Friday, January 27, 2012

Re-Visioning our Relationship with Nature

The Forum on Religion and Ecology is a leader in developing the dialogue on spirituality and the environment Joseph Campbell thought that if a new myth of any value were to emerge, it would be of a “society of the planet” living in relationship with the Earth. (Campbell 1988, p. 32) Ecotheology, creation spirituality and ecospirtuality have been developing over the past two decades with the writings of Matthew Fox and Thomas Berry being notable examples.

article by Dennis Merritt
Western man has no need of more superiority over nature, whether outside or inside. He has both in almost devilish perfection. What he lacks is conscious recognition of his inferiority to nature around him and within him. He must learn that he may not do exactly as he wills. If he does not learn this, his own nature will destroy him. He does not know that his own soul is rebelling against him in a suicidal way.  —C.G. Jung, (CW 11, ¶ 870)
A radical revision of our worldview is in order and several encouraging voices have arisen. Carl Sagan, who as co-chair of A Joint Appeal by Science and Religion for the Environment, presented a petition in 1992 stating:
The environmental problem has religious as well as scientific dimensions…As scientists, many of us have had a profound experience of awe and reverence before the universe. We understand that what is regarded as sacred is more likely to be treated with care and respect. Our planetary home should be so regarded. Efforts to safeguard and cherish the environment need to be infused with a vision of the sacred. At the same time, a much wider and deeper understanding of science and technology is needed. If we do not understand the problem it is unlikely we will be able to fix it. Thus there is a vital role for both science and religion. (Sagan 1992, p. 10, 12) 

A growing number of philosophers, dubbed environmental philosophers or ecophilosophers, have been re-examining “the philosophical bases of our attitudes toward the natural world” with a “heightened interest in basic questions of values, of worldview, and of (environmental) ethics.” (Metzner 1991, p. 147) “Deep ecologists” challenge the dominant philosophical positions by making three main points. First, they assert the need to overthrow our human-centered focus by placing an emphasis on an ecological, or Earth-centered, approach. We must acknowledge “the complex web of human interdependence with all life-forms” and develop what Aldo Leopold called a “land ethic” and an “ecological conscience.” (Leopold 1948 referred to in Metzner 1993, p. 4)

Deep ecology’s core insight is that humankind is not radically distinct from other entities in nature to which we are internally related; “particular entities are but temporary knots in an interconnected cosmic web.” (Zimmerman 1991, p. 123) The nonhuman world should be considered valuable in and of itself and not simply for its human-use value. (Fox 1991a, p. 107) Michael Zimmerman stated the premise: “All things should be permitted, whenever possible, to pursue their own evolutionary destinies” and “people [are] to respect individual beings and the ecosystem in which they arise.” (Zimmerman 1991, p. 123) The second premise is that we should ask deeper questions about our ecological relationships, looking for root causes rather than simply focusing on symptoms. (Fox 1991a, p. 107) We must examine the human institutions and values that create environmental problems rather than focusing on narrow technological solutions. The goal is to gradually “adopt practices consistent with long-term enhancement of all life on the planet,” Zimmerman states. Humans will still intervene and take non-human lives, but this is to be done “with discrimination and not for trivial reasons.” We should satisfy only our vital material needs as we forego mindless consumerism. (Zimmerman 1991, p. 123, 124) The third idea as stated by ecophilosopher Warwick Fox is that “we are all capable of identifying far more widely and deeply with the world around us than is commonly recognized.” Such identification “leads us spontaneously to appreciate and defend the integrity of the world” (Fox 1991a, p. 107) with environmentally appropriate behaviors arising naturally out of a sense of love rather than an emphasis on self-sacrifice or self-denial.

