We Can See the Forest for the Trees


We sometimes cannot see situations as they really are when we are in the middle of them. Is this the truth with climate change?




One of my favorite parts of doing a mental status exam during my residency training way back in the early 1970s was asking what a given proverb meant. At that time, a lack of abstraction was said to suggest schizophrenia.

One of those proverbs was “You can’t see the forest for the trees.” Though it is tricky to interpret, it is supposed to mean something like we sometimes cannot see situations as they really are when we are in the middle of them.

I doubt the participants in the current climate summit at the UN were asked to interpret this proverb, but it sure would have fit. We humans generally have not done well at seeing our climate risk and we have been cutting down the forests which absorb the problematic carbon dioxide. We certainly would not say that suggests schizophrenia, but rather, perhaps, conscious or unconscious denial.

From my perspective, not nearly enough has come out of the first part of the conference, but the best was a promise made by more than 100 countries to end deforestation in the coming decade. Of course, this is only a promise and climate promises have been broken before after global summits. Perhaps many original promises just reflect value posturing.

Connected to the summit, our Congress passed an infrastructure bill November 5th that includes funds for addressing climate change. However, it is too late for many sequoia trees in Sierra Nevada, usually invulnerable to fire with insulating bark up to 3 feet thick and canopies 200 to 300 feet high. But this past week hundreds more perished in another high-intensity fire. Moreover, such forests are not only crucial for climate sequestering, but for spending time in them for mentally therapeutic “forest bathing.”

Dr Moffic is an award-winning psychiatrist who has specialized in the cultural and ethical aspects of psychiatry. A prolific writer and speaker, he received the one-time designation of Hero of Public Psychiatry from the Assembly of the American Psychiatric Association in 2002. He is an advocate for mental health issues relate to climate instability, burnout, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism for a better world. He serves on the Editorial Board of Psychiatric TimesTM.

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