Photograph by Nora Hollstein / Connected Archives

Sleep More, Save the Planet?

Words by Liana DeMasi

Who has the right to sleep? In the ongoing climate crisis, it’s just another area where the scales are tipped toward injustice.

About 85 miles from the Oregon Coast is Salem, a small city that has experienced some of its hottest temperatures on record with some days reaching upwards of 99 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s also where Tim Gruver lives, and when I call him at around 5:00 pm, he tells me it’s approaching 93. “It definitely isn’t easy,” he says. “Living without air conditioning, having to flee to a cooling shelter, or having to hide out in a coffee house with half the city, sharing the Wi-Fi and AC. It’s not easy.”

 

Gruver works at Dicke’s Safety Products, a warehouse manufacturer that specializes in making construction and traffic equipment. There, he has access to industrial fans and a small air conditioned break-room, but the morning and afternoon heat still feels oppressive. Yet, he experiences the worst of the heat at home, a place that should be his reprieve, during the dark night hours when the sun gives way to the moon. But the heat doesn’t break, and without an air conditioner, the fan next to his bed can only do so much.

 

“I have to drink so much water because I’m sweating and dehydrated,” Gruver says. “Once I fall asleep, I have to get up several times to use the bathroom. And when I am asleep, it’s restless. Every morning I feel like I pulled an all-nighter.”

 

Since the uptick in sleepless nights, he recounts feeling unmotivated, uninspired, and quick to react in a constant state of fight or flight. Though Gruver’s account is worrying, he also sounds resigned—he’s aware that these conditions are worsening, that his access to sleep will continue to diminish. Recent research shows that he’s right to feel this way.

 

A 2017 study out of California found a link between abnormal or high night temperatures and insufficient sleep. In it, the authors state that “further climate change–induced nighttime warming may reduce the attainment of sufficient sleep, magnifying many of the physiological and psychological costs of sleep deprivation.” These mental and physical impacts can include decreased immune function, susceptibility to disease, stress, poor decision-making skills, and lower cognitive functioning. In other words, we’re meeting a crisis that demands our full attention at a diminished capacity.

 

These night-time consequences extend beyond rising temperatures. According to neurologist and sleep specialist, Dr. Daniel Rifkin, those who have been displaced by natural disasters are likely to experience the “first night effect” (FNE), a phenomena most studied alongside people with PTSD. FNE is categorized as a hyper-vigilant sleep that often occurs when sleeping in a new environment. For those who have lost their homes in floods, wildfires, hurricanes, or other catastrophes, sleeping in hotels, in shelters, or on friends’ couches can come along with a certain reactivity, one that is unable to achieve true rest.

“The impacts of climate change means rest becomes revolutionary.”

Kalpana Arias
Founder, Nowadays on Earth

The rising number of climate-related crises is also causing a rise in eco-grief and anxiety, a phenomena impacting around 68% of U.S. adults. Many people grew up counting sheep to get to sleep. Now, we count climate disasters. We count the days since the last flood, hurricane, or tornado. We count how many years our children have left to enjoy life on a healthy planet. These anxieties keep us up at night, which according to TEMPUR’s sleep expert, Thomas Høegh Reisenhus, only goes on to further exacerbate these feelings.

 

“People who suffer from anxiety disorders often report finding it hard to fall asleep, yet a lack of quality sleep can worsen, and even cause, these disorders,” Reisenhus says. “This is partially because the prefrontal cortex forms part of the cognitive brain which allows you to rationalize fearful and anxiety inducing situations coming from the ‘emotional brain.’ When the cognitive brain is weakened from a lack of sleep this process is also damaged, meaning you may feel heightened levels of anxiety.”

 

A lack of sleep can deeply impact our health and daily lives. Lower cognitive function means we’re making less intentional—and therefore often less eco-conscious—decisions. “The prefrontal cortex plays a central role in cognitive control functions and influences areas including attention and impulse inhibition, [which is] crucial if you want to create and maintain a new habit and live more consciously,” Reisenhus says. “Good quality sleep will boost the strength and functional connectivity in this area of the brain, meaning the more sleep deprived we are, the less in control we are of our rational thought process and decision making.”

