The Environmental Crisis is a Crisis of Consciousness
Bringing the Psychological Dimension Into the Discussion
Speech delivered at "Voices for Change," organized
by students at Sonoma State University, November 2007
Craig Chalquist, PhD
As we gather here, the United States, Russia, Canada, Denmark, Norway, and Iceland have decided to act quickly to meet the challenge of global warming—by staking out territorial claims to newly exposed resources at the melting North Pole. So extreme is the moral and mental poverty of this predictable, shortsighted, age-of-empire reaction that it brings to mind a George Carlin newscast: “Today a man shot six people on the crosstown bus, got a transfer, and shot six people on the downtown bus. In order to prevent this from happening in the future, authorities are discontinuing the transfer system.”
Our gathering is taking place because students at Sonoma State recognize an urgent need to revision our responses to the environmental crisis from the ground up. The old thinking that got us all into such ecological trouble will not help us any more than irrigating more crops kept fallen Sumeria afloat or sending more centurions into frontier wars kept the Roman Empire going. The stakes today are far higher, of course, for they involve every species on the face of our world. Obviously if they can’t survive, we won’t either. We tend to forget we are one of them.
The debate about whether we’re in a planetwide ecological crisis being effectively over, suggested solutions for it continue to proliferate. But for the most part what’s proposed is merely technological or otherwise focused on fixes. In family therapy we often see how fixes applied by family members caught within the pathology of the system make the family crisis worse and unbalance it even more. The same applies to civilizations.
There are many examples of how the fix-it mentality is itself an ecological problem, from introducing an ambitious non-native species where no natural predators keep it in check to filling in wetlands without knowing their role in purifying local water supplies and nourishing wildlife. Flame retardants contain toxins that make children sick; chemically treated components of “green” cars and appliances end up in the landfill. Such mistakes are not just a matter of applying wrong technologies. They are symptomatic of the narrow view of the fix-it mentality, with its inability to foresee the long-range consequences of its actions or appreciate the complexities of the living systems it tampers with.
It bears reflection that the first science fiction novel, Frankenstein, was written by Mary Shelley to warn against the consequences of technological idealism lacking sufficient understanding of its psychological shadow or underside. For it is not only the well-meaning conscious mind that guides the process of invention and application.
To make things better and heal our world we need desperately to understand how we’ve made things worse, even with good intentions, and this means that we need to bring the psychological dimension into our discussions about the environmental crisis. After all, the human psyche is the source of the crisis as well as our only hope for viable ways through it. The environmental crisis is a crisis of consciousness. No fundamental restoration can be expected if we leave unexplored the psyche’s role in all this.
Let me give you some specific examples of what I mean by applying insights from psychology and related fields to how we deal with the environment.
An obvious one comes to mind when you hear people say that they can’t help Earth heal because one person can’t make a difference, or because they feel overwhelmed by bad news. This attitude unconsciously reflects the helplessness of the child surrounded by incomprehensible dangers. “I can’t do anything, help me” is how children think. They look to the adults—the leaders and the experts—to figure things out. Realizing this can provide the step back needed to come up with a more adult approach and pool some answers and expertise on our own.
Another prevalent example has to do with what Robert J. Lifton calls “psychic numbing.” As a defense against bad news we make our feelings go dead. We hook ourselves up to the entertainment media, bury ourselves in work, eat too much, drink too much, go shopping. The distractions we are offered to keep us from getting in touch with our real feelings about all this foster what Freud would have identified as an oral attitude toward the world: a childlike, passive receptivity that expects to be fed ceaselessly by what comforts but is not nutritious. The iPod keeps the sense of “I” small by going into the ear like a thumb into the mouth. The mall serves as a combination breast and womb. The soda spigots in fast food joints even look like nipples.
Psychological insight tells us that all of this reeks of a maturity problem, particularly at the level of national politics. Think about the recent comments of “leaders” and “candidates” alike: “I’m the decider,” “Say that to my face,” most of it juvenile macho posturing without the awareness to be embarrassed by itself. Like the refusal to take a stand for the environment, such comments reflect a schoolyard level of development unfitted for the demands of 21st century life on an ailing planet. Thinking critically, seeing through rhetoric, and managing emotions and relationships without violence ought to be what every child learns growing up. We will have to learn all these skills if we expect to participate meaningfully in far-reaching cultural, political, and ecological change.
