Limits Sustain People and the Environment

Part Five of the series on convergence of environmental and mental health (see part 1 here,  part 2 here, part 3 here and part 4 here ).

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President Obama is correctly observing that budgetary health depends on incisive and strategic limit setting.The same is true for ecological and psychological health. Most people tend to over correct for problems assuming that only massive overhaul constitutes change. Yet we have evidence to the contrary. NYC’s Mayor Bloomberg has created a sustainable urban ecology and economy by taking small yet systemically coherent steps, see here. Likewise, we can produce psychological and environmental balance by exercising limits without cutting off what is best about the expansive possibilities of our minds and our resources.

Is the United States a culture of excess? Some think so, including Jay Slosar.  My take? People have lost the practice of personal and environmental frugality because technological innovation has been exciting and stimulating, and mostly for the good. How amazing to be able to save lives, prevent disease, feed the hungary! How great to be able to enjoy fresh food in the winter, travel to see loved ones, and to know the world! In pursuit of the possibilities of our modern conveniences, we have all lost track of personal and environmental boundaries.  In the end, our landscapes and our minds do have end points. It may be important to tether the open horizon of expansionism and possibility to inherent psychological and environmental, not to mention budgetary, boundaries.  Working within sustainable boundaries doesn’t mean returning to the caves or preparing for life on another plant.  It means integrating a few old-fashioned rules back into the American lifestyle.

Some New Old Rules

1) Take only what you need. This applies to how we eat, drive, entertain, dress and appoint our homes. For instance, according to Nielsen in 2009, more than half the families in the US had more than three televisions, and get this: the avergage number of people in the american home is 2.5 people and the average number of TV sets is 2.86. There are more TV’s than people!!! One television should suffice for any ordinary size families.  This way no one person will become completely absorbed in it, and families will practice sharing and group decision making.  This may mean that not everyone watches as much TV and instead may pursue other activities.  The income loss generated by selling fewer TV’s can be compensated for by personal investment other activities – collecting, gardening, participation in the arts. The reduction in consumption and energy is good for the planet.  Further involvement in stimulating activities wards off depression and other mood disorders and also supports an increased attention span.

2) Treat others and the ecosystem of which you are a part as you would treat yourself or as you would have them treat you.  Most religions have some version of that phrase as one of their core teachings.  For example:

a)You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your kinsfolk. Love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD. Leviticus 19:18
b)The stranger who rides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens: you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I the LORD am your God – Leviticus 19:34
c) Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.
—Udanavarga 5:18
d) One should never do that to another which one regards as injurious to one’s own self. This, in brief, is the rule of dharma. Other behavior is due to selfish desires. – Brihaspati, Mahabharata(Anusasan Parva,
Section CXIII, Verse eight)
e)Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets. Matthew 7:12
f) Woe to those… who, when they have to receive by measure from men, they demand exact full measure, but when they have to give by measure or weight to men, give less than due” – Qur’an (Surah 83, “The Dealers in Fraud,” vv.1-4

The Native Americans, however, understood these rules of reciprocity to also apply to the environment.

For example:

Humankind has not woven the web of life.
We are but one thread within it.
Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.
All things are bound together.
All things connect.
– Chief Seattle, 1854.

If we treat each other and our ecosystems as we would have them treat us we would engage in a reciprocal system of limit setting. Our greed and indulgences, as well as our desires for opportunity would be carefully circumscribed by what can be done without causing harm to self, or other, or earth.When we search the earth’s subterranean layers we can only do so as long as we don’t hurt her in a manner we would not wish ourselves to be hurt.  Or, no matter what feelings (anger, jealousy, fear) we have we must not inflict those feelings on another in manner harmful to self or other. This type of personal containment is a learned and practiced behavior.

3) You can’t always get what you want. The Rolling Stones sang this but it has poignant meaning today.  All the exciting innovations in technology have created a comfort level among those of us in the western developed world, and in particular the U.S., that, of course, it is most natural to always get what we want.  It is a key component of the mythology of the United States.  “Be all that you can be” is an army recruiting jingle that does little to suggest that it might not be possible to be all that you can be through no fault of your own.  Life is disappointing sometimes, often unfair, and surely filled with complexity that may even make always getting what you want undesirable. Dealing with adversity and strife develops the mind’s acuity and the personality’s strength.  Learning how to manage with less than what we desire also enables people to develop strong, enjoyable lives within the spectrum of what human and environmental resources can most sustain.

Adhering to limits is not always easy, and personal pain often makes this harder to do. Sometimes people need to seek the assistance of psychotherapeutic or psychoanalytic process, or prayer, or friendship  to reconnect to this human strength. Yet it is a part of every citizen of this country. There is no one who was not born of this wisdom. After all, the ability to handle some degree of deprivation enabled all of our respective ancestors to dream fully and with wonder. A balanced lifestyle, ecosystem, and budget is about making tough choices and learning to live happily and meaningfully within mutually negotiated disappointments.

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