Making Society Less Toxic Depends on Restoring our Connection to the Rest of Nature and to our ‘Better Selves’

Scott Deshefy

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Since World War II, politicians have tried to portray U.S. society as the most successful in history. The last administration was a burlesque of unfounded superlatives steeped in nationalism, a barrage of uncultivated, highfalutin rhetoric, anthropocentric naivety and dumb-downed worldviews only exceeded by Trump’s ineloquence.

Fact checks reveal just how misplaced the braggadocio was. The CDC confirms over 60% of our adult population suffers from chronic diseases. Over 40% have two or more, and nearly 7.7 million U.S. adolescents and kids have at least one treatable, diagnosed mental health condition. Among the leading drivers of America’s $4.2 trillion annual healthcare costs are heart and chronic lung diseases, cancer, stroke, Alzheimer’s, diabetes and kidney problems.

Causal factors include air and water pollution, addictions to alcohol, tobacco and other drugs, poor nutrition and lack of exercise. Hungarian-born Canadian physician Dr. Gabor Maté also ascribes these widespread illnesses and lifestyle risks ─ our leading causes of death and disability ─ to “toxic societies.” America’s stress-inducing social environment not only cultivates addictive behaviors but has 1 in 7 children either on stimulants for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), antidepressants or medications to treat anxiety. In fact, anti-psychotic medications and anti-depressants are now among the highest prescribed medicines for children, and nurture more than nature seems responsible for the trend.

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Not only do toxic societies shorten our lives by making us less resistant to disease, but psychological and physical states of parents affect the physiologies of their offspring. Children of stressed parents, studies show, develop asthma at much higher rates than kids exposed to the same air pollutants, but whose parents have less anxiety. Maté also cites Australian hospital records showing 9-times higher incidents of breast cancers among women who, after onset of lumps, were emotionally stressed and socially isolated during monitoring. Prevalence of diseases also reflects environments and social strata to which populations are exposed. Our poor, who tend to live in more heavily polluted areas, also are forced to reside in old, deteriorating housing and have limited access to fresh foods. Ever since Flint, Michigan made national headlines, lead has become a high-profile contaminant in water pipes and peeling paint of older suburban and downtown neighborhoods. Less obvious perhaps is how greater absorption of lead is attributable to iron-deficient diets and how substandard living conditions increase drug-abuse and other stress-related afflictions.

The fact that asthma patients are often prescribed cortisol and adrenaline (a.k.a. epinephrine) shows how mainstream medicine has a history of separating minds from bodies, treating brain functions and the rest of the anatomy as split and totally disconnected entities. Doing so ignores important environmental, social and psychological factors affecting our immune systems. Cortisol and adrenaline are stress hormones critical to animals’ fight-or-flight responses. Produced by the adrenal glands, they help keep us alive. When the hypothalamus reacts to danger and triggers the adrenals, temporary circulatory influxes of cortisol and adrenaline increase blood pressure, heart and breathing rates, and glucose available to cells. Short-term that isn’t a problem. Long-term, however, chronic jolts from stress hormones suppress our immune systems and cause hypertension, making us more susceptible to other diseases. The same holds true for other animals with endocrine systems. And as climate change and gun violence create constant states of emergency ─ from sequoias threatened by Yosemite wildfires to derechos and parade shootings in the Midwest to Shinzo Abe’s assassination and devastating floods in Columbia, SC and Sydney ─ we can’t produce enough oxytocin from hugging our kids, cats and dogs to countervail the physiological damage. As society becomes more manic, contaminated, wanton, uncertain, contentious, and money-driven, the sicker we get. Comic strip character Pogo (Walt Kelly) said it best, coining a phrase for an Earth Day anti-pollution poster in 1970 that parodied Oliver Perry’s report to William Henry Harrison during the Battle of Lake Erie: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Roots of what we now call environmental ethics or “deep ecology” are traceable to the code of nonviolence towards all life, or ahimsa, found in Jainism, but probably emerged millennia before when earliest humans were instinctively drawn to animism. About 2,500 years ago, Buddha was already teaching about the interconnectedness of everything, phenomena which, despite vast concurrence by scientists today (especially biologists), has yet to be grasped, let alone integrated, by less-enlightened segments of society. Nowhere is that more evident than among rightwing ideologues. When the religious-right, in ludicrous denial of anthropogenic climate change and mass extinctions, talks about Old Testament stewardship of the Earth, they really mean control and domination mythologized in biblical Genesis, the kind of all-out war against nature Francis Bacon advocated. But, the proper way to look at stewardship is the care and nurturing of other life, not its destruction and exploitation which, Maté explains, are earmarks of toxic societies and byproducts of materialism. Societies built on domination and control consider acquisition of material things more important than the unity and connections of life, including values shared by all sentient beings ─ affection, contentment, and freedom from want.

