The Personal As Ecological: Chinese Medicine And Climate Crisis

As I sit down to write this, looking out the window from my house in northern Vermont, we’ve recently transition into spring. But unlike many others past transitions out of winter, this year’s change isn’t from cold, snow and ice into more warmth, sunshine and the green of new grass. While the temperature is increasing and there are the first signs of new growth in our yard, we’ve just finished what many people are calling the winter-that-wasn’t.

Rather than the cold, sub-zero temperatures we’re accustomed to here in New England, this winter has been unseasonable warm. We’ve had a few cold days over the past few months but we’ve also have long stretches well above freezing, with temperatures reaching above 50 degrees in what is often the coldest parts of winter. We’ve also had some snow this winter but much less than is usual. One Vermont ski mountain was only open 45 days due to very little snow, dramatically less than the usual 4-5 months. And while the mountain where I ski has been open for most of the season, it’s had less than half of it’s yearly average of snow.

As has been much discussed, the warmth and dramatic decrease of snowfall here in New England this winter is part of the larger process of global warming. Several decades of climate research demonstrates conclusively that the planet is warning and the weather is changing due to the greenhouse gases we’re emitting. Along with the voluminous amount of data about our warming planet, there is also more recent research that indicates that the planet’s ability to sequester the gases we’re emitting is decreasing. Due to the loss of forests and permafrost and the acidification of the oceans, the planet is less able to absorb the gases we’re emitting. And as a practitioner of Chinese medicine, it’s clear to me that this dynamic — of warming planet that is less able to absorb greenhouse gases — is not only appearing in the world around us, it’s happening within us as well.

Almost all of what we hear about climate change comes from our usual western perspective. We hear about melting glaciers, melting permafrost, and increasing intensity of storms. We also hear about the importance of reducing our impact on the planet by reducing greenhouse gas emissions through driving efficient cars, installing solar panels and eating local food. All of these are undoubtedly important but if we were to look at climate change from a different view, we can see that what is happening ecologically is being mirrored by what’s happening within us, including the assumptions that shape our lives.

For several thousand years, Chinese medicine has understood the world as an integrated whole. Rather than seeing our individual lives as being separate from what’s happening in nature, an eastern view sees the world holographically, where we are part of the world around us. Part of the importance of this well- developed, time-tested medical tradition is that we can see how the same dynamic that’s creating global warming appears in how we see the world.

In looking at this dynamic through the lens of Chinese medicine, what’s occurring is that the climate’s heat — which Chinese medicine associates with Yang — is increasing and its coolant — which is associated with Yin — is decreasing. And rather than being something that’s only happening outside of us, using the wisdom of Chinese medicine we can see that this same dynamic of increasing Yang and decreasing Yin is happening within us.

In addition to being associated with heat, Yang is also about activity, the desire for more and newness. Yin is about not doing, the satisfaction of having less and the old. The fact that so many of us favor activity over inactivity, more over less and the new over the old speaks to our internal overvaluing of Yang and undervaluing of Yin. There are the ecological consequences of the busyness of constant driving and flying and the climate effects of the consumerism of constantly buying more new things. There are also similar effects to our internal environment, where many of us find it difficult to relax and often feel less — not more — satisfaction from getting more new things.

Understanding what creates balance within us is essential to addressing the imbalance in the climate. Just as the climate is warming we often overvalue Yang. And just as the planet’s ability to maintain coolant is decreasing, we often undervalue Yin.

Here are three things we can do to promote personal health and ecological well-being:

1. Realize that doing is not better than not doing. There is a time to work and a time to rest, a time to be busy and a time to slow down. In our era of climate change, it’s essential to move towards a balanced life, which includes a balance of being active and not being active. Being relentlessly busy, even in the pursuit of ecological sustainability, is replicating internally the very same dynamic that’s creating the climate crisis.

2. Recognize that more is not better than less. In addition to the environmental consequences of overconsumption, having more than we need doesn’t lead to internal balance and well-being. Just as the climate is warming rapidly, we’re often encouraged to want more. And just as the planet’s ability to maintain coolant is decreasing, many of us are losing the contentment that leads to having less.

3. Appreciate that new is not better than old. We’re often encouraged to believe that simply because something is new it’s better than something that’s old. This overemphasis can extend to all parts of our lives, from what we buy to the technology we support to the medical procedures that we value. But again, this is the very same imbalance of Yang over Yin that’s creating climate change.

Brendan Kelly, LicAc, is the author of The Yin and Yang of Climate Crisis, which looks at the bigger and deeper issues of climate change through the lens of Chinese medicine. The co-founder and co-owner of Jade Mountain Wellness, where he currently practices acupuncture and herbalism, he has also been actively involved with environmental issues for 25 years. For more information about Brendan, his book, recent articles and classes visit

See also:
EarthTalk: The Great Green Wall of China
The Yin and Yang of Food