The beginning is near

"We are continually faced with a series of great opportunities brilliantly disguised as insoluble problems."

John Gardner

There’s a common pattern that emerges in the life of health enthusiasts and environmental activists: We fall in love with the body and the earth and before long we begin to see pain and disease all around us. Not only do we see a rising tide of obesity, diabetes and other lifestyle diseases, we also see the looming threat of climate change, habitat destruction, freshwater depletion and the pollution of almost everything we hold dear. Aldo Leopold’s observation in A Sand County Almanac rings true for environmentalists and health activists alike: “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives in a world of wounds.”

Afraid for our health and our future, we make our case to the world. We talk about the problems of the day and describe their depth and their breadth in excruciating detail. This is a noble pursuit of course, but there’s a trap here too. A preoccupation with the negative distorts our attention and can even lead us into a cycle of depression, cynicism and ineffectiveness. As hunters and gatherers of gloom, we begin see apocalypse at every turn. We become convinced that “the end is near.”

There can be no escaping or ignoring the challenges that confront the modern human body; conditions are in fact dire on many fronts. But there is an equal and opposite truth: the last 50 years has seen a dramatic convergence of knowledge across a broad range of scientific and experiential disciplines, a convergence that promises to bring increased health and happiness to millions of people around the world. In fact, we are in the midst of a renaissance, a second wave in the age of Enlightenment, a new and powerful understanding of the body and its relationship to the natural world.

We now know, in a highly detailed and textured way, how to maintain and enhance human health, learning and well-being. For the first time ever, we have a meaningful understanding of human evolutionary history. We have a growing appreciation for the value of outdoor living, circadian rhythms and the role that light plays in synchronizing human physiology. We know that vigorous physical movement and a real-food diet is essential for health.

Beginning with Darwin’s Origin of Species, a powerful set of discoveries has demonstrated the intimate continuity that we share with every other creature on earth. We are bound together by a common history and a common physiology. The discovery of the microbiome reveals how deeply we are embedded in the natural world: our bodies are inhabited by vast ecosystems of microorganisms that contribute greatly to our functional health.

We also know how our nervous system works. The old, static dogma of neuro-fatalism has been replaced by a much more inspiring understanding of neuro-optimism, the fact that the brain remains plastic and malleable throughout life. Similarly, we now know the cellular basis for learning. We know how synaptic membranes become more receptive with repeated stimulation, a process called “long-term potentiation.” We know how nerve fibers become myelinated or insulated for faster nerve transmission. We even know how neurogenesis works, the process by which new neurons are generated in memory-intensive areas of the brain. Taken together, these discoveries help us train and coach people far more effectively than ever before.

The world of stress medicine has also brought us powerful insights into the relationship between mind, body and narrative. We know how the autonomic nervous system works and we know that stress is massively influenced by perception and interpretation. Likewise, we know that meditation, mindfulness and monotasking can be powerful practices in improving our performance and keeping our stress at bay.

It gets better. New discoveries in the world social neuroscience and interpersonal neurobiology have demonstrated powerful interconnections between people and across vast networks. This has led us to a renewed appreciation of community and positive social experience. Similarly, we now know how to stimulate the production of oxytocin in our bodies, a hormone that facilitates trust and social bonding.

And even though many people remain oblivious to the magnitude of our ecological challenges, awareness is growing. Ecological literacy and appreciation is far higher than ever before in recent history. More and more young people feel the threat of climate change and habitat destruction and are stepping up to make a difference. And in fact, most people do care, even if they feel substantially powerless.

Viewed in isolation, these converging discoveries in health and biology would stand out as breathtaking in their immensity and implications. Ancient scholars would be stunned to hear about our groundbreaking work in microbiology, neuroscience and social psychology. The only reason we fail to see the significance is that we’re blinded by our fear and negativity. We’re suffering a cognitive illusion; gripped by the prospect of epidemic disease and biospheric melt-down, we fail to notice the astonishing explosion of knowledge all around us.

Of course, nothing is more annoying than blind positivity, that perky, naïve belief that “if we just look on the bright side, everything is going to be OK.” In fact, everything is not going to be OK and no amount of sugar-coating will change the facts on the ground. Lifestyle diseases are going to be with us for a long time to come. Without a fundamental change to our food supply, diabetes and metabolic disorders will continue to ravage the human body. Sedentary living and stress will remain a challenge and millions of us will remain chained to our computers, dying for physical movement. Climate change and habitat destruction will wreak havoc across the globe. Even with a massive and highly coordinated effort, untold numbers of humans and non-human creatures are going to suffer.

Nevertheless, it would be a tragic mistake to miss the upside. New insights about the body and the biosphere are coming together in a spectacular and unprecedented way, a convergence that promises incredible improvements in human welfare, performance and health. It’s a paradox to be sure, but it would be folly to ignore the beauty and the bounty of modern biological science. Aldo Leopold was right: we do live in a world of wounds. But let’s not forget the fact that we also live in a world of outrageous and exuberant possibility.

The beginning is here now.