It might seem preposterous to link an individual’s depression to an oil spill on the far side of the planet, but in his book The Voice of the Earth, historian, philosopher, and novelist Theodore Roszak proposes that some of our seemingly personal psychological problems might better be understood as the earth expressing its pain. Roszak calls the source of this suffering the “ecological unconscious,” and calls this way of listening to the world “ecopsychology.”
Most recently, Roszak has coedited an anthology of writings by psychologists, scientists, and environmental activists. Each author addresses the links between our own sense of mental well-being and the health of the planet.
“Environmentalism and the Mystique of Whiteness” is excerpted from the anthology Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind. © 1995 by Theodore Roszak, Mary E. Gomes, and Allen D. Kanner. It appears here by special permission of Sierra Club Books, 100 Bush Street, San Francisco, CA 94104; credit-card orders at (800) 935-1056.
— Andrew Snee
Carl Anthony has come to play a special role in the environmental movement. As president of Earth Island Institute and director of the Urban Habitat Program, he has insisted on keeping the political issues surrounding race at the center of discussions about the environmental crisis. An architect and town planner, he emphasizes the ecological role of the city, not simply in terms of economic impact, but as the moral barometer of our society. He reminds us that without justice in the cities, there will be no solution to problems of wilderness and open space, endangered species and natural beauty. He probes the mystique of “whiteness,” examining how a deluded pursuit of “purity” has distorted the relationship of the dominant culture with both people and the planet. Moreover, Anthony offers us a way forward based upon respect for the many stories that make up our human diversity. He has said that the “success of ecopsychology will depend not only upon its ability to help us hear the voice of the earth,” but on its ability to “construct a genuinely multicultural self and a global civil society without racism.”
— Theodore Roszak
Roszak: What is the relationship between ecopsychology and the multicultural self?
Anthony: Ecopsychology tells us that the healing of the self and the healing of the planet go together. But there is a blind spot in ecopsychology because the field has been limited by its Eurocentric perspective, in the same way that the environmental movement as a whole has been blind to environmental racism. There are many people who would like to hear the voice of the earth who are not currently being reached by the deep-ecology movement, which I see as the basis for ecopsychology. That’s partly because these people are confronted with a series of traumatic losses that don’t show up on the radar screen of those who approach ecological issues from an aesthetic point of view and whose concern is for preserving the beauty of wilderness. The people I have in mind could include small farmers who really loved what they were doing but who have been evicted from the land. But, in particular, I am thinking of the kind of loss suffered by many people who live in the city and are traumatized by the absence of a functional relationship with nature. It’s not just a question of being able to walk along the beach and enjoy the ocean or the sky.
I think of my next-door neighbor, a woman seventy years old, whose parents were sharecroppers driven off the soil in the South by mechanization and the boll weevil, and also by the Ku Klux Klan and the inability to go to the polls to vote. If you search the pages of ecological literature, you don’t find anything about her kind of experience. People in that situation are generally not the people being reached by the deep ecologists. Deep ecology is in touch with something, but the desire of a tiny fraction of middle- and upper-middle-class European Americans to hear the voice of the earth could be, in part, a strategy by people in these social classes to amplify their own inner voice at a time when they feel threatened, not only by the destruction of the planet, but also by the legitimate claims of multicultural communities clamoring to be heard.
I agree that, no matter what the noise level, each person is entitled to hear his or her own inner voice. That’s an important first step to hearing the voices of others, as well as the cry of the earth. But the ability to respond intelligently, creatively, and compassionately to the claims of different human communities is undermined by the false sense of privilege that comes from thinking of oneself as “white.” Wanting to hear the voice of the earth, the notion that nature is crying out in pain, has a limited potential for reaching and touching many people who are living much more prosaic lifestyles than those who think about these matters only in an intellectual and philosophical way. People of color often view alarmist predictions about the collapse of the ecosystem as the latest stratagem by the elite to maintain political and economic control.
Roszak: How would the “multicultural self” help deep ecology get through to these people?
Anthony: For the themes of deep ecology to have resonance for the people I’m imagining, we have to know who they are. We have to construct a self that’s capable of harboring the voices of many different people and cultures, not just so-called white people. This is what I mean by a genuinely multicultural self. But, as it stands, we have an official story about who we are as a people: who’s really important, who’s in the mainstream and who isn’t. And this story is like refined sugar; it’s not a real story about real people. It’s been packaged and processed beyond recognition. I don’t believe it includes the stories of most people in this country; but, in particular, it’s very deficient when it comes to the reality of people of color.
