Climate Change: A Crisis of Human Belonging and Connection

The alienation of modern society from the environment is the result of thinking humans are outside of nature. Too many have never felt a sense of belonging with nature, and thinking will never get us there.

Close encounters with nature bring a new sense of belonging, and inspire a new perspective on the world. Einstein once said, “Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.” I can recall one such experience, when I found myself looking out across the endless, windswept desert expanses of the Sahara in Mali. This desert was brimming with mystery, parts visible and others hidden just below the surface, an apt metaphor for life. I was awestruck at the vastness and stillness of the desert, and the subtle energy that permeated the parched terrain. I felt a resonance, but didn’t know at the time what a profound effect it would have on the rest of my life.

Before I arrived, I misguidedly thought the Sahara was a sweeping emptiness, void of life. However, if one only stands still for a while and looks out into the desert horizon, the life starts to trickle into veiw: a thatch hut here; a camel there; a lizard; a flowering shrub. Just like shifting sands conceal and reveal the terrain, through stillness one can see with a new perspective what is present. What I encountered was an ecosystem teaming with animal, plant, and human life, coexisting and even thriving in the harsh desert conditions as they had practiced over millennia, through a complex, web of life. Being present in this stark but energetic landscape created a feeling of fundamental interconnectivity with all this resilent life, and with all the life on the planet. Flashes of the eons of adaptation that all of earth’s creatures and beings have gone through just to be here now, in this moment in time. I thought of the old growth forests in my home of the Pacific Northwest, I thought of the species multiplicity in the Amazon, I thought of people walking on the streets in Paris, I thought of the urban hum of Tokyo, I thought of monks praying in the Himalayas, sending dharma blessings to us all. We are all here, in this one beating planet. In this precious moment overlooking the Sahara, I saw the proverbial universe in a grain of sand.

Essentially, this feeling of interconnectivity is what I turn to when I feel small in the face of complex global challenges like climate change. It is contrary to what one expects, to be in a place that seems to be one of the most remote spots on the planet — the Sahara — and then to feel this sense of greater universal belonging and connection. Yet, I have heard of similar dichotomous, ‘remote-yet-connected’ feelings experienced by others, such as mountain climbers on the summit of Everest, or when astronauts see the earth from outer space, and experience ‘the overview effect.’ Ironically, it can require being vulnerable and being out-of-one’s element to realize this sense of universal belonging for the first time.

The erroneous human-nature divide is a Western cultural myth. It is one of the greatest stumbling blocks of the modern age, and why many are so emotionally lost in this world. We all are built from the same atoms as the universe, nothing is there to seperate us except our own minds. Reflective, solitary breaks from society and journies of self-discovery used to be a core rite of passage to connect with one’s self and one’s purpose. Rituals like vision-quests and long sojourns in nature were commonplace for grounding the human spirit. Unfortunately, Western society upholds values of dominance-over-nature and not harmony-with-nature. Most people never get the chance to experience universal belonging and understand themselves fully, as an integral part of nature.

I spent years living within self-sustaining communities in West Africa, and the better part of the last two decades spending time with traditional cultures around the globe. From these experiences I realize that the environment is not the problem, and the climate is not at fault. Western society has fundamentally a crisis of connection, not of climate. There is a tendency to project problems onto the outer world, but really, it is the inner realms of value and culture that require nourishment; the healing we long for comes through communities of care, collaboration, and collective-consciousness.

The alienation of modern society from the environment is the result of thinking humans are outside of nature. Too many have never felt a sense of belonging with nature, and thinking will never get us there.

A sustainable, climate-resilient society cannot be achieved by maintaining and/or reinforcing unbalanced worldviews and practices. Flipping the discourse on climate change is long overdue, from changes in climate to an examination of human behavior. Triumphant individualism kills community, and suffocates people’s awareness of the suffering of the world. Profits matter more than the well-being of people and other sentient beings. The deep inner and outter connection we need requires awareness, and a willingness to collaborate, and works with a value beyond the monetary.

The environment is not the problem, and the climate is not at fault. Western society has fundamentally a crisis of connection, not of climate.

Over 50 years ago, Carl Jung critically noted the direction of the fast-paced, Western world, and warned that urban society builds impressive monuments to modernity, but the outer ostentation is a façade for a vacant and lost interior — which has only been amplified through the generations. When it comes to having the inner strength and moral bearings to solve the complex problems of the modern age — climate change, nuclear war, refugee crisis, soil depletion, deforestation — modern society has no compass. The outer landscape is fully developed, while the inner landscape is silenced and forgotten. Human ingenuity helps us to solve all manner of problems on the outside, but what if the problems stem from the inside?

