• Michael Burnett

The psychological hazards of modern eco-conscious living – and how to avoid them

This waterfall runs through one of the last remaining 'temperate rainforests' in the British Isles

Like many British people who have become very concerned with the state of our natural

environment, and with what the future holds given the presently unfolding climate crisis, I am middle class. And whilst like many millennials I don’t have a great deal of money, I am privileged enough to have had a good education, along with all the advantages that brings – in particular, it is that education that brought me to my present environmental awareness. My extended family is likewise completely aware of the scale and causes of the crisis. They are also aware of the lifestyle changes that they should be making in order to help mitigate it.

Unfortunately, like many such families, my relatives by and large talk the talk but do not walk the walk. Christmases remain a dizzying array of unnecessary excess. Vegetarianism, and particularly veganism, is ridiculed. Regular overseas holidays, always taken by aeroplane, are considered a basic right rather than an exceptional privilege. Lawns are manicured and sterile; cars are ubiquitous; consumerism is the everyday holding pattern. Charity giving is far lower than it could be, and is directed towards exclusively human causes, at least as far as I am aware.

As someone who took the climate crisis seriously as far back as 2005 when I enrolled on a Landscape Management undergraduate course, I became used to being seen by family and friends (who were largely uninterested in environmental concerns) as any number of things: idealistic, contrarian, endearingly eccentric, childish and obtuse, to name but a few. And whilst this has diminished a great deal in recent years as the wider public catches up with the urgency of the situation, the ultimate consequence of it all is that I have come to see my eco-consciousness primarily as something that has isolated me from others. This can manifest itself in a wide variety of ways. Here are just a few examples.

Scenario 1: the family agrees to meet up in the peak district for a week’s cottage holiday. Since the organisers are drivers, the cottage they choose is nowhere near a railway station, something that is absolutely necessary when you’re taking public transport. As the sole non-driver, you have only two choices:

1. Grovel for a lift from a family member. The family member in question may well resent you for it. They are unlikely to refuse, but they will probably make a ‘light-hearted’ joke about it around the table later that evening for the amusement of the other car owners present;

2. Opt out entirely.

Scenario 2: Your friends decide to go to a concert in mainland Europe, and there is no question that they will take a plane. As the only one who has decided not to fly, you have only two choices:

1. Make alternative arrangements to get there by train and/or coach, by yourself. By the time you meet up with them their bonding session is already well underway, and you already do not understand some of the in-jokes;

2. Opt out entirely.

Scenario 3: You decide to spend a weekend in North Wales with your significant other. There is a local rail station, but when you get there it is flooded and out of action. The government favours drivers and the bus service is critically underfunded: it runs late, woefully infrequently, and sometimes it just doesn’t run at all. You had planned to meet up with a friend you don’t see very often who lives in Wales, meeting in a town at the half way point. You have two choices:

1. Cancel the trip to see your friend. Spend your holiday doing your best to visit the places you hoped to visit by bus. Try to stay positive and not get too angry or depressed to enjoy yourself;

2. Go all out: try to get to the half way point to meet your friend, despite it all. Spend the same amount of time on, or waiting for, public transport that it would have taken you to drive to Glasgow, or to fly to Italy (I’m joking. Or am I?). Arrive tired, frustrated and two hours later than intended. Spend a fraught half-hour with your friend before starting back home on your second epic journey of the day. Arrive back hungry, tired and miserable, knowing in your heart that it was not worth it. Spend the following day recovering instead of going somewhere nice for the day.

None of the above scenarios seem compatible with the sort of life-affirming, people-coming-together, hope-inducing transformations that you sometimes hear about from people who’ve decided to live for the planet rather than simply for themselves. Perhaps this might have been the case, had I moved within the right circles, but ultimately I (and presumably, others) seem to have fallen victim to being at the wrong place at the wrong time. My environmental awareness was anomalous when I began to develop it at age sixteen, through individual research rather than mentorship, and it remains anomalous now in the car-obsessed, fake-grass-and-decking-hell commuter town where I live. I know that others like me are out there in at least their tens of thousands, but believe it or not (and I realise it is scarcely believable) I have met so few of them that I can count them on two hands, and then only really in passing. Perhaps the greatest irony of all is that, if I were a motorist, I would be able to drive to the places where people who take an interest in environmental matters amass in significant numbers.

This article, as you’ve probably guessed by now, is my way of articulating a recent personal epiphany. Once you start caring about the environment, it is all too easy to start taking options away from yourself without replacing them with other things, if you don’t know any better. Being eco-conscious, if done wrong, can impoverish your existence; before you know it, you’re living a rubbish version of an ordinary modern life. This, I believe, is why so many personal happiness-oriented middle-class people, who should and do know better, choose to continue to live their lives much as before. Tellingly, one of my family members said the following to me a few years ago:

“If I didn’t go on holiday a lot, life would just become too depressing to even bother with.”