 

In practice, oversleeping or moving slower in the morning might mean taking the car to work rather than the train or bus. A long work day might mean ordering in rather than cooking, and our forgetfulness might have us leaving the lights on, taking longer showers, and otherwise overusing resources. It’s an all-too-familiar state that activist Kalpana Arias is hoping to tackle through her community-building network, Nowadays on Earth. Arias, who leads and facilitates eco-somatic therapy sessions as part of the network, says the main goal is to reset the parasympathetic nervous system. Chronic, cross-generational burnout is causing imbalances in the way our nervous systems function, she explains, impeding our ability to properly rest. Because of the impacts of climate change, “rest becomes revolutionary,” Arias says. “We’re in a constant state of survival because we’re afraid of dying. But then, are we even really alive?”

 

There is some good news: namely that the case in favor of more sleep might have planetary benefits. When we sleep, so do most of the resources we depend upon, effectively preserving them. Our cars aren’t running, our computers are shut down, and most, if not all, of the lights are off. We’re also not eating, showering, or making coffee. This gives the planet time to recharge, too. In fact, if the over 300 million people living in just the United States alone got just one more hour of sleep a night, we could in theory save up to 2.4 billion pounds of CO2 emissions every day. Plus, when we wake up after a full night of restful slumber, a more active and present mind can engage in longer-lasting, sustainable choices. Without this rest, both planet and people suffer.

 

These scenarios indicate that a better night’s sleep aids the planet, but how attainable is sleeping during a climate crisis? And for who?

“As we address the effects of climate change with city planning and the built environment, it’s crucial that we take into account the sleeping environment.”

Dr. Daniel Rifkin
neurologist and sleep specialist

For those like Tim Gruver in Oregon, it has—until this year—been up to landlords and management companies to determine whether or not tenants were allowed window-unit ACs. Even after the passing of Senate Bill 1536 that establishes air conditioning as a right, landlords continue to push back with fines and threats, many of them claiming that these units will damage windows and property. And yet, according to Dr. Rifkin, some of the best methods to combat high nightly temperatures is sleeping in a bed alone or utilizing an AC or fan. “That’s another reason why this crisis is going to continue to impact those in low income housing most intensely,” Dr. Rifkin says. “For those who live in multi-family homes or apartments or those who don’t have access to air conditioning, these solutions aren’t possible.”

 

What’s more, the cost of living is on the rise due to inflation, with rent prices soaring between 2021 and 2022. In Savannah, Georgia, a city plagued by rising temperatures and a decreasing shore line, the average rent went up 27%. In Flint, Michigan, a city still reliant on filters for clean water, the average rent went up 58%. In both states, the poverty rate is 20% and 37%, respectively. Across the world, however, salaries aren’t rising at the same rate as the cost of living. Instead, people are forced to work harder and for longer hours in an effort to stay afloat. A good night’s sleep is not a luxury afforded to most.

 

“When I wake up tired, I do have a lot of fears around having to drive myself to work or being able to perform well enough [once I’m there],” Gruver says. “There’s a chance I’ll lose my housing this year, so sleeping outdoors or in a car is going to be really, really hard.”

 

It feels appropriately cynical that sleeping more could aid our planet, our minds, and our bodies, but that—as is the case with so many precious resources—it’s reserved for those who have the money and freedom to access it. When asked whether this is likely to change in the near future, Dr. Rifkin is hopeful that adequate sleep-related care and consultation can become more integral and accessible in the medical field. He is eager to see if studies highlighting just how beneficial rest is can influence the city, state, and national governments to hasten their plans to exact equitable sleeping standards. Without such plans, we continue to worsen our deficits.

 

“As we address the effects of climate change with city planning and the built environment, it’s crucial that we take into account the sleeping environment,” he says. “We’re simply not focused on the importance of sleep. We spend all of our waking hours focused on eating well, exercising, and taking care of ourselves, but the third of our lives that we spend sleeping isn’t always included in those considerations. It ought to be. You lose a lot when you lose sleep.”

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