Sleep is naturally green

Sustainability and sleep – at a first glance it might not be obvious whether there’s a connection between the two. But on reflection, I think there is one. In fact, there are four specific links I can see.  

It starts with the physical sleep environment. Here the link between sleep and sustainability is quite an obvious one: What type of mattress, duvet and pillow are you using. What’s your bed made from? Are the resources used in these products sourced sustainably? The likelihood is that most of them aren’t and that’s ok, you don’t have to change them immediately. But when the time comes, and it will come, can you choose sustainable and eco-friendly bedroom furniture and bedding products?

Next up is your cognitive performance. Healthy, good quality sleep enables you to think and make sound decisions. It facilitates empathising with others – humans, animals and perhaps even with nature. During sleep the brain restores your cognitive functions, so that the next day you can process information and weigh up risks accurately. But if we get too little sleep or it’s poor quality, we can’t think clearly and innovatively, let alone make a sensible plan of action! Clearly, solving problems when you’re struggling to grasp the facts becomes a problem in and of itself. I mentioned empathy a moment ago – healthy sleep enables you to regulate and share your emotions and affects how you interact with others. Poor or lack of sleep, however, increases feelings of irritation and frustration, and we tend to blame others when things go wrong. None of this is helpful when, for example, you have to understand each other’s viewpoint at a deeper, more nuanced level, and go on to negotiate and develop complex, large-scale solutions that both help fix the climate crisis, including enabling everyone to live sustainably. 

Ok, we’ve seen how sleep enables us to fully assess the situation and be less reactive. The third link in the relationship between sleep and sustainability is moral judgement and ethical behaviour. Both are crucial for deliberation and for progressing the sustainability discourse, and both are adversely affected by lack of sleep. Studies have shown that inadequate sleep influences our ability to comprehend the moral implications of our actions or those of others. Under these conditions (poor sleep and lower moral awareness) we (and others) are more likely to behave unethically.

Decisions concerning sustainability including climate change action are not easy and involve challenging discussions. Due to their complexity, they can go on for hours extending well into the night, only to start again early the morning. This will leave participants sleep-deprived, and this can negatively affect their ability to weigh up options and the consequences of their actions. As a result, they may not act in alignment with their moral compass but instead go for short-term gains.

 

And then there is anxiety. On the one hand there’s anxiety and a sense of pressure regarding the question of whether what we are doing to slow climate change is right and enough. On the other, there is ‘eco-anxiety’ and feeling frightened of experiencing the devastating effects climate change. Feeling anxious (in addition to irritation and frustration) is a common trigger of poor sleep but poor sleep is also a risk factor for anxiety. This creates a vicious circle of sleep deprivation – one where because we don’t sleep well, we become more anxious, and this drives more sleeplessness. This is the insidious risk of poor sleep because it affects how we act and feel. And in the face of climate change and wanting a good quality of life, this matters! 

Lastly, when you sleep you naturally consume less. Jonathan Crary wrote in his book 24/7 “sleep […] evades […] the demands of global consumer society.” I take this to mean that because sleeping people do not usually go shopping and tend not to drive cars, they use less energy than wakeful ones. When we sleep, we do not commute on trains, we use fewer appliances, and we ‘evade’ other activities like working at banks of computers in highly lit office blocks. Directly or indirectly the act of sleep reduces our carbon footprint. 

So, what could be the next step? Look after your sleep because (in my biased view) this is the foundation for physical health, cognitive performance, and mental and emotional wellbeing. Viewed in that way, sleeping well enables you see the full picture and make ethically sound decisions that help the planet and humanity. Put simply, sleeping well is most definitely green-friendly.

Warmly,

Dr Kat