Psychotherapists are accustomed to listening to their clients with an ear trained to hear subtle voices: those of the wounded child, the broken family, even the archetypal, collective unconscious. But historian, philosopher, and novelist Theodore Roszak believes therapists are deaf to the most important inner voice of all: the “ecological unconscious” — the voice of the earth expressing its own pain through our seemingly unrelated woes. Therapy, by and large, says Roszak, ignores “the greater ecological realities that surround the psyche — as if the soul might be saved while the biosphere crumbles.”
Does this mean we should turn to environmentalists for personal counseling? The notion is singularly uninviting, for environmentalists seem to specialize in making us feel worse about human desires and tendencies. As Roszak observes of eco-activists, “their habitual reliance on gloom, apocalyptic panic, and the psychology of shame takes a heavy toll in public confidence.”
In his latest book, The Voice of the Earth (Touchstone), Roszak proposes a common solution to the shortcomings of both modern psychotherapy and environmentalism: “ecopsychology,” a new way of looking at human experience. Arguing that the search for self-knowledge is also the route to environmental sanity, Roszak suggests that our civilization’s survival depends on finding a slower, more reflective, more decentralized, and more democratic way of life. In Roszak’s view, such a life would answer the deepest human needs more effectively than industrialism and consumerism, the twin engines driving modern civilization. But we won’t get there by continuing to blame one another about our poor environmental habits, he asserts. Instead, we need to undertake a caring examination of the needs that drive those habits. He concludes that “ecology needs psychology; psychology needs ecology.”
Twenty-five years ago, Roszak wrote The Making of a Counterculture, a landmark study of twentieth-century societal change. A Guggenheim fellow and twice nominated for the National Book Award, Roszak is a professor of history and general studies at California State University at Hayward. He has continued his piercing analysis of contemporary human nature in such nonfiction works as Where the Wasteland Ends, Person/Planet, and The Cult of Information, and in the novels Pontifex, Bugs, Dreamwatcher, and Flicker.
In The Voice of the Earth, Roszak makes a passionate and sophisticated plea for us to recognize the state of the environment as something “more personal, more threatening, more radical” than the various misfortunes visited upon us by the evening news. “It may well be,” he suggests, “that more and more of what people bring before doctors and therapists for treatment — agonies of body and spirit — are symptoms of the biospheric emergency registering at the most intimate level of life. The earth hurts, and we hurt with it.” In years to come, Roszak may be remembered as one of the first to connect the human search for inner peace and the healing of the earth.
Miller: You’ve said that the most enduring element in the protest of the sixties counterculture turned out to be the environmental movement, especially in its more radical criticism of urban-industrial society. When did you start to question the effectiveness of that movement?
Roszak: Sometime in the mid-eighties I began to realize I was burning out as a writer and speaker on environmental issues because so much of what I was presenting was relentlessly negative. The issues were legitimate, but they were taking a heavy toll on me because I was doing a lot of blaming. Burnout happens when you make an issue so impossibly large that it’s difficult to see how most people could make all the changes you’re asking of them quickly enough to make a difference.
I remember in catechism class there was an old conundrum: Can God create a tree so big that He can’t pull it up? Certainly, political activists can often envision problems so big that there seems no way to solve them.
I also began to realize that it was more and more difficult to connect with the people I was addressing. They were going numb on me or turning hostile. I saw this not just in my own experience but in a backlash to the environmental movement. The most important evidence for this was how the Bush administration played the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio. Bush went to that summit determined to treat the worldwide environmental movement as an adversary to what he called the American way of life. His stance meant that he was aware of a certain amount of frustration, discontent, and hostility on the part of the general public toward the environmental movement. People were beginning to feel that too much was being asked of them, and too much of the movement’s philosophy was based on a sweeping vilification of American society and culture.
Miller: Was this backlash justified?
Roszak: Much of the criticism may be valid in the abstract. The environmental movement is asking for a lot: nothing less than radical change that must be made very rapidly. The trouble is that if you don’t present these demands in a way that changes people’s behavior, you’re not going to achieve your goals. If you’re asking more from the public than you believe they can give you, and if you’re then blaming them for not giving you what you want, not only are you turning them off but you’re going to burn out with frustration and hopelessness.
I’ve met a number of environmentalists who have gone through this experience. They feel bound to an agenda for change so vast and demanding that it’s practically hopeless. One can become immersed in negativity, endlessly resorting to guilt trips and scare tactics. This is not good for activists, and it’s not good for the movement.
Miller: Haven’t environmentalists since John Muir been asking for an end to the American adventure of conquering the frontier?
Roszak: Yes, but we’re not talking about just the American experience. We’re talking about the world experience of industrialism, including the way in which industrialism is playing itself out in the underdeveloped countries. What we’re really asking is for people to radically reevaluate the meaning of progress.