Moving toward peaceful sustainability requires the reeducation of feelings as well as confrontation of our denial about the severity of the crisis. Denial, a useful defense in childhood against overwhelming emotional pain and terror, becomes fatal in adulthood when it strangles the will for change. It is denial that pretends that there is no crisis, that the polar icecaps are not melting, that we are not in the midst of a mass extinction that threatens half the plant and animal life on the planet, that social justice and environmental justice can somehow be meaningfully separated. Embedded in the child position, denial pretends that ignoring a danger unpleasant to acknowledge makes it go away. Never one to mince words, Samuel Clemens referred to it as moral cowardice. Denial prevents seeing clearly that the time for make-believe and wishful thinking is over.
Splitting is another common defense. Its goal is to compartmentalize different sides of reality. On the one side stands our pride in our nation’s accomplishments; on the other, walled off from most public discussion about the environment, the absolutely dismal state of mental health in nations with the heaviest industry. Yet we’ve known for decades that the rates of mental illness are higher here in the U.S. than anywhere. As of 2007, according to the World Health Organization, the National Institute of Health, and other reputable research bodies, almost a third of Americans are mentally ill, a third drink too much, and half of our children have enough lead in their bodies to impair learning skills. 18% of us suffer from anxiety disorders, 10% from mood disorders, and 15% from personality disorders. Painkiller use by the world’s largest polluter and arms dealer rose 88% between 1997 and 2005 as pharmaceutical company profits soared. The same illnesses and disabilities appear wherever nations are developed and industrialized, India being a recent example.
Once we are past denial and psychic numbing, the psychological view can also caution us against shaming ourselves and each other for not being “green” enough, whether that means failing to recycle, driving an SUV, or taking a necessary flight. We now have plenty of research to show what we suspected all along: that environmental advocates who resort to relentless shaming, blaming, and perfectionistic standards only increase the aversion and numbness of their already overwhelmed audiences. Without silencing the voices of warning, voices long disregarded for being too "negative," we must guard against the “green puritanism” of bullying tactics if we are to succeed in educating each other about our options.
When we finally realize that the health of the planet directly impacts our health, new options and opportunities begin to appear. The deepening crisis requires the exploration of many options, approaches, perspectives for healing and transformation beyond the simplistic fix-it idea of single solutions to complex problems. At the heart of what action we take is the issue of how to outgrow—not just fix or jury-rig, but actually outgrow—the outmoded dualism between self and world, people and planet that characterizes the history of our progressive alienation from the land.
Fortunately, we have also gathered effective psychological techniques for promoting sustainable styles of life; we know, for example, what sorts of hands-on education help children and adults experience themselves as part of the living world under their care. We also know how to create homes, energy sources, and forms of transportation friendly to the planet and conducive to building genuine community. Perspectives like deep ecology and ecopsychology have provided many examples of the transformative power of direct contact with the natural world, whether through gardening, animal encounters, or simply spending more time in ecologically healthy settings. The mere presence of nature art or scenery enhances creative productivity, raises mood, lowers anxiety, and decreases postoperative stress in hospital patients.
Moving on to the question, “What can I do now about all this?”—there is abundant information available in books, lectures, and online on how to live more sustainably; and although it’s a start, it will not suffice for the kind of fundamental revisioning we are discussing today. Were I in your place, my first priority would be getting myself educated about the issues: current events, current discussions, asking the experts for resources, investigating alternatives to a wasteful lifestyle. Look for successful experiments in pushing for change, especially at the community level. Contact local places like Occidental Arts and Ecology Center here in Sonoma County and the Ecology Center in Berkeley. Check out Planet Drum and Bioneers. Read what publishers like Chelsea Green, Sierra Club, Spring Journal Books, and New Society have to say. Keep up with the news online via the UK Guardian, Project Censored, Grist, AlterNet, ENN, Democracy Now!, Mongabay, Working for Change. Read deep ecology, ecopsychology, permaculture, and ecofeminism. For more information about my work, which I’ll discuss in a moment, visit terrapsych.com, where a copy of this speech will be posted.
If you want to start freeing yourself from culture-bound thinking right now, take time to get back in touch with your emotions and your body and your deepest reactions to the outer world. Unplug from the electronic coliseum long enough to figure out what you want, what you hate, what you most desire. Go outside while you do and spend time listening to the sound of the world: that audible procession of its shiftings and sighings and breathings that offer a sense of its cycles and rhythms. Before you decide on what to do—or what to fix—take time to home in on what to be, on what your neglected naturalness wants to be, what tastes good to it and what it finds toxic and needs to spit out. Begin to listen to what Hermann Hesse described as “the teachings that my blood whispers to me.”
