Green psychology

An essay by psychologist Ralph Metzner Ph.D. on his book, Green Psychology, where he links the way we think with the way we live in the world.

No-one can doubt we live in a time of unprecedented ecological destruction. The fabric of life on this planet is being degraded at an ever-accelerating pace, accompanied by massive loss of animal and plant diversity and escalating threats to human health and wellbeing. Evolutionary biologists tell us that there have been numerous episodes of world-wide extinction before, including five major ‘spasms’ involving the loss of up to 90% of existing species — the last one being the cataclysm 65 million years ago that brought the Age of Dinosaurs to an end.

What is unprecedented about the present situation is that it is the actions and technological productions of one species — the human — that are bringing about this biosphere meltdown. Increasing numbers of people have therefore come to the conclusion that it is in the hearts and minds of human beings that the causes and cures of the eco-catastrophe are to be found.

This is the basic reason why a psychologist like myself is concerning himself with the imbalance in the human-nature relationship, and how it can be healed. If the imbalance exists because of certain mistaken or delusional attitudes, perceptions and beliefs, then we can ask the psychological question of how this came about, and how it can be changed.

As a psychotherapist, I am a member of a profession that deals with psychic disturbance and pathology. Cannot what we have learned from working with troubled individuals and families help us deal with this collective psychopathology, this profound alienation of the human psyche from the Earth? I prefer the term ‘green psychology’ to ‘ecopsychology’ which is presently gaining considerable currency, largely due to Theodore Roszak’s brilliant work in The Voice of the Earth.

The reason is that those of us in this field (including Roszak) do not mean to advocate the creation of a new sub-discipline of psychology, to join clinical, social, developmental, etc. Rather we are talking about a fundamental revisioning of what psychology is, or should have been in the first place, a revision that would take the ecological context of human life into account. As Roszak says, ‘psychology needs ecology and ecology needs psychology’. The absence of any consideration given to the ecological basis of human life in textbooks and theories of psychology is startling: it’s as if we lived in a vacuum, or a space capsule.

Interestingly, some of the earliest and profoundest contributions to an ecological psychology were made by non-psychologists: the ecologist Paul Shepard (Nature and Madness), the theologian Thomas Berry (The Dream of the Earth), the philosopher Warwick Fox (Transpersonal Ecology), and Theodore Roszak. The kind of fundamental revisioning called for by ecologically minded, ‘green’ psychologists, parallels similar movements in other fields.

Philosophers in the new field of environmental ethics have been working for twenty years on the philosophical and moral aspects of environmental problems, and how ethical considerations can be brought into discussions of public policy. A small but growing number of ecological economists have been investigating the thorny problems involved in revisioning conventional economic theory to take the ecological basis of all economic activity into account.

Unlikely as it may seem, even the field of religious studies has undergone some significant soul-searching, under the stimulus of devastating critiques by environmental philosophers. Conferences have been held in which representatives of the major organised religions have examined their traditions in response to a call for religious consideration of ecological issues.

Together with major paradigm shifts in the natural sciences — primarily from the mechanistic, atomistic framework to a systems view of nature and the cosmos — these revisionings amount to the beginnings of an ecological or systems worldview. Ecology has been called the ‘subversive science’, because by making relationships and interdependencies the central focus of its concerns, it subverts the traditional academic tendencies to specialisation and fragmentation. Ecopsychology within a system’s worldview therefore would of necessity have to consider questions traditionally dealt with by philosophers, economists, biologists, theologians or historians from within their respective paradigms.

As an educator, I have wrestled for twenty years with the problems involved in teaching ecological perspectives to students who don’t see the relevance of these issues to their interests in the human psyche, or in self-development. A new understanding of the role of the human in the biosphere is urgently needed. Philosophers dating back to the European Romantic movement and American Transcendentalism, have identified the domination of nature by humans as the root pathology of Western civilisation.

In the 20th century, as the pace of worldwide ecological destruction and the loss of species diversity has accelerated under the relentless onslaught of technological industrialism, such critiques have taken on a tone of urgency verging on desperation. A distinction can be made between, on the one hand, those environmental movements that focus on improved legislative control over pollution and waste, and scientific ecosystem management; and, on the other hand, those movements of ‘radical ecology’ that challenge the very foundations of the modernist industrial worldview, and the ideologies of domination associated with it.

Radical ecology movements include deep ecology, ecofeminism, social ecology, socialist ecology, eco-justice, bioregionalism — and perhaps ecopsychology, if considered from a holistic or systems perspective. The radical ecology movements emphasise one or another form of domination as the core of the interlocking systems of domination that characterise the modern world.

The deep ecology movement has as its central focus the replacement of anthropocentric, exploitative attitudes towards nature by non-dominating, eco- or biocentric values and paradigms. Ecofeminism links the domination of nature with the patriachal domination of women. Social ecology critiques all forms of hierarchical order and domination, whether of class, ethnicity or gender. For socialist ecology the crucial diagnosis is via the critique of capital accumulation and the profit motive.

