By Charles O'Malley, Senior Partnerships Advisor at UNDP's Green Commodities Programme.
The new decade has dawned with an increasing sense of climate emergency – we must add the devastation of the Australian bushfires to the tragic roll call of lives transformed and land destroyed by our warming climate. The reaction of ordinary Australians has eclipsed the official response – and is a great example of how we need to become more interconnected and mindful of our relationships with nature and each other if we are to cope with extreme events like this.
As we react to the climate emergency we should consider how our mental state – individually and collectively - affects nature and the environment. We have long understood that there is a positive link between nature and our mental health, but what about the other way around? How does the way we think impact nature? To make UNDP’s work combating climate change even more effective, particularly in our Nature Based Solutions, we need to understand the systemic linkages between our mental health and the health of our planet.
UNDP’s Green Commodities Programme is exploring these linkages with the California based Compassion Institute. At one level people working in the organization may need support to shape their personal response to working with the climate emergency. At a larger scale, it’s important that UNDP gains a science-based understanding of how the wider population can be helped to deal with any psychological consequences of the changes we are seeing.
Studies have shown that time spent in nature has a positive therapeutic effect, whether it is a walk in the forest or living beside water. In some countries health professionals prescribe time spent in nature in preference to drug-based therapies. But what if there’s no nature left? In Australia, 8.4 million hectares burned, more than 1,800 homes destroyed, at least 28 people dead and 1 billion animals gone. News interviews with those affected reveal their grief at all of this loss, and their urge to band together to help each other.
We might expect that their grieving will follow the five stages identified by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross fifty years ago. The first stage is denial – a stage that many have been jolted out of by the magnitude of the disaster – followed by anger, positively expressed by our young people in the school climate strikes. Kubler-Ross’ third stage is bargaining, followed by depression as the fourth stage and then acceptance.
Over the years we have learned that these five stages aren’t clear-cut, and that people can progress quickly through some of them and onto the next. Australians say that one of the positive aspects of the experience is the way that communities have come together to face the crisis – rather than getting stuck in anger about the official response, or depression about the loss of life and land, people went straight to acceptance - that their best role was to make their own individual contribution by helping stranded residents, cooking food for firefighters, or caring for animals injured by the fires.
It could be that this recognition of community – that we are all in this together, that we are interconnected – offers our best chance of keeping the climate crisis within manageable limits. Acceptance of the scale of the problem, and anger at the opportunities to find a solution that have been wasted, could bring a realization in Australia and all over the globe that the past decades of individualism must give way to new ways of living together with kindness, empathy and humility.
Just as nature affects our mental health, our mental state affects nature – if we feel that we are above nature, that it is simply a resource to be exploited and then thrown away, we have little chance of meeting the challenges of the future.
However, if we reach acceptance that we are actually part of nature, at one with the world around us, then we will care properly for others and the natural world and find that our actions are rewarded by the positive feedback loops it will create. That’s certainly what the Australian community volunteers are saying.
UNDP’s Strategic Plan includes the commitment to enhance multi-stakeholder partnerships and “build on recent progress in engaging citizens through volunteerism, empowerment, participation and other means.” Could it be that the environmental effects of climate change will strengthen that progress by increasing our individual motivation to work together?
Perhaps the sheer scale and intensity of the Australian bushfires was necessary as the trigger for this acceptance of community and one-ness amongst the inhabitants of that country. The question for the rest of us is how we can reach that realization without being surrounded by burning forest, loss of life and ecological disaster? What could cause us to come together to deal with climate change?
If we are truly interconnected, Australia’s grief should be our spur to action.