A PAPER BY JOHN SEED
PRESENTED TO THE ECOPSYCHOLOGY SYMPOSIUM
AT THE AUSTRALIAN PSYCHOLOGICAL SOCIETY'S 28TH ANNUAL
CONFERENCE GOLD COAST 2/10/93 - updated 2001
I take "ecopsychology" to mean psychology in service to the Earth.
ECO, PSYCHE, LOGOS: Knowing that the Earth is home to our soul.
In spite of the modern delusion of alienation, of separation from the
living Earth, we human beings are NOT aliens, we belong here. The human
psych too is Earth-born, the result of 4000 million years of continuous
evolution and the complex, exquisite biology from which
psyche emerged inevitably remains the matrix, the grounding of any sane
We have all heard the bad news:
the destruction of ecosystems and species, the decimation of forests and
oceans, the polution of land air and sea.
In 1996, the Swiss-based World Conservation Union (IUCN), in collaboration
with over 600 scientists, found that 25 percent of mammal and amphibian
species, 11 percent of birds, 20 percent of reptiles, and 34 percent of fish
species surveyed so far are threatened with extinction.
In May 1998, the Worldwatch Institute informed us that world extinction
rates for mammals, fish, birds, amphibians and reptiles were 100 to 1000
times greater than normal and rising sharply. 1 in 4 vertebrates is
endangered and nearly half of the world's 233 primate species are now
In October 1998 World Wide Fund for Nature reported on the world's resource
binge over the past three decades, during which they estimate a third of the
world's natural resources have been consumed.
Dr. Raymond Dassman, Professor of Biology, University of California: "The
3rd World War has begun: it is being waged against the Earth."
Scientific evidence suggests that a hundred thousand species will become
extinct this year , a rate of extinction some hundreds of thousands of times
the natural background rate. etc. etc. etc.
We have all heard the news. Yet so far it has not changed our behaviour
except in rather trivial ways.
So, how are we to change our thinking and our behaviour? Is this not a
question for psychology? What is needed? Not more horrifying statistics
surely. Everybody already knows. We feel helpless and disempowered.
Scientists warn that we may be the last generation of humanity that may have
the chance to avert biological collapse and the destruction of the systems
that support complex life on Earth. Professor Paul Ehrlich warns us that
"we're sawing off the branch
that we're sit ting on". Does this not indicate some kind of psychological
Yet Psychology appears to be too busy to address this. What are the matters
of over-riding urgency that are keeping the psychologists busy? Where is
everybody? Playing at business as usual. Fiddling while Rome burns.
Shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic.
I have been involved in protecting the forests since 1979. It is clear that
the forests cannot be saved one at a time. For every forest we protect,
hundreds disappear And of course the planet cannot be saved one issue at a
time. Unless we can somehow address the underlying
psychological disease that afflicts modern humanity and allows us to soil
our nest, all of our actions and projects are merely symbolic. You can't
save a forest. It's the planet or nothing. No planet, no forests.
In 1982 I learned of deep ecology and first encountered an analysis of
our situation that helped explain how we had come to this sorry pass and,
perhaps, what to do about it.
Deep Ecology is the name of a new philosophy of nature that has
been exerting a profound effect on environmentalism in the last
decade. To deep ecology the world is seen not as a pyramid with humans on
top, but as a web. We humans are but one strand in that web and as we
destroy other strands, we destroy ourselves.
James Lovelock, the scientist who popularized the Gaia hypothesis, has said
that what we are doing to the rainforests is as if the brain were to decide
that it was the most impor
tant organ in the body and started mining the liver.
After thousands of years of Judeo-Christian conditioning, we have inherited
the illusion of our separation from and superiority to nature. Even though
our IDEAS may have changed, all of the institutions of our society and the
very language we speak, conspire to bind us to
this outmoded and now (wedded to our powerful technologies and growing
populations) deadly way of perceiving our world.
Though we may no longer BELIEVE that the world was made by an old man with a
white beard 6000 years ago as a stage for the human drama to unfold, yet our
institutions and personal ities were forged in this mold and we seem
incapable of giving substance to our new, ecological, vision.
Arne Naess, (Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Oslo University who had
coined the term "Deep Ecology˛ says "it is not enough to have ecological
ideas, we have to have ecological identity, or ecological self".
He pointed out that a sense of responsibility or duty is a "treacherous
basis" for conservation. How many of us are capable of great altruism? As
long as we are in the grip of the illusion that the Earth is OTHER than our
very self (alter = the other), it seems fantastic to suppose that we can
make the very difficult changes in our lives and societies that
would be needed to live contentedly within the constraints of the ecological
If we can IDENTIFY with the Earth we don't need altruism. If we have the
EXPERIENCE of ourselves, not as isolated, separate, skin encapsulated egos,
but as part of the larger body of the Earth, then the defense of nature
becomes merely self-defense and this does not
require a highly elevated moral stature. Self-interest comes "naturally" to
us and it seems more hopeful to expand the sense of self to include the air
(my breath) and water (my blood) and soil (my body), than to suddenly
imagine many humans becoming "selfless", acting against their perceived
self-interest to protect nature.
Still, through thousands of years of conditioning, absorbed by osmosis from
the day we were born, we have succeeded in creating this incredibly
pervasive illusion of separation from nature.
Now the fact that this IS entirely an illusion can be demonstrated very
simply by holding your breath for about 3 minutes. That is, I am not talking
about anything particularly mystical, it is very straight for
ward. We can call it "the atmosphere" and think: "oh what a good person
that is, sacrificing their self interest by working to protect the
atmosphere instead of making lots of money" as though the atmosphere was
"out there". But it is not "out there".
