Peripatetic Precipitates: On Nature, Healing, and Homecoming

A column by Craig Chalquist, PhD

Linda Buzzell and Craig Chalquist Discuss “The Waking Up Challenge”

We’ve built a new Earth.
It’s not as nice as the old one;
It’s the biggest mistake humans have ever made,
One that we will pay for literally forever.
We live on a new planet.
What happens next is up to us.
~Bill McKibben, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet

LINDA: Although we hear daily news of worsening environmental conditions on our home planet, a sense of collective urgency seems strangely missing, even among those who intellectually accept the reality of the challenge. Bill McKibben’s recently published book Eaarth boldly proclaims that we now live on a new planet, a changed planet. He urges us to quickly adapt to this new situation and yet… most of us go on with our daily lives, oblivious to the fact that our life support systems have forever been compromised.

Environmentalists now look to psychology and ecopsychology for answers. What will it take for people to wake up to what’s happening and take effective remedial action — or even self-survival action? What is it about the human psyche that predisposes us to block reality, putting our heads in the sand over and over again throughout history until avoidable disasters actually arrive our very doorstep? Are we just an irrational, adolescent species incapable of life-protecting foresight? Will we and our progeny soon join the dinosaur, the dodo and the many species we’ve recently driven to extinction on the trash heap of planetary history?

CRAIG: I don’t think our deafness and numbness have anything to do with us as a species, and I don’t favor the “we weren’t wired for long emergencies” biologizing. I think it’s more an artifact of what I call “empire psychology” in the courses I teach: a psychology of self-alienation, entitlement, and immaturity characteristic of empires in general. I also think that activists like McKibben have so hammered the ears of our fellow citizens that nobody but their fans want to hear from them anymore.

When we were putting together Ecotherapy I talked on the phone with Ted Roszak about this very issue. He told me that he had attended a conference to hear a famous environmentalist tell us how screwed we all were and why didn’t we wake up. He walked out.

It’s important to realize that environmental crisis and despair aren’t shadow anymore, aren’t unconscious. People are well aware of what’s happening environmentally. They read the news and see the stories. But they’re scared to feel through it because mainstream psychology has offered them no tools for containment or working through. That’s where ecopsych and ecotherapy can be of such immense help.

LINDA: I agree that the history of our trashing of our planetary life support systems is really important. Some say this kind of environmental damage happens even in pre-agricultural indigenous cultures. Others blame the end of horticulture and the beginning of agriculture. Still others think that overpopulation is the key to our current levels of destruction. And of course it’s especially true that empire cultures are the most destructive of all in their quest for dominance uber alles.

I also wonder if our Cassandra-like prophets (writers and filmmakers) don’t serve a valuable function in the waking up process. Perhaps they’re the “stick” and those who teach us enjoyable survival skills (growing food, natural building, reconnecting with nature, permaculture, etc.) are the “carrot”? I know that disturbing films like “An Inconvenient Truth,” “The End of Suburbia” and “Food, Inc” have all been vital in my own waking up evolution.

The negative predictions of prophets are often unappreciated at the time. In the Greek myth, Cassandra was cursed with the agony of speaking the truth but never being believed. It’s definitely no fun telling unwelcome truths. We saw this before the recent economic collapse, predicted by then-unpopular economist Nouriel Roubini, who was promptly dubbed “Dr. Doom.” He told us that the debt-ridden emperor had no clothes and he only became popular after his predictions proved correct. My favorite Cassandra is Winston Churchill, who spent the 1930’s railing about the unpreparedness of the British armed forces for the coming battles with that nice Herr Hitler Chamberlain was busy appeasing. He was considered a nut by his colleagues, just as Roubini was until 2008. I think we ignore voices like Bill McKibben at our own peril, and I’m really glad we included an essay by Bill in our book.

I don’t know if I believe that most people on the planet today are really aware of what’s happening environmentally at more than a very superficial level. I certainly hope so. Perhaps we can talk more about how ecopsychology and ecotherapy can be most useful in helping people process these frightening realities enough to begin taking constructive action – if not to save the planet, then at least to save themselves?

