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Emergent Resilience for Health, Community, and Our Climate

Fostering our deep need for connection to help us change for good.

Understanding Allostasis: Part 3B

I interviewed author, attorney, and founder of the nonprofit Emergent Resilience, Kevin Gallagher , about which setpoints society might want to change and how we can do this together.

Jessica Del Pozo (JD): Kevin, you used to assist people as an adventure guide to take risks to push themselves beyond their comfort zone, beyond their typical range of ability. Now you work as a resilience facilitator and founder of Emergent Resilience. How does the concept of allostasis fit in with your work?

Kevin Gallagher (KG): Allostasis informs my process of helping people reconnect to themselves, to others in their community, and to the natural world around them. My work focuses on resilience, which can be described as a process of skillfully navigating crisis and recovering from periods of high distress. There are two primary components to resilience: a major adversity and a positive adaptation to that experience.

This is exactly the model that allostasis describes. Allostasis recognizes that the world around us is in constant flux and that our bodies are in an ongoing conversation with that world, anticipating our current needs and then adapting as circumstances change. The concept of allostasis takes deep understandings of the natural world and integrates them into a framework of human health.

When we are in the natural world, we're removed from the artificiality of the environments that we have constructed, which are, in so many cases, focused on denying or preventing change. When we're in the natural world, or when we adopt a more naturalistic model of health based on allostasis, we're forced to come to terms with the fact that life is marked by constant change. We are then able to recognize that both health and resilience can be found in our capacity to experience and adapt to change, rather than in some misplaced and ultimately futile effort to resist or prevent it.

Antonio Molinari/Unsplash
Source: Antonio Molinari/Unsplash

JD: So, what does that mean for us as a society?

KG: This idea has significant ramifications for society. Most importantly, allostasis highlights the error in a foundational myth that operates in our society—that we are somehow separate from or independent of nature. Allostasis recognizes the inherent interconnection between our own bodies and the external environment, the essential interrelationship between ourselves and the world around us.

At the core of the dominant Western culture that has now come to span the globe is the idea that humans are somehow separate from our environment and that we must control and subdue the natural world in order to achieve health and well-being. That mindset leads to a relationship of domination, extraction, and consumption, in which nature is objectified and seen as nothing more than a storehouse of resources whose value is entirely dependent on our capacity to transform them into goods that can be valued within the context of a capitalist society.

Our most significant challenges, such as climate change, biodiversity loss, species extinction, and land degradation, all stem directly from that mindset. Allostasis can help rectify that fundamental error and help us begin to see how intimately our own health and well-being are tied to our relationships with the world around us.

The environmental aspects are just the most obvious. Tracing the effects of this mindset further, we see that once we divorce ourselves from the natural world, once we objectify the plants, animals, water, minerals, and other natural elements that enable our existence, there is nothing to stop us from doing the same thing to other human beings.

We can trace the roots of settler colonialism to this foundational error, the way that white cultures have dominated indigenous cultures around the world and exterminated many of them, and so greatly harmed so many others. Racism and patriarchy also stem from this same sense of isolation and separation, this denial of our fundamental interrelationship.

If we view ourselves through a lens informed allostasis and its understanding of context and interrelationship, we can learn to be more cognizant of our inherent connection to our own bodies, to other people, and to the natural world. We would also recognize that the changes that we make to the natural world will have an impact on us, that they feedback on us, and that we, down to the very last cell in our body, are a product of the relationships between ourselves and the ecosystem that we find ourselves in. In damaging the world around us, we're damaging ourselves.

Applying the wisdom we find in an allostatic approach to health at the societal level would help elucidate those relationships between ourselves and the world and help us begin to address many of the major problems that we are facing in the world.

Part 3C: Continued interview with Kevin Gallagher about what we can do to work together for change.