Thomas Berry, a theologian, presented the idea that the human species has become autistic in relation to its environment. He reasoned this disposition originated in Descartes’s view of the world as being mechanistic. As humans began to perceive the world as a mechanism (as it was referred to by the scientists and philosophers of the day), the perception and experience of nature’s vibrant manifestations became blunted, unrecognized and unappreciated. The American Psychiatric Association describes autism as: a “pervasive developmental disorder characterized by qualitative impairment in reciprocal social interaction qualitative impairment in verbal and non-verbal communication and in imaginative activity (such as role playing and fantasy) and markedly restricted repertoire of activities and interests.” (Ralph Metzner, p. 59). These behaviors are readily seen in autistic children and in adults that live in industrial societies as compared to those raised in non-industrial or alternative oriented cultures. Should Berry’s diagnosis of our relationship with Mother Earth turn out to be correct; (a cultural form of autism that will persist due to our current lifestyles and ideologies), the prospects for our future will indeed be grim.
Another theory of interest is that we, as a species, are suffering from a collective amnesia, a forgotten understanding of something possibly our ancestors once knew and practiced. This might include certain kinds of attitudes, beliefs, perceptions, an affinity for the environment, respect for life, humility, a sense of awe in the wonders of creation or a feeling of connectivity, etc. It is possible that specific evolutionary events influenced our thinking and lifestyles and channeled us in a different direction.
Some possibilities include trauma reactions from cosmic events such as bombardment from meteors and near collisions with other celestial bodies, natural disasters on Earth such as volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, tsunamis and severe weather patterns. These events could have produced a traumatic amnesia that changed the way we perceive our environment including forgetting older patterns that might have been beneficial.
Should this theory be accurate, a psychological resolution of this condition should be attainable since we are more likely to regain the memory of something we already knew as opposed to changing a long-standing and consolidated pattern of behavior.
Addiction and Distraction
Delores La Chapelle, a Deep Ecologist and mountaineer, was one of the first to pioneer the diagnosis of addiction. In her book, Sacred Land, Sacred Sex, she draws attention to the relationship between the quest for addictive substances such as gold, silver, money, sugar, narcotics, alcohol and the proliferation of capitalistic society from the sixteenth century to the present. More modern-day addictions include our reliance on fossil fuels, other natural resources and machines to produce more goods and technology to satiate our appetite for material wealth.
Al Gore suggests the notion that we, as a species, are addicted to the consumption of the planet itself, besides our insatiable appetite for its specific resources of value.
Addiction and distraction are related behaviors in the sense that to distract ourselves from our unhappiness or discontent with our lives, we rely on distractions to reduce or eliminate our psychic pain. These distractions over time and through repetition become addictions that are difficult to recognize or curb. When these attempted solutions do not produce their intended results, we engage in more and more distractive and addictive behaviors thinking that attainment at a certain level of pleasure will eventually fix the problem but instead, it manifests itself in cyclical behavior that will never achieve its intended purpose. Never enough seems to be an adage of human desire.
The increase in information and expanded entertainment venues, have created an obsession with television, movies and the media. The media is also obsessed with presenting traumatizing stimuli by creating content that is characterized by dysfunctional relationships, extremely violent acts toward fellow humans and the most unethical overall behaviors imaginable. It seems as though human beings have an implicit desire for violence, inappropriate sexual behavior, suicide and a preoccupation with pathology, fear and doom.
Computers lure us to spend hours surfing the net for information, to shop and sell, to communicate with others, to search for relationships and to play violent video games. Shopping has become a new and engrossing recreational activity. Our large corporations appear to be oriented more towards the accumulation of wealth to line the pockets of their investors than they are at producing viable products of good quality and creating work environments in which the human needs of growth and accomplishment can be attained.
I am not implying that some of these activities in reasonable amounts, and with the right motives, would be injurious, but we are far beyond that point, and these pursuits, also being vegetative and occurring indoors, keep us from fulfilling other important human needs.
Denial psychology is a “defense mechanism in which confrontation with a personal problem or with reality is avoided by denying the existence of the problem or reality.” (Mary Elizabeth Dean, Better Help, 29 April 2020). It is employed, as a behavioral strategy, by anyone who wishes to believe that they can continue their addicted lives without the consequence of negative outcomes for themselves or others.
When denial is directed towards environmental issues, it negates the reality that human decisions and actions are damaging the planet, thus allowing the process of destruction to continue. We have seen this dynamic emerge on the issue of global warming, where despite scientific agreement on its existence and effects, many still argue that it is a natural process and don’t believe any human interventions are necessary. Interestingly, those who argue in this way typically have an investment in industries and businesses that pollute the biosphere and add to the increase in global warming. Others are aware of the current ecological problems but claim the solutions are unattainable, too expensive or that it is too late to change the damage we have already done. This lack of urgency and commitment is, in itself, a serious aspect of the denial process.
The next theory to be discussed is the concept of dissociation, which is a normal and natural cognitive function. Dissociation helps us to focus on external or internal stimuli exclusively to avoid being distracted or it can be much less exclusive such as when attention to two different realms are needed simultaneously. When we concentrate on a particular task, some form of dissociation is useful so we are not paying attention to all the other sensory information going on around us.