Roszak: There’s a cliché that runs through the environmental movement — including ecopsychology — that has to do with people being “alienated” from nature. But the alienation is usually treated as a subtle, long-term, psychological process — which overlooks the fact that simple coercion has been very effective in divorcing some people from nature.
Anthony: I recently came across a story in the book Black Rage, by William Grier and Price Cobbs, that touched me deeply. It was about a man eighty years old who described a time when he was twelve. He saw his friend placed in a cage and taken off to be lynched because he’d been accused of raping a white woman. When this man experienced that, he knew that he had to get out of town. For almost seventy years, he found it impossible to settle down. He became an itinerant preacher and never stopped being tortured by memories of violence. Sometimes, in the middle of a sermon, he would cry out, “How could they do that to a little boy?” Now, there’s an example of being uprooted simply because the level of hostility is so great that you have to keep moving.
Something else comes to mind when we talk about having a “sense of place”: the way violence can blight our experience of place, even our home. There’s a character in Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved who can’t let herself remember the beauty of the plantation she escaped from, because it is drenched in memories of slavery. She wakes up from nightmares wondering if hell might not also be a pretty place.
Roszak: Another frequent assumption is that we have lost our sense of place in the modern world almost voluntarily, because of career opportunities or the generally footloose character of industrial society. Again, this overlooks the fact that some people have lost their place in the world for much more obvious and brutal reasons.
Anthony: Yes, because of direct political or economic force. Many people have experienced being driven away from a place that was once their home. If they haven’t had the experience personally, then their parents or grandparents have. But instead of talking about this, we reach back into prehistory, to when the hunter-gatherers decided to settle down and become agriculturalists. Of course, that history is also real, but it doesn’t capture the experience of people who were driven out by the Enclosure Acts in Britain, or the people who were subjected to pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe, or the black people who were captured and put in the holds of ships and forced to work on plantations. There is a tendency to romanticize the Native American struggle, but even things like the Trail of Tears — the uprooting of the Cherokee people, who were forced to march a thousand miles across the South and settle in Oklahoma — are not dealt with directly. The sense of alienation and loss is dealt with either mythically or in some sanitized version.
When I was growing up we always talked about “swamps.” Now we talk about “wetlands.” Do you know what a wetland is? It’s a swamp that white people care about.
Roszak: I feel that often the Native American experience, which is such a clear act of conquest, is used to concentrate the whole sense of violation in one ethnic group, without realizing that this is far from being an exclusive experience. It’s a way of packaging all the shame in one convenient parcel.
Anthony: I think that’s right. And there’s another aspect to this: for the national community, it is less threatening to deal with the Native American population because, first of all, they are a relatively small group; and, second, they generally are far away from where most Americans live out their daily lives. So most people don’t have to directly confront the reality of what the Bureau of Indian Affairs has done. They can be concerned about these things when they choose, and turn the concern off when they choose.
Roszak: There’s a strange irony surrounding the role of blacks in America, isn’t there? Here are a people who were forcibly brought to this continent primarily to work on the land; they were bonded to the soil by violence as the society’s lowest-level farming population. But now, in the late twentieth century, we think of blacks almost exclusively as people of the inner city. Our cities are becoming more and more a black community as whites flee into suburban areas.
Anthony: It’s incredibly ironic. And it’s never talked about in the environmental literature. But I see it as central to the ecological issue that humans’ domination and exploitation of nature began at exactly the same time as when blacks were forced to work the land. (Murray Bookchin has discussed this in a general way in The Ecology of Freedom.) You can see how it happened in places like Virginia, where the opportunity arose for people to exploit the land by moving away from subsistence agriculture to the cash crop of tobacco. Some people weren’t even raising enough food to eat; they preferred to sell tobacco for cash and buy food. Once they realized that this single crop was a source of great potential wealth, they looked around for a labor force to cultivate the land. That’s when slavery began to develop and harden. So you can see ruthless exploitation of the land arising at precisely the same time as the institution of slavery.
In this connection, I find the whole concept of “whiteness” extremely relevant. About the time that slavery was introduced, the first English settlers called themselves “Christians,” and they called the people they encountered here “pagans,” or sometimes “savages.” As more Europeans arrived, they called themselves “English” or “Dutch” or “French.” But then, in 1676, came Bacon’s Rebellion, in which a group of indentured servants and African slaves organized to kick the aristocratic elements out. It was a precursor of the American Revolution. Seeing this, the colonists realized that if the indentured servants ever got together with the black people and the native people, they — the colonists — wouldn’t have a future. That’s when the word white was first used as a racial term. What “whiteness” did was to unify all the Europeans who were coming here — people who, in Europe, were anything but unified. Many of them spoke different languages, and many had been at war with each other for centuries. The idea of whiteness created a sense of solidarity, especially among those who had suffered hardship. Now they could see a real opportunity to get some action. They could say, “I had my problems back there in the old country, but now I have a good shot at being an aristocrat or living high on the hog.” The result was a cultivated contempt for black and indigenous peoples. The important environmental aspect of this social polarization was that it allowed people to visualize the wilderness as being “empty.”