The myth of progress has driven Western society for about three centuries, so the problem is that deeply rooted. The American version of that myth takes the form of settling the continent, conquering the frontier, and so on.
Since at least the Enlightenment, the Western world has pinned its hopes to the possibility of improving life on earth not only materially but morally and culturally. And we’ve believed that science will enable us to do this, that science put to work through machines will give us more and more control over nature and our own lives. Calling that conception of progress into question is a very big task, and that’s what the environmental movement is doing.
I don’t think this means giving up on progress and turning to despair. Rather, we must come to see that there is a new and exciting cultural project before us.
Miller: What would you say to critics who might view such a project as a sentimental back-to-nature movement?
Roszak: As a historian I would say one can never go back; one can only go forward in the light of experience. Conventional progress has been misguided, specifically in the attempt to “conquer” nature. What we need to understand is that conquest is impossible; it fails to take into account that we are ourselves part of the nature we are trying to dominate. What we need instead is a state of harmony based upon trust. That also involves a great deal of scientific understanding, and it’s compatible with much technological innovation. But a very different sensibility has to infuse our search for security and our hope for improving our standard of living.
One place we can find that sensibility is in traditional societies that have maintained a more direct relationship with nature. This doesn’t mean that it is realistic simply to go back and appropriate the wisdom or experience of other cultures. But we can learn from them. That’s one of the glories of a sophisticated civilization: we can regard all the cultures of the world as having something to teach us.
Miller: How is this outlook connected with what you call ecopsychology?
Roszak: If you look at the subject of spiritual healing — which is the root meaning of the word psychotherapy, or soul healing — from a larger perspective, you discover that in many traditional societies the natural environment is always included in the process of healing. It is clearly understood that human beings have to exist in a state of harmony with the natural environment. There’s absolutely nothing sentimental about this; it is understood as a fact of life that we live in a state of reciprocity with the birds and the beasts, the rivers and the mountains, and the sun, moon, and stars.
In traditional understanding, the natural world, though potentially very nurturing, is very large and very powerful, so we must accept what it gives us with respect and reverence. We call that worldview animism, and it’s probably the original natural philosophy of the human species. I believe there’s a great deal still to be learned from that tradition, not only about our relationship with the environment but about human psychology too. I refer to this as a Stone Age psychiatry, the oldest form of spiritual healing, and it still has much to teach us. I believe it will have to be adapted to the modern industrial world. That is, I don’t believe we can just take other peoples’ cultures as they practice them, their sweat-lodge rituals and so on. But we can certainly learn something of the insight and the spirit of those traditions and try to bring them into our psychotherapy to make it environmentally grounded.
Miller: Modern ethics champions such ideas as protecting the weak and valuing the individual, neither of which seems characteristic of the natural world. So which elements of nature are we going to revere?
Roszak: That point of view assumes that humans and nature are separate, which itself may be the root of our problem. We are the children of nature and we are embedded in nature, which means we have to come to terms with all aspects of it. As Alan Watts once said, we live on a planet that, in the course of its history, “peopled.”
So I’m not suggesting that there is some simple set of qualities we can select from the natural world, as if we were shopping in a mall and choosing the features we like, leaving what we don’t like. I’m saying that whether we like it or not, we are embedded in the natural world in a way that means all of our actions have consequences.
I take ecology to be the science of connectedness. The deeper our understanding of ecology, the more connected we see that we are — which may mean that there is always a price to be paid, that the natural world simply cannot be pushed around and dominated.
For three centuries we’ve been committed to the idea that we can have it all our own way simply by exerting enough force upon the environment, that we can completely make it over and it will be everything we want it to be — without the negative aspects of death and disease, dirt and grime, suffering and despair. But I believe we have to live with these too in order to have real wisdom.
Here’s where ecopsychology, drawing upon lessons learned from therapeutic practice, can help personalize a major environmental issue. We are learning that relationships based on dominance and submission — say, between husband and wife — are not sustainable. The women’s movement has helped us understand that. The same is true of our relationship as a species to the natural world. The effort to achieve security by domination suffers from exactly the same unsustainability.
Miller: In a highly urbanized, artificial lifestyle, we may assume that we have indeed mastered nature. But this can be seen as a neurotic fantasy, since all our high-rises and condos and climate-controlled automobiles are still entirely dependent upon natural resources.
Roszak: I agree. In Where the Wasteland Ends, I argued that we have come to define progress as the degree to which our lives become more artificial, the degree to which we surround ourselves with man-made systems. That definition needs to be reassessed. The search for an artificial way of life carries heavy costs and may be ultimately futile.
Science fiction has always seen societies of the future as cut off from nature; the people live in man-made enclosures, and the natural world has been reduced to a kind of servant that can be exploited without limit. This image of a future made of artificial materials, completely self-contained and sterile, dates all the way back to Francis Bacon in the seventeenth century and attributes to human beings godlike powers to reshape the natural world.