Can there be any doubt we live in a toxic society? In addition to poisonous chemicals it emits, habitats laid waste, and dangerous alterations to Earth’s retention of heat, materialism puts economies and purchases ahead of relationships and severs connections to the natural world. Consent for those disconnects and the harm that they cause fuels degenerative tensions, abdicates stewardship, and measures economic growth in terms of debt, depleted resources and senseless acquisitions. Restoring planetary and national health calls for significant cultural and societal reformations. Medicine is not just an application of science. Maté calls it an ideology and way of looking at human beings (and nonhuman animals as well) through psychological connections to others. We can’t be separated, as politics and materialism do to us, and still remain healthy. Nor should the individualistic attitude of entrepreneurs, where only the “self” matters and everyone is in competition, define our existences by what we control and gain. That intellectual strychnine from the Genesis fallacy finds its way to us early in life. Researchers have shown that during prenatal development human movements and heartbeats begin to react to a mother’s depression and anxieties while the fetus is still in the womb.

What are the repercussions of lifetimes spent in toxic societies? A Harvard study examined children exposed to dysfunctional, abusive and/or highly-stressed parents and found significant increases in incidences of heart disease, obesity, diabetes mellitus, and high blood pressure. America’s obesity epidemic is not only the result of government-subsidized junk food, but also a population bombarded with stress. If helpless in controlling or adapting to toxic societies, people develop addictive behaviors to cope, temporarily producing “feel good” hormones in the brain, such as dopamine, serotonin, endorphins and oxytocin, or they tune-out with attention deficit disorder. Endorphins and oxytocin (the hormone associated with intimacy, including touching and being touched by others) are beneficial pain-killers and stress-reducers. In many ways, oxytocin is the safe “antidote” to cortisol. Serotonin, a pleasure hormone associated with cannabis use, leads to feelings of calm and well-being without the heightened risk of physical dependency dopamine has. Serotonin can make people feel depressed when the body stops producing higher-than-normal levels, though. Dopamine, however, is the major hormone responsible for positive feedback and reward. As such, whenever we do something pleasurable or which relieves stress and discomfort, dopamine production runs considerable risk of dependency or addiction. This is particularly true of drugs, such as cocaine and heroin, which produce dopamine levels far exceeding what’s replicated naturally. Dependencies on dopamine levels experienced by cocaine and heroin users quickly become unmanageable, not that lesser amounts of dopamine aren’t responsible for shopaholics, compulsive gamblers, constant visitors to porn sites, hoarders, and gun nuts going broke “collecting” hundreds of firearms.

When healthy human relationships and connections to the rest of nature are lacking in our lives, we soothe ourselves with addictions. That’s particularly true in socio-economic conditions that impair intellectual development, impulse control and healthy alternatives to dealing with stress. Among the better ways to cope are caring for companion animals (which boosts oxytocin levels), arts and crafts, getting lost in a movie, access to libraries and green spaces (i.e., gardens, parks, coastlines and bike trails) and sports. Without such safe havens, attempts at relief from society’s toxins take dangerous turns, producing feedback loops in economies that commoditize compulsion. Addictions to drugs, debt, religion, the internet, politics, sex, junk food, gambling and consumerism drive capitalist finance which, in turn, produces more stress through uncertainty, disinformation (including advertising), fact denial, “hyper-reality,” and erosions of trust.

