Nice nature, nasty nature

Nature is a two-faced goddess and going with the flow can be tougher than it sounds...

I don’t know if I could describe myself as a Stoic in an orthodox sense, but Stoicism is definitely the faith / philosophy that has had the biggest and most beneficial influence over my life.

Stoicism originated in ancient Greece in around 400BC. Stoics themselves considered their founding father to be Diogenes the Cynic, this strange philosopher-tramp who lived in a barrel in Athens in the time of Plato, and tried to get people to live according to nature rather than according to the conventions of civilization. If you wanted a pithy definition of the Stoic ethos, it would be ‘going with the flow of Nature’.

This might sound a fairly mellow way to live, but actually, going with the flow of nature is tougher than it sounds.

Nature, as the Greeks well knew, is a two-faced goddess. She can be a nurturing, life-giving mother. Or she can be a cruel and destructive bitch.

The problem with civilization is that it loves one of nature’s faces, and is terrified of the other. It takes some parts of nature and deems them desirable or ‘good’. Thus we deem youth, health, wealth, success, beauty, popularity and fame to be ‘good’, and we exert a huge amount of energy to try to achieve these states.

On the other hand, we deem old age, sickness, poverty, ugliness, failure, unpopularity or ignominy to be ‘bad’ or even awful, and spend an enormous amount of energy trying to avoid these states.

But the nature of nature is change. Stoics like to quote the philosopher Heraclitus, who asserted that the universe was in constant flux, with things constantly turning into their opposites. Nature is constantly shifting, and we can’t control it, try as we might. It's no respecter of our civilized preferences, and is likely to bring us not just the things we consider good – sunshine, youth, life, beauty etc – but also the things we consider bad – rain, old age, sickness etc.

But we can’t accept these ‘bad’ things. They terrify us. We try to protect ourselves from the wrath of nature with all the tools of our civilization – with houses and cars and hospitals and banks and plastic surgeons. But we’re still terrified of the dark side of nature hitting us, and the threat of it fills us with panic, anxiety, dread.

And if ‘bad’ things actually occur to us, we find ourselves plunged into depression and shame. We make our lives hell, worrying about not being successful enough, or not having enough friends, or growing old, or getting sick. If we’re not worrying about the future, we’re ruminating over the past.

According to Stoicism, when we cannot accept something that has happened to us or which might happen to us, we turn ourselves into exiles from nature. We shut ourselves off from the flow, refuse to accept it, make ourselves miserable over it. We no longer live in the present, but ruminate over the past or fret over the future. We feel like we are disconnected, withered, cut off from the vitality of the world.

Stoicism tries to help us become re-integrated with nature. It tries to teach us that what is making us miserable is not the external event that bothers us, such as getting fired or getting old, but our opinion about that event, for example, that it is terrible and unacceptable to be fired or to get old. We have to dismantle these conventional beliefs, and learn to accept that things conventionally deemed awful are not really so catastrophic, and are just part of the flow of nature.

This is hard. Our conventional beliefs are deeply rooted in us. They are the inheritance of millennia of evolution. They are drummed into us by our parents and our society, which tells us that external success is everything, popularity is everything, beauty is everything, and the opposite of these things are awful.

But with practice, you can stand up to these beliefs, you can dismantle them. Each time you stand up to them and resist their pull on you, they become less powerful. Giving up a habitual belief is like giving up smoking.

Stoics approach each situation as an opportunity to overcome their conventional beliefs, and become more free, more in harmony with the ebb and flow of nature.

And this doesn’t just mean you accept that your life is terrible. Because the remarkable thing about acceptance is, when you accept an external situation, you transform the negative emotions that it previously provoked in you. You dissipate the panic or the depression, you feel a wonderful peace and serenity, and feel yourself to be re-connected to nature, re-connected to the world and to other people.

This movement, from miserable disconnection and alienation from nature, to acceptance, re-integration and regeneration, is the basic movement of almost all religions and faiths.

What is beautiful about Stoicism is it provides you with a clear, rational and practical way to follow that path back from disconnection to reconnection with nature.

Jules Evans is the author of Philosophy for Life

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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