A Little Context and Hopefully, Some Direction

I’ve been wanting to start writing this blog for a long time. There are so many issues that I care about it’s been difficult to wrap my head around them. For years I’ve scratched this itch by debating my classmates or submitting papers to my teachers that probably read more like manifestos. I recently completed my Master’s degree in 2017, and began working on a PhD last fall where I resumed this “scratching”. Just one semester in and out of funding, I realized it wasn’t the answer I was looking for. In January I made the tough call to abandon everything I had worked so hard to achieve over the past year, and found myself in a familiar place. I suppose “found myself” isn’t a good characterization, I felt, like I have so many times in my adult life, completely lost.

Out of school, I was once again faced with the terrifying prospect that pushed me to go back in the first place – work. Most jobs in my “field” (environmental conservation) were unappealing to me, most are underpaid, and more importantly they’ve felt deeply unsatisfying. I speak from experience, as most of the jobs I appeared to qualify for were ironically quite similar to those I had already worked prior to going back to school. Why should I break my back getting my resume into a pile a mile deep to be right back somewhere I don’t want to be? Now I know what you’re thinking, I’ve got to have faith, “pay my dues”, surely someone as driven and passionate as me will figure out how to make a meaningful contribution in time? Perhaps, but somehow I just can’t bring myself to bite that bullet. What gives some self-righteous millennial hot-shot like myself the right to have an influential role in a field I’ve barley dipped my toes into? Well, nothing. Bear with me.

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1. Bear

Look, I know that a lot of the environmental/conservation work being done is tremendously important, and I commend the soldiers out there (many of my classmates and colleagues included) who are doing the real work on the ground to make a difference. What seems to set me apart is the fact that I cannot get around the notion that many of the problems we face today are deeply systematic in nature. Most seem to be deeply rooted in cultural paradigms that one way or another will have to be uprooted before significant change can occur. While I’ll always be someone who believes that every little bit counts, and it does, I also believe the current paradigm in conservation and environmentalist thinking is deeply flawed, and it obviously isn’t working, at least not on a relevant time scale.

I don’t yet know exactly what this blog (I really hate this word) will be about, or what “contribution” to society it will make. I don’t know who will read it or who will care. All I know is I can no longer live in a world where we aren’t even discussing these root   problems. I’ve always cared deeply for the world around me, both human and natural (I’ll talk in the future about what a colossal mistake it has been separating these two ideas), however it has really only been in the past five years or so that I really began to think deeply about the human’s place in nature. I’m genuinely excited by the prospect of thinking critically about this subject, and personally, I feel it has more potential to shift the tide of ecological degradation than any other “environmental work” being done. Before I dive into this journey with you, I’d like to provide a little bit of context as to how I arrived at this place, as I believe it has been critical to shaping my worldview.

 

October 2013 – The Diagnosis; A Curse, and a Blessing.

As most of my close friends and family know, almost five years ago I was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease. For the most part I’ve remained pretty quiet about my condition, only talking about it when absolutely necessary. I’m not exactly enthralled to be talking about such a *shitty* subject, but more significantly, I’ve never been comfortable with the idea of being pitied. All in all, I’m pretty lucky. For starters, my Crohn’s is considered moderate, meaning many people have it much, much worse. Beyond my illness, I was born in upper-middle class America. Thanks to my parents and their hard work, dedication, and love, I’ve always had a roof over my head and good food on the table, and crucially, my medical expenses paid. Most Americans (let alone those outside the “developed” world) are not so fortunate. Last but not least I really am #blessed with so many great quality friends (although sometimes I wish we were less spread out). Mandatory gratitude inventory out of the way, it’s past time I expressed to my friends and family what I am really going through.

While it’s not my intent to make my illness the center of my blog (there are many, many other blogs you can read if you want to read endless complaining or find out how “you too can be cured!”), I do feel it’s important to understand where I’m coming from: The impact of many of the issues I will discuss on this blog have become all too real for me. Its my personal belief that no living human is untouched by the negative effects of the human “machine”, but for some of us the pain is more obvious. The following section is not meant to be a condemnation of any of my family or friends. If you are reading this through my Facebook link, it means you have survived many “friend purges” over the years (congratulations). Instead it is intended to be more of a coming out for me, as this has been something that has been extremely difficult to talk about. Also, let this serve as the first and only trigger warning you will ever see on this blog, as some people might find some of this gross or upsetting.

Okay, here goes….

First off, being sick sucks. A lot. If you watched the video included in this post you got the detailed overview, but the main thing to understand is that Crohn’s is a chronic digestive disease. Here’s some quick definitions to give you an idea of what that means (they literally all apply):

Chronic: Adjective,

1 a chronic illness: persistent, long-standing, long-term; incurable; Medicine immedicable. ANTONYMS  acute.

2 chronic economic problems: constant, continuing, ceaseless, unabating, unending, persistent, long-lasting; severe, serious, acute, grave, dire. ANTONYMS temporary.

For me, inflammation in my gut has translated to significant weight loss and fatigue, regular and occasionally crippling abdominal pain, and frequent trips to the bathroom, which at a few low points over the years may as well have been considered blood donations. While the physical symptoms can be devastating, the social and emotional costs have been even greater. Allow me to explain.