There has been a similar evolution in the social sciences, including the works of William Catton in sociology, Herman Daly and Joshua Farley in economics (Daly and Farley 2003), and Christopher Stone in law (Stone 1972). Ecofeminists like Carolyn Merchant (1980, The Death of Nature) offer a fundamental critique of our Western worldview linking the attitudes and treatment of the feminine with our use and abuse of the earth. Neglected aspects of history and prehistory are being re-examined with renewed interest, particularly the pre-patriarchal Earth Goddess cultures. (n 14)

As late as 1991 Metzner proclaimed it was “glaring, scandalous” that psychology “has hitherto remained virtually untouched by any concern for the environment or the human-to-nature relationship in psychology.” (Metzner 1991, p. 147) Jungian analyst James Hillman and author Michael Ventura encapsulated this dilemma in the title of their book, We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy and the World is Getting Worse. The problem is that we have appropriated the powers of gods without having their wisdom to wield the powers wisely. A significant share of our environmental problems, many say the most important factors, are rooted in perceptions, attitudes, thoughts, feelings and behaviors directly and indirectly related to the environment—the domain of psychology.

Each school of psychology has its own focus and orientation. Deborah Du Nann Winter’s excellent book, Ecological Psychology—Healing the Split Between Planet and Self, describes the different schools of psychology and what each can contribute towards understanding and addressing the psychological dimensions of the environmental crisis. (see Appendix A: Psychology and Ecology) She sees Gestalt and Transpersonal Psychology, under which she includes Jung, as providing “insights [that] are significant for building an ecologically based psychology,” a psychology “that offers a new integration of both scientific and spiritual understanding for the building of a sustainable culture.” (Winter 1996, p. 281) Winter’s definition of ecological psychology is the practice of seeing “humans as fundamentally dependent on a larger ecosystem.” (p. 230) Gestalt and Transpersonal Psychology emphasize the experience of relationship, wholeness, and embeddedness in the larger world, countering the Western worldview of ourselves as segmented and autonomous beings. (p. 229)

The Gestalt psychologist Wolfgang Kohler was one of the first psychologists to argue that the usual scientific experimental approach of simplifying and controlling variables in a laboratory didn’t reveal very much and it missed the complex dimensions of life. (Winter 1996, p. 241) Gestalt psychologist Ulrich Neisser observed that “we perceive…ourselves as embedded in the environment, and acting with respect to it” with perception and action being inseparably fused: “we perceive as we act and that we act.”(Neisser 1988, p. 36, 40 quoted in Winter 1996, p. 241) (n 15)

Winter and the transpersonal psychologists broaden Neisser’s meaning of an ecological self to include what Jung called the archetypes of the collective unconscious:
Transpersonal psychology focuses on the spiritual and mystical dimensions of human experience. Transpersonal psychology is the study of transcendent experiences, those that illuminate the parts of our being that lie beyond our individual, unique, or separate sense of self. (Winter 1996, p. 242)
Transpersonalists assume that our normal waking consciousness gives us only limited information about who we are. Our modern Western culture is unique among the world’s cultures in disregarding information from altered states of consciousness (ASCs) such as dreams, hypnosis, trance, prayer, meditation, or drug-induced states. (p. 244, 245)
Deep ecologists speak of a sense of self not unlike that described by transpersonal psychologists. (n 16) Our sense of self can be expanded by recognizing a commonality with another entity, such as the similar emotional reactions we share with dogs. (n 17) Winter describes her experience of identification during an intense meditation weekend:
Someone walked by on the lawn and I was filled with tenderness as I felt the blades of grass being crushed. It wasn’t that I felt those boots crushing me, but I could feel them crushing the grass. I felt the vulnerability and the fragility of the natural world…[It was] as if I could feel it happening to someone whom I deeply loved. (Winter 1996, p. 248)
The ecological self retains the sense of a separate physical self as it integrates the larger self that identifies with the ecosphere. (Winter 1996, p. 248) From an ecological, evolutionary perspective, entities have some degree of independent existence and are part of a web of interrelationships that intimately link them to others. (Fox 1991a, p. 116) For example, a hawk could not exist without prey it evolved to feed upon, and the habits and characteristics of the prey require certain types of behaviors, structures and physiologies in its predator. Evolution tells us that all life forms are linked over vast periods of time. In ecology and evolutionary theory there is “an emphasis on (degrees of) connectedness, likeness, similarity” and to “interaction stuff” that is “usually conceived of as energy” or viewed as “process philosophy or a systems view.” (p. 117) (see Appendix C: Self and Organism) (n 18)

