Essay: Ecopsychology – by John Seed


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 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 psychology.

We have all heard the news:Dr. Raymond Dassman, Professor of Biology, University of Califoria: “The 3rd World War has begun: it is being waged against the Earth.”. Most scientists agree that a million or more species will become extinct between now and the turn of the century, a rate of extinction some thousands of times the natural background rate. etc. etc. etc. We have all heard the news. Yet it has not changed our behaviour except in rather trivial ways.

So how will we 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.How is it that psychology is the last of the social sciences to acknowledge the environmental crisis? Scientists warn that we are 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 sitting on. Does this not indicate some kind of psychological problem?

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 myself graduated in Psychology at Sydney in the mid-’60’s. After a stint as a systems engineer for IBM I found myself up in Nimbin with the hippies, building a meditation centre, building community, delivering babies. Then, in 1979, by chance I found myself embroiled in what turned out to be the first direct action in defense of the rainforests to take place in Australia or indeed, the world.

Terania Creek happened to be adjacent to community where I had been living for five years. I somehow found myself involved in the defense of the rainforest there and suddenly everything changed. I heard the trees screaming. I heard them calling us to us for help and I couldn’t resist that call. If I went to see a psychiatrist and said that I heard the Earth screaming, wouldn’t my experience be reduced to a purely personal pathology? It would show that there was something wrong with me. Perhaps he would want me to talk about my childhood.

At first my experience was frightening and bewildering? The trees screaming? Gimme a break! In later years as I studied the rainforest I discovered that this rainforest that I found myself defending was part of the original flora of Australia. 130 million years ago when Australia was part of the mighty super continent Gondwanaland, joined to South America and Antarctica, before the continents drifted apart, the whole continent was covered in rainforest. Indeed, I as a human being was evolving within this very rainforest for nearly all those 130 million years, and it is only during the last few million years that I sought my fortunes down on the ground. So it became less surprising that some kind of psychological or spiritual contact with the rainforest was possible, and it became rather more surprising hat more people didn’t seem to be experiencing it.

Anyhow, from Terania Creek I went on to start the Rainforest Information Centre which has been engaged in the protection of rainforests worldwide to this day with successful projects from India to Ecuador, from New Guinea to Siberia.

However, it soon became apparent that the forests could not be saved one at a time. In spite of our successes defending the temperate rainforests at the Franklin River, the tropical rainforests of far north Queensland, it was clear that for every forest we protected, hundreds disappeared. And of course the planet could not be saved one issue at a time. While we were protecting forests, holes were appearing in the sky and humanity threatens to choke on our own exhaust gasses and the other “byproducts” of progress.

By the early ’80’s it was obvious to me that unless we could somehow address the underlying psychological disease that afflicts modern humanity and allows us to soil our nest, to saw off the branch that we’re sitting on, all of our actions and projects were merely symbolic. You can’t save a forest. It’s the planet or nothing. No planet, no forests.

It was at this point that I learned of deep ecology and first found an analysis of our situation that helped explain how we had home 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.

After thousands of years of Judeo-Christian conditioning, we have inherited shallow, fictitious selves, disconnected from nature. Unaware of it’s dependency on the tree on which it grows, we are like a leaf imagining some benefit from the logging of the tree.

Even though our IDEAS may have changed, all of the institutions of our society and the very language we speak, conspire to bind us in 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 with all the other species merely bit players to be “subdued and dominated”, yet our institutions and personalities were forged in this mold and we seem incapable of giving substance to our new, ecological, vision.

James Lovelock, the scientist who popularized the Gaia hypothesis (which says that the Earth is not just a lump of rock with “resources” growing on it but is a living integrated being), has said that what we are doing to the rainforests is as if the brain were to decide that it was the most important organ in the body and started mining the liver.

With three others, I wrote a book about these things called Thinking Like A Mountain – Towards a Council of All Beings. One of the authors, Arne Naess, was Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Oslo University. It was he who coined the term “Deep Ecology”, and in an essay in the book he concludes the essay by saying “it is not enough to have ecological ideas, we have to have ecological identity, or ecological self”.

He pointed out the a sense of responsibility or duty is a “treacherous basis” for conservation. How many of us are capable of 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 systems.

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 highly elevated moral stature. Self-interest comes “naturally” 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 most humans becoming “selfless”, acting against their perceived self-interest to protect these things.

Still, through thousands of years of conditioning absorbed by osmosis since 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. I am not talking about anything particularly mystical, it is very straight forward. We can call it “the atmosphere” and we can say “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 through us, whether it’s the atmosphere, the water, or the soil. There is no “out there”, it is all “in here”, but most modern people don’t feel that.

I would call this the central psychological problem of our age and it leads directly to turning us into a culture of ecopaths. This term describes a position with respect to the environment that parallels the position of a psychopath in relation to society, coldly bereft of normal empathy and compassion.

As long as “the” environment is out there, we may leave it to some special interest group like the greenies to protect while we look after number one. The matter changes when 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 his patients could be traced to repressed sexual material. However, our sexuality is only 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 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.

Interestingly enough, actual things are self-healing and to truly acknowledge our interconnectedness with the air and the water and the soil, indeed our IDENTITY with them, is to create the conditions for the spontaneous healing of the psyche to take place. It is from these 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 is the fundamental healing that we all long for.

Obviously there IS no self without air and water and soil. Incredible amounts of energy go into futile attempts to heal what is really a fictitious self while our ACTUAL, ecological self suffocates. Imagine life as a tree and the myriad human selves as leaves on this tree. The sap of the tree flows thru each leaf just as water, air and soil flow thru our bodies connecting us to all of life.

