ECOPSYCHOLOGY: EIGHT PRINCIPLES

By Theodore Roszak

In The Voice of the Earth: An Exploration of Ecopsychology, Theodore Roszak sought to formulate some general principles that might guide both environmentalists and therapists in their common project of defining a sane relationship to the world around us. The essay that follows has been adapted from the version that appears in the book.

As we approach the end of the twentieth century, there are scientists who believe we may be within sight of a Grand Unified Theory that will embrace all things, all forces, all time and matter. But will such a theory of everything, if we find it, do justice to the very act of seeking for that theory in the first place? Will it explain how a supposedly once dead universe gave rise to this single, burning point of conscious curiosity called the human mind? Certainly no scientific theory we inherit from the past has yet found a place for scientists themselves, let alone for artists, visionaries, clowns, myth-makers — for all those who have built this second nature we call “culture” on at least one planet in the cosmos. Only within the past generation, as we have grasped the historic and evolutionary character of the cosmos, have we begun to give the questing mind a significant status in scientific theory.

What unity ultimately requires is closure. The circle of theory must come round like the alchemical snake to bite its tail. What is must at last be known. Perhaps that is what underlies the eager unfolding of the natural hierarchy from the Big Bang to the human frontier: substance reaching out hungrily toward sentience. That is the simple but mighty insight that the physicist John Wheeler sought to capture in this schematic image of a universe that makes a u-turn in time to study itself through the human eye.

Oddly, this unity of the knower and the known seems to have been better appreciated by pre-scientific humans who worked from myth, image, ritual. If ecopsychology has anything to add to the Socratic-Freudian project of self-knowledge, it is to remind us of what our ancestors took to be common knowledge: there is more to know about the self, or rather more self to know, than our personal history reveals. Making a personality, the task that Jung called “individuation,” may be the adventure of a lifetime. But every person’s lifetime is anchored within a greater, universal lifetime. Each of us shares the whole of life’s time on Earth. Salt remnants of ancient oceans flow through our veins, ashes of expired stars rekindle in our genetic chemistry. The oldest of the atoms, hydrogen whose primacy among the elements should have gained it a more poetically resonant name is a cosmic theme; mysteriously elaborated billions-fold, it has created from Nothing the Everything that includes us.

When we look out into the night sky, the stars we see in the chill, receding distance may seem crushingly vast in size and number. How many times have despairing philosophers and common cynics reminded us of how small we are in comparison to the great void of space? It is the great clich‚ of modern times that we are “lost in the stars,” a minuscule planet wheeling around a minor star at the outer edge of a galaxy that is only one among billions. But in truth there is no principle in science that can logically judge value by size. Neither big nor small any longer have any limit or meaning in the universe. Wonders and amazements come in all sizes. Is the universe “too big” to provide human meaning? Not at all. It is, in fact, exactly the right size. Modern cosmology teaches us that the swelling emptiness that contains us is, precisely by virtue of its magnitude, the physical matrix that makes living intelligence possible. Only a universe of this size and this temperature and this age could have produced life anywhere. Those who once believed we were cradled in the hands of God were not so very wrong after all — at least metaphorically speaking.

All this, the new place of life in the cosmos, belongs to the principles of ecopsychology, but not in any doctrinaire or purely clinical way. Psychotherapy is best played by ear. It is after all a matter of listening to the whole person, all that is submerged, unborn, in hiding: the infant, the shadow, the savage, the outcast. The list of principles we offer here is merely a guide, suggesting how deep that listening must go to hear the Self that speaks through the self.

1. The core of the mind is the ecological unconscious. For ecopsychology, repression of the ecological unconscious is the deepest root of collusive madness in industrial society. Open access to the ecological unconscious is the path to sanity.

2. The contents of the ecological unconscious represent, in some degree, at some level of mentality, the living record of cosmic evolution, tracing back to distant initial conditions in the history of time. Contemporary studies in the ordered complexity of nature tell us that life and mind emerge from this evolutionary tale as culminating natural systems within the unfolding sequence of physical, biological, mental, and cultural systems we know as “the universe.” Ecopsychology draws upon these findings of the new cosmology, striving to make them real to experience.

3. Just as it has been the goal of previous therapies to recover the repressed contents of the unconscious, so the goal of ecopsychology is to awaken the inherent sense of environmental reciprocity that lies within the ecological unconscious. Other therapies seek to heal the alienation between person and person, person and family, person and society. Ecopsychology seeks to heal the more fundamental alienation between the recently created urban psyche and the age-old natural environment.

4. For ecopsychology as for other therapies, the crucial stage of development is the life of the child. The ecological unconscious is regenerated, as if it were a gift, in the newborn’s enchanted sense of the world. Ecopsychology seeks to recover the child’s innately animistic quality of experience in functionally “sane” adults. To do this, it turns to many sources, among them traditional healing techniques of primary people, nature mysticism as expressed in religion and art, the experience of wilderness, the insights of Deep Ecology. Thus, for example, Wordsworth’s hymns to the child’s love of nature are basic texts for developmental ecopsychology, a first step toward creating the ecological ego.

5. The ecological ego matures toward a sense of ethical responsibility to the planet that is as vividly experienced as our ethical responsibility to other people. It seeks to weave that responsibility into the fabric of social relations and political decisions.

6. Among the therapeutic projects most important to ecopsychology is the re-evaluation of certain compulsively “masculine” character traits that permeate our structures of political power and which drive us to dominate nature as if it were an alien and rightless realm. In this regard, ecopsychology draws significantly on the insights of ecofeminism with a view to demystifying the sexual stereotypes.

7. Whatever contributes to small scale social forms and personal empowerment nourishes the ecological ego. Whatever strives for large-scale domination and the suppression of personhood undermines the ecological ego. Ecopsychology therefore deeply questions the essential sanity of our gargantuan urban-industrial culture, whether capitalistic or collectivistic in its organization. But it does so without necessarily rejecting the technological genius of our species or some life-enhancing measure of the industrial power we have assembled. Ecopsychology is postindustrial not anti-industrial in its social orientation.

8. Ecopsychology holds that there is a synergistic interplay between planetary and personal well-being. The term “synergy” is chosen deliberately for its traditional theological connotation, which once taught that the human and divine are cooperatively linked in the quest for salvation. The contemporary ecological translation of the term might be: the needs of the planet are the needs of the person, the rights of the person are the rights of the planet.

Theodore Roszak (November 15, 1933 – July 5, 2011) was Professor Emeritus of History and Director of the Ecopsychology Institute at California State University, Hayward. Among his many well-known works are The Making of a Counter Culture (1969), Where the Wasteland Ends (1972), The Cult of Information (1994) and Ecopsychology (1995). His most recent books are The Voice of the Earth (Touchstone Books) and The Memoirs of Elizabeth Frankenstein (Random House and Bantam Books), an ecofeminist parable based on the famous Mary Shelley story. He was the senior editor of Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind (Sierra Club Books).

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