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Archive for June, 2015

This stunning image was sent to me by Kate (my guest blogger) in the weekThe Rotherham children look to the future Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment was attracting a great deal of media coverage and comment.

The children in the photo are on a family visit to the magnificent Kimberley region of north-western Australia. They are at a spot on the coast of that region watching the sun set on the Indian Ocean.

The photo stirred me deeply, not only because of its literal content but also because of the symbolic meaning I saw in it. For me, a sunset represents the end of one day and the promise of a new one. It points to the future as much as to the past.

As I looked at the photo I took the glow of the sunset to represent the future of the four youngsters. This triggered in me (again) some uneasy speculation about the children’s  future and the future of humanity and planet Earth more generally. I know that I am far from alone in my deep concern. Among the articles written about the Pope’s urging to heal the environment and combat climate change was one by Nobel Laureate, Professor Brian Schmidt. The title of the article says it all really: I fear for my grandkids and humanity if we don’t tackle this (SMH, June 22, 2015).

Not surprisingly (and quite reasonably in my view), the encyclical identifies the roots of the problem as the rampant consumerism and quest for material growth in the rich nations, and the associated social and economic injustices that are depriving people in poorer nations of the basics of existence – food, water and a secure place to live.

But the encyclical takes the analysis of the problem a significant step further – into our mental emotional and moral relationship with the natural world. First, it puts paid to the ancient Biblical notion of human dominion over other creatures. Second it points to the increasing disconnect with nature in modern life arising from increased urbanisation.

I believe that this second point is the sleeper in the whole conversation about combatting climate change and restoring planetary health. It may even be the elephant in the room. We are hearing more and more about “decarbonising” the atmosphere – largely by transitioning from fossil fuel sources of energy to renewable alternatives. That is great and not to be contested, as decarbonising addresses a major source of accelerating global warming and climate change. But it only partially addresses a wider problem – that of the massive ecological damage being wrought by a host of other human activities. Destroyed forestdesertification       At the core of ecological health and productivity is biodiversity – the number of animals, plants and microorganisms on the planet. The richer the diversity of life, the greater the opportunity for medical discoveries, economic development, and adaptive responses to the challenge of climate change. At least 40 per cent of the world’s economy and 80 per cent of the needs of the poor are derived from biological resources.

That is why declining biodiversity has to be a major concern, and correcting it, equally with arresting climate change, has to be a foremost goal of the 21st century. As we are all part of the problem, we all have to part of the solution.

We will do this best if we have our mental house in order as far as nature is concerned. There is overwhelming evidence that a love of nature is a powerful driver of action to save the planet. For that reason, the encyclical has to be commended for placing the growing disconnect between nature and ourselves squarely on the environmental and climate change agenda. Reversing that disconnect is a vital step in building an enduring, practical and vigorous commitment to planetary well-being.

CYW_Cover_finalI now see that “claiming our wildness” (restoring our kinship with nature) is much more than embracing nature in order to be happy, healthy and fulfilled at the personal level. It is also an investment in a sustainable future – not only for ourselves but also for our children and all the generations to follow.

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I’ll never tire of looking at waterfalls and I suspect that this is true for youm Marg at McKenzie Falls as well. It is not just the large and spectacular ones but waterfalls of every description. The sight of falling water is almost certain to arrest our attention, give us pleasure and lift our spirits. There are very good reasons why we go out of way to look at waterfalls and to “play” in, under and around them.

I have always assumed that our attraction to waterfalls stems from our general, innate disposition to find beauty in natural features, especially ones associated with water. This assumption is correct as far as it goes, but there is something more to the almost magical appeal of waterfalls. That “something” comprises countless invisible particles that are created by the motion of the falling water.

(Beware – some physics 101 ahead!) Like everything else in the universe, the oxygen in the air is made up of atoms, tiny, tiny objects consisting of a nucleus surrounded by circulating electrons (think of a planet with orbiting moons). The electrons in an atom are held in place by the force of electricity, the nucleus having a positive electrical charge while each electron having a negative one. When an atom is intact, it is electrically neutral (the different charges of the nucleus and electrons balancing each other).

But in a waterfall, the collision of the water molecules (which comprise oxygen and hydrogen atoms) strips electrons from the oxygen in the water allowing them to accumulate in the oxygen atoms in the surrounding air. This creates electrically charged particles called ions, some positively charged – those oxygen atoms in the water with fewer electrons than normal – others with a negative charge – those oxygen atoms in the air with more electrons than normal. The same thing happens in the surf, during a thunderstorm and even in your shower – the water becomes positively charged as the surrounding air acquires a negative charge.

Generally speaking, positive ions are harmful to the human body while negative ions are beneficial. Have you noticed that on dry, windy days you can feel out-of-sorts? Such days are not welcomed by school teachers because they tend to make children irritable and unsettled.

Scientists attribute these effects to an overload of positive ions in the human body. In parts of the world affected by desert winds like the Sirocco from the Sahara or the hot, dry foehn winds that flow down the leeside of mountains, these effects spill over into higher rates of mental distress, hospital admissions, suicide and crime.

In contrast, being near a waterfall, on a beach or even under the shower makes you feel refreshed, happy and energised. These are just some of the effects that a high loading of negative ions has on us.

Normal fresh air has about 2-3000 negative ions per cubic centimetre (the size of a sugar cube) but around a waterfall or by the ocean the count can be in the tens of thousands! Alarmingly, however, the count in the average office, car and over-heated or stuffy house can be dangerously low – zero to a few hundred per cubic centimetre. So those headaches, feelings of fatigue and concentration difficulties, together with the general malaise you perhaps associate with work, may not be “just the job”, but the result of spending too long indoors breathing in too many positive ions and too few negative ones.

If your house or office is in a natural setting – greenery is also a good source of negative ions – the remedy may be as simple as opening the window and taking a few deep breaths. In the right environmental circumstances, the advice to “go and get some fresh air” is very sound indeed.

Sitting by a waterfall, walking on a beach, spending time in a garden or otherwise increasing our exposure to negative ions benefits our well-being in a host of ways, including:

  • Lifting mood and alleviating depression
  • Reducing anxiety
  • Keeping our airways functioning efficiently
  • Accelerating recovery from fatigue
  • Increasing energy by stimulating metabolism
  • Strengthening resistance to illness

Negative ions produce these and other benefits by interacting directly with our physiology – by moderating levels of the mood chemical serotonin in our brain, for example, by stimulating the activity of the protective cilia in our airways, by dilating blood vessels or by increasing the alkalinity of our blood.

Negative ions also help to protect our health by removing mould spores, dust, bacteria and pollutants from the air we breathe.

It is certainly worthwhile taking whatever steps we can to increase our exposure to negative ions (and reducing the intake of positive ones). Apart from the obvious one of spending as much time in natural settings as we possibly can, there are others worth considering:

  • Surround yourself with greenery – indoors and outdoors (Recall the principles of biophilic design)
  • Put a water feature in your garden or create a garden with one
  • Eliminate pollutants such as cigarette smoke, exhaust fumes and chemical particulates from living areas
  • Replace air-conditioned with natural ventilation as much as practicable
  • Open windows to let fresh air flow freely

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