(Simon & Schuster, 1992, $23.00)

Review by Ralph Metzner first published in Planet Drum's magazine "Raise the Stakes"

Theodore Roszak has long been one of our most perceptive and prescient social philosophers, who in books such as The Making of a Counterculture, Where the Wasteland Ends, and Person/Planet, has eloquently analyzed our cherished illusions and pointed up important emerging trends. The relationship between the individual, culture and the natural world has been his theme before, but in his latest book, it has taken on a particularly poignant dimension, given the enormity of our ecological crisis, which Roszak clearly feels deeply and passionately.

He describes the book as an essay in ecopsychology, the goal of which "is to bridge our culture's long-standing gulf between the psychological and the ecological, to see the needs of the planet and the person as a span the gap between the personal and the planetary in a way that suggests political alternatives." However, there are no new approaches to psychotherapy advanced here and very little reference to contemporary psychological theory or research (other than clinical). Nor is there very much ecology here or any discussion of environmental ethics. Rather the book is a wide-ranging treatise on the philosophical and psychological assumptions and value-biases that underlie 20th century psychiatry and all of the rest of contemporary culture as well.

The book is divided into three parts, called psychology, cosmology and ecology, and it seems that Roszak's strategy for uniting psychology and ecology is via cosmology. The middle part is a dazzling survey of the "new cosmology" and the radical implications it has for our understanding of the human role in nature. From the point of view of a reader familiar with bioregional thinking, this may seem to be an unnecessarily circuitous route to re-establish our connection with the natural world. Roszak writes that "this body of fact and theory (the new cosmology) may mature into an ecologically grounded form of animism. We will find ourselves once again on speaking terms with nature." Perhaps so, although the new cosmology, as Roszak himself admits, is often chillingly cerebral, and unlikely to have wide appeal, unless recast in something like Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry's The Universe Story. The bioregional perspective on reinhabiting the land in which we actually dwell, respecting and acknowledging its ecological features, which seems to me essential foundation to any truly ecological psychology, is strangely absent from this discussion.

In Part I, Roszak discusses the interplay between psychology, cosmology and ecology. He well describes the clashing ideologies of the environmental movement and the conservative backlash of the promoters of industrial progress. Roszak complains that environmentalists often alienate rather than persuade people by using scare tactics and guilt-tripping, and that a more reasoned, courteous approach is called for. Admittedly some environmentalists (he cites Helen Caldicott as an example) are abrasive in their tone -- but in general, I do not find this to be true of environmentalists. In a way, this is like complaining of the scare tactics and guilt-tripping of the man who tries to warn you that your car is hurtling towards an abyss. Ecologists are not trying to make us feel guilty: they are trying to get us to pay attention, which is a very different thing.


In a chapter on "Modern Psychology in Search of its Soul" Roszak offers a trenchant critique of psychotherapy based on Freudian, Jungian and Existential psychology, raising the basic question: since psychotherapy deals only with people within the "denatured environment" of urban-industrial society, it is inherently incapable of addressing the issues that stem from the "normative alienation" of our whole society from the natural world. In seeking then to recover something of what humans may have possessed in a pre-industrial age, he offers, in a chapter on "Stone-Age Psychiatry", a speculative reconstruction of how healers in primal societies might have functioned. Here Roszak makes a powerful point: the practices and beliefs often derided as "primitive" and "superstitious" may in fact be as effective, if not superior, than our own, and certainly promote a greater degree of ecological sanity. "Animism might be credited with a more sophisticated perception of physicality than we would have found in Western science .. and (have) proven ecological utility: it disciplines the relationship of humans to their environment, imposing an ethical restraint upon exploitation and abuse."

Disappointingly, although he cites with approval the views of Paul Shepard, Gary Snyder and others trying to "resurrect the animist worldview", Roszak then repeats the oft-heard objection to such efforts that "the way back in time is not the way out of our environmental crisis. If any part of an animist sensibility is to be reclaimed, the project will have to integrate with modern science. Nothing else will qualify as honest intellectual effort." Yet it is precisely because they are trying to integrate science with "animistic sensibility" that writers and thinkers advocate a remembering and a recollection, which is anything but going back in time. This objection over looks the important difference between science and scientism, the dogmatic worldview based on 19th century science -- a difference that Roszak in other places in the book analyzes with great finesse.

