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Wellness and Environmental Awareness

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For close to ten years I have been blessed by living in the heart of the beautiful Sonoran Desert just outside of Tucson. Almost every morning my wife and I start the day with a vigorous hike in nearby Catalina State Park, truly one of the wonders of the world. Living in this pristine environment has made me particularly sensitive to the wonders of nature, together with the need to preserve this precious heritage for future generations.

This column will focus on how awareness of and sensitivity to our beautiful yet fragile environment constitutes a key cornerstone of wellness. We will also discuss the imminent threat posed to our planet’s sustainability as documented in a recent report issued by the United Nations, together with proactive steps we can take to fully enjoy the wonders of nature while ensuring a sustainable environment for our grandchildren, great grandchildren, and all future generations.

In October of 2018 the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)
issued a landmark report with 133 authors, including close to one hundred scientists (2018). This report unequivocally warns that the world stands on the brink of imminent failure in holding global warming to “acceptable” levels, and that all nations need to take “unprecedented action” over the next decade to drastically curtail practices that trigger climate change. For this purpose, an acceptable level of global warming is defined as 1.5 degrees Celsius or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit above preindustrial levels. The authors stress that in the absence of decisive action on the part of all nations, the prognosis for maintaining environmental sustainability is grim: we may have as little as twelve years to act on climate change, and slash global emissions 45 percent, to reach this target (Irfan, 2018; Mooney & Dennis, 2018; “The climate,” 2019; IPCC, 2018).

Quoting Vox contributor David Roberts:

Basically, stopping warming at 1.5C (2.7F) would involve an immediate, coordinated crash program of reindustrialization, involving every major country in the world. It would be like the US mobilizing for WWII, only across the globe, sustained for the rest of the century . . . There are currently no indications that any such effort is getting underway, and indeed the US is vigorously moving in the other direction (Irfan, 2018).

The Vox summary concerning ramifications of the UN report acknowledges that it will indeed be tremendously expensive to deploy all the technology and policy changes needed to effectively fight climate change. Yet some analysts predict that a global shift toward sustainability could yield trillions of dollars in economic benefits by 2030 (Irfan, 2018).

My commentary is not intended to foster a sense of despair. Rather, I am attempting to underscore the stakes at hand and the imminent need for a global commitment to drastically reprioritize current practices of production and consumption to preserve a life-sustaining environment for future generations.

What Can We Do As Individuals?

In the interest of enhancing our sense of presence in the here-and-now and our overall enjoyment of life, it behooves us to become acquainted with our natural surroundings. When I walk in the desert I become fully attuned to the sheer beauty and majesty before me. I become totally immersed in viewing a tree and communing with the various cacti, animals, birds, and reptiles I encounter. I strongly encourage you to spend some quality time in nature, either alone or accompanied by family and/or friends. It is especially important that we give young people the opportunity to fully develop their affinity for nature.

Growing numbers of addiction programs recognize that immersing ourselves in nature can be very healing. Wilderness therapy is increasingly employed in adolescent programs, and I believe that both residential and outpatient programs serving clients of all ages would do well to include nature outings in their treatment regimens. Such outings can also foster a healthy grounding in recovery for program alumni.

As individuals we can also play a meaningful role in preserving a sustainable environment for future generations. The following are some suggestions along these lines:

  • Inventory your personal use of resources at your disposal and identify areas where you can painlessly cut back. Even better, make this a family project.
  • Conserve water. Measures I have recently undertaken include taking quick showers, taking care to avoid leaving half full glasses of water around the house, and encouraging neighbors to refrain from hosing down their driveways.
  • Conserve electricity. Turn off lights that are no longer needed and carry a small pocket flashlight at night to avoid leaving lights on throughout the house. Treat yourself to a bit of exercise by gathering leaves with a rake rather than a leaf blower, and turn off the TV when no one is watching.
  • Minimize emissions from auto exhausts. Many people cut back on car use by walking or biking on errands close to home. It is also a good idea to combine your trips. For example, in Tucson I know a city councilman and a county supervisor who both ride their bikes to work and to meetings. Give your car a rest by using a carpool or public transportation, even if only once or twice a week.
  • Eat an environmentally friendly diet. While there are billions of people on this planet who are starving or malnourished, there would be plenty of food to go around if we were all vegetarians. In my book The Wellness-Recovery Connection (2004) I urge people in recovery to follow the healthy Mediterranean diet, a semi-vegetarian diet, for health reasons (“Mediterranean diet,” n.d.). It is also a great way for folks like myself who are not yet ready to adopt a strict vegetarian or vegan diet to do our share in alleviating the hunger crisis.