Roszak: Meaning belonging to nobody, available to be occupied, and having no rights of its own to be honored.
Anthony: Exactly. They didn’t say, “We’ve arrived at this place and here are these other people, so why don’t we talk to them in a neighborly way and find something that everybody can live with?” Ruth Frankenberg refers to the “social construction of whiteness” as being “intrinsically linked to unfolding relations of domination.” I see it as an unmarked, unnamed status, a structured invisibility that lends itself to false, universalizing claims that reduce other people to marginality simply by naming them as different races.
But here’s the complication: for two hundred years, very few European women came over here, so the settlers intermarried with Native Americans. Our stories never say anything about how the trappers and the pioneers ended up in relationships with Indian women — whether it was rape or whether it was love — but we have a whole set of populations that actually represent the coming together of indigenous people and Europeans. Their story never gets told. We don’t talk about them. That’s why the construction of a multicultural self means the deconstruction of the idea of whiteness, and the corresponding ability to meet others as equals.
What I find curious is that there seems to be no interest in finding out what those people experienced, what their traumas, their confusions were. Why not? I think an insistence on “purity” blocks that out. You see, there is enormous power that comes from abstraction and purity. If basically these white people are pure and their destiny is to dominate this continent and other people don’t exist, then the domination can’t be seen as transgression. If you embrace this abstraction, you can maintain your thrust across the land without coming to terms with the human or ecological consequences. But the minute you start getting involved with real people, taking their stories seriously, you don’t know where your loyalties are; you’re not sure whom you represent, or what your basic mission is. Things start getting confused.
We take our definition of race to be a hard line representing some real division among the people in the world, when actually it is an ideological and equivocal concept with very little biological basis. I would argue that this dividing-up of the human community is deeply reflected in the separation between people and nature. Nature is defined as “other,” in the same way as are these other people.
Roszak: I’ve noticed that you seem to use the words abstraction and purity interchangeably. Are you in fact using them synonymously? Purity strikes me immediately as having a positive value, whereas abstraction has the sense of being emptiness, nothingness.
Anthony: The fact that you think that purity is positive troubles me.
Roszak: Well, the word is usually used that way. If something is pure, you think —
Anthony: — that it’s 100 percent pure. Like pure granulated sugar, pure white bread. Meaning unsoiled, unsullied, undamaged, unconnected with dirt. So white people are pure and clean. And black people are dirt. If you want to get into the psychoanalysis of this, I think there is a very rich and interesting set of connections here dealing with anality and excrement. These associations echo in a frightening way in our cities. Some parts of cities are considered attractive, and other parts are waste. It’s a bodily metaphor: you eat one part and you shit the other part. It’s no accident, for example, that the environmental-justice movement is focused on the relationship between toxic waste and race. If you throw people away and you throw material away, it is no coincidence that you throw them away together. When I talk about purity, what I’m really talking about is white people’s obsession with not getting soiled.
Roszak: In every society where working the land has involved class distinction, getting your hands dirty has been a sign of low status. After generations of that, it’s no wonder a society develops an environmental crisis, because getting your hands dirty is an integral part of having a healthy environmental movement — for example, when it comes down to recycling your own garbage.
Anthony: And all this gets magnified by racism because certain kinds of work come to be considered “nigger work.” In the Old South, only the lowest sort of people did this work. Even the poor whites said, “Well, at least I don’t do nigger work.” That is what replaces a set of caring relationships to the land. If you’re white, you’re part of that group of people who get the benefit of manifest destiny; you get the whole package. You get to dominate the land and everyone on it; other people are marginalized.