Another path toward cultural transformation opens when you train yourself to notice a particular aspect of the current crisis that seems to call out to you the strongest. I know a rancher, for instance, Neda DeMayo, who as a little girl was watching TV and saw wild horses being chased by helicopters carrying men with high-powered rifles. Today she owns a ranch called Return to Freedom that provides wild horses with a sanctuary. Ask your emotions, your body, your soul: What am I learning about that calls to me for a response? It could be dreams (it was in my case), something that gives you joy, or something that breaks your heart. Whatever it is, it will get into you and perhaps anchor itself to something deeply personal in your life.
Exactly here, however, empire-era psychology steps in and shrinks our planetary concerns to personal conflicts or family problems. The search is then on for the inner whale, the melting polar defenses, the disappearing rainforest in your relationships. Their logic is backwards and outside in: environmental wounds cannot be shrunk down to psychological wounds, and a culture that keeps doing this will perish of its own contradictions. On the other hand, psychological sufferings are often symptomatic and symbolic of those of the planet, from chemical sensitivity to “eco-anxiety.” As ecopsychologist Sarah Conn points out, every one of us somehow feels the pain of the Earth. Had Neda gone to therapy she might have learned something interesting about herself or the horse within, but plenty of horses without would not have survived the therapy.
There are deeply psychological voices speaking outside the psychology industry, a soulless industry that continues to crank out mass advertising, political propaganda, torture techniques, employee selection, and many other forms of coercion and manipulation. Just as we can be spiritual without being religious, we can be psychological without mainstream shrinkage. I mentioned ecopsychology, the study of the health and pathology of our psychological ties to the environment. Backed by the experiences of colonized people, post-colonial research, and many other resources, ecopsychology shows us that hatred of self, hatred of others, and hatred of Earth all go together. As I explained in my book Terrapsychology, military, economic, and religious conquest results from a wound of displacement, from a sense of not belonging anywhere, least of all on Earth. Immature people who carry this unhealed wound are at risk for inflicting it on others, because conquest is a failed solution to the problem of belonging here on Earth. Conquest is false homecoming.
And so as the feeling of alienation from the land has grown over the centuries, warfare has moved off the battlefield to drive people from their homes and their homelands. Doing this economically goes by the name of globalization. Healing from it demonstrates and repairs the interconnection of selfhood, justice, peace, and place.
My work continues ecopsychological inquiry into the following questions:
• How did we come to experience ourselves as separate from, alienated from, and above the world that birthed and nurtured us?
• What perpetuates this split between self and planet, mind and environment?
• What does psychology freed of imperial agendas have to say about healing the split?
• What can psychology contribute to educating the public about the crisis we’re in and what to do about it, such as adopting more sustainable lifestyles?
• How can we learn to take the psychological dimension into account as we fashion new clean technologies and apply old ones differently?
• What would more democratic, place-centered, eco-friendly communities be like?
Several years ago I coined the word “terrapsychology,” with a nod to Terra, the Roman Earth goddess, to offer a fresh look at our attachment not only to the land, sea, and sky, but to specific places where we live and work. In my experience learning to understand these places, see how intimately they connect with our inner world, and love them deeply leads to an increased sense of care and responsibility for them beyond what statistics or cameras or satellites can provide.
Since publishing my book I have started putting together a slideshow presentation called “Planetary Psychology” from a graduate class I teach. The subtitle, “Sanity in the Balance,” underlines the need to think in terms of how profoundly our psychological well-being depends on the integrity of the lands we inhabit, for we cannot expect to remain sane in a wasted world. With psychotherapist Linda Buzzell-Saltzman I am co-editing the forthcoming book Ecotherapy: Psyche and Nature in a Circle of Healing, where expert contributors discuss how to apply Earth-based approaches of psychological healing beneficial to both human and nonhuman nature.
In conclusion I would like to mention that we all come equipped with an organ that specializes in what E. O. Wilson named biophilia—love of life: the heart, where introversion and extraversion, self-interest and other interest, imagination and practicality join and alternate in creative cycles. Solving, or rather dissolving, the psychological barriers that fuel the environmental crisis by isolating our minds from what’s going on around us will require turning ourselves inside out, with the heart as the site of reconnection. Resurrect the heart from mechanicality and numbness and you resurrect the chamber or cauldron in which the future likes to brew.
Have a heart, and ask it what you should do and where to go next. By doing this you will help us brew a truly planetary psychology, a terrapsychology that furthers ongoing dialog with the depths of all creatures, their troubled but reactive world, and perhaps even matter itself.
See also "Shall We Come Home? Thoughts on Why We Don't and How We Might."