None of it is "out there". It is all constantly migrating and cycling
Atmosphere, water, soil - there is no "out there", it is all "in here", but
most modern people don't experience this.
I see this as the central psychological problem of our age and (just as a
psychopath is coldly bereft of normal empathy and compassion in relation to
society) we have become a culture of ecopaths.
As long as it is "out there", most people will leave it to some special
interest group like the greenies to protect the environment while the rest
of us look after number one. The matter changes once we deeply realise that
the nature "out there" and the nature "in here"
are one and the same, that the sense of separation no matter how pervasive,
is nonetheless totally illusory.
A century ago Freud discovered that many of the symptoms of h is patients
could be traced to repressed sexual material. However, sexual repression now
seems to be merely the tip of the mighty repression of our very organic
nature which may be seen as the main project of
the Judeo-Christian tradition.
The reason why psychology is so sterile and therapy doesn't work, is that
the "self" that psychology describes and purports to heal doesn't exist. It
is a social fiction. In reality the human personality exists at the
intersection of the ancient cycles of air and water and soil. Without these
there IS no self and any attempt to heal the personality that doesn't
acknowledge this fundamental fact is doomed to failure. Only actual beings,
natural beings, can be healed by life flowing thru them, social fictions
can't be healed. Interestingly enough, ACTUAL things are self-healing and to
truly acknowledge our interconnectedness with air and water and soil, indeed
our IDENTITY with them, is to create the
conditions for the spontaneous healing of psyche to take place. It is from
air, water and soil after all, that psyche itself evolved. Indeed the deep,
personal realisation of our billions of years of evolution in this
universe, AS this universe, of the fact that we BELONG here, this brings the
fundamental healing that we all long for. While incredible
amounts of energy go into futile attempts to heal a fictitious self, our
ACTUAL, ecological self suffocates.
As Hillman shows, therapists treat the pain as a symptom of a personal
pathology rather than a goad to political action to bring
about social change. Therapists create patients instead of citizens.
Look at the amount of energy people invest in wars. It's clear to every fool
that the trillion dollars a year that go into armaments is the very resource
we need to save the planet but how has this knowledge changed anything? How
is it that we are willing to kill our
selves by the millions in defense of one social fiction after another -
countries, religions, ideologies - yet hardly anyone lifts a finger while
the biological fabric from which all of our constructions are woven, is torn
Is there not evidence of a psychological problem here? Is this being
addressed by psychology?
It's clear that the Earth fails to ignite anything near the passion and
commitment that some of her lesser works manage to do. Because we don't
IDENTIFY with Her. Though we're born, live and die in Her, we have made
ourselves unconscious of this.
Ecopsychology: Psychology that has worked thru it's denial and consents to
be informed by the ecological crisis and engage in "the real work" of this
Imagine if our experience of self expanded, and all the energy that goes
into therapy were to include the healing of our world?
We feel intense longing and dis-ease yet everything we do to try to
assuage that longing only makes things worse.
We have a deep longing for reconnection with the Earth. With this longing
repressed, a host of displacement activities arise. We feel a pervasive
emptiness and spend our lives trying to fill the gaping wound with all
manner of "stuff". We dig up and chop down the Earth to
make and power all the hair-driers and microwave ovens and electric
toothbrushes with which we try, unsuccessfully, to fill the hole.
It's not really all these material "goods" that we want however, but a
certain psychological state that we imagine will follow. It never does of
course, and no amount of "stuff" brings us peace.
Every intact indigenous culture that we look at has, at it's root, a series
of ceremonies and rituals whereby the human community acknowledges and
nourishes it's interconnectedness with the land
and the rest of the Earth community.
It would seem that we "moderns" may be the first culture, in our
arrogance, to relegate these things to the realm of mumbo jumbo or "mere"
ritual and, in our "enlightenment", we proceed to dismember the Earth. Of
course it must be remembered that we did not easily give
up our ceremonies - millions of women were, not so long ago, burnt at the
stake to drive us away from the Earth and up into the skyGod's loving arms.
So, although the Council of All Beings is undeniably experienced as being
therapeutic by participants, it reveals I think, a deeper significance;
perhaps individual "therapy" is something that is only needed when community
has been dismembered, ancient
ritual burnt at the stake and people alienated from each other and the
nourishing Earth. One remembers Joseph Campbell's warning that the chief
sources of anxiety in our age are the loss of myth and ritual. If we could
heal our culture so that it once more provided us with authentic
connection between our soul and the Earth, perhaps the need for individual
therapy would disappear again. For me, the "real work" is very much in
reclaiming these rituals and the empowerment and vision that they offer, and
to take that empowerment and spread it through
our lives, finding ways to serve the Earth. Psychology, who's field is the
human soul might then, take the lead in legitimising the expansion of self
that is pointed to here. Psychologists, who define what's real and what's
not, therapists who define what's crazy and what's sane.
Surely one of the reasons that the environment movement has failed to awaken
us sufficient ly to the urgency of the task at hand is it's psychological
ineptness. But what can it do? Bludgeon us with more horrifying statistics?
More doom and gloom? Surely not. Already we're
afraid to let the sun shine on our bodies, we lose confidence in the air,
in water and in the food we eat, the year 2000 looms like a storm on the
horizon we hear of the death of hundreds of species with each day that
passes and we numb out.
If it's not more guilt we need to change our behaviour, what CAN we do?
This is an important question that psychology might address.
I call once more for an eco-psychology, a psychology in service to the
Earth, a psychology with a future.