Thinking about Occupation like a Mountain in the Mountains
(Beaver dam and aspens from the Deer Valley Grocery-Café, Park City, Utah)
In October 2011, I had the privilege of helping Mami Aoyama and Moses Ikiugu to organize a double session on occupation and the natural environment at the tenth annual conference of the Society for the Study of Occupation USA (SSO:USA). As an anthropologist interested in sustainability and environmental change, it has struck me for some years that occupational science and occupational therapy have a particularly important role to play in actually doing something about the dangerous climate change we are now experiencing. The two sessions at the SSO:USA conference brought together many of the key figures in this area for a very productive discussion.
The conference was held in Park City, Utah, a small town above Salt Lake City at an altitude of over 2100m. Given this location, the overall conference theme was ‘Mountain Top Reflection: Learning from Ten Years as a Scholarly Community’. This led us to the theme of ‘Thinking about occupation like a mountain’ for our sessions. Many readers will know that this title is a play on Aldo Leopold’s famous essay ‘Thinking like a mountain’ in A Sand County Almanac. In that essay, Leopold asks us to take a long-term, holistic view of nature, a view that is not centered on short-term human needs. ‘We all strive,’ wrote Leopold, ‘for safety, prosperity, comfort, long life, and dullness. … A measure of success in this is all well enough, … but too much safety seems to yield only danger in the long run.’ Although our sessions in Utah this time did not discuss Leopold’s work in any detail, his writings raise crucial issues about how the health sciences might understand the role of the environment in promoting human health and well-being.
For me, the opportunity to visit Utah for the first time was also exciting because of my interest in the writings of Terry Tempest Williams. Williams is a naturalist and nature advocate as well as a writer and her books deal with issues of conservation, landscape, and living in place in Utah and the Interior West of the United States. My article co-authored with Mami Aoyama which examines co-occupations between people and birds in Williams’ best-known work Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place will be published in March 2012 in the West Kyushu Journal of Rehabilitation Sciences.
This visit I travelled from Japan with Mami Aoyama and Izuru Sakai, a sociologist from our university. Flying into Salt Lake City, we took the shuttle up to Park City. As expected it was a spectacular location and we arrived a few days before the conference to acclimatize to the altitude and see something of the area. Park City was founded in 1870 as a silver mining town. After mining declined in the 1980s, the city reinvented itself as a tourist destination with a major ski resort and numerous expensive holiday houses. It is also the home of the Sundance Film Festival. (By coincidence, while we were there Robert Redford put out a short film opposing the Keystone XL pipeline).
Two days before the conference, we all went on a memorable hike in the mountains around the town. Getting a little lost on the way, we walked for about 3 hours, with the clear blue skies and cool temperatures making for perfect walking weather. The aspens were in full autumn colours and we encountered several chipmunks getting ready for winter. The small lake in front of the hotel had a beaver lodge clearly visible from the Deer Valley Grocery-Café. The staff there told us that a moose and her calf would sometimes come down to the lodge early in the morning, but we weren’t lucky enough to see them this time. Despite this disappointment, the stunning setting certainly provided a convivial backdrop to our sessions and the discussions that followed.
In their blog on the conference, Mami and Moses have discussed the two sessions we had in some detail. The papers certainly were wide ranging and for me they confirmed the broad perspective and potential of occupational science in this area of climate change and sustainability. Mami’s paper examined the role of occupation in mediating ecosystem services with human well-being and also summarized her work on occupation and material cycles. Moses used his own experiences of the effects of climate change in his homeland of Kenya. Ben Whittaker talked about the possible implications of occupational therapy adopting a global approach to well-being. Tamara Rayment compared the holistic principles of occupational therapy and sustainable development. Teena Clouston examined the role of ‘overwork’ in contemporary capitalism. Gaynor Sadlo proposed mindfulness as a way of promoting pro-environmental occupations. Izuru Sakai looked at the connections between community governance and environmental occupations in rural Japan. Finally, my own paper explored some of the contradictions between the governance of natural resources and economic occupations in Native Alaskan society, one of the front line zones of climate change.
A notable aspect of our sessions was the virtual participation by several speakers using recorded Power Point presentations and Skype. Despite some last minute excitement, the technology worked very well and proved that really useful discussions can be held in this way. We are very grateful to Ben and colleagues and to the local organizers in Utah for helping to make this work so well.
From the Arab Spring to the Occupy movement, 2011 was a year in which more and more ordinary people seemed to start joining some of the dots in order to grapple with the perverse realties of our state of global injustice and unsustainability. I left Utah further convinced that occupational science and occupational therapy are crucial to this endeavour because of their own genius in joining so many of the dots between human activity, health and well-being, and the environment.