White people benefit from a series of developments that have an enormous confluence. One is the perfection of the market as a device for making decisions about everything. Then there’s science, which extends your mechanical power. In a curious way, even in art we find a preoccupation, from the Renaissance on, with perspective as a way of scientifically controlling distant objects. With it, you can check out what’s happening miles away and place it all on a grid that goes off to the vanishing point. With European territorial expansion has come a whole series of inventions that have increased the potential for domination by abstraction, meaning distance from immediate experience and annoyingly concrete particulars — the substitution of a remote symbol for a given sensuous reality. But that’s what ecology is all about: the real complexity. You have to deal with the fact that there is a river here, with the fact that bugs come. In contrast, the whole idea of “perfection” leads to monoculture: flatten the land, grow only one crop, come along with an airplane and spray. You don’t have to deal with the fact that this is an organic process.
That’s one reason why racism is so hard to deal with: it brings up a much richer tapestry of human emotions, a much greater sense of both humor and tragedy than most Americans are willing to deal with. A friend of mine, Margot Adair, calls this monocultural ideal the “Wonder Breading of America.” This is where an ecological perspective has to come in. We are coming to the end of monoculture. Manifest destiny is over; now we start seeing the diversity. The ecological metaphor gives us the opportunity to feel comfortable with a more diverse sense of ourselves, as well as other people. But I think we have to learn the stories.
Roszak: I notice that you use the word story a lot. The more stories, the better. But some stories are cover stories. A people can have a collective cover story.
Anthony: That’s true. Partly we have stories that are lies. But what may be worse is that we have only a limited range of stories, when we ought to have a much fuller range. I grew up in Philadelphia. What did I learn in school there? I learned about Peter Stuyvesant and William Penn; I learned about the Mennonites; I learned about the Vikings. But I didn’t learn a thing about the Italians. A third of the people at my school were Italians, but I didn’t know why they came over here. I didn’t learn anything about the Poles, though a lot of the kids were Catholics and Jews from Poland. And God knows I didn’t learn anything about black people.
So here I was, growing up in this place, surrounded by these people. I had no idea who I was, no idea who they were. But I knew who William Penn was. Now, what did that do to my ability to function with the people around me? I was dealing with a blank deck.
Think of all the problems that came up during the late sixties in Boston or Cicero. The whites in Cicero, near Chicago, didn’t want black people moving into their neighborhoods; they were trying to defend their ethnic identity. But if they had known all the stories, it would have been a lot easier for them to say, “I see. I understand. I know what happened to those people and why they came here.” If we really know everyone’s story in a rich way, we are not dealing with a mystery.
Roszak: You and I were at a conference where the Council of All Beings ritual was performed. (The Council of All Beings was developed by deep ecologists John Seed and Joanna Macy as a way of working through environmental despair. It involves imaginative exercises, theater, grieving. Among ecopsychologists, the council is becoming a well-known gesture of emotional solidarity with the planet.) The catch phrase for the ritual is a quotation from ecologist Aldo Leopold, who suggested that we have to learn to “think like a mountain.” I know you have some reservations about the council that have to do with what you refer to as the “importance of stories.”
Anthony: Well, it was funny to me. I’ve been saying for a long time, “Why is it so easy for these people to think like mountains and so hard for them to think like people of color?” But the reason for that has nothing to do with color; it has to do with stories. Take your book, for example, The Voice of the Earth. I don’t believe you told any stories about people of color in your book; you probably don’t even know them.
Roszak: That’s true.
Anthony: You see, if you have stories about Crazy Horse or Chief Seattle, then you can say, “This reminds me of what Crazy Horse said.” Or you might also say, “This reminds me of what Nat Turner said,” or Frederick Douglass, or Zora Neale Hurston.
Roszak: Maybe the reason people prefer to take on the guise of a mountain or a wolf is because mountains and wolves can’t talk back and tell you how wrong you are. Suppose you were in a group and told a story you learned from a person of a different race or ethnicity. Someone else of that race might tell you that you didn’t know what you were talking about.
Anthony: I think that’s one of the reasons. But this needn’t be a big problem, because if you are actually in dialogue with people and someone tells you you don’t have it right, then you say, “Well, tell me what is right.” And the next time, you tell it differently. You learn through trial and error. Not being right is only a problem when you have a very tenuous, fearful relationship with someone.
Roszak: Native Americans have been readily identified as being close to the land. Their fate and the fate of the land are recognized as intertwined. There is also a whole set of nature references that the dominant white society has assigned to blacks. But in the case of blacks, the psychological associations don’t come out favorably. They take on a threatening aspect. The references are to jungles, savages, and wildness.
Anthony: It’s interesting to me that you used the word jungles, because now we call them rain forests.
Roszak: Rain forest is more benign. Jungle is the more menacing word.
Anthony: And when I was growing up we always talked about “swamps.” Now we talk about “wetlands.” Do you know what a wetland is? It’s a swamp that white people care about.