Now listen up—if you are a meat eater, give up red meat or at least drastically cut back. Red meat is not only a monumental artery clogger, but producing one pound of beef requires twelve pounds of grain, 2,500 gallons of water and thirty-five pounds of topsoil (“Food choices,” n.d.).

And even worse, from an ecological perspective the production of beef constitutes a major threat to the viability of our planet (Scheer & Moss, n.d.; Walsh, 2013). Raising cattle for beef produces a huge amount of methane, a gas that is eighty-five times more heat trapping than CO2. A 2006 United Nations report stated that, “raising cattle for food produces more gas emissions than the entire transportation industry combined” (FAO, 2006).

The Need for Environmental Advocacy

The recent UN report on climate change provides a much needed wake-up call underscoring the fact that our planet is on the brink of irreversible environmental damage unless rapid and decisive transformative action is undertaken by all nations and their citizens. To our nation’s credit, while the US is the world’s second largest polluter, we have led the world in reducing carbon emissions over the most recent ten-year period, registering a 10 percent decline in CO2 emissions (Rapier, 2016). By contrast, China, the world’s number one polluter increased its CO2 emissions by 3.1 billion tons, or 51 percent over that same period (Rapier, 2016). In contrast to our country’s noteworthy decline in carbon production in recent years, the current climate in the White House continues to aggressively move to dismantle environmental protections set in place by previous administrations.

There is a pressing need for decisive, hard-hitting environmental advocacy throughout our nation and indeed throughout the world. At home, we need to pull out all stops in inspiring our youth – and their parents – to internalize a sense of urgency concerning the nature and magnitude of the problem, and to bring to bear a decisive ongoing advocacy orientation. I strongly believe that community agencies – particularly our schools and religious institutions – should step up to plate and assume leadership roles in this critically important area. Local governments and the business community must also be very actively involved.

There is a strong need for decisive and transformative proenvironmental legislation, especially at the state and federal levels. We all need to become involved by raising our awareness of the magnitude of the problem and by becoming a part of the solution. We all need to champion preserving the environment through persuasively interacting with the offices of key government officials. Effective means of educating and motivating the public include letters to the editor, op/eds, community forums, working task forces, and other vehicles to inspire active participation.

In closing I hope I have persuaded you to roll up your sleeves and be a part of the solution. For those of you who want to learn more above the multifaceted nature of this pressing problem, together with effective strategies for advocating and accomplishing meaningful change, I highly recommend reading Ecology, Ethics, and Interdependence: The Dalai Lama in Conversation with Leading Thinkers on Climate Change (Dunne & Goleman, 2018).

John Newport, PhD, is an addiction specialist, writer, and speaker living in Tucson, Arizona. He is author of The Wellness-Recovery Connection: Charting Your Pathway to Optimal Health While Recovering from Alcoholism and Drug Addiction (2004). He is available for workshops, conference presentations and staff trainings on all aspects of wellness and recovery, as well as for personal wellness and recovery coaching by phone. He can be reached at [email protected]

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John Newport, PhD, is an addiction specialist, writer, and speaker living in Tucson, Arizona. He is author of The Wellness-Recovery Connection: Charting Your Pathway to Optimal Health While Recovering from Alcoholism and Drug Addiction. You may visit his website online at www.wellnessandrecovery.com for information on wellness and recovery trainings, wellness coaching by telephone, and program consultation services that he is available to provide.