So I spent last week out in Seattle doing a little bit of biz but mostly playing… I lived out there for a while and felt it appropriate to check in to see if the city is still functioning without me : )  It looks like it’s doing just fine, and Seattleites were in particularly good spirits because the weather was abnormally fantastic.  Taking advantage of the October sunshine, I took to exploring the abundant natural beauty surrounding the Emerald City.  I found myself over a period of 4 days standing on peaks of both the Olympic and Cascade mountain ranges, and ferrying through the gorgeous San Juan Islands… Not a bad week!

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While the vast majority of people were stuck indoors working, my pal Alex and I hiked to the top of Mt. Townsend in the Olympic range… It was a beautiful clear day, and at the summit of 6,300 feet we found a sheltered spot in the sun away from the howling wind.  We sat there for what felt like hours and just absorbed the landscape like dry sponges being dunked in water (this is where I snapped the above picture)…  I began to reflect, thinking how unfortunate it is that so few of us truly take advantage of the great outdoors… it saddened me to think how nature has little if any value in contemporary society… how over time our connection to the natural world has basically gone the opposite direction of technological innovation… I wondered where this disconnect had come from, and what the consequences of our isolation are…

I’m a firm believer that people are products of their environments… that when we’re born, we have no biases, that we contain a patch of the cosmos, what some call ‘pure potentiality’.  I can personally attribute my appreciation for nature to how I was raised, growing up in the midst of a large park with direct access to hiking, canoeing, cross country skiing, snowshoeing, etc.  I would spend youthful days exploring the forest, building forts, catching turtles and fall asleep at night to the sounds of owls, coyotes, and the haunting call of whip-poor-wills… it was pretty incredible!  Clearly my upbringing was unique, and I am filled with gratitude for the opportunity to have explored and experienced nature first hand at an impressionable age…. The vast majority of children however are raised in a completely different way.  Parents are more than ever before keeping their children indoors away from ‘danger’.  Believe it or not, the average American child now spends 44 hours a week watching TV, on a computer, or playing video games…. that’s an entire work week of virtual isolation!  And we are just beginning to study the effects ‘nature deficit disorder‘ has on our children and society… obesity, depression, attention deficit disorders and lack of spiritual purpose are just a few effects of our disconnect… and perhaps most importantly, with no connection or associated value for nature, we have generations of individuals who have no incentive whatsoever of protecting it…

A picture I snapped at Yosemite National Park a couple years back during a hike to the top of Half Dome.

We have put up walls, and because we no longer see the world, we pretend that it is the outside world that is the illusion… and illusion is a key concept here.  We have over the years created the illusion that humans are separate from the natural world… it’s an incredibly destructive idea.

How did this come about?… Where did this separation come from?  Well, the idea of our alienation really hit its stride only a couple hundred years ago when Copernicus, Galileo, Newton and Descartes established a new worldview of mechanistic, materialistic ideals.  They hypothesized that the universe ran as a giant clock and volunteered humans as ‘God’s mechanics,’ separating themselves from the natural system.  Their worldview however left out value, purpose, significance and ethics… hmmm, those seem kinda important!  Then came the Industrial Revolution, which scaled up the mechanistic worldview and basically saw nature as an obstacle to economic development.  We created powerful industrial technologies that streamlined processes and maximized profits at the expense of environmental degradation… but we became wealthy, so go us!  A couple other factors of separation included the developing popularity of major theologies that stated man as having ‘dominion’ over the Earth, and Darwin’s theory of evolution, which gave us the impression that the evolutionary train stopped at humans, that we were the ‘crown of creation.’  Logically, because we are the most highly evolved species we have the knowledge and right to tinker with nature and use it as we see fit…

And here we are today, firmly gripping onto a dated worldview that sees nature as something to exploit and manage… merely a tool to help us continue to build our limitless economy.  This mindset however is a deathtrap… we are forgetting that, as animals on a fragile planet, the only thing we truly rely upon is a stable ecological system.  And what’s scary is this system is showing clear signs of vulnerability… Our conquering approach to the environment is threatening the stability of the entire biosphere.  Over 90% of the scientific community is now saying that major changes in the climate are occurring, and that we have only a handful of years to drastically reduce our impacts as to avoid cataclysmic consequences… We need to realize that it’s not like we’re on the Titanic and we have to avoid the iceberg… we’ve already hit the iceberg and the water is rushing in below… many of us are refusing to leave the buffet and dance floor…

So where do we go from here?  I propose we look within… reconnect ourselves with the spiritual presence in nature that our pagan ancestors once enjoyed.  We need to transition out of the Industrial Age and into an Ecological Age, where we live again as a part of nature… and by all means I’m not suggesting that we sleep in tents and bathe in rivers, rather we look to nature as a partner opposed to adversary… Again, it’s taken just a few short generations to derail ourselves from a sense of symbiosis with the planet… Our modern age has become non-sentient, where knowledge is pursued solely for its own sake or for the means of profit.  By prioritizing a status quo of mindless consumption, we’ve lost a holistic purpose of why we’re here on the planet in the first place.  I feel that nature can lead us back to where we belong.  When we are surrounded by natural beauty, things start to make sense.  We are filled with awe and feel humbled when looking at a majestic mountain range or when standing at the edge of a vast ocean.  Even a small park in the city offers value as we follow a line of ants or watch a bird make a nest.  These observations allow us to recognize that we are a part of a bigger system, that there are higher powers at work.  When we start thinking less as isolated individuals and more as members of an inter-generational and even inter-species team, our actions will follow suit and a whole new world of collaboration and possibilities will begin to bud… we will become happier, more mindful, and far less destructive.

A recent study by the University of Rochester found that individuals who immerse themselves in nature, or even look at a picture of nature, feel closer to their community, are more charitable, have less stress, and care more about social outcomes than they are after looking at man-made scenes.  The researchers discovered that when people are in natural environments, they have more autonomy… they are more in touch with their own basic values and interests, and become more sensitive to the needs of others… basically, we thrive in the presence of nature and suffer in its absence.  Professor Richard Ryan discusses these ideas <HERE>

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Pacific coast in Washington state… minutes before a pod of dolphins surfed in the waves not more than 50 yards from my tent.

So I guess this is a call to action for us to get on out there and explore all the beauty that surrounds us!… Find a spot in a park to sit, observe, and listen for a while… turn off all the white noise that has become the soundtrack of our lives.  Sure, it sometimes feels like we’ve paved over most of our world, but believe it or not nearly a third of America is publicly owned by agencies promoting outdoor recreation… that’s almost 700 million acres of parks to hike, bike, canoe, and camp in!.. I’ve found that stepping back and looking at the bigger picture through the unbiased lens of nature always helps to put things in perspective… daily stresses and trivialities are replaced by a sense of harmony and purpose.

Climb the mountains and get their good tidings.
Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees.
The winds will blow their own freshness into you…
while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.

-John Muir

About Joshua Foss


Joshua is a leading voice for transformational change. He is the editor of Metro Hippie, co-founder and director of development of the Ecala Group, and adjunct faculty at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. He is also an ambassador for the Living Building Challenge and is a frequent speaker at national conferences, trade shows and summits.