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Mental health, capitalism and the need to (re)connect with nature


Sarah Robyn Farrell is a climate justice organiser/campaigner, artist and writer with years of experience as an environmental communicator.

Our disconnection from the rest of nature affects us all. And our (re)connection to it may be incredibly important in our fight to save it (and ourselves).

If you’re concerned about the state of our planet right now, you will have heard the term “Anthropocene”, which refers to a new geological epoch signifying significant human impact on Earth’s ecosystems. Essentially the concept encapsulates the fact that human activity has started to steer the “Earth-ship” and has begun to have irreversible consequences.  

There are many arguments about how the term can gloss over the fact that not all humans are equally responsible for the damage to our ecosystems. Or the fact that it is the economic system of capitalism that is driving extractive and harmful practices with dire consequences to humans, non-human animals and the world around us. This is why some researchers prefer the term Capitalocene to Anthropocene. Because, well, #capitalism.  

As capitalism continues unabated, there is one often overlooked consequence: that of mental ill-health. And as someone who not only suffers from mental illness but also lost my mother to it, this one is personal.

According to clinical psychologist and psychotherapist Jay Watts, some of the environmental factors inherent to capitalism such as poverty, inequality, racism, sexism, displacement, competitive culture and environmental degradation could be central to causing and exacerbating mental health conditions. She observes that governments and pharmaceutical industries are far more interested in investigating “genetics and physical biomarkers as opposed to the environmental causes of distress”.

This is arguably because “citizens who consider themselves ill are easier to manage than people who consider themselves maddened by injustice”.

George Monbiot asks: “What greater indictment of a system could there be than an epidemic of mental illness?” In fact, mental illness as a “logical response” to the system of capitalism has been an increasingly popular concept, from the social media accounts of millennials and Gen Z, to the pages of Sally Rooney novels. 

Author Richard Louv describes some of the human costs of alienation from nature, including ‘diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses’.

The outspoken anti-capitalist voices of our popular culture may indeed have a point. Even as early as the 1800s, Karl Marx claimed that the dawn of capitalism and capitalist agricultural production caused an “irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism”.

Which, as Wikipedia will tell you, basically just means there was a rupture between humans and the rest of nature. Marx’s work has been continued by many academics and eco-socialists, including  John Bellamy Foster. Foster built on Marx’s work by coining the term “metabolic rift which aimed to further develop the analysis of how capitalism alienates us from the rest of nature, and how this ties into the exploitation of human labour.

According to Red Flag, an online Australian anti-capitalist publication, Marx wrote in his 1844 Manuscripts that “to say that man’s physical and mental life is linked to nature simply means that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature”.

If we keep this in mind, it becomes clearer when we link mental ill-health to not only our increasing disconnection from the rest of nature but also to our witnessing of its destruction. 

The human costs

Richard Louv, author of The Nature Principle, describes some of the human costs of alienation from nature, including “diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses”.

In terms of our mental health, Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht is one contemporary voice who is developing new words to understand our thoughts and feelings in response to the Anthropocene/Capitalocene. One such term is solastalgia, a new concept which according to Albrecht was “developed to give greater meaning and clarity to environmentally induced distress”. His research has found that the increase in global ecosystem distress correlates with an increase in human distress syndromes with an impact on people’s “sense of place” and identity.

Perhaps our ancestors could have used someone like Albrecht back in the 1800s when they first became affected by the shifts in agriculture and when those who continued to tend to the land only did so for a wage or out of force. Of course, these impacts would have affected some more than others – in particular black, brown and indigenous communities in relation to the rise of colonialism which is closely intertwined with the rise of capitalism and industrialisation.

Read more in Daily Maverick: The climate crisis will not be resolved by the capitalist class — it’s either eco-socialism or extinction

Jaime Margolin, co-founder of youth climate organisation This Is Zero Hour, unpacks this: “With colonialism came the extreme extraction of the Earth’s resources, and the genocide and silencing of the indigenous wisdom of the peoples that have been keeping this Earth alive for centuries. With colonialism came the idea that everything on Earth is for our use, and that everything is to be bought and sold. It enforced the idea that nothing was sacred or priceless. And this mindset is the core of how we got to the climate disaster. Everything has a price tag slapped on it. Even air and water.”

In our modern-day world, these impacts pervade, and some continue to be more pervasive than others. But one certainty remains, that our disconnection from the rest of nature affects us all. And our (re)connection to it may be incredibly important in our fight to save it (and ourselves). 

As Louise Delagran of the University of Minnesota writes, time in nature is “associated with a positive mood, and psychological well-being, meaningfulness, and vitality”. Research also shows that “beyond the scale of individuals, a growing body of literature asserts a need for society to reconnect with nature to facilitate societal transformation towards sustainability”. 

So maybe, just maybe, by getting outside (and aiming to make “getting outside” more accessible for all) we can improve our collective mental health, be more likely to protect our natural environment, and mobilise to build a new and better economic model than capitalism. 

Idealistic? Sure. But at least research shows it’ll make us feel better while trying! DM



Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Anthony Kearley says:

    The presumption that Capitalism causes more environmental damage than socialist or state controlled industry is surely called to question by the glaring example of Eskom. I would argue that Capitalism better lends itself to environmental control than its alternative, because then there is the necessary separation of industry from state which allows the enforcement of environmental laws. Surely you don’t expect the state to police itself as diligently as it would others, that seems unlikely.

    • sarahrobynfarrell says:

      Thanks for reading Anthony and for your comment. I do really hear your concern, especially given our current situation in SA. Whilst there are other models of socialism (such as democratic eco-socialism), your comment presupposes that I am saying our options are limited to the existing models of socialism and capitalism that we have seen implemented so far. I think we can imagine and create beyond what we currently know. There is already research into alternate economies (such as the well-being or donut economy) that call us to see beyond our current paradigm which is neither humane nor able to exist within our very real planetary boundaries. I’d say that neoliberalist capitalism has proven not only inadequate at addressing both social inequality and environmental degradation but it is the foundation on which it was built.

  • Kevin McShannon says:

    Thank you Sarah for your article. It touches on many things that connect with an instinct that there is a fault with the way we as humans manage our economic affairs. That is not to say that everything is faulty. Even capitalism has its place. But can we afford to leave our understanding of capitalism unexamined? What is good about it? To me its the freedom to trade and to be rewarded for hard work. What is bad about it? To me its the lack of restraint on the possibility of ignoring / ignorance of our responsibilities to each other and to nature. That is, we allow ourselves (as a collective of the whole of humanity) to do things that are fundamentally unfair to each other and unhealthy to nature, and justify it as ‘just business’. Is there an alternative to capitalism? Some say the alternative is the opposite, that is socialism, or communism. But there is plenty of evidence of that not working either. Is there another way? A sort of mix of the two? Or something completely different? What characteristics would it need, to be known without doubt, to be successful? Surely, with all our abilities and intelligence, it must be possible to find such a way.

    • sarahrobynfarrell says:

      Thank you so much for reading and for your comment, Kevin. I appreciate it, along with your willingness to see beyond the binary! I definitely agree and hope we can use our imaginations and lessons learned to create and build something beyond our current paradigm/s.

  • MD L says:

    I wonder if ethical capitalism is ever feasible ?
    Google used the mantra “do no evil” as its mission statement, but the power of large-scale capitalism has eroded that vision.

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