I remember feeling both angry and strangely pitying at the same time upon hearing this. On the one hand it shows a startling lack of imagination, but on the other it shows fear: the very human fear of not being included; the big bad Fear Of Missing Out. It’s very real, and it has very real psychological consequences. We can’t just shrug it off. I am starting to believe now that I did eco-consciousness wrong; that I removed options from my life without replacing them with other things. Those of us who are prone to self-punishment can easily fall into this trap.

So, the big question is:

“When you give up roast beef, package holidays, and the heaps of possibilities for fun, inclusion and self-actualisation that come with being a motorist, with what do you replace it all?”

Clearly, many people do not believe that there is a valid answer, which is why they don’t try to look for one. Now that I know what I’ve been doing wrong, I’m actively looking for that answer, and I suspect that I’m beginning to discover what it is. And I’m not talking about ‘getting involved with your local community’: this has been, and remains, impossible for me, given that my local community does not exist. If only it did, I’d be on it in a flash.

I saw a clue to my solution in what happened after my wife and I were denied the use of the railway station in North Wales. Set temporarily on the back foot, unsure whether our plans for day trips were even viable any more, we set about exploring the local area on foot rather than sit at home moping. We stumbled upon – completely by accident – on of the few remaining temperate rainforests in the British Isles, spending the day photographing and identifying over thirty species of mushroom, the vast majority of which we had never seen before. It was a wonderful and completely new experience for us, made even better by it being genuinely un-manufactured and spontaneous. It felt like finding buried treasure whilst walking on a beach.

I was startled, but not that surprised, to find out that our hosts, who had lived a fifteen-minute walk from this temperate rainforest for almost thirty years, did not even know it was there. They told me that most of their guests came in cars, and used them to travel to a different location of interest inside of North Wales each day – apparently, none of these other guests had considered it worth their while to explore the location that they were actually staying in. What a wasted opportunity!

If you can jump in a car and travel halfway across the country in just a few hours, or take a plane across the world without ever setting foot on a single square metre of the vast distances of land in between, you start to lose your sense of place, and with it your sense of the value of places. Every location, encountered in isolation from its surroundings, becomes a neatly package experience to be consumed, usually only once, and then discarded. This allows for wide experiences but is less appropriate for having deep experiences. This, I believe, is the kind of life one can live eco-consciously, without it coming to resemble a poor man’s version of ordinary modern life. It is simply a different, more consciously aware way to live in the world. I think that it is better; it’s certainly more dignified.

So what would this look like, in practice? Take our temperate rainforest in North Wales. At the time of writing I’ve visited it once, in midsummer. I’ve spent hours getting to know the various mushrooms that grow there, and I know how the air and ground feel at that time of year. I’ve seen details many would have missed, but that’s not enough for me.

If I never went back, that would be all I knew of this particular place. But how would the experience differ during heavy rain; during a cold and snowy winter; in the middle of the night? What would happen if I sat still in the middle of that rainforest, just listening – which creatures would I begin to see and hear? As I visited this same place time and again, paying continued attention to its details, I would come to understand its various patterns and cycles. The rainforest would become a part of me, rather than just some place I walked through, a hiking route like any other. It would be the same place as it ever was, but my experience of it would become deeper – I would understand it rather than merely see its outward face.

Luckily, using public transport rather than driving assists with this. One thing I’ve noticed is that, when you tell a motorist how long it’s taken you to get somewhere by public transport, their usual reaction is shock and disbelief, sometimes accompanied by a dose of condescending pity. Perhaps, when they hear that it took me five hours just to get from the West Midlands to North Wales, they imagine having to drive for that length of time, reasoning (correctly, I suppose) that that would be very unpleasant. Personally, I think you’d have to be unhinged to enjoy using any piece of heavy machinery for five hours without a break, so fair enough. But when I travel by train, I get to sit back and let the machine do the work for me. I get to experience the journey, rather than simply get it over with. This, too, is conducive to the kind of conscious experiencing of one’s surroundings that I am now aiming for. It doesn’t matter how long the journey takes if you’re enjoying it. I’ve heard it said that when you holiday by train, the adventure starts when you get on board. I heartily agree. Driving ruins all of that, and frankly, I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. Motorists don’t know what they’re missing when the jump in the car and reduce what could be an experience in itself to a simple, goal-orientated chore.

From this new attitudinal vantage point, there can be no reason to get upset about not being able to go wherever you want, whenever you want, trying on different cities and beauty spots like so many mass-produced items of clothing, then discarding them like they’re nothing. I want to know, really know, the places I visit, and treat them with the respect that they deserve. I want the journey there and back to be long and pleasant, not quick, ugly and dehumanising. Looking at the world through this new lens, no fear of missing out is even remotely possible.


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