In order to heal modern society’s divide, we need to feel our way back into connection with nature. Solving the climate crisis requires Western and modern society to become more sensitive, humane, and more connected with the intuitive and creative energies that can transcend our current heart and will-power blockages. We owe our very being to the pulse of the universe, only the disillusioned ego thinks they can control nature.

Ironically, having arrived at the pinnacle of modern human technical knowledge, society still struggles with the root goal of living in peace, balance, and awareness. Great sages and mystics throughout the epocs preach of a shift needed along the same veins as what is needed today: live simply, do not accumulate possessions, do no harm, take care of your neighbors, and live at a level of higher consciousness. Collectively, humanity may have arrived at a more ‘modern’ time in history, but essentially, we still have work to do in mastering the same fundamental lessons, with no time more pertinent than the present.

In the past decade, for the first time in human history, the majority of global population shifted from rural to urban; by 2050, the UN estimates 70% of global populations will live in urban environments. When we are removed from nature we become sick. Development as currently practiced is the antithesis to a state of interconnection. How are citizens in face-paced, individualism-centered, urban environments supposed to connect with their ecocentric, interconnected identity? Of all living beings on the planet, only humans insist on living outside of the inherent pulse of nature’s collective. The current economic paradigm puts forth the erroneous narrative that humans live in a world of scarcity and competition; when really we live in a world of abundance and cooperation. The further Western society removes itself from nature, the less inclined we are to act as stewards of healthy human-nature relationships and a balanced society.

To illustrate skewed modern social norms, children in the global north can recognize hundreds of company brand logos, but are at a loss if asked to identify local plants. Screen time has replaced nature time. Yet, care, appreciation, and valuing nature come through familiarity and knowingness. How can current and future generations steward the environment if it is foreign to them? How can people understand what is being lost if there is no awareness of what is and was there to begin with? In another example, the coast of the Big Island of Hawaii used to be called the ‘gold coast’ because there were so many yellow tang one could see a yellow band along the coast from the air. But now the yellow band is long-gone, and most have no idea the amount of decimation the tropical fish trade has done to the local reef fish population. Within one generation, the memory of what was there and how things can be, can quickly get lost without enforcing the stories of interconnection.

Repeatedly and regularly allowing oneself to recharge in nature, without urban noise, without electricity pulses (from cell phones, wifi), without distractions of business — all will heal nature deficit disorder. The first step requires acknowledging that the core human needs for nature-connectedness cannot be filled in an urban environment, and being empathetic and nurturing to heal this divide. A fruitful start includes detaching from the pseudo-reality of the techno-world with weekly ‘unplug sessions,’ and spending ‘self-medicating’ time immersed in nature. The art of forest bathing, moon gazing, outdoor meditation, and long walks in natural environments are remedies for the soul. While in nature, the heart settles into a natural cadence, heals damaged relationships, brings clarity to misunderstandings, and fosters a sense of universal belonging.

Another means to help deepen connection and belonging is through rituals that help internalize connections with nature. Most holidays used to do this, but they have been commercialized to the point where nature has no value in the celebration, or if it does, as commodity. We need a refocusing of values and a shift from retail therapy to natural therapy. One positive step towards shifting values and time commitments in favor of environment and community, would be to subsidize 10% of the work week (by employers or government) to allow means for all employees to volunteer for the community and/or the environment. A conscious and engaged citizen body starts with facilitating ways for all citizens to participate with their community; people should not be expected to spend all their creative, energetic efforts in pursuit of monetary gains, at the expense of community collaboration and environmental values. Stewardship roles should be open for all, not just a luxury for those who have the time and resources. Allow for these shifts and watch the community and environs blossom.

Essentially, our relationships with each other starts with the natural world we are grounded in. The food we eat connects us to the earth; the minerals we absorb will one day be earth again; our bodies are seventy percent water and equally a part of the water cycle. We are codependent on these life-cycles, and rooted in earth. No matter how ‘modern’ society becomes, we abide through the web of life and it is foolish to act otherwise. Focusing on the thinking-centric, outer environmental crisis will only continue to manifest symptoms of the unsustainable eco-divide. The real change starts from within, and spreads like a nautilus spiraling outward.

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Katie Conlon, Ph.D.

Katie Conlon, Ph.D.


Researcher, National Geographic Explorer. I focus on plastic and waste reduction; regenerative futures; & generating environmental awareness and connection.