Restoration or Suppression: Who are the Environmental Experts?

Many thinkers, groups, activists, and academic disciplines are working to address the many environmental and cultural challenges we face. In the final analysis though, while these efforts surely are an essential part of addressing the various challenges, they are, at best, only a suppression of symptoms. Ultimately, the crises we face stem from the lack of an overarching vision for the future; at best, we are being led by a fragmented and obsolete vision that guided humanity through what Berry (1988) called the industrial age (p. 82). The current state of environmental affairs is a plethora of complex problems, which, in the still prevailing industrial view, we can only haphazardly address – academia is compartmentalized, professionalized (Wilshire, 1990, p. 99), and commercialized to the point of ineffectiveness; viewpoints on environmental issues, such as questions on the good or ill of income and development, are locked in wildly polarized dichotomies (Beckerman, 2006; Shiva, 2006); and even terminology to be used, such as sustainability (Fricker, 2006) or biodiversity (Escobar, 2006), cannot be agreed upon. We are completely without a holistic worldview that is appropriate for the contemporary environmental situation. Considering this lack of an overarching vision for the future of humanity’s relationship to, or place within, nature, it is painfully clear that there are no experts on the environmental crisis, only egos running dangerously wild and dragging the rest of the world down into their narrow fields of vision.

Thankfully, there are a growing number of thinkers expressing a more thoughtful approach to finding ways to engage being human within nature; one that promotes the well-being of both, and that should inform all thought and action regarding the environment. Though not an organized group as such, the ideas presented by these thinkers and writers are similar enough to merit it being called a movement; one which has been growing stronger since the latter half of the twentieth century. Couched largely in theories of developmental psychology, ecopsychology, and philosophy, these thinkers approach the human-nature reciprocity from a perspective of restoring humanity’s indigenity to nature and thereby the well-being of both. All of these thinkers include an inherently spiritual aspect of the relationship to nature, and this is especially clear considering the original meaning of the Greek psyche as soul. The approach of this movement would likely be characterized by Simmons (2006) as being in the Franciscan tradition.

To adequately describe all of the writers of this movement would far exceed the scope of this essay; it must therefore suffice to briefly outline the general ideas through a brief examination of a few of the main thinkers. Having said that, some names should be mentioned in order to gain an appreciation of the breadth and chronological progression of the movement: Henry David Thoreau, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Aldo Leopold, Albert Schweitzer, C.G. Jung, Thomas Berry, Wendell Berry, Joanna Macy, Brian Swimme, Paul Shepard, Theodore Roszak, Bill Plotkin, and David Abram all belong in one form or other to this movement. Far from exhaustive, this list should serve to give a rough overview of the lineage of thought. For this paper, the focus will be on presenting the overarching themes common to most, if not all, of  these thinkers, with attention given to two early thinkers of this movement (C.G. Jung, Thomas Berry), and to some of the more recent expressions (Bill Plotkin, David Abram). The main works of these writers are described in a brief annotated bibliography below.

These thinkers come from an eclectic collection of backgrounds – Christian (Berry), shamanic or indigenous (Plotkin), academic or philosophical (Jung, Abram) – and their audience seems to be just as eclectic, with readership in the areas of popular literature, environmentalism, spiritual movements, academia, and philosophy. While Abram (1997) calls on earlier philosophical theories (especially those of Husserl and Merleau-Ponty) to support his arguments, most of the data supporting the views of this movement are phenomenological, empirical, or scientific. The overarching theme of these writers can be summarized as being holistic, individual, and cultural approaches to realizing awareness (or remembering) of the human unity with the environment, thereby seeking to provide a solid basis to engage the human-nature relationship and to promote the well-being of nature, individual, or culture (Jung, 2005, p.200; Berry, 1999, p. ix; Plotkin, 2008, p.2-3; Abram, 1997, p. x).

The root of the environmental problems we face is nearly universally seen by this movement as the separation of humanity from nature, in one form or the other. The most common root of this alienation is to be found in the prevailing thought of culture, resulting from a misguided setting of priorities on comfort, development, or wealth building (Jung, 2005, p.197; Berry, 1999, p. 2; Plotkin, 2008, p.2). This separation has led to a fragmented psyche, characterized by arrested development, which becomes a self-defeating entity unable to adequately address the social and environmental crises of which it is the cause, without first undergoing a transformation of worldviews (Plotkin, 2008, p.2; Berry, 1999, p. 7-8).