Relating this concept to our relationship with nature, we are conscious of what we do to the environment that is detrimental but we do not always respond appropriately. We might also say that we feel unable to respond aptly because our political, economic and educational institutions have already incorporated this dissociation as an integral core philosophy from which they operate. Dissociation alienation has been a feature of Western Civilization for centuries and maybe longer.
Another dissociative anomaly is the split between spirit and nature. We tend to think of our spiritual nature to be the opposite of our physical nature and view the spiritual self as being on the order of the divine while our physical self of bodily sensations, urges, passions and feelings are deemed to be of lower value or even of negative or of evil disposition. This view has been perpetuated by many religions in an effort to control behavior and to set precedence for what is proper and what is not.
It is interesting to note that both psychological and religious formulations of dissociation have arrived at the same conclusion: humans are perceived to have two selves; a natural self, which is associated with being earthly and sensual, and a spiritual or mental self, which is viewed to be airy and ethereal.
The consequence of this dissociative split in Western humans is painfully evident: If we feel mentally and spiritually separate from our own nature, then this feeling of separation will be projected outward so we will think of ourselves as separate from the whole realm of nature as well. p. 66 Thus, if we desire to improve our spiritual self, we will have to turn against our natural self and this antagonism and control will, in turn, be projected outward in a disposition of conquest of the natural world.
The belief that the spiritual and the natural world are in opposition to one another or that spirituality is held as a higher level of being is derived from culture and is not an intrinsic human condition. It also has no relevance to non-monotheistic religions or traditional societies that see humans and nature as equal entities. Indigenous cultures regard Mother Earth as sacred or spiritual. This context fosters an attitude of respect, a desire to maintain balanced relationships and foresight to be aware of the needs of future generations and live sustainably.
When one experiences pain, such as chronic back pain or arthritis, over time, the body becomes accustom to this symptom and lowers its distress signal to the brain that something is wrong. We could also say that we get use to the discomfort. When we become aware of or are confronted directly with environmental issues and problems that persist, eventually, we become desensitized to their potency and impact on our lives. Denial, dissociation and distraction can combine with desensitization to effectively make us incapable of perceiving danger and acting appropriately. This dynamic can be seen readily in our modern societies that go about their business as usual, oblivious to the ecological crisis at hand.
The media is partly responsible for this problem since they either don’t keep us well informed for a variety of reasons including not to alarm us into a state of panic or because it is not in the best interests of the polluters and creators of the problem. The media and government also water down issues or distort the truth due to being bribed and threatened by large corporations that have an investment in not acting environmentally responsible. Concerned citizens often find it difficult to obtain accurate information from the primary sources of information or are dissuaded from attempting to discover the truth from the array of conflicting opinions available.
Laura Sewall claims that besides dissociation, humans employ defense mechanisms or psychic numbing to avoid dealing with the world’s pain. This is what David Abrams refers to as our “collective myopia.” Being aware of planetary problems such as global warming, ozone depletion, increasing pollution, toxicity, poverty, illness, over-population, increases in criminal behavior and the loss of species all become unbearable realities we must deny or distract ourselves from in order to avoid deep depression, despair and madness. This myopia blinds us to the severity and urgency of our environmental issues and results in a continuation of destructive and habitual behaviors. The need to change and re-evaluate our intentions and priorities is denied and perpetuates the collective myopia such that it becomes both a cause and effect of the environmental crisis.
“Narcissism is a personality disorder characterized by an inflated and grandiose self-image as well as feelings of entitlement that mask deep-seated feelings of unworthiness and emptiness.” (Ralph Metzner, p.90).
Philip Cushman, a psychologist, has identified a connection between narcissism and consumerism. He claims that the pursuit of material goods is an attempt to satisfy the part of the self that feels entitled even though the insecure and empty inner self remains anxious and wounded. The empty inner self must then continue to engage in consuming even more to cover up the inner emptiness. Thus, the empty self continues to seek gratification through the consumption of goods, services, heightened experiences, drugs, alcohol, food, sex, relationships and supportive therapists to fend off a growing disposition of alienation.
Allen Kanner and Mary Gomes have expanded this theme pointing out that since the narcissistic consumer feels inwardly inadequate and is being saturated with advertising to increase his or her spending to appease their perceived unworthiness, a suggestion to live green and consume less might be negated by their feelings of entitlement and fear. Also, being criticized for their materialistic tendencies might provoke a sense of failure, rather than influencing a change towards sustainable living. Should this theory of mass narcissism prove to be viable, it would present an arduous challenge to environmentalists.
Roszak, Theodore. The Voice of the Earth; An Exploration of Eco-psychology: Toward an Ecological Ego, pp. 282-305. Phanes Press, 2001.
Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth Healing the Mind, Sierra Club Books,1995, edited by Theodore Roszak, Mary E. Gomes, Allen D. Kanner. The Ecopsychology of Child Development by Anita Barrows, pp. 101-110.
Dean, Mary Elizabeth. “What is Denial Psychology and How to Address It,” Better Help, 29 April 2020, betterhelp.com/advice/general/what-is-denial-psychology-how-to-address-it/. Accessed 24 May 2020.
Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit by AL Gore.© by al Gore, 1992, Rodale Inc., Dysfunctional Civilization, pp. 226-237.
Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth Healing the Mind, Sierra Club Books,1995, edited by Theodore Roszak, Mary E. Gomes, Allen D. Kanner. Ralph Metzner, The Psychopathology of the Human-Nature Relationship, pp.60-62 and 63-67.