Part II, on Cosmology, represents a dizzying tour-de-force through the new cosmologies and their implications for our perception of the human-nature relationship. These theories were formulated for the most part in the second half of the 20th century although Roszak is especially good at pointing to similarities and parallels in earlier worldviews, for example those of alchemy and Renaissance magic. The chapter on "Mind in the Cosmos" contains the clearest exposition of the cosmological anthropic principle that I have read, as well as incisive critiques of the materialist and randomness assumptions still pervasive throughout establishment science. Roszak has a unique gift for the felicitous phrase that encapsulates important truth, as when he speaks of the "opportunity to ponder the unutterable complexity of nature -- and the embarrassing bravado with which scientists once confronted its study." As Roszak points out the new cosmology is pushing scientists towards questions of mind, design, god, etc, as never before, and forcing a reconciliation between science and spirituality. Despite all this laudable new openness on the part of physicists towards questions of design and mentality in the cosmos, it is hard for me to escape the feeling that the "anthropic" principle, putting human consciousness at the center of cosmic telos, is a last-ditch effort to salvage an anthropocentric view of the cosmos (as indeed the anthropos in the name of the principle suggests).

In the next chapter, on Lovelock's GAIA theory, Roszak draws provocative parallels between GAIA and the classical-medieval idea of the world soul, the anima mundi. This is a fascinating chapter in the history of ideas, with many brilliant insights. Chapter 6, "Where God Used to Be" develops the argument that the older deism of the Enlightenment philosophers, who saw God as the divine clockmaker of the universe, has been replaced by the contemporary formulations of "deep systems" theory, "the expository prose version of nature mysticism ...(which) lies at the intersection between form as we find it in nature and form as we create it in culture." In chapter 7, "The Human Frontier", which discusses the "dissipative structures" of Ilya Prigogine and the Omega Point of Teilhard de Chardin, anthropocentrism, it seems to me, again raises its stubborn head. "What the universe has been doing in all the long while since the atom and the galaxy rose into existence... reaching forward toward finer orders of complexity, toward realms so subtle and complex that they can be fabricated only out of the delicate dynamics of the human imagination. And what stands at the crowning crest of the hierarchy holds a crowning position ... the frontier of the cosmos." This is the old "man as the crown of creation" idea again, in new and scintillating scientific garb. It ignores the fact that evolutionary theorists such as Stephen Jay Gould reject any idea of "well-defined evolution toward higher and higher levels of ordered complexity." And in any case, how do we know that human thought or imagination represents the most complex systems in the universe?

Roszak is sensitive to the charge of anthropocentrism in these ideas, and he clearly sees it in Teilhard. "Anthropocentrism can lead to claims of human supremacy over nature that lie at the root of our ecological problems." Most would agree here. But then he goes on to make an astounding claim: "We should remember that the worst environmental depredation has taken place in the modern period within a rigorously nonanthropocentric cosmology, one that reduces human existence to an inconsequential cipher in the universe. The thesis of this book has been that such a sweeping devaluation of human life may only serve to starve our need for meaning until it produces a pathological infatuation with power."

But actually the hidden psychological assumptions behind modern cosmology have been profoundly anthropocentric, inspired by the drive to dominate and control nature, as the work of Carolyn Merchant and Roszak's own argument has shown. Infatuation with power is one of the prime motivations fuelling the rise of mechanistic science, and its derivative technology, not a consequence of its theories. 

Nevertheless, Roszak concludes that it should be possible to state humans role at the frontier of the cosmos "without staking our inordinate claims to superiority. More appropriate ..would be pride tempered by a sense of responsibility and above all curiosity."

Here are ethical and value statements that are not in anyway derived from the cosmology. Roszak and I share the same values and ethics, even though we disagree about the meaning of the cosmology. This raises an interesting question for me: is this whole cosmology relevant to the development or advocacy of an environmental ethic? If not, what is its relevance? Roszak does not discuss the considerable literature on environmental ethics -- he does not claim to. His stated concern is to unite psychology with ecology. But will "this body of fact and theory .. mature into an ecologically grounded form of animism?"