The two main thinkers working on Ecopsychology are Theodore Roszak and James Hillman. Joe Reisser quoted at length from Roszak in his paper. I’d briefly like to refer you to Hillman’s excellent new book: “100 Years of Psychotherapy and the World’s getting Worse”. Hillman blames a lot of the social and environmental problems that we face on the fact that the people who should be out there changing things are in therapy instead. They 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 ourselves by the millions in defense of one social fiction after another – countries, religions, ideaologies – while hardly anyone lifts a finger while the actual, biological fabric underpinning all of these is torn to shreds?

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.

In response to such questions, Joanna Macy and I developed the eco-therapies or deep ecology rituals called Council of All Beings.

There we REMEMBER our rootedness in nature. Using guided visualisation and movement/dance we recapitulate our entire evolutionary journey and release the memories locked in our DNA. We experience the fact that every cell in our body is descended in an unbroken chain 4 billion years old, through fish that learned to walk the land, reptiles who’s scales turned to fur and became mammals, evolving through to the present.

We further extend our sense of identity in the Council of All Beings itself where, we find an ally in the natural world, make a mask to represent that ally, and lend our voices to the animals and plants. We are shocked at the very different view of the world that emerges from their dialogue. Creative suggestions for human actions emerge and we invoke the powers and knowledge of these other life-forms to empower us in our lives.We remember that, until quite recently, we’ve been doing things like this for a long time, hundreds of thousands of years perhaps, and to our surprise, it comes very easily and naturally to us. Some feel very skeptical at this point thinking that “it’s just projection of some aspect of our personality”, or “it’s just psychodrama”. However, it doesn’t seem to matter, you don’t have to BELIEVE any of this, all you need to do is just join in with an open mind and see what happens. Something amazing will happen, it always does. Invariably we are shocked to hear voices that we have never heard before, profound truths revealed. As Carl Jung noted, every person has a bush soul. This process allows it to articulate.

When I first started facilitating these workshops in 1987, they tended to fill with hippies, pagans and witches. Now, especially in the US, more and more therapists and psychologists are participating. This community seems increasingly dissatisfied with the status quo, with it’s role, and searching to develop practices in service of the Earth.

One of the rituals at the Council of All Beings is a mourning: we grieve for all that is being lost from the world, the species lost, the landscapes trashed. Only if we will allow ourselves to feel the pain of the Earth, can we be effective in Her healing. I think this is the reason why the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Naht Hanh, said “the most important thing that we can do is to hear inside ourselves the sounds of the Earth crying”.

The dominant paradigm however, is in denial. Is psychology itself in denial? How is it that such a small number of people are attending this symposium? Is everyone at the Trauma Management symposium? Somehow we can get a handle on individual pain but our collective pain and the pain of the Earth ends up in the too hard basket.

It reminds me of a fable about the sufi saint/fool Nasrudin. Once Nasrudin was on his hands and knees beneath a street lamp. His friend asked him what he was looking for and Nasrudin replied “I’ve lost my key”. The friend joined Nasrudin in the pool of light but after some time inquired “Are you SURE you lost it here?” Nasrudin replied (pointing) “well, actually I lost it over there. But over there it’s too dark to see a thing.”

Ecopsychology: Psychology that has worked thru it’s denial, consents to be informed by the ecological crisis and engage in “the real work” of this age.

One of the rituals that we may perform in a Council of All Beings is to embrace a tree. To breathe carbon dioxide to it’s leaves, to breathe in the oxygen that it exhales and to give thanks for the ancient cycles of partnership. Many insights may come to us in this way and these we share in our circle.

Obviously there’s no such thing as a healthy leaf on a dying tree but each leaf, labouring under the delusion that it is an independent, separate “self” may expend vast amounts of energy in the futile attempt at healing my-leaf. Imagine if our experience of self expanded and all the energy that goes into therapy were to include the healing of our world? Were the combined energies of all of the leaves who think and behave thus to be placed at the service of tree-healing, the tree might stand a chance and with it the myriad leaves that depend upon it.

Nonetheless, here we are, leaves thoroughly conditioned to ignore the obvious meaning and implications of the sap that unites us with the tree on which we grow. We have more-or-less successfully repressed the knowing of the tree. We believe that only human-leaf has soul, none of the other leaves, nor sap, nor the tree itself does. Through this separation we have been able to achieve mighty things and now our very success threatens us with annihilation. 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 dis-ease and emptiness and spend our lives trying to fill the gaping wound with all manner of “stuff”. We have to 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.

In response to the question “how is this expansion of identification to be developed?”, Arne Naess responded that what are needed are community therapies to develop ecological self. At first I was very excited by this as it gave me a new perspective on the Council of All Beings. Although I had facilitated hundreds of such workshops, I’d never seen them in this light.

After some time however, I came to see certain shortcomings in the “therapy” metaphor. While on Third Mesa I was privileged to witness an ancient Hopi ritual. It took place in the town square of the oldest continuously inhabited community in the Western Hemisphere. Although the masks were more splendid, in many ways it was identical to the Council of All Beings and these people had been doing this regularly for thousands and thousands of years.

But therapies are supposed to come to an end. These ceremonies and rituals have no end. Perhaps the tendency to lose our connection with the living Earth is very ancient. Perhaps it began as soon as we began to think? What else could explain the fact that 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 interconectedness with the land and the rest of the Earth community?

It would seem that we “moderns” are the first culture to, in our arrogance, relegate these things to the realm of mumbo jumbo or “empty” ritual and, in our enlightenment, 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 God’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 to reclaim these rituals and the empowerment 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 we point 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 sufficiently 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 200 or more 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 again for an eco-psychology, psychology in service to the Earth, to help usher forth homo ecologicus, a psychology with a future.