The first 25 years of my career as a journalist focused on ways to foster sustainable human progress centered on science illuminating the biological and geophysical interplay of people and the planet. But over and over, I came to realize that decisions about addressing, or ignoring, environmental risks were shaped more by communities’ basic needs and individuals’ perceptions than basic scientific “facts.”
That understanding led me increasingly to consult with behavioral and social scientists—and even philosophers and theologians—in trying to gauge the merits of different policies or individual choices. One such person is Dan Siegel, who’s blended training in pediatrics and psychiatry with decades of experience and research and produced a body of insights into ways, through mindful attention to one’s self and the rest of the world, to expand the mind—literally. I met him at one of the Climate, Mind and Behavior conferences at the Garrison Institute years ago and have been probing his books and consulting with him ever since. (Watch Dan Siegel’s Climate, Mind and Behavior videos here.)
We recently had a chance to converse about our shared focus on how to foster individual, social, and environmental well-being amid today’s fast-changing landscape of ways to share and shape valuable ideas—along with insults and animal videos.
Andrew Revkin: How are all of these new ways we’re communicating with each other changing not only our relationships with each other, but with our whole environment and the planet?
Dan Siegel: On the one hand, there’s this idea that no one is taking the time they probably need to in order to slow down and be connected to another person. There’s a lot of concern about how that is influencing our present-day experience and also about what that will do for the new generation. Sherry Turkle writes about this, and I think we can see in many kids a kind of thinness of interaction where they’re not spending the kind of face-to-face time that you might want them to.
How does this relate to the environment and our relationship with the planet? I don’t know if there are any studies on that, but it’s certainly an interesting question, because the further away we get from feeling what’s going on inside of ourselves, the further away we get also from feeling like this home we live in is real. It starts to feel like more of like an artificial thing, almost a computer graphic that we live in.
When you bring people out into nature, they start experiencing awe. And through the experience of awe, we connect with other people and the world around us. So, if awe is not happening in the digital world that would decrease our ability to reach out to other people and the natural world.
Revkin: I’ve been exploring this in different ways, one of which was examining whether there’s a hybrid approach to these challenges. When my son was around eight or nine, he was with me in in the middle of a very suburban part of Florida, visiting his grandparents, and we went in a little rowboat. There was a little, tiny nook of mangroves. He had my video camera. He was shooting a little documentary, very funky and kid-like, swinging the camera back and forth.
But then we went to an area where there were some herons nesting in the mangroves, deep inside the shrubbery. I couldn’t see them at all, but he had the capacity to see them. He zoomed in and got this really cool moment of seeing these baby herons. I posted it on YouTube and put it on my blog. You could hear his voice when he zoomed in and caught the image of the bird. It was a great moment, where you could hear his breath. He had that awe moment you were just talking about. But he was then sharing it digitally. He told the story in a way that was facilitated by digital media.
Siegel: If those stories can evoke this sense of connecting to something larger than our personal, separate selves, I think that’s just fantastic. That’s going to be the challenge, I think, for all of us in the immediate future.
I remember once talking to a photographer who would go out to these wild places, like the North Pole. I asked him, “What are you feeling when you do that? Not just what it’s like to be on the North Pole, but what is your drive?” He said, “If we don’t get the next generation to fall in love with our planet, there’s no way that they’re going to take any kind of time to protect it, because you only protect something you love.” That’s why he put together his photographs. When I think about the Dot Earth work you’re doing, Andrew, it’s like inviting people to fall in love with our world.
Revkin: Yes, but in a world with limited resources—or in countries with limited resources—what can we do? Especially in areas where you have the high numbers of educated youth, but not a lot of opportunity, what tools or mechanisms or practices might be beneficial?
Siegel: Well, if we start with the premise that you really need to be in love with what you’re going to protect, then it needs to be a top priority to get adolescents in nature more. Otherwise they’re going to think, for example, that food actually is created in a supermarket. And so they’ll say, “Well, my market’s okay.” It may seem simple, but it’s the hidden unknown of all of this, that kids are just not feeling like the planet is really something that’s real. So that’s the first layer of this.
Another layer is that a lot of us feel a sense of helplessness. And then all you do is go through this emotional set of reactions, which are studied in brain scanners. If you feel helpless, then all you do is you go, “Well, this feeling is really terrible. There’s nothing I can do about it, so I’m going to change my focus of attention and not pay attention to this thing that makes me feel so helpless. Let me just go get a beer and go to watch TV and forget about this stuff.” I think that’s a pathway that’s understandable but preventable.
Revkin: Here’s another aspect of what you were just laying out: In the new media environment we’re in—which is no longer the Walter Cronkite, communitarian, authoritative giver of information—but this sort of landscape where if you put in the words “global warming” in Google News, you’ll find everything from “it’s a hoax” to “it’s the end of the world.”
One thing I’ve been trying to teach students at Pace University, is some methods for navigating so you become, to some extent, your own authority. Or at least you can find, amid all that noise, where reality lies. That’s kind of a first step towards having the capacity to be mindful and compassionate and instructive.