The eco or environmental justice movement focuses on the links between racism and the human domination of nature. Bioregionalism involves a critique of conventional political and economic approaches to places and regions. Green or ecopsychology could also be considered ‘radical’ — insofar as it posits a fundamental reorientation of human attitudes towards the totality of the ‘more-than-human world’.

In addition to these radical revisionings of fundamental paradigms and value systems in the social sciences, philosophy and religion, there has also been an increased openness and receptivity to indigenous and archaic forms of knowledge. As the environmental devastation wrought by the industrial model of development increases, the realisation has grown that indigenous societies (those that have survived) have in fact often preserved practices of sustainability that we are now desperately trying to reinvent.

As the generally negative or neglectful attitudes towards the environment enshrined in the major organised religions has become more obvious, many concerned individuals have found themselves turning towards the animistic, polytheistic religion of their ‘pagan’ ancestors — the pre-Christian ‘country-dwellers’ who recognised and respected the spiritual intelligences inherent in nature.

As the spiritual emptiness and moral shallowness in many religious and psychotherapeutic systems has become more and more evident, thousands of seekers have turned to shamanic practices such as the ‘shamanic journey’, the ‘vision quest’, or the use of hallucinogenic visionary plants — in order to cultivate a more direct psychic, conscious connection with the natural world.

These are some of the major themes in this work. A brief outline follows:

In chapter 1, The True, Original First World, I describe how a trip to the Lacandon Maya in Chiapas, Mexico, and my participation in a ceremony with their traditional intoxicant balche, led to a radical paradigm shift in my thinking: the multinational industrial empire based on economic and military might cannot be considered the ‘First World’. That appellation should belong to the historically oldest and primary layer of civilisation — the world of the indigenous tribal peoples.

In chapter 2, Gaia’s Alchemy: Ruin and Renewal of the Earth, I explore how the symbolic language of alchemy, the medieval science which concerned itself with the transformation of matter, can be used to understand the massive biospheric transformations taking place in our time. This essay is followed by an account of my participation in a traditional ‘vision quest’ in the California desert. Through this, I came to a much deeper appreciation for the role of such earth-honouring rituals.

Chapter 4, Mystical Greenness: The Visions of Hildegard von Bingen, discusses the astonishing ecological spirituality and nature mysticism of the 11th century Benedictine Abbess and visionary prophet, a prime exponent of what some are calling the ‘creation spirituality’ tradition within Christianity.

In chapter 5 I discuss the historical and potential future role of psychoactive plant medicines in systems of transformation such as shamanism, alchemy and yoga.

In chapter 6 I review some of the diagnostic metaphors from psychopathology that have been proposed to account for the collective pathology of the human relationship to nature — concepts such as autism, amnesia, addiction, dissociation and others.

In chapter 7 I discuss some of the historical roots of the split between humans and nature, particularly its origins in the rise of mechanistic science, and further back in the ascendancy of transcendental monotheism.

Chapter 8; Sky Gods and Earth Deities, traces the split even further back into pre-history — into the long-drawn out struggle between the invading nomadic Indo-Europeans with their sky and warrior gods, and the aboriginal matricentric Goddess cultures of Old Europe, with their earth, animal and feminine deities.

In chapter 9, The Black Goddess, the Green God and the Wild Human, I explore some of the key mythic figures of our pagan ancestors — the gods and goddesses that personify our relation-ship to the earth, to the plant realm and to the world of animals.

Chapter 10, Re-Unification of the Sacred and the Natural, argues that the current revival of interest in the sacramental use of visionary plants can contribute to a healing of the split in our collective psyche.

With the last two chapters, I return to the present:

Chapter 11, Transition to an Ecological Worldview, summarises in as condensed a fashion as possible, the main distinguishing features of the ecosystems worldview, as it is emerging in many disciplines simultaneously out of the inadequacies of the modernist worldview with its associated techno-industrial excesses.

Finally, in chapter 12, The Place and the Story, I show how in such an ecological worldview, a new yet ancient perspective on human identity can arise. Traditional people had a much closer relationship to place; we need to learn to understand ourselves in relationship to a place, and to the story of that place, and ultimately the story of the universe.

Reprinted from Green Psychology by Dr. Ralph Metzner
The Green Earth Foundation
P.O. Box 327, El Verano,
Ca 95433

The Green Earth Foundation is an educational and research organisation dedicated to the healing and harmonising of the relationships between humanity and the earth. Our objectives are to help bring about changes in attitudes, values, perceptions, and worldviews that are based on ecological balance and respect for the integrity of all life-forms on earth.

This was written in 2003/4, a time when those at the forefront of the eco movement were having these discussions, and now, 2010, it remains valid. (Have you read a book or an author whose thoughts inspire discussion about the revisioning of our future so desperately needed? If so, write about it, and send it in. Let’s open up the ‘conversation’ about our future.)

Related to - Sustainability | Futurism | Environmental health | Deep ecology

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