Habitat is tissue

A human being is part of the whole... He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest - a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.

Albert Einstein, 1950

If you’re a health advocate, your hair is probably on fire right now. You know that the human body is capable of great things and that health is a kind of birth right. But everywhere we look, we see something else entirely. Lifestyle diseases and diseased lifestyles are everywhere. You know the list: obesity, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, stress and depression; it’s an epidemic of epidemics. The question is “Why?”

Our knee jerk reaction is to point our fingers at the usual suspects: sugar, grains, gluten, sedentary living and stress. But to do so misses a larger point. That is, there’s something fundamentally out of balance with our relationship with the world at large and that imbalance is reflected in the state of our bodies and the habitat around us.

This becomes obvious when we think about the human body in a larger sense. Native Americans have spoken about “the long body,” the physical body plus its life-supporting systems of habitat and tribe. The body does not stop at the skin; it is continuous with the land and the people around it. This view is  common in many indigenous traditions. In fact, our Western view of the body as an isolated, independent organism is unusual and in the context of human history, abnormal.

For many of us, the long body is an idea that will take some getting used to. After all, the body looks, at first glance, like an independent unit. But appearances deceive us. We fail to see the continuity between body and habitat because we have been trained not to. We have been trained to focus our attention on objects in isolation.  This leads us to all manner of delusions, most notably the delusion that the body can somehow survive without a functional habitat. Even the health and fitness industry, a culture that ought to be screaming in fury about the destruction of body-supporting habitat around the world, chooses to remain silent. The environment, we are told, is somebody else’s job.

But there can be no ignoring the connection between human and environmental health; the parallels are simply too obvious. In the long body sense, there’s no real difference between what we do to habitat and what we’re doing to ourselves. Not only do we exploit habitat, we also exploit our bodies. We treat human resources and natural resources as inexhaustible sources of wealth to be plundered. We do it by making impossible demands on workers, impossible demands on kids and impossible demands on ourselves. We drive all of our systems to the limit.

Our extractive, imperialistic relationship with the world extends deep into our bodies. And so we strip mine human health, we clear cut human health, we over-fish human health. External organs, internal organs; it’s all the same thing. We dump poisons into our tissues as if our organs were landfills. We pump cortisol and other stress hormones into our bloodstreams in the same way that we pump carbon into our atmosphere. Big agriculture poisons the land and abuses animals to produce products that poison the body in one of the most pathological lose-lose systems ever conceived.

Today it’s fashionable to abhor the clear cutter and the strip miner, but we fail to see that we’re doing the same thing to our bodies. What we do to mother earth is what we do to ourselves. Sugar and gluten are the least of our problems. What really matters is our failure to honor and respect the long body and the intimate relationship between health and habitat. Native people are right to be shocked at what we do to our bodies and the earth; they saw this coming a long time ago.

What we need now is to revive the long body view of our lives and most importantly, the continuity that extends across all of nature, from organs to atmospheres. As Darwin showed us, we are intimately related to all life on earth. Our bodies are utterly dependent on habitat; without habitat, there can be no health. When we touch one, we invariably touch the other. Environmentalism is a form of health care just as health care is a form of environmentalism. Until we see this unity, we will continue to suffer.