An excerpt from the Passionate Earth: The Evolution of Our Relationship with the Natural World by John Del Signore
The Psychology-Nature Relationship
A perplexing aspect of psychology is that the study of humans and their mental aliments have been predominately aimed at identifying and understanding internal emotions, thoughts, values and behavior and has not considered these in the context of environmental parameters. Focusing on psychological issues in the absence of their interrelatedness to the larger context of humanity and the environment reinforces a sense of isolation and detachment, thereby limiting understanding and the possibility of more positive outcomes.
There has been little interest in comprehending human actions in relation to the pollution of our planet and why we might engage in such self-destructive behaviors. Psychology has more often depicted nature as indifferent and unloving to the struggling individual who has been traumatized by the wild, irrational demeanor of the natural world. Only seasonal affective disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder acknowledge the reality of environmental influence and interaction.
However, some of the more modern counseling theories and methods do incorporate a systemic approach and attempt to look at the many interrelated aspects of one’s psychology. Eco-psychology is one of the newest additions to the growing expansion of the field that is making significant contributions to understanding humanity and its relationship with the Earth.
What is so disturbing about the human condition today is that we have evolved to such an extent that we actually have the capacity to undermine our own existence as a species. No other creature can do this and despite the trauma the Earth has experienced in its history including a number of mass extinctions, the Earth has been able to continue its evolutionary journey and evolve new life in its intricate web of relationships. The consequences of our current ecological crisis will not permanently destroy the biosphere but may well end the continuance of our presence on this planet.
We must ask ourselves how we came to be so inept ecologically and what is it about human nature that would result in such dysfunctional thought and behavior. Are we unable to perceive when we are acting irrationally? Can we not use the knowledge we have gained from our study of human behavior in resolving personal, social and global problems?
Ralph Metzner is one of the eminent theorists of “green psychology”. He has critiqued a number of proposed causes of our alienation from the natural world and has identified them by psychological categories. These categories can be used as diagnostic metaphors to explain humanities’ tendency to distance from its habitat historically. I will give a brief summary of these and their implications. I have also included some other diagnosis from other sources as well. It is interesting to note that none of the diagnosis presented have been made by psychologists, but by experts from other scientific disciplines. For more detailed information, Ralph Metzner’s book, “Green Psychology”, is a definitive resource on this subject.
The Human Superiority Complex
The human superiority complex can be described as the perception that human beings are the pinnacle of creation, are superior to all other life forms and thus have the right to dominate, manipulate and utilize the natural resources of their environment for the primary benefit of humanity. All creatures on the planet have a vested and natural self-interest in survival but the superiority mandate goes far beyond survival issues. It includes all activities that allow for humans to thrive, be comfortable and to attain happiness at the expense of everything else and even precludes ethical considerations.
This attitude, perception or philosophy has developed for many reasons that stem from religious, philosophical and scientific ideologies that have evolved throughout humanity’s tenure on this planet. Some of the main contributing perceptions have already been addressed in the previous chapters on religion and philosophy but will continue to make their appearance throughout this treatise. In summary, the chief reason humans have adopted this position is because of the value they have placed on their extensive intellectual development. Consequently, nature, having been defined as a non–thinking and non-conscious entity, has been expediently relegated to an inferior status.
The Arrogance of Humanity
George Carlin in his comedy routine, “Saving the Planet” makes an astute observation. He asserts that we have become so arrogant that we think we can save the planet from human intrusion. He also states that we can hardly take care of ourselves or care for each other so it is highly unlikely we can protect the Earth either.
Human beings have been on the earth only a few hundred years as a technological society and already we have exploited the globe beyond its’ carrying capacity. The earth has existed for 4.543 billion years and has managed to maintain a balanced existence. Many species have come and gone but the natural world and its intricate connection of relationships has remained intact as a functioning organism.
I think we have something to learn from this fact. The earth is a self-regulating system and is certainly not going to be managed or controlled by one of its species. We know from biological research and observation that the higher developed a species is, the more fragile it is and the less likely it is to succeed. We certainly fit into this category and if we continue to live out our present lifestyles of exploitation, our time for extinction will come soon and probably within the next 10 years. James Lovelock stated that the Earth actually doesn’t need us to function properly but we cannot function and thrive without the intricate systems the biosphere has provided us. What we can do is to learn how to live sustainably and ecologically and relate to the Earth as one of its inhabitants; not as a privileged or elite entity that thinks it is superior to the natural world.