It’s more realistic to seek a quality of life that respects the organic, that is much more connected to the forces and limitations and hardships of the natural world. For example, look at modern agriculture. For decades we’ve believed we could exploit the soil without limit, using machines and chemicals to grow whatever we want in infinite quantities. Now we know that this leads to vast agricultural monocultures, in which the natural variety of the planet is stripped down, and we see that, in the long run, this burns out the soil and endangers food production in potentially disastrous ways.
Another result is that we have produced a society in which fewer and fewer people know anything about the environmental foundations of their lives. They don’t know where food comes from, nor do they know about recycling or composting or other basic facts of food production that any so-called primitive or traditional person understands. One of the paradoxes of our conception of progress is that, as time goes on, our society produces people more ecologically illiterate than people ever have been in the past. Widespread ecological illiteracy is one of the roots of our environmental crisis. Many people simply do not understand the biological foundations of their own survival.
Miller: Let’s imagine an unhappy urban apartment dweller who works in a high-rise all day and never even takes a camping trip. She might say to her ecopsychotherapist, “Are you trying to tell me my life would be better if I understood composting?”
Roszak: I don’t know if I can speak to a specific example like that. What I can say is that our cultural conception of progress is not only environmentally damaging, it’s also psychologically damaging. It cuts us off from something that’s always been fundamental to human nature: a sense of reciprocity with the natural environment. Recapturing that reciprocity, that emotional bond with the earth, is at the heart of ecopsychology. How that is to be done is a more specific question. Indeed, for some people, it may be learning how to compost.
Ecopsychology is based on the assumption that people are bonded to the planet in much the same way that we are bonded to our families. In both cases there is an intimate connection that has to be honored. Psychotherapy is accustomed to the idea that many of our problems are embedded in the context of the family, and therefore the family has to be included in therapy. In exactly the same way, ecopsychology contends that there is an environmental context for many of our so-called personal problems. Unless our relations with the natural world are brought into therapy, there will not be a complete understanding of our condition.
In my experience in workshops over the last few years, I’ve learned that if you raise questions about environmental habits and then listen carefully, you learn moving and insightful things from people. For example, if you talk to people about their consumption habits — the overconsumption of industrial populations is at the heart of the environmental crisis — they often will describe their habits with reference to depression and addiction. You learn that these habits are not simply the product of greed in a simplistic ethical sense, but of a lifestyle in which there is often a great deal of despair.
If it’s true that the consumption habits of our society have an addictive element, then the standard political approach of making people ashamed is not only futile but counterproductive. The essence of addiction is that people are doing something they’re already ashamed of doing. They do not need more shaming. An effective approach would be very different — the approach that therapists use to help with addiction. That is, to find something that replaces the addiction, something that is as much an object of love or gratification as the addictive habit. This is a radically different approach toward handling an environmental issue.
So ecopsychology seeks to find the underlying motivations for our bad environmental habits, based on the assumption that because we have an emotional bond to the planet — I call it an “ecological unconscious” — people do want to be good environmental citizens. If they’re not, there must be reasons. If you can find those reasons, then you can treat them and change the behavior. That’s a much more optimistic approach than simply seeing people as wicked, greedy, or hopeless and seeking to punish them for what they do.
Miller: Have you seen people discovering ecologically sound alternatives to their addictions?
Roszak: By listening respectfully to people, I’ve learned how profoundly many of them grieve for the natural environment. They grieve, in ways that they themselves may not fully understand, for the loss of natural beauty and the loss of species. The problem is that they seldom get a chance to express that sadness.
Every therapist knows that when people are not given a chance to express their grief, the result is neurosis and sickness. But neither psychotherapy nor the environmental movement has found any way for our grief to be expressed. Indeed, many therapists refuse to recognize our sadness about the environment as an honest emotion. They tell people, “You are evading the true issue, which has to do with your social or family relations.”
This is one of the attitudes I hope will change. We do have environmental connections that need to be honored, and if they’re ignored or abused, we may feel grief. Once the grief is expressed, it can be understood and acted upon. That’s extremely important. Grief that goes unrecognized cannot be acted upon; it paralyzes us. It can make us very sick.
There are ways in which ecopsychologists are seeking to address this problem. There is, for example, a ritual called the Council of All Beings, created by therapist Joanna Macy and Australian environmental activist John Seed. Its purpose is to allow groups of people to express their sadness and, following that, to experience a sense of empowerment. I’ve been through it and found it a remarkably effective way of energizing people to act on environmental issues.
Miller: Do you believe that much of the grief that is uncovered in conventional therapy — grief that has been seen as resulting from severe family dysfunction, for instance — actually has roots in a deeper, ecological grief?
