Human Psychology and Nature-part four

A Critique of Deep Ecology

Al Gore points out that some deep ecologists frame the human relationship with nature using the metaphor of disease. This portrays humans playing the role of a pathogen: a virus attacking the Earth and threatening the planet’s fabric of life. One example is that humans are likened to an HIV virus, inflicting aids upon the biosphere, thus compromising the environment’s ability to resist and maintain immunity to our destructive acts. Another example depicts us in the role of a global cancer that spreads uncontrollably and consumes resources the planet needs to survive. A parasitic relationship comes to mind except that if we do succeed in destroying the Earth, we will forfeit our own existence too, as there will be no other host to attack and thrive upon.

Gore criticizes this metaphor as problematic as it defines humanity as inherently selfish and destructive. It also does not raise the question of whether humans are intrinsically this way or if they are acting out of ignorance and if better informed would make more constructive choices. Should this hypothesis prove to be accurate however, then, the only solution to this dilemma would be to voluntarily rid the planet of our species altogether. Earth First, (a radical grass roots environmental organization), has proposed such an intervention as well as others who hold this pessimistic view of humanity.

Ralph Metzner, on the other hand, feels that the disease metaphor is not predicated on the removal of humanity from the Earth but on other viable solutions. These include a change in consumption, lifestyle, attitude, self-concept and imagery and point to a more optimistic view that we can learn from our mistakes and make corrections that will matter.

Another criticism Mr. Gore makes of deep ecology is that human beings are often referred to as an alien presence and as having a predominately physical relationship with the planet that is more a function of instinct as if we are playing out a script that we have no control over. Unfortunately, human actions often appear this way and tend to derive negative connotations from those who analyze their behaviors. If we contrast deep ecology and Cartesian philosophies, we find an interesting dichotomy. Deep ecologists tend to see human beings as having a primarily physical relationship with the cosmos based on instinctual behavior while Cartesian proponents view humans as intellectually disconnected and superior to the biosphere. Both views ultimately result in the same predicted outcomes: disconnection from the wholeness of life and resultant dysfunctional behaviors. We can conclude from this that what is needed is a balanced relationship with the Earth that includes both physical and mental connection and appreciation.

Al Gore further believes that the Cartesian approach promotes a feeling of separateness from the natural world and perceives the bounty of nature as merely a collection of resources to be exploited for human benefit exclusively. From this notion, has come the framework of thought and behavior that has brought forth our current ecological predicament.

The Mind-Body Relationship

The Cartesian model refers to Descartes’ view of the world as mechanistic, reductionistic and governed by the laws of nature that can be discovered and understood through careful observation and experimentation as defined by logic and the scientific method. This view portrays the natural world as an inanimate object as opposed to a living organism. There are implications that stem from this view that are important to consider and misperceptions we have regarding the mind-body relationship.

The primary connection between mind and body are feelings. Our society, having put emphasis on thinking over feelings, has tended to encourage the cerebral and discourage experiencing feelings and emotions. Cultural mores also reinforce the mind-body separation and the negation of emotions and feelings.

The brain is responsible for intellectual and all bodily functions that allow us to survive, thrive, and mature. We cannot function properly with only the cerebral part of our brain working so to promote the notion that intellectual functioning is superior is neither accurate nor rational. Evolutionary processes evolved the brain to embrace the multi-faceted needs of the human organism. These include thought, abstract thinking, intuition, creativity, instincts, feelings, emotions, sensations, awareness of our bodies and nature. Without interconnectedness and harmony between these functions, we could not have evolved to be the conscious beings that we are. When we try to operate as if we have separate entities within the body and rely primarily on mental processes, we lose the experience of living in our bodies as fully integrated mental and physical beings. This loss is experienced as psychic pain that can manifest in dysfunctional behavior and a variety of psychological disorders. It is not surprising that so many of us seek therapy of some kind to address problems that have as their root cause, a separation between the body, mind, intellect and nature.

The Dichotomy Between the Psyche and Reality

Psychology is the study of human behavior and is primarily focused on internal motivations: deep needs, hidden yearnings and driving ideals. It also tries to understand the dichotomies between what people say they want and what they really want. When considering the relationship humanity has fostered with the Earth, it is perplexing why humanity would choose to behave in an exploitive manner and actively destroy its own habitat.

In psychological parlance, we often think of the mind as inside of us and reality as outside of us, inherently separated from each other. This metaphor has been the subject of great speculation as to how and where these two realms meet and of their philosophical, psychological and political importance in human psychology.

This premise was the invention of society and not derived from the workings of nature. It was introduced by European scientists and philosophers in the 17th century, who were looking for a pragmatic way to explain the workings of the universe. To their thinking, the complexity of nature was so confounding that they sought a means of comprehension that could be objectified and simplified. Personal experience and emotion, being subjective in nature, were believed to be an unreliable means of attaining truth. Thus, the scientific method was initiated and relied heavily, if not exclusively, on reductionism as the primary tool of scientific research.

There is another way to frame the concept that personal experience and emotion are subjective and unreliable. Human nature, including our physical bodies and our mind, evolved from the physical universe, therefore there must be awareness and understanding of our nature in relation to the ontology of the cosmos. Our insistence on the supremacy of the neo-cortex has overshadowed the importance of our physical faculties and has reinforced the philosophy that relegates preference to chiefly intellectual pursuits. From this standpoint, it is understandable why we have such a limited understanding of our world and how we fit within it.

The manner in which we chose to understand the cosmos resulted in a self-imposed disconnection from it and from the covenant we once shared with it. The diversity of dysfunctional behaviors that followed became the manifestations of our belief that we are ultimately separate, superior and entitled to conquer the natural world and utilize its bounty for our sole benefit. All of our major institutions eventually adopted and propagated this philosophy and over time, it developed into an integral part of human thinking and behavior.