Winter emphasizes that a deeper exploration of any subject, be it an individual, political, or psychological system, “demonstrates our interdependence and embeddedness within a larger social and ecological system.” Our sense of self changes “when we experience [embeddedness] in an emotionally meaningful way.” Winter notes, “Our environmental problems are not so much a crisis of technology as they are a crisis of insight.” If we have a sense of our ecological self, “our choices are naturally less intrusive, more sensitive, less toxic because we appreciate the larger context for our behavior.” (Winter 1996, p. 249)

Ecopsychology is an important development within the field of psychology that studies the attitudes, perceptions and behaviors that create our dysfunctional relationship with the environment and how these may be changed to create a sustainable lifestyle. Ecopsychology explores ways of helping people connect more deeply with the environment and how psychotherapy can facilitate the process.

Ecopsychologists recognize the importance of non-cognitive, direct experiencing of nature to establish a deeper spiritual understanding and connection to it. Theodore Roszak, who coined the term ecopsychology in The Voice of the Earth (1992), called for a type of therapy that recovers the child’s “enchanted sense of the world” and brings to consciousness our “ecological unconscious.” (p. 320) Winter refers to “naturalist Terry Tempest Williams [who] claims that wilderness experience is required for us to make appropriate environmental decisions because such experience opens us to our feelings, to a deeper sense of caring, to matters of the heart.” (Winter 1996, p. 264, 265) Some of the difficulty “stems from our limited experiences of the complexity, beauty, magic, and awesome power of the natural world.” It takes more than driving through a national park in an air-conditioned car with our radios on to have an emotional experience and generate an aesthetic appreciation of the natural world. (p. 265) We need direct experiences in order to become cognizant of our larger ecological selves, and rituals can be designed to increase awareness. A Council for All Beings workshop, for example, creates a deep connection to an ecosystem by having participants role play different creatures and “expressing for the creature its unspoken reaction to human impact on their habitat.” (p. 267) Other activities include full moon, equinox and solstice celebrations and symbolic appreciation and expression of the “natural bases” of the American holidays. (see volume 4, chapter 2). We can expand activities like gardening, going for walks, and taking time to appreciate clouds, smells, rainstorms, sunrises, etc. (p. 267, 268) Artists and writers can help evoke “a sense of reverence and respect for the natural world…through evoking a feeling of our connection with [it].” (p. 266) Practicing silence is helpful in this regard because it blocks the “chatter” in our heads, sharpening our senses and perceptions so “we become aware of the subtleties and richness of the natural world.” (p. 267)

Ecopsychologists encourage people to be active in solving environmental problems. As our ecological self grows, we will commit ourselves to activism and environmentally appropriate actions out of a sense of love and devotion instead of a position of guilt or a moral ideology. (Winter 1996, p. 268) One of the basic causes of environmental degradation is over-consumption. Winter’s suggestions for overcoming this addiction are to achieve the fulfillment that comes with simplicity, quiet awareness, “practicing the principle and value of sufficiency,” and “rejoic[ing] in the incredible beauty of the ecosystem and our role in it.” This counters the spiritual void of “our driven, materialist society [that] runs on a core experience of emptiness…[using] consumer products to try to satiate that inner vacuum.” Winter believes a spiritual awakening with a more expansive worldview will sensitize us to “the social injustice and environmental deterioration that afflicts our planet.” It will bond us with our social milieu including “that which appears to us as ‘the enemy’—the unconscious guzzling consumer, the advertising executive, the ‘wise use’ advocate.” (p. 268, 269)
In Ecological Psychology Winter defines the field “as the study of human experience and behavior, in its physical, political, and spiritual context, in order to build a sustainable world.” (Winter 1996, p. 283) In 1866 Haeckel coined the term ecology to mean “that branch of science which attempts to define and explain the relationship between living organisms and their environment.” (Holdgate 1994, p. 201, 202 quoted in Winter 1996, p. 283) Winter advocates an even broader goal for ecological psychology, saying we must take
a serious and difficult look at the planet’s distribution of wealth, power, and environmentally damaging patterns, and [make] a personal commitment to changing these dangerous patterns, no matter how difficult such a goal may seem. It also means that in order to heal the split between planet and self, we will need to work on personal and policy dimensions simultaneously. (p. 286)
Psychology generally ignores political and spiritual systems that help construct our knowledge and vitally affect our relationship to the environment. In the political world, for example, Winter notices how psychology is good at “conserving the social order and reinforcing features of capitalist economic organization.” (Winter 1996, p. 291) She reminds us, “psychology has a difficult time addressing such questions because of its solid footing in the modernist tradition.” This is seen in “its focus on the individual; its devotion to the scientific method; and its application for the ‘improvement’ of human welfare.” (p. 272) (see end of Appendix A)

