Why biology is the secret to thriving in a permacrisis

Human beings are biological systems — but not self-contained ones. And we evolved for a very different way of life. Truly understanding that will be critical to the next decade.

This is the age of the permacrisis, and we feel it every time we pay for our food, or our energy bills. We’ve explored the factors before – supply chains, climate change and the war in Ukraine. But there’s another element we’ve spent less time on: a health crisis.

That seems… odd. We have the most sophisticated medicine we’ve ever had, Surely our health should be much better? Sure, there’s the growing problem of antibiotic resistance, but beyond that?

Well, mental health has been a growing issue since the pandemic. Among children and adolescents, it was on the rise before Covid hit. Why?

A mismatch between biology and lifestyle

We are biological creatures, and ones that evolved in very different environments than the ones we’ve created for ourselves now. That mismatch is growing faster than our biology can evolve to match — and the disparity came to a head during the pandemic:

Simply put, our evolutionary ancestors overcame threats to their safety and well-being — think ominous predator in the wild — by turning on the fight-or-flight stress response. It’s the familiar feeling of our hearts racing, breath quickening, palms sweating, muscles tensing, and quick reflexes that enable us to get out of the way when we sense danger, like a car coming at us at top speed.

Which is great — flee from the predator, don’t get eaten, calm down. But that’s not our lives any more, is it? Most of us aren’t routinely faced with creatures that want to kill or eat us. Our stresses are very different, and our biology is nowhere near catching up:

Our brains unfortunately can’t tell the difference between an alarming news report and a tiger in the wild. While our ancestors could escape the tiger, our 24/7 work culture, technology, and media chase us relentlessly. We engage the fight-or-flight response constantly and end up in a state of chronic stress.

That’s Dr Parneet Pal, a physician-educator and science communicator and NEXT23 speaker. For her, one of the fundamental causes of our wellness issues is that we simply don’t consider our physicality and our interconnectedness enough. For all our digital ingenuity, we remain embodied creatures. Our technology isn’t anywhere near the level that would allow our consciousnesses to transcend our bodies — if such a thing is even possible.

The biology/digital interface

And so, our digital lives remain inextricable linked to our physical lives. Stresses felt in digital environments have an impact on our bodies. Happily, this goes both ways — Sue Thomas has written about technobiophila, the idea that digital representations of nature have some of the same positive impacts on us as actually being in nature. Her theories are compelling enough that I’m writing this with a moving image, with accompanying sounds and lighting, of an Icelandic waterfall on my iMac.

We are systems, but not self-contained ones. And resolving this health and stress crisis in our lives, and in our workplaces, will be critical to navigating our ever more digital lifestyles. Back to Dr Pal, this time being interviewed by Tim Leberecht of the House of Beautiful Business:

For me, it is important to articulate this empirical, scientific connection, and interdependence between our inner and outer ecologies—beyond the more metaphorical one. Once you truly understand this exchange and appreciate the subtleties, it is hard to stay apathetic about both personal and planetary health.

Ah, planetary health. We’re back to another manifestation of the permacrisis: the climate crisis.

The role of the climate crisis in biological stress

The people of Greece are, right now, feeling the impact of outer ecologies on inner ones. As Pal puts it, “health doesn’t just happen in the doctor’s office”:

Every physical, emotional, social, environmental, and ecological exposure in our daily lives (called the exposome) interacts with and influences our mitochondrial metabolism and gene expression in good or not-so-good ways, which improves or deteriorates our health.

While extreme weather events are the most obvious example of one aspect of the permacrisis catalysing another, there are plenty more. The rise in the cost of living is another, as two LSE researchers put it:

The rising cost of living is more than an economic squeeze: it is a public health emergency, potentially on a par with the COVID-19 pandemic. Not being able to afford the essentials, such as food, rent, heating or transport, has wide-ranging negative impacts on mental and physical health and well-being.

Our biology is our (business) problem

Paying attention to these factors is the purest of self-interest. On a personal level, we will live longer, richer lives if we think about the impact of how we live and work on the whole set of systems that supports our lives. And, for those of us in business, paying attention to the link between our workplaces and health is also good business sense.

In the UK, working days lost to sickness is at a record high. And that’s not just work-shy Brits — German’s absence rate is creeping up, too.

Imagine the impact on our bottom line, employee satisfaction, and quality of life in considering how the way we run our business impacts the health of our staff? The pandemic has presented us with a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rethink how we work.

Let’s take it.

Dr Parneet Pal will be talking at NEXT23. Grab your place now!

Photo by Fabian Møller on Unsplash