Putting the life back in science fiction

Climate change and mental health
March 29, 2016, 1:22 am
Filed under: climate change, Hot Earth Dreams, meditation, PTSD | Tags: , ,

This is small entry, but as many people reading this know, working on climate change has mental health effects.  There are articles on the web with such heartwarming titles as:

When the End of the World is Your Day Job

Climate depression is for real. Just ask a scientist

Pre-Traumatic Stress Syndrome: Scientists Speak Out

One college teacher contacted me, because he wanted to use Hot Earth Dreams as a text in his class.  One of the things he asked was what book should be paired with HED to offer a complementary view.  Unfortunately, I probably pissed him off, because my answer was a book on mindfulness. Anyway, after I suggested that, I never heard from him again.  But it was an honest suggestion.

Here’s the thing: I’ve suffered too.  My chiropractor got to know me very well as I wrote HED, and after I released it, I started suffering from what I’m now sure were symptoms of anxiety, although they felt like fairly scary diseases at the time.  What has worked for me in dealing with this is mindfulness meditation.  You don’t have to become a Buddhist to learn it, but it’s worth remembering that the fundamental Buddhist truth is that life is unsatisfactory, but that it’s possible to escape it through embracing the suck rather than trying (inevitably unsuccessfully) to avoid it.

It’s not just about anxiety and depression either.  There’s also guilt, because I’m part of the problem and I don’t feel like I’m doing nearly enough to solve it.  There’s fury, when I see these self-preening…okay, I won’t go on a three paragraph rant about all the politicians and moguls I see, but I get as stressed out imagining them getting their just and gruesome desserts as I do when dealing with depression.  And there’s frustration, of course, and sadness, and the endless chores of dealing with others’ denialism, nihilism, and constant changing of the subject, because anything’s better than trying to do something that requires suffering.  That’s a whole unholy brew, and that’s just inside my own skull.

Just based on my own limited experience, if you’re dealing with similar crap and don’t want to try self-medication, I’d recommend Bhante Gunaratana’s Mindfulness in Plain English.   It’s short, sweet, and it’s helping me.  There’s no magic here: it’s more about putting in the hours learning how to patiently deal.  The only difference is that, unlike the other things I’ve tried so far, it does seem to help.  I’ve also downloaded an app from the American VA for using mindfulness to deal with conventional PTSD, and that helps as well, mostly because I use it to keep track of how long I meditate each day.

Hopefully this will help some of you.  Let me know if it does, or if something else works as well.  There’s enough suffering out there without people suffering alone with this too.


14 Comments so far
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Discourses by Epictetus and Meditations by Marcus Aurelius.

Comment by a scruffian

Apparently a significant proportion of people don’t handle meditation very well (http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/jan/23/is-mindfulness-making-us-ill).

Of course, the same is true of drugs, especially prescription ones. If you pay for it, side-effects are expected and somehow OK, but doing stuff inside your own head is supposed to be completely safe and painless.

Comment by John Scanlon

That’s an article worth reading, and I do agree with it. If a particular mindfulness exercise makes you feel bad, don’t do it again. Indeed, there are several meditation exercises that I can’t personally recommend, because I’ve had bad experiences with them. I’ve read similar reports about yoga, especially kundalini, so I’ll suggest that you have to be both careful and sensible whenever you start tinkering with yourself, no matter what the method.

I will note, also, that I’m suggesting mindfulness as a means for dealing with a lot of emotional and intellectual garbage, and also for dealing with things, like anxiety, for which there aren’t a lot of good treatments. It’s not about avoiding the crap, it’s about dealing with it, to the extent that you can, so obviously, there will be a lot of crap, and you’ll need to deal with it slowly and carefully. This isn’t the equivalent of self-medicating with booze or forcing yourself to feel good, at least for me. It’s more like cleaning out that junk room that you’ve been throwing stuff in because you couldn’t deal with it at the time. Some things can be thrown out easily, some things need to be disentangled, and some stuff you get stuck with (like emergency tools), no matter how much you wish for more space.

I’ll also say that my spiritual experience, to the extent that I have it, is that, while it’s worth following instructions at first, ultimately you have to tinker a bit. Part of the tinkering is determining what really works for you, and part of the tinkering is with your own preconceptions about what concepts like relaxed, aware, happy, and healthy really mean for you. It’s bizarre, but most of these concepts aren’t taught, they’re just picked up, and people like me seem to have picked up some wrong ideas along the way.

Still, read the article and see what can go wrong. If this kind of thing starts happening to you, STOP THE EXERCISE.