Winter sees our goal in a postmodern culture as seeking “’a new unity of scientific, ethical, aesthetic, and religious intuitions,’” (Griffin 1988, p. x, xi quoted in Winter 1996, p. 295) recognizing science as a powerful tool but only one way of knowing. (p. 295) It is difficult to conceptualize a constructive postmodern position because “modern institutional structures mitigate against realizing integrative knowledge.” (p. 296) Universities are fragmented into different departments fighting turf battles over their domains.

To reverse this trend, ecopsychologists will need a strong background in the natural sciences, humanities and social sciences, working at several different levels in an interdisciplinary and integrative manner. In Winter’s words:
[Ecological psychology] should be pluralistic in its methodology and creative in its conduct. Sophisticated about the limits of objective knowledge, ecological psychologists will need to be rigorously attuned to the distorting effects of their own political, emotional, and intellectual blinders. As we become more conscious of our limitations, so will we become more empowered to transcend them. (p. 298)
The size and complexity of environmental problems can easily be overwhelming. “We know that our environmental deterioration is driven by poverty, by sexism, by overpopulation, and by consumerism,” Winter remarks. (Winter 1996, p. 299) She suggests we start by imagining a sustainable world. The Worldwatch Institute defines a sustainable society as one that “’satisfies its needs without jeopardizing the prospects of future generations.’” (L. R. Brown et al 1990, p. 173 quoted in Winter 1996, p. 299) We have to build such a culture within the next 20 years, some say the next 10, before the environment is pushed past tipping points that lead to irreversible and disastrous consequences. It is estimated that the world could support 8 billion people living comfortably, not at the life style of current-day Americans, but about that of Western Europeans:
Modest but comfortable homes, refrigeration for food, and ready access to public transit, augmented by limited auto use. [Goldemberg et al 1987] For most of us, what this would require is purposive down-scaling, conscious choices to consume less, reuse more, and recycle everything possible. It would also mean working less, spending less, enjoying more time, more creative community activities, and more personal and interpersonal meaning. (p. 300, 301)
Sustainability should be our goal, not just for humans but for all life forms. Our technology needs to be re-directed toward the repair of damaged ecosystems and Lester Brown (2008) in Plan B 3.0 offers many models for developing and using an ecologically sensitive technology.

Notes and Bibliography

The article you just read is an excerpt from Dennis Merritt's:

Jung, Hermes, and Ecopsychology
The Dairy Farmer’s Guide to the Universe in Four Volumes
We keep forgetting that we are primates and that we have to make allowances for these primitive layers in our psyche. The farmer is still closer to these layers. In tilling the earth he moves around within a very narrow radius, but he moves on his own land. —C.G. Jung
Volume I:  Jung and Ecopsychology presents the main premises of Jungian ecopsychology,offers some of Jung’s best ecopsychological quotes, and provides a brief overview of the evolution of our dysfunctional Western relationship with the environment.
—ISBN 9781926715421 

Dennis Merritt, Ph.D., LCSW, is a Jungian psychoanalyst and ecopsychologist in private practice in Madison and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Dr. Merritt is a diplomate of the C.G. Jung Institute, Zurich and also holds the following degrees: M.A. Humanistic Psychology-Clinical, Sonoma State University, California, Ph.D. Insect Pathology, University of California-Berkeley, M.S. Entomology, University of Wisconsin-Madison, B.S. Entomology, University of Wisconsin-Madison. Over twenty years of participation in Lakota Sioux ceremonies have strongly influenced his worldview.
Fisher King Press publishes an eclectic mix of worthy books including Jungian Psychological Perspectives, Cutting-Edge Fiction, and a growing list of alternative titles.
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