Mother nature, why are you sad?

by Nelson Harvey
After recently reading an article in the May issue of Harper’s Magazine about the way psychiatrists currently view and perscribe anti-depressant medications, I found myself drawing a few philosophical parallels between anti-depressants and free-market environmentalism. Allow me to explain:

In the Harper’s article (unfortunately not available online, but a recommended read if you can find it), author Gary Greenberg, himself a psychiatrist, chronicles his participation in a clinical trial that sought to test the anti-depressant properties of fish oil. The omega-3s in fish oil have been shown to increase the brain’s ability to absorb serotonin, a chemical associated with feelings of contentment, so the idea is that fish oil supplements could act to improve the moods of depressed patients. Implicit in this hypothesis is a view of depression as a chemical illness, caused by imbalances in the brain and treatable by simple re-calibrations of those chemicals. The idea that depression could be the result of a crappy job, an abusive relationship, or other material circumstances–and thus treatment should focus on altering those circumstances, rather than brain chemistry–is not accounted for here. The system is fundamentally sound; adjust a few knobs, throw a few switches, and everything should be fine.

In a similar manner, the doctrine of free-market environmentalism holds that the degradation brought on by capitalism is the result of our failure to account for a few externalities–things like pollution or resource degradation. It is not speculated that something deeper (i.e. the system itself, or our own personal psychology) could be to blame. Rather, apply a bit of carbon-cap legislation here and a dash of lifecycle analysis there, and old mother earth should be fine in no time.

But what if it will take more than that? One of the most revealing passages in the Harper’s piece comes when Greenberg’s doctor asks him how long it has been since he felt good for “any appreciable time.” When the author asks for clarification on just how long that is, the doctor tells him: “Thirty Days. Or more. At least a month.” Reflecting on the doctor’s declaration, and on the absurd notion that any honest human being could possibly claim to feel “good” for a solid month, I found myself thinking of the economic maxim that “corporations exist for one reason only: to make money.” Just as the psychiatric industry seems convinced that uninterrupted “happiness” (or at least lack of sadness) is a worthy and honorable goal, so our economic system tacitly endorses the pursuit of perpetual, unrestrained growth in pursuit of profit.

In my view, both of these notions share one characteristic: utter insanity. They also share a wholesale rejection of root causes. The symptoms, be they environmental externalities or serotonin shortages in the brain–are the problem that must be dealt with. For depression, our panacea is prescription pills, and for environmental destruction, it is legislation. But just as Greenberg calls for a more nuanced view of the way that a person’s prior emotional state, daily interactions, and material surroundings may interact to give rise to depression, I would advocate a multi-faceted look at the causes of our environmental situation. How far can we get by patching leaks in the great ship of capitalism? When do we need to start thinking harder about why we consume? Where do our motives for consumption cross the threshold from personal well-being into greed? And beyond that, could it be that we sometimes find, in consumption, a salve for a spiritual or emotional absence? In this case it seems to be that personal reflection, rather than legislation, is the proper pill to prescribe.

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