Comment by Heteromeles

In the spiritual traditions that use meditation, meditation is never used as a stress reduction tool. Meditation is done under the guidance of a teacher and the teacher’s job is to actually create a sufficiently stressful environment for the student to make him/her snap out of their ordinary mind set into a new perspective that the tradition considers as more enlightened. Meditation is always in the context of this unrelenting stress. What the monastery offers the student is an environment where this stress can be maintained on a day in, day out basis. Normally, in a monastery there is work to be done so the stress level cannot be kept up to maximum all the time, but there are special intensive periods where meditation is kept up all day long for days on end with the hope that this will trigger breakthroughs. Fasting, sensory deprivation, chanting, dancing have all been used as part of the toolkit to trigger release from conventional mindset. In fact, lots of people have these mental resets spontaneously and often they are brought on by prolonged periods of mental stress though not always.
Given that meditation in a spiritual environment involves stress, people who run monasteries screen their prospective students to make sure that they can handle the stress.
People who want to use mindfulness meditation to reduce stress are using the wrong technology in my opinion. They should take long walks or swim laps instead.
I’ve done meditation of various kinds for decades, initially on my own and later as part of different Soto Zen communities. I’ve found it very helpful with resolving my own personal existential conundrums. And I agree with Frank that it’s more about uncluttering a mind crammed full of useless baggage than finding a stress-free way to hang on to all that baggage.

Comment by Wolfgang Brinck

Wolfgang, what you’re talking about is only true for the Zen tradition. It doesn’t apply at all in the Vipassana discipline of Theravada or Tibetan Buddhism, let alone other systems like the various schools of Taoism, Christianity, Sufism, etc.

Also, mindfulness, of the sort I linked to, is part of Theravada. Zen is a simplified version of Chan Buddhism from China, which was heavily influenced by Taoism.

That’s actually one of the huge problems out there: words like meditation and now mindfulness get thrown around a lot without people realizing that there is a wide range of often-conflicting practices covered by these titles. One big example is that Christian “meditation” is considered as “contemplation” by western Buddhist and Taoist practitioners.

In general, meditation falls into three major (often entwined) disciplines: mindfulness, concentration, and embodying energy (and there are probably others I’m not aware of, since I’m not touching anything from Africa). Vipassana is mindfulness meditation in the Theravada tradition. It uses concentration (as on the act of breathing) to attain and retain mindfulness, but its primary focus is mindfulness alone. It’s akin to the water traditions of Taoism, except that Taoism also deals with embodying energy (as in tai chi, which is generally a martial art and only developed as a meditation in a few styles). Tibetan Buddhism, especially (I think) vajrayana, does all three in a ritual format. Zen Buddhism tries to shock people into mindfulness, which is what Wolfgang is talking about. Chan Buddhism, which Zen is descended from, also includes body work to keep practitioners healthy while they meditate. Christianity and neopaganism focus on concentration (as in prayer) and/or embodying energy (as in magic), and there’s little or no focus on mindfulness, even though some argue that mindfulness is what Jesus was talking about when he preached (the so-called Perennial Philosophy). I can’t speak for the others.

When it comes to dealing with stress and other crap, I’ve found water tradition Taoism and Vipassana to be the most effective, and Vipassana is simpler for me. I’ve had major problems with exercises that rely on concentration and visualization to reprogram your subconscious, and I can’t recommend them at all, although (of course) your mileage may differ.

Comment by Heteromeles

Here we are discussing the merits of meditation as a cure for the malaise caused by thinking about global warming. And is the cure worse than the disease? Does the medicine have serious side effects?
Maybe meditation is a cure for worrying about something that we think might happen in the future. But would meditation be an aid in dealing with the physical and psychological impacts of the Hot Earth Dreams scenarios actually coming true? How would we stay sane in the middle of a massive die-off of the human species? I’m not sure. Is sanity even an appropriate mental state for such a situation?
Can meditation as a cultural technology survive without supportive religions? Did meditation techniques predate the big religions of the Axial Age? If so, then there might be some reason to think that they would survive into the Altithermal.
What do Syrian refugees crowded onto a small rubber raft headed for Greece think about? Do they meditate? Probably not. More likely they are imploring their God to deliver them safely. Maybe if they meditated before they were refugees they might take it up again in the future. Who knows?
One of my meditation teachers one time commenting on one of here other students said that he only showed up for meditation sessions when he was between girlfriends. Maybe that’s how it goes.

Comment by Wolfgang Brinck

Well, considering how close we are to death during so many parts of the day (driving, for instance), and how we’re often told to be more mindful when we’re doing these activities, rather than zoning out or praying, I’d suggest that mindfulness might be really useful. You might want to check out Laurence Gonzales’ Deep Survival for a discussion of the mental aspect of surviving. As Scruffian noted, Gonzales is more in favor of Marcus Aurelius, but the old Stoics do come a similar place as Vipassana.

Comment by Heteromeles

Hello again;

On dealing with it … get outside and become aware of the good stuff on this planet again … I do Tai Chi, some plant gardens, others take long walks, or go fishing … an important thing is to not add to the crap in your head by watching TV or listening to the talking heads. Channeling the rage towards almost anything positive helps. Somewhat.

