Related Short Courses:
Wild Nature, Human Nature: Deep sustainability through Ecotherapy September 2010
Ecopsychology: Exploring the Roots to Change March 2011
by John Seed
In spite of the modern delusion of alienation, of separation from the living Earth, we humans are not aliens, we belong here. The human psyche too is Earth-born, the result of 4000 million years of continuous evolution. The complex, dynamic biology from which psyche emerged necessarily remains the matrix, the grounding of any sane psychology. I take “ecopsychology” to mean psychology in service to the Earth.
We have all heard about the massive assault on our life-support systems. Yet it has not changed our behaviour except in rather trivial ways. How will we change our thinking and our behaviour to bring our technologies and lifestyles into harmony with the biological constraints of Earthly existence? What is needed? Not more horrifying statistics surely. Everybody already knows. We feel helpless and disempowered as the technologic juggernaut rolls along.
Scientists warn that we may be the last generation of humanity to have the chance to avert biological collapse and irreparable damage to the systems that support complex life on Earth. Paul Ehrlich thinks that we are sawing off the branch that we’re sitting on. James Lovelock said it’s as if the brain were to decide that it is the most important organ in the body and started mining the liver. Sounds to me like some kind of psychological problem.
Yet psychology appears to be too busy to address such things. What are the matters of over-riding urgency preoccupying psychology? Where is everybody? Playing at business as usual. Fiddling while Rome burns. Shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic.
I first came to such questions as an activist concerned particularly with the destruction of forests. Twenty years ago I found myself at Terania Creek in New South Wales, Australia, embroiled in what turned out to be the first direct action in defense of the rainforests. We saved Terania but as we struggled to understand how to protect other forests, it soon became clear that we couldn’t save them one at a time.
While one forest is saved, hundreds are lost. What is the underlying psychological disease that afflicts modern humanity and allows us to shred the biological fabric out of which we too are woven? Unless we can somehow address this, all of our environmental actions and rainforest protection projects will remain merely symbolic gestures.
Deep ecology is the name of a philosophy of nature which I believe best helps us understand why we behave so foolishly, and perhaps gives us some clues as to where we may best seek change.
The fundamental problem is anthropocentrism or human centredness. We are obsessed with our self-importance. Not long ago, astronomers were burned at the stake for daring to suggest that the Earth is not the centre of the universe and now we blindly destroy the future for 10 million species so as to fill the world with humanity for a few generations more.
To deep ecology, the world is seen not as a pyramid with humans on top, but as a web. We humans are but one strand in that web and as we destroy other strands, we destroy ourselves.
We might no longer believe that the world was made by an old man with a white beard 6000 years ago as a stage for the human drama to unfold with all the other species merely “scenery”, bit players to be “subdued and dominated”. Yet our institutions and personalities were forged in this mold and we seem hypnotised, incapable of giving substance to our new, ecological, vision.
Through thousands of years of anthropocentric conditioning, absorbed by osmosis since the day we were born, we have inherited shallow, fictitious selves, and have created an incredibly pervasive illusion of separation from nature.
A century ago Freud discovered that many of the symptoms of his patients could be traced to repressed sexual material. However, our sexuality is only the tip of the mighty repression of our very organic nature.
The reason why psychology is sterile and most therapy doesn’t work is that the “self” that mainstream psychologies describe and purport to heal doesn’t exist. It is a social fiction. In reality the human personality exists at the intersection of the ancient cycles of air and water and soil. Without these there is no self and any attempt to heal the personality that doesn’t acknowledge this fundamental fact is doomed to failure. There is no “self” without air and water and soil. Incredible amounts of energy go into futile attempts to heal what is really a fictitious self while our actual, ecological self suffocates.
Some of the best thinking on Ecopsychology comes from the neo-Jungian James Hillman. In his “100 Years of Psychotherapy and the World’s Getting Worse”, Hillman blames a lot of the social and environmental problems that we face on the fact that the people who should be out there changing the world are in therapy instead. They treat their pain as a symptom of a personal pathology rather than as a goad to political action to bring about social change. Therapists create patients instead of citizens.
People are willing to die by the millions in defense of one social fiction after another – a religion or political system or ideology. Yet attacks on the Earth which gave rise to all of these and without which none could exist, leave us numb.
Because we haven’t learned to identify with the living Earth, She fails to ignite in us anything near the passion and commitment that some of her lesser works manage to do. Though we are born, live and die in her, we have made ourselves unconscious of this. As Woody Allen said: “The Earth and I are two.”