CRAIG: I too value our prophets. They’re such a valuable part of our Judeo-Christian heritage. I also respect Bill’s good work and that of all the other prophets. They certainly have their role to fulfill. At the same time, I’ve come to believe that we need better tools for addressing the people who don’t need or are tired of prophets, or simply can’t abide their style. It’s very difficult for the prophets themselves to understand this: like Cassandra, they seem locked into one style of discourse and unable to escape from it. More than once in conversation with these message-bearers I’ve seen how they fight against the simple but important realization that their style is completely ineffective with a huge part of the population they address. I can tell you as the survivor of a conservative Christian upbringing that when people start ranting about how I’m not getting something or need to live differently to be saved, this sounds to my jaded ears exactly like it did in church. Little wonder that Americans in particular are so adept at tuning these voices out: we’ve heard too much of their tone already, and we’re tired of listening to how sinful we are.

I wouldn’t ask the prophets to give up their righteous anger, but I would have us ask ourselves: Is this tone effective for my own audience? It certainly isn’t with mine. As you know, I give “Gardening and Mental Health” talks to backyard gardeners here in relatively conservative Walnut Creek, CA. About a hundred show up for this. If I started talking about the end of the world, they’d all get up and leave. Instead, I give them examples of how our gardens mentor us: about patience, about not wasting anything, about listening in on the seasons as the year goes by, about composting our problems instead of making “therapeutic issues” out of them. My audience loves this enough and feels safe enough that I can occasionally add, “….and this helps get carbon out of the atmosphere.” They get it. They know what’s going on, which is why I don’t take all the suspiciously loud pooh-poohing of climate change etc. at face value anymore.

We know from a lot of social science research that sugar-coating things in denial won’t help; but we also know that neither will scaring the hell out of people, especially when they’re already scared and covering it up with a surface of ignorance or distraction. What works is to tell them what they can do to be of help. Americans in particular will hand you the keys to the car or the pants we wear if you just tell us what works and where to go to do it.

LINDA: I love your approach and also use it myself. Rob Hopkins, the founder of the international Transition movement, would definitely agree that the place to start with most people is the carrot – literally. Getting everyone involved in pleasurable, local, nature-connected healing activities like gardening is a great introduction to the sustainable living changes we all need to make. And as you say, it’s then possible to introduce a few of the deeper/wider ideas as well, once that groundwork has been laid.

The additional challenge for ecotherapists who work with what Sarah Edwards and I call “the Waking Up Syndrome” is to help people who, as a result of reading the news and seeing films, become aware of the enormity of wider threats and experience emotional and relationship problems as a result. No amount of veggie gardening will address the powerful feelings and concerns that arise among those with gut-level experience (even second-hand via the omnipresent media) of oil spills, toxic contamination, resource wars, food/energy shortages, or climate-caused droughts, fires, or hurricanes. Some people are also connecting the dots between what’s happening in the secondary and tertiary economies (jobs, money) and the primary economy (nature), raising additional worries. It’s a daunting picture for anyone whose eyes are wide open, and it’s important to have trained ecotherapists available who won’t just pooh-pooh these concerns but will help people process them constructively and move forward into positive action and enjoying life.

Even those who seem to be undisturbed by rapidly degenerating life-support conditions aren’t as impervious as they may seem. Denial takes psychic energy. Blocking out the bad news involves shutting out other experiences and emotions as well. This can create a sense of numbness or vague unease that may lead to depression, anxiety or various addictions. For those in this situation, the carrot is the right place to start. The soothing and healing effects of nature-connection activities can relax resistance and raise confidence that even small actions in the right direction will yield peace and joy in everyday life, no matter what is going on at the macro level.

CRAIG: Agreed. However, I’d like to confess that I don’t spend much time thinking about waking people up. I wouldn’t make a good activist, revolutionary, or prophet. Most of my educational effort goes into 1. giving information to the waker-uppers, and 2. pulling together those not sleeping or texting at the wheel to work on what psychologist Mary Watkins refers to as the kinds of community we most desire. It could be that I have a Darwinian streak to my character, or perhaps it’s just a need to manage my time and energy, but I have nothing to spare for either determined sleepwalkers or the reactionary archons who feed them their sleeping potions. Maybe they need to sleep through the fall of empire. Or maybe I just absorbed too many lessons about not being codependent. In any case, doing group work with violent offenders taught me the therapeutic power of giving up on people. When those clients asked me why I wasn’t invested in their staying out of jail, I replied, “Because that’s YOUR job.” I cared about them, and my caring meant that I was quite clear on where my responsibilities ended and theirs began.

Addicts need to bottom out; maybe so do civilizations. My concern is with the growing number of awakening people I believe represent a viable human response to selection pressures of our own making.