Roszak: Back at the turn of the century, when Freud discovered how much of our sexual life was repressed, he identified this as the universal quality of neurosis. Most therapists now would say that was too sweeping, that there are many sources of neurosis. The Jungians have gone on to talk about our spiritual needs as well as our erotic needs. It’s been characteristic of every school of therapy to generalize its peculiar insight to the point of making it exclusive and universal. It’s a matter of getting carried away with one’s big, new idea. The fact is that human nature is extremely complex, and we are a mixture of many different levels of experience.
A great many of our psychological problems may indeed be sexual and social, and I wouldn’t ever pretend that those forces don’t exist. They do. But ecopsychology seeks to introduce another relationship that has been left out: our relationship with the birds and the beasts, with the beauty and grandeur of nature, with the whole out-of-doors and nonurban context of our lives. Exactly how this will balance out in relationship to other psychological factors is impossible to predict. I am certain that within the next few generations it will have become unthinkable to leave our environmental relationships out of our understanding of human psychology — just as today it’s unthinkable that we would leave out sexuality.
Miller: Perhaps in the same way that ecology introduced us to the idea of the “web of life,” ecopsychology will clarify the web of psychic forces we experience, so that we gain a practical understanding of how sexuality is spirituality is ecology, and so on.
Roszak: It’s true that we haven’t integrated the ecologists’ understanding of the web of life into our psychological view of human nature. To do that, we have to recognize that human emotions and motivations are at the heart of ecological issues. Thus, the environmental movement has to recognize that there is a psychological dimension to every environmental issue. These issues are not simply matters of facts and figures, not just impersonal economic forces. They are deeply personal in character, and if you haven’t included that personal dimension, then you haven’t included enough to solve the issue. Both of these communities have to learn from one another. Psychology needs ecology; ecology needs psychology.
Of course, these two communities have not been on speaking terms, and bringing them together is exciting — especially if you recognize that the influence of psychology, for better or worse, is enormous. Every time there’s an issue or a problem in life, we trot out psychologists as some kind of authority — at the popular as well as the academic level. I’m not sure this is a good thing, but they have largely taken the place of priests and other spiritual counselors. We’re always calling upon these people to advise us about everything from diapering babies to divorce to death. If their expertise and authority included a constant awareness of our environmental connectedness, I think that would have tremendous political consequences.
Miller: In The Voice of the Earth you make environmental connections with issues that have seemed unrelated to ecology.
Roszak: Gender identity, for instance. The ecofeminists have showed us that our science and technology, and therefore our environmental relations, are shot through with an underlying sexual politics. This sexual politics leads people to believe that there has to be a dominant-submissive relationship with the natural world. If you ask people about the natural, nonurban world, they often refer to it as “she,” as “Mother Nature,” as a world that is unruly and unreliable, treacherous and threatening. The gender politics are evident in this metaphor, which is ages old. After all, the seventeenth-century fathers of modern science — and they were all men — saw the natural world as feminine and in need of domination. This insight, which comes from the feminist wing of the environmental movement, is certainly one that psychologists can use.
Another issue is population, which is also deeply connected to gender. In most of the world, gender roles restrict women to being lifelong childbearers. Questioning these roles, as a way of addressing overpopulation, can be explosively controversial, especially in societies where there hasn’t been much of a feminist movement to raise such issues. So you cannot separate population issues from the profoundly psychological issue of gender roles. It’s not just an economic or ecological problem, and limiting our perspective to those terms will prevent us from finding a solution.
Miller: The controversy recently generated by Alice Walker’s condemnation of clitoridectomy in traditional African societies is a case in point. What she sees as an issue of universal women’s rights is being received in some quarters as an issue of cultural imperialism — the first world telling the third world how to behave in order to be “civilized” like us.
Roszak: It’s an interesting example, because it highlights what the modern industrial world can contribute to ecological understanding. It is in our urban society that movements for women’s emancipation have arisen, and that emancipation is a proposition that we can bring to the rest of the world: the revolutionary idea that the genders are equal and deserve equal opportunities to grow and flourish. In traditional societies, gender roles are usually assigned with great severity. This is one area in which modern, industrial society may have come up with an insight that’s crucial to both worldwide psychological health and environmental sanity.
Miller: But it means realizing that societies that are apparently more connected to the earth than ours are not necessarily saner in all respects.
Roszak: It’s important not to idealize traditional, or so-called primitive, societies. All human societies have their problems and their limitations, and they all have areas of wisdom and insight. I take the mark of true civilization to be the capacity to compare and learn as much as possible from all cultures.
In my lifetime, in fact, one of the great intellectual accomplishments of Western society has been a reassessment of the role of the traditional and the primitive in human culture. It’s now impossible to write such cultures off as backward or benighted. We now understand the importance of creating what the poet Robert Duncan once called a “symposium of the whole,” in which we learn from all cultures and all peoples, but not without discrimination or criticism.