When we were children, we learned about animals and habitats, and how each species thrives only with its own special home and food. Pandas live only in temperate forests in China, and eat only bamboo. Certain types of fish live only in certain types of water. Cheetahs need wild, open grassland and desert where they can chase prey animals at speeds reaching 70 miles per hour. Any of these creatures would soon die without its natural environment.
But what about humans? We are used to thinking of ourselves as completely different, even from other mammalian species, and completely separate from the natural world. We never ask: “What is a human’s natural habitat?” Whatever it may have been, I sincerely doubt that the average American lives in anything even remotely like it.
We don’t think of ourselves as animals, but that’s what we are. High obesity rates, staggering numbers of people desperate for relief of depression and anxiety, and other disturbing statistics indicate a general lack of health and happiness that is widespread amongst our species. We put ourselves into an unnatural environment, artificially manufactured in almost every respect, and called it progress. Now we’ve reached a point where our own failure to thrive is staring us squarely in the face.
“Some of our most alienating work environments, in the sense of separating us from nature, are often the modern office building, where people are in these very bland, hostile environments with no access to windows or any experience of the outside or natural environments. Ironically, if you tried to do that to a caged animal in a zoo, you would violate legal statute, and would be prevented from doing so….We don’t see ourselves like that tiger in the cage, that we’re just as much dependent upon those experiential connections as the tiger is.” ~Yale University social ecology professor Steven Kellert (Quote found in “The Nature Principle”, by Richard Louv)
I talk a lot about workers confined to cars and windowless workspaces for most of the hours that the sun shines, but it’s not immediately obvious how humans in cubicles are analogous to tigers in cages. After all, no one is shooting you with a tranquilizer dart, shoving you in, and locking the door. Also, humans and tigers don’t really look alike.
There is a scene in the 1986 comedy film “Back to School” where a scientist leaves Rodney Dangerfield in charge of his monkeys. The scientist returns to his lab to find the animals watching television and eating pizza. Your first thought is for the poor monkey’s tummies as they try to digest something they shouldn’t be eating (although I’m sure no animals were harmed in the making of the movie). If you’ve developed enough suspicion about our society’s health to be reading this blog, your second thought is: “Why aren’t we more shocked when we see a human in a windowless room watching hours of TV and eating greasy, processed food?” Seeing an animal so closely related to us engaging in unnatural behavior gives a flash of insight.
It raises some interesting questions, and I’ll give you some answers. We don’t think of ourselves as animals with critical dietary and habitat needs because we’re conditioned not to. We don’t think of ourselves as forced into cages because the trap isn’t a physical one. We simply allow ourselves to be coaxed out of the environment that makes us truly happy and healthy because we’re afraid of what will happen if we don’t. We are kept constantly insecure, dependent on the system, blackmailed with our own instinct for survival. We get into our cars, sit in traffic, sit in cubicles, sit in traffic again, then sit in front of the television–seemingly all of our own accord.
If we understand ourselves as human animals, living outside of our natural environment is like getting drunk or taking a hallucinogenic drug. Even if you are aware of what is happening when you ingest the mind-altering substance, all bets are off after that. And make no mistake: we have shown an incredible ability to adapt and survive in this unnatural world, but we live in an altered state. This is true even of people with jobs that keep them outdoors most of the day but in unnatural surroundings (construction sites, for example). We are under the influence, with absolutely no idea how it is shaping our behavior.
This 2009 article from LiveScience nicely encapsulates my mental image of dopey scientists and health officials scratching their heads over Americans who continue to eat processed, packaged foods and spend most of their time sedentary when they know it’s killing them. Some unhealthy Americans even seem to enjoy this lifestyle, but now that we’ve examined the environment trap in a little more detail, it all starts to make sense. Away from the guidance of nature and under the spell of our new and unnatural environment, we seem to have unlimited potential for self sabotage.
The environment trap damages our natural drive to eat healthy foods and keep our bodies in joyful motion, which in turn leads to obesity and depression. If you live in an unnatural state, and you will inevitably become overweight, anxious, depressed, or develop other health and relationship problems. This is a natural effect of the environment you are in. It is not your fault, and there is nothing wrong with you. Self control and “personal responsibility” don’t even enter the picture, except in one respect that I will explain now.
Self control is a precious commodity in any given human, and we only have it in a limited capacity. If we use too much self control without enough time to build ourselves back up, we won’t have enough for subsequent challenges. A scientific study showed that people suffered from decreased physical stamina and poor impulse control after solving complex problems, suggesting that their ability to focus and control themselves had been used up. My personal experience and observation applies this same theory to the windowless-workplace lifestyle. It’s not necessarily the work we do while in the cubicle that saps our ambition to find happiness in a new career, work on our relationships, or do anything other than eat and watch television until we forget who we are and what we wanted out of life.
It’s that–whether we consciously realize it or not–we use up all of our self control to not burst out the door and make a break for our natural habitat.
For most of us, the unnatural world is probably not going to go away any time soon, and this means we need to find ways to align ourselves with nature if we are going to be healthy and happy. The good news is that re-aligning with nature is something you can do right now–today–in small ways that will make a big difference. Just step outside.