I and many other radical ecopsychologists maintain that when it comes to the climate crisis, mainstream psychology is a big part of the problem, and not necessarily a part of the solution. The reasoning behind this critique is that the climate crisis is a spiritual crisis – or, if you prefer, a relational crisis – and, thanks to Sigmund Freud, psychology as practiced in America only tends to reinforce the alienation of human beings from nature. That separation of our identity from the natural world which supports and nourishes us is the very root of the climate crisis. If we can only understand this point as a society, then we might stop being so criminally negligent in our approach to the most important issue we have ever faced – not just as a nation, but as a species.
Early on in my own spiritual path, after experiencing the unsatisfactoriness of success in the corporate/government world, I spent four months tramping in the Edenic Alps of South Island New Zealand, free as a kiwi, and meditating at length in search of “the I that I am in nature.” As a kid from Chicago who had fallen in love in-and-with the experience of raw nature in the mountainous Northwest, I was increasingly struck by how different my mind was on a long backpacking sojourn versus how I experienced my mind in the so-called “real” world of modern consumerist, corporate America.
What I discovered probably won’t surprise you. The I that I am in nature IS nature. That stranger I discovered waiting for me each time I disappeared into the wilderness under pack, usually accompanied only by dog under pack, the good looking stranger with the winning personality, was my own human nature. Its our evolutionary legacy, but it is no longer valued much by society. We can thank Freud and his evil nephew Edward Bernays for that.
The fundamental flaw in Freudian psychology is placing ego at the center of the self, prompting us to think and act like: “I am the center of the world. The world revolves around me, and all my problems flow from the way the world treats me.” That is admittedly a caricature, but the self-centered attitude of modern Americans is real. It’s inwardly focused, with the world as the outer threat (“The principle task of civilization, its actual raison d’être, is to defend us against nature,” said Freud), and this dualistic, indwelling view dooms us to unhappiness. (ed. note: this self-centered orientation is currently being reinforced by APA’s focus on “eco-anxiety,” which is a symptom of climate trauma, while ignoring the trauma of the larger organism, Gaia, thus making it appear as if she is threatening our mental health, when in reality it is our mental imbalance and neurosis that is threatening HER well being).
[See: The Plague of Eco-Anxiety]
So what is wrong with the egoic world view foisted on us by Freud & Bernays, and why does it inevitably lead us to ruin? What was it that caused Freud to politically abuse his former protege when Carl Jung insisted that there were many flies in the Freudian ointment? It is important to know, because our own history more or less turned on this point, and the flaw has been reinforced endlessly by the public relations machine that Bernays invented on the basis of Uncle Sigmund’s darkest insights into human depravity.
What happens to be dead wrong with the Freudian world view, and what has long infected mainstream psychology and American culture as a result, is that it leaves no place in the identity of self for the natural world we humans co-evolved with, the very life source which we are all dependent on for our nourishment, sanity and survival.
“Eco” means “home,” and in contrast to ego-psychology (a more accurate description of main stream psychology derived from Freud), eco-psychology grounds our self phenomenologically in our experience of the natural world — the world which we are connected to as if by an invisible umbilical cord. In other words, the world exists at the center of our self identity – we revolve around it.
The practical difference in emphasis becomes quite stark in practice: an ego psychologist will focus on how our world – defined as our partner, our family, our work environment, friends and community – relates to us, “there is the source of my problems,” while ecopsychology examines how we relate to the world – especially our connection to the natural world in our experience and in our hearts and minds.
This is why it is called “psychology in the service of life” (whereas Freud was rather obsessed with the so-called death-drive). Instead of “So, tell me about your relationship with your mother” as our starting point, it becomes “Tell me about your relationship with Mother Earth.” If a young person presents themselves as depressed for treatment, it is only natural to think they might be troubled by the fact that the climate crisis threatens do deprive them of a viable future!
The world is sorely lacking in simple, humane compassion right now. Species are going extinct at an unprecedented rate because people no longer seem to care enough about others, American individualism (a.k.a. consumerism) run amok. And we are not willing to make the kind of real sacrifices for the benefit of future generations that my parents, products of the Great Depression, were willing to make for us. Not collectively, at least.
An unconscionable lack of concern. Michael Soule, one of the founders of conservation biology, points out in an interview with The Sun that:
Climate change spells disaster. The world won’t be recognizable to us in fifty to a hundred years… There are some politicians who recognize what’s happening, but its political suicide to publicize these issues. At best, a fraction of your constituency cares.”
Soule maintains that we only protect what we love. And after a century of conditioning by Freudian psychology and its outlet – consumer messaging that creates artificial desires by reinforcing a sense of discontentment – most of us only have real love and longing for ourselves, for those closest to us, and for our gadgets and sports teams.