The fact that our sense of alienation from Nature is entirely an illusion can be demonstrated very simply by holding your breath for a few minutes. We can speak of “the atmosphere” as if it were somehow “out there”. But it is not “out there”. None of it is “out there”. The air, the water, the soil, it is all constantly migrating and cycling through us. There is no “out there”, it is all “in here”, but most modern people, even those who agree theoretically, don’t experience the world in this way.
As long as the environment is “out there”, we may leave it to some special interest group like environmentalists to protect while we look after our “selves”. The matter changes when we deeply realise that the nature “out there” and the nature “in here” are one and the same, that the sense of separation no matter how pervasive, is nonetheless totally illusory. I would call the need for such realisation the central psychological or spiritual challenge of our age.
In 1986, I co-authored a book: Thinking Like a Mountain – Towards a Council of All Beings. One of the other authors, Arne Naess, was Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Oslo University and it was he who coined the term “deep ecology”. In this book he concludes that “it is not enough to have ecological ideas, we have to have ecological identity, or ecological self”. How are we to expand our identities in this way? Naess believes we need “community therapies” such as the Council of All Beings.
In the Council of All Beings we remember our rootedness in Nature. Using experiential processes, we recapitulate our evolutionary journey. We remember that every cell in our body is descended in an unbroken chain of life 4 billion years old, through fish that learned to walk the land, reptiles whose scales turned to fur and became mammals, evolving through to the present.
We further extend our sense of identity when we find an ally in the natural world, make a mask to represent that ally, and then speak in council for and with the animals and plants and landscapes. We are always awed at the very different view of the world that emerges from their dialogue. Creative suggestions for human actions emerge and we invoke the powers and knowledge of these other life-forms to empower us in our lives.
We’ve been performing rituals such as this for a long time, hundreds of thousands of years perhaps, and to our surprise, it comes very easily and naturally to us to reinhabit the world of nature. Similarly, physicist Brian Swimme urges us to enter the solar system by treating sunset and sunrise as opportunities to experience the rotation of the Earth. He urges us to initiate our youth by taking them out into the dawn to greet the sun, while we elders tell the story of this star’s gift. He suggests these and other experiential exercises because “if you do not experience the universe directly, it doesn’t matter at all what you believe about it.”
It is through such experiential exercises or rituals, that all indigenous societies continue to acknowledge and nurture the interconnection between humanity and the rest of the Earth community. It is these ceremonies that were burned from the European psyche in the inquisitions and which we now revive in the Council of All Beings and other such “re-Earthing” workshops. One remembers Joseph Campbell’s warning that the chief sources of anxiety in our age are the loss of myth and ritual.
One of the rituals that we may perform is to embrace a tree. We breathe carbon dioxide to it’s leaves, and breathe in the oxygen that it exhales and we give thanks for the ancient cycles of partnership. Obviously there’s no such thing as a healthy leaf on a dying tree but each leaf, labouring under the delusion that it is an independent, separate “self” may expend vast amounts of energy in the futile attempt at healing itself. Imagine if our experience of self expanded and all the energy that goes into therapy and self-interest were to include the healing of our world? Were the combined energies of all of the leaves to be placed instead at the service of tree-healing, the tree might stand a chance and with it the myriad leaves that depend upon it.
Nonetheless, here we are, leaves thoroughly conditioned to ignore the obvious meaning and implications of the sap that unites us with the tree on which we grow. We have more-or-less successfully repressed the knowing of the tree. We believe that only human-leaf has soul, none of the other leaves, nor sap, nor the tree itself does. Through this separation we have been able to achieve mighty things and now our very success threatens us with annihilation.
We feel intense dis-ease and longing, yet everything we do to try to assuage these feelings only makes things worse. Unconscious that it is reconnection with the Earth that we yearn for, a host of displacement activities arise. We feel a pervasive emptiness and spend our lives trying to fill the gaping wound with all manner of “stuff”. We have to dig up and chop down the Earth to make and power all the hair-driers and microwave ovens and electric toothbrushes with which we try, unsuccessfully, to fill the void.
It’s not really all these material “goods” that we want however, but a certain psychological state that we imagine will follow. It never does of course, and no amount of “stuff” brings us peace.
When we get out of the glass bottles of our ego
and when we escape like squirrels turning in the
cages of our personality
and get into the forest again,
we shall shiver with cold and fright
but things will happen to us
so that we don’t know ourselves.
Cool, unlying life will rush in,
and passion will make our bodies taut with power,
we shall stamp our feet with new power
and old things will fall down
we shall laugh, and institutions will curl up like
John Seed has taught on two courses at Schumacher College.
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