LINDA: You’re certainly not alone in the desire to give up on those who are sleepwalking through this crisis. And perhaps it’s also true that the frightening losses we’re enduring are an inevitable part of the grander evolutionary process. A goodly number of ecothinkers at the dark end of the prediction spectrum would agree that we should just focus our efforts on those ready to receive them. “Building local lifeboats” is a common theme.

However, I would say that a more general focus in the environmental community right now is to address the challenge of figuring out how best to use psychology, media and marketing techniques to awaken and mobilize large enough numbers of people to actually make a practical impact in ameliorating conditions in the (very) near future. It’s obvious that just reporting the facts, scaring people or blaming them isn’t actually resulting in changed attitudes, systems or behavior. I think this will be a topic of much more discussion and effort in the environmental and political communities in the next few years and I hope that ecopsychology and ecotherapy will have some constructive ideas to contribute.

I’d love to hear your ideas on how our field can best be of service at this critical juncture. And how do we determine who can benefit most from the efforts of ecotherapy and ecotherapists and how to make that help available to them?

CRAIG: These dreadful ecological and human losses seem more about ignoring the grander evolutionary process: the Great Turning (Joanna Macy) from the Industrial Growth Society now consuming the planet surface to the ecologically and culturally viable Life-Sustaining Civilization.

By “giving up” I don’t mean turning one’s back. I mean recognizing that people resist persuasion for a reason. I question the success of the environmental community’s focus on awakening and mobilizing when even people like Ted Roszak walk out of their public events. Preaching environmentalists sound like preachers and are often good examples of what James Hillman identifies as unconscious Christianity. It’s difficult for those not raised in a Christian country–pagans included–to understand how deep our resistance to this style of Revelations rhetoric really goes. Mass consumption here strikes me as largely motivated by, “The hell with these Puritan ethics! I want to have FUN and BUY things!”

The prophets also seem to have a difficult time understanding their opponents. If one were to view the current set of crises from a military perspective, one would have to conclude that the environmentalists have lost the war and the multinational corporations have won. They dominate the world and almost all of national and international politics. They own nearly all the land, money, and governments. Most of us live under occupation without even identifying it as such. If this is going to change, perhaps we should begin with a realistic assessment of how things are instead of staging yet another predictable protest ignored by the power elite and dispersed by police in corporate pay. In Louisiana the Coast Guard is taking orders from BP: get the photographers away from the oil spill. We need to think about what that means, and formulate new responses accordingly. For example, what would it look like to really go global and cut loose from specific sites, fronts, and actions? What if we could hand out more new memes than old pamphlets?

I wouldn’t undertake to say how ecotherapists and ecopsychologists should apply our insights and methods, but I can describe my own approach as education that meets people where they are rather than where I want them to be. I share with students and the public what fascinates me, and I leave it at that. In part this is because I’m pretty much a failure at persuasion, so how I do things wouldn’t work for everyone, but when I stick to how things COULD be, and are right now in some places–ecovillages, biomimicry, bioregional knowledge, transformation of how we perceive our conversation with nature–then the responses are enthusiastic. The one or two times I’ve made the mistake of trying to shape behavior never turned out well, perhaps because part of me sides with the listener’s resistance.

I came across a TED video in which Ray Anderson described himself as a “recovering plunderer.” He describes how he turned his carpet business into something clean and profitable and educational. He doesn’t preach the Gospel of Green, he just provides a successful example of change and lets people draw their own conclusions. Right away this eliminates most of people’s resistance to change.

LINDA: I agree that in both education and ecotherapy it’s wise to focus on helping people have a vision of how things could be – a beacon of hope to guide the way forward. And as an ecotherapist I’ve also found that helping people have a physical, visceral experience of nature-connection is profoundly healing. But I’ve been a psychotherapist too long (since the 1970s) not to realize the importance of providing a safe place for people to explore their darker emotions — their negative as well as positive feelings about what’s happening in their lives and the wider world. Especially in the times we live in, I would be loathe to shut out the very real concerns many people are now experiencing about the health of their life support systems and the challenges of the future. In addition to their hopes and dreams for a better world, I would also invite the darker presences from the client’s life – the daily news reports, disturbing dreams, personal and collective consequences of crumbling support systems — into the therapeutic conversation in the counseling room or the outdoor office: the birds covered in oil, the dazed survivors of wildfires and hurricanes, those struggling with economic or environmental disaster. In these dark places, gently held, lie the earthy roots of recovery.