Stuck in the Middle A Midlife Crisis Has Environmental Costs — and Cures

A midlife crisis—with its accompanying depression and desire to break out of old patterns and even long-standing relationships—often leads to a bigger carbon footprint. Divorce is one of the biggest personal contributors to soaring greenhouse gases, as one household splits into two. Others in their middle years—at least those who can afford it—compensate for disappointments in their personal or professional lives by buying more stuff. That can vary from an expensive new wardrobe to a six-figure sports car or boat.

Midlife crisis. Credit: Marc Hatot, FlickrCC

But all that midlife angst can be rechanneled without making the planet pay the price. You can volunteer to spend time outdoors with children or others who don’t get outside on their own. A walk in the woods, or quiet time sitting by the ocean’s thundering waves, can go a long way toward curing the blahs. Richard Louv’s most famous book Last Child in the Woods (Algonquin Books) popularized the term “nature-deficit disorder.” He’s just written a new book, The Nature Principle (Algonquin Books), which specifically addresses that same ailment for adults.

Unplugging

“We don’t have to have a midlife crisis to realize that our lives have become pretty out of balance,” Louv says. “So much of everyday life now conspires to overwhelm us with information ‘underload’—more and more meaningless information and less and less meaning. And less of a feeling of belonging—even belonging on the Earth.”

Louv adds that when individual eggs in the supermarket sport advertising labels, it’s time to get outside. “The more high-tech our lives become, the more nature we need,” he says. “I’m not against technology—I love my iPhone and my laptop—[but] we can try to balance all of that, and I don’t think there’s a better antidote than the natural world. In the last dozen years or so, researchers have looked at the effect of the natural world not only on child development but on human development. And what they’re finding is significant stress reduction with just a walk in the woods or a walk in the park.”

One such study compared adults exercising in a gym to someone doing “green exercise” like hiking or gardening. Re-searchers found, he says, “that the people in the green environment do better—there’s a kind of value added there that involves psychological health.”

Getting Connected

Time spent alone in nature can be therapeutic, but it’s often even better with a friend. In Britain, there are more than 50 “green gyms” where people meet on designated days to spend time gardening or hiking together outdoors. Louv’s nonprofit—Children & Nature Network—is promoting Nature Clubs for Families, in which family groups of various ages and abilities spend time together exploring the outdoors.

“It’s not only great for the kids, it’s great for the adults,” Louv says. “They make friendships on these outings; they strengthen existing friendships. There’s another area that’s not been studied very much, which is using nature experiences for family bonding, between parent and child but also between spouses, between caregivers.” And that kind of bonding, forged over multiple hikes and adventures, provides a perfect antidote to the tensions that arise between couples when they reach middle age.

The Food Factor

What we eat and drink also has a tremendous impact on our physical and emotional health—and on the planet. Michael Jacobson, co-founder and executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (cspinet.org), says, “In terms of eating a healthier diet, it’s never too late to start. As people get older, chronic diseases begin cropping up—weight gain, high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease. All increase the likelihood of an early death and a lot of misery.” Switching to a largely plant-based diet and just eating lower on the food chain can decrease one’s risk for all of those health problems. “And happily,” Jacobson adds, “that kind of diet is not only good for our health but it’s good for the environment.”

That’s because factory-farmed livestock require large amounts of land, water and energy—and produce lots of waste and global warming gases in the form of methane.

“Manure in feedlots at hog and poultry factory farms often pollutes rivers and streams,” says Jacobsen. “And overuse of pesticides kills beneficial insects as well as pests and might even poison farmworkers. So there are multiple consequences of raising animals.”

Take a memo, all you potential midlife crisis sufferers: You can heal yourself and the planet simultaneously. Take a walk in the woods, alone or with others. Ditch the steak for fish, or the fish for rice, beans and vegetables. Step outside. Breathe deeply.