The solution proposed by this movement is, accordingly, the reestablishment of the awareness of our connection to nature (Abram, 1997, p. x); what Plotkin (2008) calls the “great turning” (p. 4). Though their approaches are largely dependent on their respective backgrounds –  Berry was a priest and social historian, Plotkin and Jung are psychologists, both offering forms of psychoanalysis, and Abram is a philosopher, active in writing and speaking engagements. While they all propose a renaissance of awareness of humanity’s connection with the earth, it must be noted that their approach remains pragmatic in regards to our historical context. The reconnection to nature which they advocate is not a call for a return to a less advanced way of living, but for a thoughtful approach to a shift and transformation of paradigms in a way that is meaningful today (Berry, 1999, p. 24-25). Though at times their ideas are seemingly radical, this is more a reflection of the extent of the fragmentation and pathology of our contemporary culture than it is an indication of crazy ideas. Their theories, while perhaps founded on concepts which might be termed archaic, are cognizant of the need for a re-integration of the true human-nature reciprocity into our contemporary culture, and not a replacement with or a return to earlier ways Nor is it in any way a rejection of science – the need for an integrated and contemporary way of dealing with the environmental crisis has lead Swimme and Berry (1992) to call for a “new story,” combining science with a more holistic awareness of the human presence on earth that resembles earlier mythic narratives of humanity’s place in the cosmos (p. 3).

It is clear in this movement that before any meaningful and lasting changes to our interactions with the environment can be realized, a shift in mentalities and worldviews must occur. While these writers do not offer ‘point solutions,’ and are perhaps not experts on the details of specific environmental problems, they lay a necessary philosophical, psychological, and spiritual foundation for a more effective container from which to engage those issues. It is self-evident that the environmental problem is a human problem, one which is caused and experienced on a psychological level (Jung, 2005, p.197), and thus it is best to first seek solutions to the problems within ourselves. Without a shift in general attitudes, any external solutions will be superficial, likely short lived, and the underlying pathology will emerge, like an air bubble trying to escape, into new and ever-growing problems.

This is evident when considering the many environmental theories, academic disciplines, projects, or activist organizations and groups that actively and passionately pursue awareness of and improvement to the well-being of the environment. Unfortunately, it all becomes a confusing array of terminology and conflicting ideas or cultural attitudes, which cause any environmental actions to be doomed from the beginning to fall prey to misunderstandings, environmental racism and colonialism (Berry, 1999, p. 2), or ineffectiveness against the relentless march of economic development, as seen in China (Schmidt, 2004). Narrow and tightly focused efforts become nothing more than a suppression of symptoms, while the underlying and deeper problems persist. These efforts must not cease, for certainly they have positive effects both on the environment and social issues, but until they are augmented by a shift in worldviews, they remain only islands, and the ‘air bubbles’ of the psychopathology of our addictive culture will find ever new ways to feed itself, and the environment will continue to pay; although ultimately, it is humanity that will pay the final bill.

The root of the problems we face is the lack of a guiding morality or vision; a way of being in the world. It is the absence of a general recognition of the unity of humans and nature in a reciprocal ecology. It is for this reason that I consider the thinkers mentioned in this essay to be the experts. Not only have they recognized the fragmented state of our psyche and our relationship to the environment as the root of the problem, they have outlined ways to begin a restoration of the awareness of the inherent unity of humans and nature. Far from resting on their laurels, they are actively working on programs to allow individuals to engage and learn, hands-on, to realize this awareness and transform it into action on a daily basis.

 

Annotated Bibliography

Jung, C. G. (2005). The earth has a soul: The nature writings of C.G. Jung. M. Sabini (Ed.). Berkeley, Calif: North Atlantic Books.

