Cosmic Medicine

Who didn’t love the Science Works Planetarium as a kid? The universe in high-definition above our pig-tailed and bowl cut heads; the hush that fell over the domed room as they lowered the lights; the dancing red pointer they used to describe stories in the stars. Science Works isn’t quite so popular among senior high school students.


Who didn’t love the Science Works Planetarium as a kid? The universe in high-definition above our pig-tailed and bowl cut heads; the hush that fell over the domed room as they lowered the lights; the dancing red pointer they used to describe stories in the stars. Science Works isn’t quite so popular among senior high school students. But in Year 12, I got to see something better, escaping the metropolitan humdrum of high-tech classrooms on my final school camp. Down at the beach, the cabins were stuffy, the air hot and the camp counsellors overly enthusiastic about beach yoga. But the night sky was the clearest I’d ever seen. 

Scene 1: Night-time. The woods, right next to a beach. Fireflies by Owl City croaking out through a laggy iPhone 6. Enter: three teenagers on a suspicious bush rendezvous. Or – it was suspicious to the teachers who lingered near-by, investigating why three students had left the campsite and were now lying down in the middle of the woods.

Until this point, I had watched National Geographic astronomy documentaries and struggled, like most kids, to fathom the concept of an infinite expanse of stars. Sitting on a warm leather couch in a middle-class neighbourhood, it was hard to believe there might be something so vast in which I existed, hardly qualifying as a speck.

But not even Stephen Hawking’s Into the Universe compares to the real thing; lying there on that beach towel in the middle of a woodland, my friends beside me seemed to evaporate into the vast expanse of the tree line. Despite these girls laying only inches from my side, I could no longer feel their presence. It was just an intimate moment between the universe and I, staring at each other across a cavern of unfathomable space.

Cue feelings of immense gratitude, awe, and philosophical realisation.

In this moment with the stars, I was reminded of something called the “Overview Effect”. It’s what they call the speechless awe experiences by astronauts the first time they’re able to see Earth from space. It changed their perception, they’ll often reflect, to see how we really do rely on each other on this tiny planet we’ve all found ourselves on.

I didn’t have a spaceship, but I did have my naked eyes.

This was the last thing our ancestors used to see every night: the night itself. Every day, they were issued with a prompt bedtime reminder of their cosmic insignificance delivered right above their heads – the sky being, paradoxically, the only thing grounding their wandering minds. That night at Year-12 camp, I had a chance to reap long-forgotten benefits. But it wouldn’t last long.

Scene 2: Night-time. Metropolitan Melbourne. A backlit Netflix screen poking the viewer with an impatient finger. “Are you still watching?”, it prompts.

The true relevance of my brief flirtation with the stars became apparent to me once I returned to the city. Light pollution cast a veil over the sky, and within two business days the humbleness, appreciation and feeling of collective belonging I had briefly experienced had vanished. Now the last thing I saw before I went to bed was a screen. Or a ceiling. Or a bright reading lamp. All markers of great privilege in the world we live in – but at what cost?

It’s not just the light pollution that is keeping us from the natural world. We create and wear shoes that essentially mutilate our feet and disable their full muscle capacity (just Google “natural human feet” and stop making fun of your sister’s wide ones. She’s more human than you are). We eat, sleep, and lie on furniture that is as high-up from the earth as possible (someone please explain to me the need to spend five-thousand dollars on a place to rest your butt). We no longer live our lives based on the rising and setting of the sun, but the hastily calculated, human-made minute and second. By allowing ourselves to become removed from the night sky and the soil of the Earth, we’ve become arrogant. We’ve evolved away from the planet instead of alongside it, and in doing so, have lost our appreciation for, and connection to, nature.

At least subconsciously, we know we know the risks of doing this. James Cameron’s Avatar depicts a species of intelligent beings with the ability to connect to other species and plant-life through an intimate neural link. Many movie-goers are said to have experienced intense feelings of depression and sadness after watching the film – the reason why, I think, is because there’s a collective understanding that it could have been us. We could have continued the ways of our ancestors, growing closer to the Earth rather than away from it. We could have been like the Na’Vi, sacrificing everything to save our planet, rather than a sad reflection of the invasive, greedy colonisers who invaded the Na’Vi’s homeland. We could have, but now it feels like it’s too late.

Being disconnected from the Earth during my younger teenage years gave me less of an incentive to do something about climate change. My days of playing in woodland cubby houses were over – I had no relationship with the planet anymore, so why should I do anything to save it? In fact, studies have shown that having fewer experiences in nature can lower a person’s sense of gratitude.

Without appreciation for the planet, we are less likely to feel a personal responsibility to tackle climate change. For example: a series of studies in 2014 found that simply being exposed to images of nature led participants to be more generous, and the presence of plants in the room increased their willingness to be helpful. Another study from the University of California found that, after staring at a grove of tall trees, participants demonstrated a measurable increase in helpful behaviour and working through moral dilemmas more ethically. This was in comparison with participants who spent the same amount of time staring at a tall building; a consistent reality that many of us experience out in the CBD.

Now I ask myself, what can we do about it? Well, you could start by putting a potted plant on your desk, but I have a feeling its significance would fade as time demotes it to just another desk ornament behind your laptop screen.

However, there is a simple practice with variations that can be traced back to cultures such as traditional Native American and Chinese. Its advocates today call it “Grounding”, or “Earthing”. A therapeutic technique, the practice involves individuals being physically reconnected with the surface of the Earth and its vast supply of electrons. It’s as simple and as self-explanatory as it sounds: touch the Earth. Spend more time in nature, especially barefoot. Go for a drive and gaze at the stars when you have the time. Revisit an old cubby house, appreciate your mum’s backyard that raised you as much as she did. Practice gratitude for your food, and the individual elements of Earth that brought it to your table.

From Confucius to Marcus Aurelius to Siddhartha Gautama, some of history’s wisest have always advocated for a true love and appreciation of nature. To parasitically coexist with the land only so far as it is useful for hosting our machines is to diminish our humanity. In following the neglected wisdom of traditional cultures and great thinkers, we must examine and nourish a true harmony through which humans will not just feel like we should tackle climate change, but wholeheartedly want to.

For the same reason you’re less likely to agree to do a favour for that random auntie you see once a year on Christmas as opposed to that favourite uncle who helped raise you, we can’t expect ourselves to be truly invested in tackling climate change until we repair our relationship with the outside world. So, go for a walk. Sit on the shore. Who wouldn’t want a reason to truly care about this climate change action everyone is yapping on about?

Scene 3: Evening. Metropolitan Melbourne. I’ve spent the day in the city, but I’m lying by the lake now, watching the clouds turn pink. I feel sharp stones under my bare toes and wonder which one of my ancestors touched them first.

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