I can’t recall a single time I’ve tuned in over the last few months when weather hasn’t been a front page story on the nightly national news – tandem tornadoes, baseball-sized hail, furious flood-waters, drought-generated forest infernos – the world’s wild weather is in a significant transition phase, promising only to get wilder. As I watch these news accounts I can feel my breath stall and my body tighten as I imagine the stress of suddenly being homeless, with all my worldly possessions destroyed in a heartbeat. I could simply decide to stop watching such accounts, but as systems thinker, Margaret Wheatley once reminded me: those people had the great misfortune of having to live through the actual suffering. The least I can do is manage my hyperarousal sufficiently to bear respectful witness in the aftermath.
The More Things Change, The More Things Change
Below is a heat map showing how we can anticipate things to unfold going forward. As the temperatures go up, as this research suggests, we can expect both the number and the severity of weather events to increase.
We know from many other studies that the stress of poverty adversely impacts the brain. I would argue that the recurring, implicit stress of possibly having your house flooded, burned to the ground or blown away – or to have that event actually happen – adversely impacts the brain as well. Losses that we helplessly and inevitably suffer end up disorganizing the neural connections in the brain. Usually the disorganization is only temporary. Once the loss is over and integrated, the brain eventually returns to previous functioning. But what if, like war in the Middle East, the threat remains ever-present? What if changing meteorological reality is in the process of becoming a constant, subliminal threat to our safe survival?
If you offer a healthy child the free choice between living in a temperate, safe, predictable climate, or one where oppressive heat, humidity, wildfires, hurricanes and tornadoes could come crashing through your life on a moment’s notice, few of them would choose the latter after the novelty wears off. But that’s exactly what adults choose in the wake of overwhelming environmental events. The title from an old Bob Dylan song comes to mind: “It takes a lot to laugh, it takes a train to cry.” Rampant weather might just turn out to be that train. In an attempt to deal with the train that is climate change, organizations like the International Transformational Resilience Coalition have come into being. Part of their mission is to proactively prepare for things to get worse and to help people build resiliency skills ahead of time. Without that advance training, it’s going to be very hard to make skillful decisions in the midst of a crisis.
The brain is organized and constantly changing in order to do what it can to help us survive and deal with the environment that surrounds us during the days of our lives. Like the constant stress of living in poverty, unpredictable, dangerous weather imposes a stress load on our bodies and our brains. When threats recur and are unpredictable, the emotional, limbic structures of the brain are favored for growth and connectivity, often at the expense of the cognitive centers. We need all the resources we can put together to be able to act fast in dangerous environments. Not only that, but there’s a significant opportunity cost for having to rebuild your life over and over – that cost is all the things you’re not doing and not able to do that you might otherwise prefer to be happily engaged in were it not for weather stress.
The Rainfall Theory of Female Brain Development
So, that’s the situation in America. But weather also affects neural development in other countries in other ways. In poor countries, the amount of rain that fell during your first year of life affects your education, your health and even how much money you can put your hands on – if you are female. Below is an edited account from reporter, Aaron Retica describing this weather-related research:
Dry times are hard times in poor countries, especially for girls, especially in postwar Indonesia. In 2000, for example, rural women between the ages of 26 and 47 who were born in areas with 20 percent higher rainfall than normal the year after they were born were more than half a centimeter taller than their luckless (and drier) counterparts. These women also went to school for 0.22 grades longer and had more assets. That means a year more of schooling for every five girls in those rain-enriched areas. And for every five girls in an area with 20 percent less rainfall than usual, a year of school was lost. Men showed no rainfall effect either way.
I would argue that the coming climate challenges are going to be much harder on women in all World cultures than they are going to be for men. A safe and secure home is a powerful arousal-regulatory mechanism for many women – safe, secure places are important bases for raising children who will survive. I think it’s a good idea to begin building resiliency practices long before we need them. I personally have chosen the Geography Cure – moving to a temperate (at least for n0w) offshore island in Puget Sound. Unfortunately, island size and groundwater limitations preclude the whole rest of the world from moving here. But there’s still plenty of room on neighboring islands in the Sound. Welcome, one and all.