Jung once claimed that “natural life is the nourishing soil of the soul” and “we keep forgetting that we are primates and have to make allowances for those layers of the psyche.” Through these sayings, and other writings in this collection of thoughts on nature, it becomes clear that there is a strong connection between the human psyche and nature that must be considered in the course of human development. Gleaned from lectures, letters, and interviews, these writings present a little known aspect of Jung’s work.

 

Berry, T. (1999). The great work: Our way into the future. New York: Bell Tower.

In a sweeping work on the importance of a new responsibility toward the earth, the cultural historian Thomas Berry calls on ethics, politics, education, economics, and above all, art, to craft a new vision for the future ‘ecozoic’ age. The transition from the preceding industrial age into the ecozoic, and the crafting of the vision to empower this transition is what he calls the ‘Great Work.’ This represents a maturing, a coming of age of society, and in this sense it is a development parallel to the psychospiritual individuation of the person, broadening the idea of personal development to the macro level of society. Nonetheless, it remains a personal message to people of all walks to participate in the great work.

 

Plotkin, B. (2008). Nature and the human soul: Cultivating wholeness and community in a fragmented world. Novato, Calif: New World Library.

 Nature and the Human Soul is a nature based model of human development. Plotkin describes the absence of what he calls ‘Elders,’ fully mature adults, in our contemporary society. This book outlines a model of maturation and development through different phases of life, based on a relationship to nature. It is anticipated that there will be several similarities to Jungian ideas, as well as some differences that will give a broader understanding of the topic. Plotkin is a depth psychologist and holds a PhD in Psychology from the University of Colorado at Boulder. He has worked as both a professor of psychology and as a psychotherapist. He now heads up the Animas Valley Institute which offers wilderness based therapy and vision quests.

 

Abram, D. (1997). The spell of the sensuous: Perception and language in a more-than-human world. New York: Vintage Books.

The Spell of the Sensous is a phenomenological exploration of the dependence of the human psyche on the natural world, and the cause of the separation of humankind from nature. As Abram is an accomplished scholarly philosopher, the texture of this book is philosophical, based largely on the philosophy or Husserl and Merleau-Ponty, but also draws on anthropology (referring often to the linguistic ethnography of the Western Apache compiled by Basso) and the study of spiritual traditions.

 

 

 

 

Works Cited

Abram, D. (1997). The spell of the sensuous: Perception and language in a more-than-human world. New York: Vintage Books.

Beckerman, W. (2006). Income Levels and the Environment. In N. Haenn, & R. Wilk (Ed.), The environment in anthropology (pp. 173-182). New York: New York University Press.

Berry, T. (1988). The dream of the earth. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.

—. (1999). The great work: Our way into the future. New York: Bell Tower.

Escobar, A. (2006). Does Biodiversity Exist? In N. Haenn, & R. R. Wilk (Ed.), The environment in anthropology: A reader in ecology, culture, and sustainable living (pp. 243-245). New York: New York University Press.

Fricker, A. (2006). Measuring up to Sustainability. In N. Haenn, & R. Wilk (Ed.), The environment in anthropology (pp. 191-202). New York: New York University Press.

Jung, C. G. (2005). The earth has a soul: The nature writings of C.G. Jung. M. Sabini (Ed.). Berkeley, Calif: North Atlantic Books.

Plotkin, B. (2008). Nature and the human soul: Cultivating wholeness and community in a fragmented world. Novato, Calif: New World Library.

Shiva, V. (2006). Staying Alive: Women, Ecology, and Development. In N. Haenn, & R. Wilk (Ed.), The environment in anthropology (pp. 183-190). New York: New York University Press.

Simmons, I. G. (2006). Normative Behavior. In N. Haenn, & R. R. Wilk (Ed.), The environment in anthropology: A reader in ecology, culture, and sustainable living (pp. 53-72). New York and London: New York University Press.

Schmidt, C. (Director). (2004). World in the Balance: China Revs Up [Motion picture].

Swimme, B., & Berry, T. (1992). The universe story: From the primordial flaring forth to the ecozoic era–a celebration of the unfolding of the cosmos. San Francisco, Calif.: HarperSan Francisco.

Wilshire, B. W. (1990). The moral collapse of the university: Professionalism, purity, and alienation. Albany: State University of New York Press.

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