Our True Nature

Theodore Roszak deliberates on how modern civilization has distanced from the natural world via the nature of our modern lifestyles. One of the main differences is the development of urban life and the number of people that now live in cities as opposed to in rural areas. Besides the perceived benefits of the centralization of services and commodities and people living in close proximity with each other, there is also the tendency of distancing from the environment to be more comfortable and to avoid discomfort from the harsh aspects of nature as well. Cities also seem to represent human progress and promote the industrial/technological way of life. This in turn takes humans away from their former natural way of living in the environment as hunters and gatherers and changes their focus towards primarily human endeavors. This change in our lifestyles has promoted the attitude that nature exists mainly for human benefit and can be exploited in good conscience for the betterment of society as a whole. This philosophy has led us to becoming an exploitive species that is now in danger of extinction and destroying the fabric of life on Earth. It appears we have become detached from the covenant we once had with wild nature and the new direction we have chosen to go in has resulted in prevalent pathological behavior and a philosophy that is decidedly anthropocentric.

A reappraisal of our current attitudes and behavior is in order. Primitive cultures, for the most part, lived in harmony with their habitat and did not exploit or destroy the environment to any magnitude such as we are doing today. Granted, they did not have the science or the technology to do so at that time, but their principle attitudes included respect for their environment and a sense of ethics as well. Cooperation and collaboration were important concepts for early humans. The idea that the world existed only for humanity was not a conscious thought structure. There was also no particular concept that humans were bad or sinful or that behavior was predominately gratification based. The idea that humans were unworthy and sinful developed much later as a means of control and dominance over the populous by leaders, other authoritarians and religious institutions. 

Prince Peter Kropotkin was a widely acknowledged founder of modern ecology. He was responsible for the discovery of intra-species cooperation and also forwarded the concept of ecosystem along with others who were developing this conceptual framework. He also developed a psychological theory deduced from his studies that puts him in the category of one of the first eco-psychologists. His theory proposed that the symbiosis observed in all living species was not just an altruistic characteristic or virtue. He felt it had deeper origins. That deeper origin was instinctual, spontaneous, and embedded in the foundations of animal consciousness: a part of the process of evolution itself. Thus, Kropotkin concluded that human nature was ethically oriented: the unconscious having its foundation in conscience and the moral disposition of the personality firmly embedded in the psyche.

The notion of an innate conscience considers the human community woven together by caring and a sense of ethics as opposed to just as a social contract. He went further with this saying that humanity should be able to manage itself without the need for governance or bureaucratic entities. This would include the many social institutions that promote normative and ethical behavior.

But modern societies do have institutions to control behavior. Why is this necessary then? Unfortunately, no one has been able to answer this question adequately so far. Neither has anyone been able to explain the origin of original sin or the whole concept that humans seem to be inadequate to manage their own behaviors. Nevertheless, it seems clear that if an ethical unconscious did not exist, modern societies would never be able to exist and sustain themselves regardless of how much bureaucracy and police force could be maintained. Humans naturally take on the structures of family, clan, band, tribe, guild, village or town. Why can we not then live according to the nature that we have been endowed with as an evolutionary species and how can our instinctual social traits be utilized to solve our modern ethical dilemmas? 

Gestalt psychology, started in the 1920’s as an alternative approach to the psychology of perception, proposed that sensory organs can create meaningful patterns even when confronted with chaotic information and that the mind makes meaning even with a lack of it in its environment. In fact, the mind tends to create meaning even when there isn’t any at all. Can this function be inclusive of our whole organism including mind, body, spirit; our relationship to each other and to nature? Gestalt assumes an organism is oriented towards innate healthy functioning. If functioning deviates from healthy, the proper question to ask then is what is in the way, not what is wrong with the organism. Thus, optimism is a concept woven into this eco-psychology that abandons the notion that humans are inherently bad or evil by nature. Human beings then do not need a deity or some outside authority or force to compel them to act responsibly or ethically. Control and domination occur only when certain individuals teach us that the body, psyche, society and nature are unreliable, incompetent and hostile, thus compelling us to doubt our perceptions regarding our self-worth and innate goodness.

Gestalt psychology then can be viewed as a progressive and positive approach to resolving social and environmental problems and leading humanity to a more enlightened disposition. Indigenous peoples’ ideas and lifestyles could also be incorporated into our present worldview and a new expanded paradigm for modern philosophy and behavior could be initiated. 


Earth in the Balance. Ecology and the Human Spirit by AL Gore, 1992, Rodale Inc., Dysfunctional Civilization, pp. 216-219.

The Voice of the Earth; An Exploration of Ecopsychology Theodore Roszak, Phanes Press, 2001, In-Here/Out-There, pp. 39-44.

The Voice of the Earth; An Exploration of Eco-psychology, Theodore Roszak, Phanes Press, 2001, City Pox and the Patriarchal Ego, pp. 215-246.

The Voice of the Earth; An Exploration of Eco-psychology, Theodore Roszak, Phanes Press, 2001, Toward an Ecological Ego, pp. 282-305 and Attending the Planet, pp. 306-317.

Green Psychology by Ralph Metzner, Ph.D. copyright, 1999, Park Street Press, Rochester Vermont, Psychopathology of the Human-Nature Relationship, pp. 90-91.

Green Psychology by Ralph Metzner, Ph.D. copyright, 1999, Park Street Press, Rochester, Vermont Psychopathology of the Human-Nature Relationship, pp. 81-82.

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