We have this built-in bias toward drama, I think. That’s what catches our attention, along with funny dog videos. So much of what’s out there is trying to get our attention, meaning it’s overstated. This is as true for BBC and The New York Times as everyone else. To grab attention now, there’s a torquing towards the caricature. In some ways, a sustainability mechanism now is to develop the capacity to know what’s real. We had it so easy in the old days. We didn’t have to think. It was just we opened The New York Times and watch Walter Cronkite. Cronkite would literally say, “That’s the way it is.”
Siegel: To do this we’re going to need to have inner reflection to understand the way the mind works. This will allow us to respond to the call of the day, which is how to keep yourself aware and then also allow yourself to feel the equanimity so that you don’t burn out.
Revkin: One exercise I’ve been doing with my students in this course I teach—it’s basically a course in online communication—is to have them think about how they knew something that day. How did it get into their consciousness? Trace it back. Where did this factoid come from?
This is more about news information than about some of the things you were just talking about feeling. But I think it gets people into the mode of stopping and thinking about how they thought something. Did the Yankees win or lose? How did I learn that fact today? Where did it come from? Tracing these things back to their source is helpful. It’s interesting. It’s a way to learn how the web works. Someone tweeted something, and that was blogged by someone else, and then it goes somewhere else. You can actually trace things pretty far back if you take a few minutes. It’s a way to become aware of how ideas are moving around.
It would be interesting to do that with a feeling the same way. I’m bummed out. Where did that come from? I assume that’s partially what some of the practices you do accomplish.
Siegel: What we would say about that from the field I work in, interpersonal neurobiology, is that this backtracking practice you’re doing, is really a form of what you would call integration. Integration is how we make sense of our lives. You’re linking different aspects of your life across time, different aspects of your relational life, and even different aspects of your brain together. And that linkage of differentiated parts across all those levels, not just in the brain, is called integration.
Integration creates, basically, equanimity. It creates a sense of well-being. It creates all sorts of improvements in the way your physiology works.
This relates to something I write about at the end of the Brainstorm, which is the notion of a “mwe.” Mwe is the combination of an individual “me,” but you’re also equally, just differentially, a connected person. You’re connected to other people, your family, your friends, your teachers, the larger human family—in fact, the family of all living beings, the whole Earth. These relational connections are part of a “we.”
To embrace the two of them, you could say “mwe.” And what’s been so interesting about that is that it helps resolve a kind of conflict where you can think it’s either one or the other. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. An integrated identity would be both a “me” and a “we.” It allows you to enjoy this body and really love the world in which you live.
Revkin: Kind of a hybrid approach to things. One of the things you pursued or explained when I saw you at the Garrison was something you described as the “we map.” Two aspects of that struck me as valuable to a broader sustainability discussion. One is, maybe with intentionality, that’s where you could see the upside of social networks online. There are social networks that are physical, of course, but the idea of the “we map” seems compatible with a constructive use of social media to build that sense of you that’s not within your body. That’s your sense of community.
I think there’s untapped potential to use these tools to have a bigger potential of “we-ness,” to make sure that ideas are shared and shaped where they’re needed most, or to build collaborative conversations. But there are so many competing uses of the same portals, such as selling stuff and saying mean things. It’s hard to know which will win out.
Siegel: There’s huge potential for it. If we can start to expand our conversations about what the self is, then I think people will be using all of their incredible creative potential, especially the adolescents coming up, to realize that you can find all sorts of ways of changing the relationality that we have to the planet to make it more robust for the well-being of the whole community. If you just think about this atmosphere we all share, the air we breathe, the water we drink, the soil that we share—all of these things—and realize the shared nature of our living experience.
That’s something you can embed right into our vocabulary in media, in blogs, in schools, what teachers learn and what parents can do. I think it’s going to be a win/win situation. I think people are going to feel better, because it’s really more about the truth. And all of the studies show a sense of well-being comes when you’re really a part of something larger than your private bodily self. We just need to work collaboratively to make it happen.
Revkin: One other thing that comes to mind is the time I spent at the Vatican in 2014 at the meeting that preceded the encyclical and then writing about the pope’s involvement in the climate question. It was interpreted in many different ways, but the way that I found was most salient and powerful was essentially he has made it safe to think of sustainability—including equity and environmental and climate safety—to bring more than numbers into this arena.
In the climate arena, I think for too long, people have used numbers like “two degrees” or “350” to give a kind of mechanistic determinant to what needs to be done, when, in fact, when you look behind those numbers, it really is much more about choices. Our choices are moral and their functions are feelings as much as facts. So I think what you’re describing sort of fits with the idea that the mechanistic, quantitative approach to problems like climate change or sustainable development generally aren’t going to get you there alone.
Siegel: Absolutely. I don’t know how to say this without sounding too optimistic, but I think there’s a huge potential for good out of this sense of urgency, where people put their divisions down, where we start realizing: This is the time to do it.
Andrew Revkin writes the Dot Earth environmental blog for The New York Times‘ Opinion Pages. He is also the Senior Fellow for Environmental Understanding at Pace University’s Pace Academy for Applied Environmental Studies.
Photos courtesy of Jorg Badura