Climate on the couch (1)

Western culture lives in fear of wild nature, both external and internal, writes ecotherapist Mary-Jayne Rust. How can we find a way of working with nature in this consumerist age?

[This article is adapted from a 2008 article in Psychotherapy and Politics International, which was a revised version of a 2007 lecture presented by the author to the Guild of Psychotherapists (UK). It is published here with the author’s permission.]

We find ourselves in a global crisis, and there is no doubt that something has gone seriously awry with our relationship to our environment. We witness nothing less than an assault on our life-support systems by humans in industrial-growth society.

Over the past two years, there has been a massive shift in awareness about this crisis. We hear daily diagnoses on the state of the planet from our scientists, like doctors reading the body of the earth — our collective body. Our temperature is set to rise by 2° Celsius, at least, in the coming years; our ice caps are predicted to melt within 35 years, our glaciers sooner. Our sea levels are rising as a result, our weather patterns are changing unpredictably — and that’s just a small fraction of our physical symptoms.

There is nowhere to escape, and there is no guarantee that humans – and many other species – will survive. We are confronted by the fact that our earth has limits and we cannot continue to consume with no concern for the health of the whole ecosystem.

The changes to our ecosystems may come sooner than we predict. We are told we have a small window of time within which to act — 10 years at most; after that, things will take their own course and we will just have to adapt to the changes as best we can.

Those are the physical symptoms. What of our psychological state? Ecopsychologist Hilary Prentice writes: “Is the human species suicidal? Apparently so – engaging in behaviour that is destructive to everything on which it depends, but apparently in serious denial of this. … Unresolved dependency needs? Absolutely! We act as though we are not totally dependent on these others, as though can afford to abuse everything … of which our world is made …We seem to have an overweening narcissism, such that all other species and elements of the world appear to be there to please and gratify our every whim …”

The roots of our crisis go back such a long way, through the history of our western culture. I can only hope to pull out a few strands of the stories we live by today. …

The first is the words of a Native American, Jeannette Armstrong of the Okanagan tribe, who describes the human self as inextricably interwoven with the web of life:

“We survive within our skin inside the rest of our vast selves. … Okanagans teach that our flesh, blood and bones, are Earth-body; in all cycles in which the earth moves, so does our body … Our word for body literally means “the land-dreaming capacity”… The Okanagan teaches that emotion or feeling is the capacity whereby community and land intersect in our beings and become part of us. This bond or link is a priority for our individual wholeness or well-being.”

This second quote is the words of the Austrian psychiatrist Sigmund Freud, which tells us something about our western perspective:

“The principle task of civilisation, its actual raison d’etre, is to defend us against nature. We all know that in many ways civilisation does this fairly well already, and clearly as time goes on it will do it much better. But no one is under the illusion that nature has already been vanquished; and few dare hope that she will ever be entirely subjected to man. There are the elements which seem to mock at all human control; the earth which quakes and is torn apart and buries all human life and its works; water, which deluges and drowns everything in turmoil; storms, which blow everything before them. … With these forces nature rises up against us, majestic, cruel and inexorable; she brings to our mind once more our weakness and helplessness, which we thought to escape through the work of civilisation.”

Freud describes how we have battled against nature to build western civilisation. This attitude is familiar to us all from our education; our history is portrayed as an epic, heroic journey from a primitive dark world of ignorance to a brighter world of ever-increasing knowledge, freedom and well-being. This progress was made possible by the birth of human reason and the modern mind; it’s all about onwards and upwards. Some people call this our “myth of progress”.

What we were not taught at school is the shadow of that myth. Jeannette Armstrong’s quote is just one illustration of the thinking of many indigenous societies that lived for thousands of years, in a richly sophisticated communion of community, land, culture and spirit. Freud reminds us of our very different western cultural perspective: that, in an effort to escape our vulnerability, we gradually learned how to manipulate the world around us. This has led to the desire to dominate nature and consequently the creation of a hierarchy of life. At the top sits white, western, male, middle-class, urban, “civilised” life and its values.

From this vantage point, nature – both nature “out there” as well as our own human nature — is seen as wild, brutal and out of control. Certain groups of humans are branded as being closer to the earth, seen as having a “lower”, more animal nature, and for some this justifies their domination and abuse. The genocide of indigenous cultures, African slavery and the oppression of women are three examples of this.

The end result of our myth of progress is that we see ourselves as separate from, and superior to, the rest of life. We treat those supposedly “underneath” as resources to use as we please – land, creatures, as well as peoples. This is a form of oppression which the deep ecologist John Seed describes as anthropocentrism. He writes: “Anthropocentrism means human chauvinism. Similar to sexism, but substitute ‘human race’ for ‘man’ and ‘all other species’ for ‘woman.’ ”

Some writers suggest that this shadow side of the myth of progress is reflected in the “myth of the fall”. The biblical story of how Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden can be read as a description of our separation from nature. But the traditional interpretation leaves us with unending guilt for this original sin of eating from the tree of knowledge and separating from nature. We are told we must atone for our flawed nature and that there is no way back to the garden.

When we remind ourselves of the kind of climate that we have all grown up in, for thousands of years, it is little wonder that we find ourselves in such turbulence. This is the climate that needs putting on the psychotherapist’s couch today.

I think we would all agree that our current popular reading of these two stories — the myth of progress and the myth of the fall — have run their course. At this critical point in human history we most urgently need a myth to live by which is about living with nature, rather than fighting it. We need to rethink where we have fallen, and what it means to progress. How can we progress to a life which benefits the whole earth community, not just wealthy humans?

Where we find ourselves, then, is between stories, in a transitional space, a place of great turbulence, with little to hold onto save the ground of our own experience. Our therapeutic task, you might say, in this space of transition is to understand how these myths still shape our internal worlds, our language and our defences against change, as well as to see our own part in the oppression of others. Through shedding light on these shadows we might ask how we find renewal: what does it mean to return to the garden?

For somewhere in the midst of “sustainability” – a rather uninspiring word — lies an inspiring vision of transformation. But if this journey is simply a practical venture about behaviour change, it will not appeal to our imaginations. We need to dig deep, to re-read our own myths as well as find inspiration from the stories of others who are outside the box of western culture, and inside the web of life.

NEXT: Responding to the current crisis

Mary-Jayne Rust is a Jungian analyst and art therapist in Britain. She has been writing, lecturing and running workshops on the links between psychotherapy and environmental issues for many years.

[This article is adapted from a 2008 article in Psychotherapy and Politics International, which was a revised version of a 2007 lecture presented by the author to the Guild of Psychotherapists (UK). It is published here with the author’s permission.]

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