Comment by ArtDeco

Yes, mindfulness practices help (yoga, gardening, Quaker meeting, walking, being with animals, standing with younger people in this situation–all with mindfulness) and reading your posting helps too. I forget, sometimes, that you and others know what’s going on. That we are together even when we don’t know one another helps too.

Comment by Ranae Hanson

Brief article about the loss of global assets due to AGW. The original journal paper is referenced. What bothers me is that assets will include fixed assets (capital stock), suggesting to me that financial firms will seek to offload these assets in favor of weightless assets as AGW effects become clearer. Unfortunately the paper is light on the methodology, one needs to be an economist familiar with the models to assess its validity. Nevertheless, it starts to put numbers on the costs (some Greens will think this is a +ve as it is about loss of GDP) and therefore the value of mitigation.


[If you don’t have access to Nature, use sci-hub.io]

Comment by Alex Tolley

Thanks Alex. It’s good that the paper is available (for now) through the online link attached to the article. Still, I have to disagree with their findings and their assumptions. Their conclusion is that $2.5 trillion (or 1.8% of the global economy) is at risk, by 2100, under a business as usual emission scenario. Their 99th percentile risk is $24.2 trillion, or 16% of the global economy, but they think this is unlikely.

Here’s the problem: they think business as usual will result in 2.5oC increase in global average temperatures by 2100. I’d say, simply, that they’re far too timid to be worth reading, because even the IPCC goes for 5-8oC by 2100 for business as usual.

By comparison, Hot Earth Dreams is my prediction of what happens in with business-as-usual emissions. Personally, I now think the HED timeline is a bit too conservative, which leaves me with a quandry to resolve for the rewrite. So no, I don’t think there’s going to be a little recession in 2100 due to climate change, I think there will be a little (if any) civilization left. Probably that’s something like a 101.8% decrease in the economy, but what do I know? I’m not an economist.

Comment by Heteromeles

I think their 2C target increase assumes that this can be met, I seriously doubt it. 5 – 8C would be disastrous as you say.
I think we will contain the increase but it will be above 2C (almost inevitable) and with it the oceans will be seriously “messed up”. The economy will survive, but it will look somewhat different from today, and labor of all sorts (manual and intellectual) done by machines where the cost makes sense. I expect industrial processes will be high tech and simple things made locally with home and community fabs.

My big worry is a major population decline due to any combo of the usual suspects – famine, plague and war. maybe the machines and distributed production of goods will keep the economy going despite this decline. Maybe the world goes from Asimov’s highly populated Earth in “Caves of Steel” to the lightly populated Solaria in “The Naked Sun”. I hope not.

My hope is that the article stirs up a sense that AGW will incur costs and that there is business sense in preventing that. Even no nothing legislators should be able to get their heads around that idea rather than bleating that do nothing policy keeps the economy growing maximally.

Better to change the conversation and argue how much loss, rather than assume all economic losses are due to changing the energy sources.

Comment by Alex Tolley

My issue isn’t that those economists are grappling with it, it’s that they’re too timid about “business as usual,” even without arguing that they’re pretty unrealistic about 2oC impacts. This is a great study for someone who wants to say that climate change is totally survivable, nothing to worry about. It’s not so good for someone who’s hoping for transformation in response to a real crisis.

Obama has a great, and fairly relevant, quote in this month’s Atlantic Monthly: ““ISIS is not an existential threat to the United States. Climate change is a potential existential threat to the entire world if we don’t do something about it.” Obama explained that climate change worries him in particular because “it is a political problem perfectly designed to repel government intervention. It involves every single country, and it is a comparatively slow-moving emergency, so there is always something seemingly more urgent on the agenda.”

This is the kind of study that decreases the urgency, rather than increasing it.

Comment by Heteromeles

I see this rather differently than you. As the authors assert that the financial markets have almost no appreciation of the economic loss due to GW. This letter invites them to reconsider this. More importantly from my perspective, finance people need to evaluate outcomes as NPV, as this is standard financial analysis and something they are comfortable with.

As the article states, the loss without mitigation is as great as that of stranded fossil fuel reserves. This completely undermines the argument the FF companies make that stranding their assets will bring economic ruin to the markets. [As we are seeing with bankrupting US coal companies, this isn’t true].

The article also points out that the more extreme losses are very large, suggesting a need to hedge against this downside risk. Again, this talking the language of financial markets.

So while you see the apparenly small reduction in GDP as a problem, I see it as a large absolute number that will attract teh attention of teh financial markets that are heavily involved in investment decisions. If they see this as a problem in financing FF companies, they will have a huge impact on the transition to alternatives.

I think it also opens up the discussion on the likely real economic losses. have they modeled this correctly, or is the impact much worse that they model. Plugging in different assumptions will change the calculations, and more importantly, instead of sounding like Chicken Littles, it will use the language that influences those who wield power.

Comment by Alex Tolley

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