Happy New Year?

“Do you think we’ll have an apocalypse?” my seventeen-year-old granddaughter asked.

“The way we’re going, we just may.” was my grim response.

That reply haunted me for weeks, as the facts that informed it have for much longer. I kept wondering if I could soften it, while still being honest.

In November, David and I visited a portion of the Summer 2013 Douglas Fire Complex, nearly 50,000 acres that burned for over a month near the southern Oregon towns of Glendale and Riddle. It was a shocking scene–desolation, as far as the eye could see. The soil, tree trunks, shrub and tree branches, all were blackened: It was a scorched and surreal forest. Hades, rendered in black and gray. But before I gave in to despair, tufts of green caught my eye. New bracken fern waved triumphant fronds above the charred earth. Then I examined an emerald sprout at the base of a twisted and carbonized clump to discover a cluster of madrone leaves emerging tight against the burned trunk. Looking carefully now, we spied more and more verdant patches: manzanita, huckleberry, buckbrush, Oregon grape, close to nearly every ebony cluster. Amazingly, this superficially hellish landscape was capable of conceiving life from below the ground.

As my spirits revived along with the forest, I remembered the thrill of seeing life regenerate on Mt St. Helens after her 1980 eruption. And I just read about an ocean cove where a diverse and healthy coral reef thrives in water far more acidic than thought possible for coral life, holding species that perhaps will populate the reefs of the future, as excessive CO2 continues to raise the pH of the sea. We mustn’t underestimate Mother Nature. She can bounce back from disasters, adapt to change and even transform to new systems when necessary. Short of the sun burning out, or Earth’s being hit by a mega-mile-wide asteroid, the biosphere will find a way to carry on, whatever we throw at it. Various species however, including Homo sapiens, might not be so fortunate, as we continue to consume, pollute, and disrupt the systems and resources we require for life.

It is clear that if we wish to maintain the relationship to the natural world that we have come to expect, society must have a major shift in attitude and behavior. We need to acknowledge that the biosphere is a finite system and to consider how our acquisition of wealth or conveniences might affect other inhabitants of the planet. Yet, throughout our lives we have heard, “You can’t change human nature. We are programmed to look out for number one.”

Greed, fear and suspicion served our ancient ancestors well as they watched for marauding tribes or hungry tigers. Getting to the goodies first, gathering the most, and not allowing anyone near, helped early hominids survive long enough to procreate. Had they been more mellow, they probably would have been eaten, and we wouldn’t be here to worry about it. But today the world population is over seven billion and if that successful caveman stores up too many goodies, there won’t be enough to go around.

Currently, 780 million people—a number equal to two and a half times the population of the United States—lack access to clean water. In the United States, a country of plenty comparatively speaking, 60 percent of the lakes are too toxic for drinking or swimming because of runoff from industrial farmlands, intensive livestock operations, and of industrial weed killers. The water in over a third of our rivers and streams is too dangerous for fishing or drinking. Thinking primarily of “number one” may have worked in pre-industrial times, but in the twenty-first century, it’s time to re-evaluate. Empathy, compassion and community will serve us better today.

Until fairly recently, habits, thought patterns, and even the brain itself were considered to be relatively static. It was generally believed that you had all of the brain cells you would ever have by your young adulthood when, cell by cell, they began dying. But it turns out that, like our environment, human brains also are resilient, are able to adapt, and even to transform. Not in ways that can do without clean air and water, but in ways that can change our attitudes, responses, and behavior. Scientists have discovered remarkable plasticity in the human brain. Not only can we develop new neural pathways throughout life, but the brain configuration actually changes as we develop new ways of thinking. This new understanding of neuroplasticity is a godsend for people suffering brain trauma or illness, but also has exciting application for developing constructive relationships. If we understood the importance of our common goals, we could learn to work together. And what is more important to work on cooperatively than saving our life-support systems?

But relating, marriage and family therapist Linda Graham says, is the most complex thing that humans do. And, observing activities of governments, as well as many businesses, corporations, community groups, even marriages, we see relating is often not done well. So where is the hope that our species can cooperate for the good of our planet and of each other? For me, it lies in the multitudes of caring people that I know and read about, and in the awareness that change is indeed possible. New learning and experiences can re-wire the brain. It is possible to control the fear that can motivate aggressive, grasping, controlling behavior. Empathy actually increases the size and function of the pre-frontal cortex, which can then grow neurons that connect to the limbic system (the lizard brain, or fear-fight-flight system) to remove the fear response and replace it with a feeling of well-being. So the more secure we are, the more compassion we can feel, and the more empathy we practice, the more we are capable of. We feel more secure as our support groups, along with our pre-frontal cortex, grow, continuing the cycle.

Pepperdine psychology professor Louis Cozolino predicts “survival of the nurtured.” New attitudes and choices, reinforced through consistent practice with attention and passion, can change even a brain that has been injured, traumatized, or developed in a hostile environment. Though once responding with fear or anger, if we care enough, we can learn to feel compassion and work for the common good. We are capable of doing great things.

So I don’t need merely to soften my grim answer to my granddaughter, I need to believe in both the resilience of natural systems and in the possibilities for learning and change in the human brain. With compassion for other people and other species, and with the understanding that this planet sustains us all; if we are brave enough to do the work we are capable of doing, we can turn things around. Inspired by our grandchildren and all the children of the future, may we understand the effects of our actions, join together, and learn to live in a way so that the generations to follow us may enjoy lives that we would want for ourselves.

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