Most of us probably tuck ourselves in at night with at least a vague idea of what we want to accomplish the next day. For me though, being sick has often meant waking up to pain and extreme fatigue, and typically spending a several hours in bed until it dissipates and I can gather the strength and motivation to just get myself a glass of water. The emotional toll of this sort of routine really can’t be overstated, its pitched me into deep depressions at times, and completely taken the wind out of my sails that I might ever accomplish anything. Harder still, it’s been difficult for those around me to empathize with my struggle. I look fine for the most part (although many of you like to point out how skinny I am), and generally the pain is manageable enough that most of time that you wouldn’t think anything was wrong. It’s been easy for others to think I’m being dramatic or fussy, and worse, the disease has a nasty way of creeping into my own head like this too. I often bounce back and forth between being far too hard on myself, questioning my own determination or sanity, or giving in completely and letting the anxiety of it all keep me from even trying, and I simply cave to the idea that whatever “silly” protocol I’m experimenting with now isn’t worth the inconvenience. Let’s back up a bit.

As a teenager, I was awkward, anti-social, and harbored a bitterness and disdain for society in general. I made little effort to engage with anything, and then got butt-hurt when I was left behind. Around age 16 all that changed for me because of one simple little compound – alcohol.

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2. Ethanol (alcohol) Molecule

With a newfound ability to be friendly, and really just to be myself in a sense, alcohol provided an immense social freedom for me. I quickly developed an identity around it that would define much of who I was in the context of social situations for nearly a decade. When I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease at age 23, my world changed again. While I had already developed an interest in the “health-kick” wave that I maintain to this day, I suddenly found myself in a situation with no choice. Drinking and eating frivolously was out of the question. Caving to the pressures of others to “loosen up” and “be fun like I used to be” has proven to be something that can sentence me to 6 months or more of pain, diarrhea, bleeding, weight loss and further emotional trauma. I’m sure over the years many of you have witnessed these moments of weakness where I do partake. I practice this “letting go” partially to please others but mostly to relieve the anxiety of being “that guy” (the guy who doesn’t party, isn’t fun or chill, or obnoxiously asks for the gluten-free menu etc…). While many of the medications I’ve tried have helped to some degree, offering some freedom from time to time, most have eventually lost their full effectiveness. Harder still is, despite the obvious importance of adhering to a more gut-friendly diet and lifestyle, this is often not enough either. It can take weeks or months to recover from any event that causes my system to become inflamed.

I reiterate again, I’m not sharing this for your pity or even sympathy, just understanding. Principally, this is not a “health kick” or an activist issue I’m stoked about at this moment in time. Crohn’s is a juggernaut, it’s a condition that represents an outright rejection between the human body and its environment (blame whichever one you feel comfortable with), and so we come full circle.

 

Part III – Why, and What Now?

In this age of political extremes (which is nothing new by the way), environmentalism often gets caught in a debate between conservation and utilization. It shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s ever spoken to me that I feel this dichotomy misses the point (as dichotomies are want to do). Many of the more respected (or at least recognized) figures in our culture today; politicians, business leaders, and other public figures seem to take the centrist road right down the middle. It takes the least amount of effort, and more importantly courage, to take a middle of the road position like this. Unfortunately for me, I’ve decided to take the high road, and if you stick with me on this journey, you’ll come to learn that I’m a bit of a “moderate radical”. Let’s briefly jump into what I mean by this before I sign off.

As opponents of environmentalist concerns love to point out, the world’s history, both human and non-human, has always been characterized by constant change. Somehow though, this modern human era seems fundamentally different. We’ve reached a point of extreme success on the species level, especially for a mammal with a relatively low reproductive rate. Coinciding with this explosion of 7.6 Billion people, we find ourselves in the midst of exponential technological advancement and societal changes. When you zoom out and look at these changes in the context of history (let alone the rest of human evolution) they become even more pronounced. I hope to focus this blog on those changes, and in turn inspire my readers to think more critically about what is really happening to humanity and the world around us.

To understand how this connects to my personal medical issue, it’s important to understand that I’m not shocked that many of us suffer from poor health in this modern world. More importantly, I’m not sure I would have been motivated to think critically about these issues without the experience of this illness. Having to focus so heavily on what I put in body (and why) has pushed me to consider things I otherwise might never have. Some of my biggest questions have included what exactly we are “supposed” to eat, but more so on broader level; how are we wired to live and relate to the world around us? Where did we go wrong? Did we go wrong? (This blog wouldn’t exist if I didn’t believe so). There are  no clear answers, but one thing is obvious – something significant has shifted, it happened slowly at first but is now moving at such a rapid pace I truly believe we risk losing something elemental to human life on earth. Whether that means extinction or what is the perhaps the more likely outcome, a reduced quality of life, kinda seems like we should figure it out.

All I know now is that I want to help in a significant way. We can’t go back to being hunter-gatherers (not that this was perfect either!), but we can acknowledge that no matter how much we innovate, the forces of nature will always present us with limitations and consequences. What if instead of steamrolling over them, and reaching deeper into our borrowed time, we begin to learn from them? Unfortunately for those in positions of power and privilege, this has come to mean less of a lot of things; less money, less development, less consumption, less power etc. But I believe it may also mean less poverty, less disease, and less despair. With this blog I hope to make the argument that less is more, and that the world we must construct to prevent ecosystem and societal collapse is not necessarily one with a reduced quality of life, in fact just the opposite.

More to come…

 

 

Photo Credits:

  1. By JZ85 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8307561
  2. By Jü – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=62221756

 

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