Somehow I think that we are more likely to get on speaking terms with establishment scientists through such discussions. We'll get on speaking terms with nature through shamanic practices, vision quests, wilderness walking (as in Gary Snyder's Practice of the Wild), solstice rituals, careful study of bioregional natural history, poetry, dance, remembering ancestral teachings and respectful listening to primal people.

The third part of the book, on Ecology, is where the new eco- psychology is formulated, or rather, one might say preliminary steps towards it, again with fascinating digressions to earlier forerunners of this idea. Some of this material is Roszak's most recent and best formulation of themes he has discussed in other books. There is a brilliant discussion of the madness of cities, "Gaia's city pox", of cities as the body armor of culture, and the limitations of a psychiatry that does not recognize the madness of its context. There are discussions of the "neolithic conservatism" and "Utopian anarchism" of people like Paul Goodman and Peter Kropotkin; of deep ecology and the ecofeminist critique -- but surprisingly not of Murray Bookchin's social ecology; of Gestalt psychology's recognition of patterns (Gestalts) of relationship with nature; of the ecological utopias of William Morris, Aldous Huxley and Ernest Callenbach; and of Object Relations Theory's perspective on infant development. In the context of a discussion of the devastating effects of violence-conditioning in young boys, Roszak formulates a "root cause" statement that has not thus far been brought out, as far as I am aware: "There is no question but that the way the world shapes the minds of its male children lies somewhere close to the root of our environmental dilemma."

In a chapter on "Narcissism Revisited" Roszak returns to his counterculture theme. The quest for authenticity and self- actualization is defended against its detractors who can only see self-absorptive narcissism and apolitical retreat from morality. However, the argument that healthy narcissism can be rehabilitated and can serve to counteract the "collective alienation at the root of both the environmental crisis and individual neurosis", I found unconvincing. Roszak wants also to rehabilitate or revision the Freudian id: instead of the predatory, lecherous beast of the founder of psychoanalysis, he thinks it could be seen as the repository of ancient ecological wisdom.

"The id is the Earth's ally in the preservation of the biosphere ... (and) Gaia gains access to us through the door of the id". But this idea also will not do, I believe, what he wants it to do. While it is true that our Western modern child-rearing practices effectively stifle any innate ecological sensibility the child may have, it is also true that in traditional societies ecological knowledge and respect for nature is passed on from parents to children, and doesn't just emerge without such training: that is why the disruption of traditional cultures has been so environmentally devastating.

While the Object Relations Theory focus on early child development has brought out some important facts, Roszak omits any mention of the work of Otto Rank, Stanislav Grof and many other recent psychologists, who have shown the crucial importance of birth trauma, as well pre- and peri-natal experiences in the genesis of deep-seated disturbances, as well as in providing access to archaic levels of consciousness. In fact, transpersonal psychology with its emerging cartography of states and levels of consciousness, in Western and Eastern traditions, is not mentioned at all, although there are many points of potential contact here with eco-psychological concerns.

Roszak points out that Jung's idea of the "collective unconscious" originally included pre-human animal and biological archetypes, but later came to concentrate primarily on pan-human religious symbols. He proposes that we take the original meaning and call it the "ecological unconscious", as "the living record of cosmic evolution". This may turn out to be a terminology that has a wide appeal, although I personally prefer Robert Lifton's idea of a "species self". Somehow, calling some image or understanding "unconscious", or even more, reifying it as "the unconscious", may function to keep it unconscious. After all, we are trying to develop and foster ecological consciousness, or "ecological conscience", to use Aldo Leopold's term.

Roszak and I agree that "eco-psychology" should not become a sub-discipline within psychology, like "developmental psychology". Rather, eco-psychology is a newly vitalized context for psychological thinking (as it can be for other disciplines as well, for example philosophy, economics, sociology, etc), that will be absolutely essential if we are to survive the next century with a halfway decent biosphere left, as well as some capabilities for sane human life-styles. However one may regard the details of his proposed ideas, Roszak has given us an exciting and stimulating introduction to a changed perspective on human nature.


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Last Updated: December 26, 2001