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Updated: Nov 6, 2020

Restoring the Earth Healing the Mind

Edited by Theodore Roszak, Mary E. Gomes and Allen D. Kanner Reviewed by Don Weiss

Millions of American children have been diagnosed with a disease called Attention Deficit Disorder. In its classic form, it is the inability to concentrate on whatever society thinks the child should be paying attention to at the moment — usually schoolwork or adults. These children are often punished for their behavior, which is considered both “anti-social” (by definition) and counterproductive since the child should probably be learning something rather than letting his (ADD is usually a diagnosis for boys) attention wander.

Environmentalists, when they try to focus the minds of some members of the public, particularly politicians, on environmental issues, often seem to be in the same position as teachers trying to get Johnny to read the whole page and think about it. Johnny will look at the page, but within moments his attention will wander — to the window, to Susie, to Fred, to the floor, back (briefly) to his book, and so on. The politicians, similarly, will listen to the arguments to preserve open space, to outlaw the use of pesticides adjacent to schools, to end the practice of using resources at a non-sustainable rate, but then they return to the “tried and true” ideas of supporting growth, attracting business, expanding infrastructure.

How can environmental advocates focus the minds of others on the issues that they think are important? The answer, as suggested by the contributors to the book Ecopsycology, is to understand how people relate to the earth, their true values and motivations.

“Every political movement has its psychological dimension. Persuading people to alter their behavior always involves probing motivations and debating values; political activism begins with asking what makes people tick. What do they want and fear and care about? How do we get and hold their attention? How much can people take–and in what order of priority? Have we overloaded them with anxiety or guilt? How do we make credible the threats we perceive? Movements that fail to think carefully about this may fail to persuade.” (Ecopsycology, Forward by Lester Brown, page xiv)

Psychologists traditionally have looked at the individual in relation to other people and sometimes in relation to the subject’s immediate surroundings, the home, the workplace. Some psychologists are now looking beyond this, taking the step suggested by Aldo Leopold in his seminal essay “The Land Ethic” and looking at how the individual relates to the environment as a whole. They have, if you will, taken the approach of ecology itself to broaden their view of the psyche and the self. If “everything is related to everything else,” how can you ignore the effect those relationships have on the individual?

Ecopsycology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind brings together the writings of a wide variety of psychologists and environmentalists to, “redefine sanity on a personal and planetary scale. (From the back cover) It’s not an easy book to read since it’s replete with technical jargon from a variety of fields and the various authors are writing for audiences with a variety of specialized knowledge. But it’s an important book, both for environmental advocates trying to improve their effectiveness and for anyone who wants to know what some psychologists and environmentalists together have to say about the universal human condition.

The psychologists’ contributions to the book often take the form of showing how certain human behaviors relate to common diagnoses. Allen D, Kramer and Mary E. Gomes refer to narcissism. This, they feel, is directly related to the chimera of consumerism and growth as paths to human happiness. They point out what shouldn’t need pointing: there is no demonstrable relationship between an increase in wealth or consumption and the happiness of the individual. But they also put forth a warning drawn from therapeutic practice. When working with those diagnosed as narcissistic, therapists must be prepared for their patients’ denial of pathology and pain on recognizing it’s reality. Environmentalists well know this backlash and its manifestation such as the “wise-use” movement and simple denial of wrong. “The same pattern,” they say, “occurs on an individual level when a therapist too aggressively confronts narcissistic beliefs or is insensitive to the pain of a deteriorating false self.” (Page 89)

The lack of a correlation between consumerism and happiness is addressed even more directly by Alan Thein Durning. He cites studies of happiness and says, “Psychological evidence shows that the relationship between consumption and personal happiness is weak.” (Page 69) Furthermore, he points out that some aspects of modern American consumer society act negatively on the documented locus of human happiness: social relationships (particularly family life), work and leisure.

One of the clearest and most damning of the psychologists’ diagnoses in the book is Chellis Glendenning’s characterization of much of what we do as “techno-addiction.” She shows how modern American society, with the rest of the world following us, clearly demonstrates the addict’s destructive behaviors of denial, dishonesty, control, thinking disorders, grandiosity, and disconnection from feelings. Perhaps most tellingly, she brings up the “hair of the dog” behavior:

“Alcoholics and other substance abusers typically employ modes of thought that serve the immediate needs of the addiction, rather than the long-term well-being of the person. This is seen, for instance, in the alcoholic who drinks to alleviate the physical and emotional pain of the hangover. “Likewise, much thinking in mass technological society is dysfunctional. Many people embrace the “technological fix” as the answer to social, psychological, and medical problems caused by previous technological fixes. For instance, a proposed government program seeks to cover the oceans with polystyrene chips that, it is hoped, will reflect “unwanted” sunlight off the Earth’s surface and save us from global warning. Likewise, some scientists suggest orbiting hundreds of satellites around the planet to block the sun’s light. This is techno-addictive thinking at its most convoluted.” Page 49)

It will be interesting to see if the book and the emerging field of ecopsycology are as influential as the authors hope. If so, perhaps someday we may see those who refuse to look carefully and clearly at the consequences of their actions diagnosed as having EADD, Environmental Attention Deficit Disorder, and ordered to take therapy for their affliction.

Ecopsycology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind is available from Sierra Club Books for $15.00.

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