confines of its limited existence, wanting to embrace its natural freedom and true nature.
Nature threatens us so we push it away. We build cities. And the more we technologize ourselves the more we distance ourselves from our true nature, and the more we fear. So we sprawl. We chew up more green and spit out more grey, growing our cities up and out into mighty fortresses of concrete and steel.
As we push nature out of our lives we further embed our dependence on distraction because we make ourselves dependent on constant occupation: shopping malls, movie theatres and coffee shops replace forests, parks and beaches. Some cities have ballooned to such unnatural proportions that inner city dwellers have to travel an hour or more to get into nature. With traffic, poor access to public transportation and the 24/7 draw of urban excitement, we too often end up in the shopping mall on a bright, sunny day.
The longer we remain disconnected from nature the more “natural” the unnatural becomes. Going for a Sunday drive. Watching a movie on a beautiful weekend afternoon. Strolling around windowless indoor shopping malls. As we partake in these acts, we reinforce the destruction of the commons because we’re saying yes to developers to tear down public space to provide more malls, theatres and parking lots. We’re creating a perpetual cycle of urban development through our dependency on distraction.
And as we push nature to the farthest reaches of our psyche we become more reliant on consumer goods and services to occupy ourselves, further reinforcing consumerism and contributing to a cycle of development that continues to push nature farther away.
The long-term result of this development is that new generations are being brought up in urban areas living lives where shopping is the cultural norm. Living in this culture, the nature that does exist in cities becomes too easy to overlook. Trees become like old wallpaper. Bird song like the sound of a stranger’s mobile phone ringing. Flies like a pop-up Internet ad. Swat the annoyances away and get on with distraction.
Nature’s beauty is ever-present. The aerial acrobatics of the tree swallow, the soothing scent of a Ponderosa pine, the majesty of a mountaintop. All we need to do is tune in. Its simplicity naturally invites concentration. Concentration on an object, meaning one object at a time, is natural. Multitasking is not. The brain wasn’t designed to handle more than one task at a time so when we think we’re multitasking our brains are actually rapidly reorienting data in a constant stream of object after object, and diminishing our ability to concentrate.
By spending time in nature we recalibrate ourselves. We naturally enter into concentration because we’re giving ourselves permission to re-enter our natural state, free of stress, worries, technology and distractions—the primitive world that worked for humankind for so many thousands of years. One in which the meaning of fight or flight actually meant fight or flight rather than get stressed and stay stressed since we no longer know what a stressor is. And that always-on stress is taking its toll in many ways, not least of which is our loss of connection to our true selves.
Animism, the belief that everything in nature has a soul, is considered by many to be world’s oldest religion. Given the all-you-can-eat buffet of religions and spiritual traditions to choose from today, many still choose not to get bloated on human-invented belief systems, opting instead to let nature guide them to the truth, the way we have done for so many millennia.
It’s no surprise nature worshippers, such as the First Nations of North America, were aggressively converted by missionaries. People fear the truth and like to take the easy way out by distancing those who are liberated and labelling them as “other.”
And the number of “others” are dwindling as more and more take to the city life. We’re in the midst of a dangerous purge of nature. Not in the sense of destroying nature (though that’s happening too) but in the sense that the importance of nature is being erased from our psyche. And in erasing nature, we literally erase a huge chunk of ourselves. We end up as shells of who we truly are.
Seeing tribal people connect to nature is a beautiful thing. The simple life of growing or hunting down your food, using whatever is present in nature as your toys to play with and learn from. Using the sunrise and sunset as a guide for time. This is the way we’ve connected to nature for almost all of humankind’s existence.
It’s one thing to engineer certain comforts into a simple society, but we’ve become such high society now that we’ve banished nature into some dark corner so it’s viewed as being utterly uncomfortable. And the more we engineer, the more we distance ourselves from it.
The wilder nature is the less comfortable it is, but the more real. Dropping ourselves in the raw soup of wilderness from time to time (or living in the wilderness) is unlike any other human act. It can be labelled primitive or pointless in this age of comfort, but it is natural. It is the way we’ve lived for thousands of years and to just banish that part of our lives from our consciousness we’re cheating ourselves of the likelihood of liberation. Because to be free means to know the truth. If we don’t deeply know nature, how can we deeply know ourselves? And if we don’t know ourselves how can we know the truth?
We’ve forgotten ourselves and replaced the truth with a massive system called society. In doing so we’ve unleashed a beast that is beyond any one person or group. As that juggernaut barrels through our wild lands, trashing everything in sight, the nature deficit widens and our debt grows. We owe it to nature to spend time in it, cherish it and protect it. The greater we build up this system the heavier the burden of debt will weigh us down until the inertia completely kicks us over.
As the deficit widens, we have a choice. Embrace our wildness or not. As Thoreau famously said “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” We preserve the world by preserving its wildness. Preserving its wildness requires preserving our own wildness, otherwise we’ll have lost all reason to care about the natural world. As always, we have to look within before we can look without.
Do we choose to remain bound by the uncontrolled juggernaut of distraction and destruction or embrace the uncontrolled nature of wildness and wilderness. All we have to do is look within and step out into nature. The rest will follow.
image: Riki (Creative Commons BY-SA)