In the thirties, there was a huge amount of effusive romantic description of black people. It had a lot of the same qualities as current images of Native Americans: beat the drum, take me back to the earth. Then at some point it became incongruous with the reality of how people were living, so it stopped.
I think the problem is projection: white people want to be able to project on the world the images that have allowed them to control the world. Why is there so much energy put into that? It’s not natural, is it, this need to control? What I see, from a psychological point of view, is a whole series of lies and denials that white people have built up about the world and are unable to give up.
Roszak: Tell me about the role of the city in solving the environmental crisis.
Anthony: Fifty percent of the world’s population now lives in cities, and 70 percent of the people in the United States live in cities. Obviously, many of our environmental problems are directly related to urban living. One dramatic illustration of this is a report prepared by the South Coast Air Quality Management District about the Los Angeles air basin. It points out that 1 percent of global warming comes from Los Angeles alone. What more dramatic illustration do you need than this? Seventy percent of that city is paved over; people ride around in single-occupant automobiles, pushing out exhaust. Fifteen to twenty thousand people a year die in Los Angeles from respiratory conditions directly related to air quality; most of them are people of color and poor people. Los Angeles was supposed to be a garden city; people went there because they thought it was going to be Utopia. That, by and large, is the story of our cities: most are now unlivable.
We make our cities more miserable than they need to be. You could probably get rid of 80 percent of the paving in Los Angeles and make it infinitely more habitable. If you had mass transportation and places that people could walk and neighborhoods that were more self-reliant, you’d have more space; it could be made livable. If we really want to solve our environmental problems, then instead of running from the city we must rebuild it.
Roszak: If the city is at the heart of every environmental issue we might want to talk about, and if cities are becoming ungovernable, then the issue of urban justice is at the core of the environmental crisis.
Anthony: I think that’s true, but I also think the issue of beauty is at the core. If you are incapable of seeing the beauty that’s around you and the beauty of the people around you, if you are constantly running from them, then you can never make your peace; you’re always trying to escape to somewhere else. But if we appreciated living in a multicultural neighborhood, appreciated something beautiful there — the beauty of people from different places who have different stories — then instead of running from it we’d be drawn to it.
Roszak: You are talking about the human beauty that you can find in cities if you look for it. But, of course, the word beauty in the environmental movement is almost always reserved for natural, nonhuman beautiful things.
Anthony: People used to travel across the desert and find no beauty in it. “This is a wasteland,” they’d say. “There’s no water. It’s dead. Let’s get the hell out of here.” But now, of course, people look at deserts and marvel at all the rich life and diversity of beings found there. To do that, you have to be willing to slow down and just be there. Of course, the other problem is that our manufactured environment is so hideous, particularly compared to indigenous traditions. In West African villages, people make homes out of grass woven with incredible care. It’s just grass, but it’s like a symphony. The fact that we have increased our power over nature can take a lot away from us. We drive around at eighty miles an hour rather than having to walk. That results in places like San Pablo Avenue, here in my neighborhood, a street where it’s impossible to walk. That’s like being in a wasteland.
Roszak: If you wanted to frame a curriculum in ecopsychology, what is the one thing you feel would be a necessary part of it that you don’t see there now?
Anthony: I actually think of two things. What I believe is most urgent has to do with the idea of whiteness. The monolithic human identity that has been built around the mythology of pure whiteness is destructive. We have to find a way to build a multicultural self that is in harmony with an ecological self. We need to embrace human diversity in the way we deal with each other and discard the notion that white people are the mainstream and everyone else is “other.” An ecopsychology that has no place for people of color, that doesn’t deliberately set out to correct the distortions of racism, is of no use.
Second, and related, is the importance of the urban issue. I am trying to put these two concerns together through my work in the Urban Habitat Program. Respect for cultural diversity, for social justice, and for multicultural leadership must be at the heart of restructuring our cities. That’s the framework we need, not only to rebuild our cities, but to become balanced with nature in order to protect the planet. But the only way we can do it is to incorporate a respect for human diversity and social justice into all that we do.
There is a lot of work to be done among people of color. This is really difficult for me. Among people of color — among black people, particularly — we have to learn a whole new attitude toward ourselves and the people around us. When I talk about multicultural leadership, I mean that black people need to move away from a mode in which we simply identify with our victim selves. I’m not saying we should deny the victim part, but that we should also accept our capacity to provide leadership for the whole community. We have to learn how to own that part of our experience too, spiritually and psychologically. We have to be willing to take responsibility for the outcome, not only for our own communities, but for everyone.