To be self-centered is to be a good consumer, though it has over time (intentionally) deprived us of the ability to be good citizens. “Americans must shop,” as W said in response to the attack on the twin towers. Orwell could not have written it any better.
Soule is someone who is intimately connected with his own human nature. He is wrong, however, to at the same time blame “human nature” for this predominant lack of concern for Mother Earth. If it were really human nature not to care about nature itself, then how would we explain indigenous peoples around the world caring so much more about the planet’s illness than we do? Colonialist attitudes of Western European settlors, who regularly engaged in genocide, hardly is representative of human nature!
Not coincidentally, indigenous peoples (and others) who still live in harmony with their natural world all tend to identify with that world as our mother, Pachamama, and care intimately about her as they would a family member. Saint Francis of Assissi viewed our natural world as like a sister with whom we share our life, and Pope Francis begins Laudato Si’ with the exhortation that “this sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her… she ‘groans in travail.'”
It just isn’t natural not to care about the natural world.
The tragedy is that Freud was wrong all along, and the suppressed contrary views of Carl Jung have proven to be prophetic.
The psyche is simply the world seen from within. The collective unconscious is simply Nature.
In an issue of the New Yorker out at the same time as the Sun Magazine’s interview with Soule, Emerson Fellow Larissa MacFarquhar chronicles the findings of cognitive scientist Andy Clark (“Mind Expander”), one of the most popular philosophers alive. According to Clark, our mind “extends into the world and is regularly entangled” with whatever we happen to find in our environment. In Clark’s view of self, “a brain develops and rewires itself in response to its environment throughout its life.” One of Clark’s main insights presaged the acknowledgment of climate trauma:
If a person’s thought [is] intimately linked to her surroundings, then destroying a person’s surroundings [can] be seen as damaging and reprehensible as a bodily attack.
Long before Clark’s “discovery” of extended mind, radical ecopsychologist Andy Fisher coined the term “one flesh” to describe our relational world:
All phenomena interweave as a single cloth or ‘common tissue’ [that] are mutually informative in their commingling with one another… because they are of the same elemental stuff.
What this represents is the emergence of the quantum world view that is only now integrating the discoveries of quantum physics that led to all the startling technologies that now distract us from the existential threat of climate trauma, empowering our dissociative tendencies. The father of quantum physics, Werner Heisenberg, long ago pointed out that reality is made up of relations, not things:
The world thus appears as a complicated tissue of events, in which connections of different kinds alternate or overlap or combine, and thereby determine the texture of the whole.
So if the climate crisis is a relational crisis, if we are not going to manifest a solution until we resolve to come back into balance with the natural world, what are we to do?
First thing is to stop waiting for a political solution. The social movements rising up now are critical to our survival, because in a world of 7.7 billion, we observe that political changes only follow social transformations. Without that change from below, the job of politicians is simply to preserve the status quo, not to save us from ourselves. When we change at a fundamental level, they are forced to change. In order for us to change in response to the climate crisis, we have to reach a critical mass of people who are reconnecting with their own human nature, regardless of whether they live in cities, in nature, in the country, or down on the farm.
Desmond Tutu was instrumental in encouraging the truth and reconciliation process that brought South Africa out of the trauma of Apartheid. We are already seeing the beginnings of a truth and reconciliation process in America now with emergent social movements responsive to systemic sexism, racism, and violence. Facing the truth necessarily precedes and ripens into reconciliation, and it is never easy.
We can support these movements in our own communities, and give them room to grow, by taking Pope Francis up on his urgent appeal to engage in an ongoing conversation about what it means to be human in an age of climate crisis. Speaking far beyond the walls of the Vatican City, with clear compassion in his heart, the Pope calls on us for a “new and universal solidarity.” His book, Laudato Si’: On Care For Our Common Home, is an exercise in Radical Ecopsychology.
Be bold. Form a “Climate Club” in your community. Regardless of your religion (I myself am Buddhist) or even if you don’t think of yourself as spiritual, go ahead and take Pope Francis’ book as your starting point. There are many others you can share afterward that will continue to inspire healing and transformation in yourself, your family, and community at large, such as the freely available More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible, by the radical economist Charle’s Eisenstein. Or my own book: Climate Sense: Changing How We Think & Feel About Our Climate in Crisis.
If you don’t think this is effective activism, then you really have yet to grasp how change happens in the world: slowly, slowly… and then all at once. There is even a systems theory about this new way of the world called, unsurprisingly, Quantum Activism. We’re all interconnected and entangled, and small local actions have large non-local consequences at holistic scales. There are already an estimated 4 million small boundaryless community organizations like this meeting in the world today.
Join the movement!
Here is the big secret your government does not want you to know: we each hold the key to resolving the climate crisis within, and we can access that transformative power as soon as we reject the toxic story of me that’s been shoved down our throats, and adjust our world view to fit the way things really exist.
That key is called human nature. Go forth and reconnect!