Three major factors trigger our stress: uncertainty, lack of sound information; loss of control. Our current trends of unsubstantiated opinion, partisan media and deliberate distortions of truth not only encumber access to vetted information but precipitate loss of control. If two rats, one able to reach and shut off disturbances, while the other cannot, are exposed to the same discomforting sounds, the rat able to exert some control over his surroundings produces less cortisol. When profit-based decisions are made far away by people we’ve never met, ignoring recommendations made by scientists and other experts in respected institutions, our lives are affected by forces over which we have no control or influence. When the futures of the country and planet are expendable commodities to bolster quarterly returns, the vast majority of us get stressed-out, and that “poisoning” leads to addictive behaviors. Furthermore, generation after generation, parents pass those anxieties and behaviors onto their children in ever-increasing feedback loops.

In the 19th century, Karl Marx identified four categories of alienation in cultures. First is alienation from nature, which is self-evident in habitat losses and mass extinctions we currently cause. Second is alienation from other people. Thanks to social media and two-party political polarization, conspiracy theories and fractures in society keep worsening. Digital communications, like magnetic fields, have caused identity groups and tribal ideologies to coalesce around radio and internet echo chambers. Face-to-face contact is in rapid decline, and failing to restore that contact means less relationships, less intimacy; less nurturing of trust, all of which increase propensities for mental and physical harm.

Marx also identified alienation from work. Many people no longer do work meaningful to them. Lacking creativity, the work doesn’t reflect who they are. As a result, the tendency is to pursue false substitutes for the meaning we desire. Acquisitions and other substitutes such as “success,” outward appearance, how we’re perceived by others and pay scales can’t replace meaningful work thrown on the fire like Charles Foster Kane’s “Rosebud.” Adding to the dilemma, we live in a society which capitalizes on loss and obsolescence. We’re sold imaginary reboots and playbacks of our lives, peddled products supposed to reclaim youth, insure what we have, garner prestige; maximize comfort.  But none of it is restorative or compensatory for unfulfilling work.

The fourth category on which Marx expounded is alienation from our selves. Aging in toxic societies, Maté concludes, we lose contact with the uninhibited truer instincts of our youth, gut feelings about what’s safe and dangerous, true and false. We lose our sense of reality. The farther America has drifted from science and the natural world the more illusory it has become. The wedge of conformity driven between us and our better instincts during childhood was originally intended to groom us for specific roles. As scripted by an industrialized society, some of us were cogs fitted to service new technologies. Others with scholarly or creative expertise were encouraged to contribute those skills, either to the captains of industry or to better society’s future. Lately, political extremism has been tailoring reality to its needs, scuffing out the chalk lines between right and wrong, fact and fiction beneath the cleats of conspiratorial delusion.

Marx wasn’t the only philosopher to address these issues of course. R.P.I. professor Langdon Winner warns how technology has redefined the meaning of work, such that humanity risks losing control of societies to new technologies rather than developing technologies best-suited for our needs. David Abram, Berkeley philosopher and ecologist, has reappraised animism and its vital role in reconnecting our bodily experiences to the uncanny sentience of other animals. Jean Baudrillard rebelled against “consumer society” and its intense focus on simulation and hyper-reality, a culture immersed in illusion and conspicuous, unnecessary spending, where individuals no longer perceived their true and life-enhancing needs.

Making society less toxic depends on restoring our connection to the rest of nature and to our “better selves,” tapping into the empathy we share with many other animals. Even plant communities respond to chemical distress signals from other flora, sending nutrient “CARE packages” along vast subterranean networks. As a species, which I’ve elaborated before, we’re genetically wired for empathy and compassion, and those genes are more the rule throughout the animal kingdom and less the exception. Rats, for instance, are more distressed watching another rat in discomfort than being subjected to the same kind of physical and emotional threats themselves. That their stress hormone levels are actually higher watching others in trouble is a commonality shared with other vertebrates and even some invertebrates such as octopi. As humans, we’ve got to forego the myth that we are separate and unusual, predominantly competitive, individualistic, aggressive creatures. It’s time to get back to our true nature, decompress, reestablish contact and detoxify America in every respect.

Scott Deshefy is a biologist, ecologist and two-time Green Party congressional candidate.