There were few people I met who were not aware of our troubled relationship with our planet….No psychologist asked them about those feelings, but they were having them just the same.
- Theodore Roszak
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Questions fielded by Craig Chalquist, PhD.
Why is it important to bring psychology to bear on the environmental crisis?
Psychology originated as the study of the psyche, and the psyche is at the root of both the crisis and its healing. Nothing short of profound transformations of consciousness can help us at this dire stage.
Aren’t ecology and environmentalism already addressing the crisis?
They don’t go far enough. In fact they perpetuate the very enchantment with technology and quick fixes that put us at odds with the planet to begin with. We can’t fix something until we understand our dysfunctional relationship with it. Therapists routinely ask new clients, “What things have you tried?” because they know that solutions without insight make things worse. Our dealings with the environment need the same kind of assessment. Trying to fix things is a defense against understanding in depth our relationship to them. If we understood ourselves and what we were doing better, and why we were doing it, there wouldn’t be an environmental crisis.
Why aren’t more therapists and psychologists out doing this?
Since Freud psychology has focused primarily on what happens inside people—in other words “psychic reality.” Even family members are referred to as “internal objects.” Some therapists like to think that treating someone for an hour a week is all one need do, even though global warming or mass extinctions won’t be discussed except as symbols for the client’s inner chaos. There is not a shred of research evidence that working with clients has any positive impact on ecological integrity at all. In short, mainstream psychology is ideologically incapable of rising above its role of adjusting clients to the status quo. It’s too busy telling them that their alienation, outrage, and despair are purely internal matters. The psychology industry as it now perpetuates itself depends financially on convincing people of that.
Didn’t behaviorism focus on the environment?
Only insofar as it impacted human behavior. The environment had no reality for the early behaviorists except as a source of stimuli, reinforcers, and punishers. The world was all sticks and carrots to them. No wonder B. F. Skinner had to curl up in a womb-like box at night.
Aren’t there exceptions—therapists for instance who reconnect people to the planet?
There certainly are. We think of them as ecotherapists: practitioners who ally themselves with nature as a therapeutic partner. Some of them have written for our upcoming anthology Ecotherapy: Healing with Nature in Mind (Sierra Club Books, 2009). But they are exceptions that prove the rule. When I present this information publicly, the people who have the biggest negative reactions to it are always members of the psychology industry. They don’t want to look at their part of the problem. It’s often difficult for healers to do that.
What have you found at the roots of the environmental crisis?
Since the Fertile Crescent 11 – 8 thousand years ago, when the Agricultural Revolution began training us to see Earth as a resource, we’ve been experiencing ourselves as more and more separate from the environment. Belief systems that emphasize another world over this one, the age of Empires starting with Sargon I’s capture of ancient Sumer, the rise of the machine paradigm of reality, and the Industrial Revolution have all encouraged us to feel separate from everything else: land, sea, sky; plants, roots, other animals. Some say that this psychological distancing was necessary for our cultural evolution, but if so, it has gone too far and now represents a dangerous overdevelopment.
Is this what scholars mean by our “Judeo-Christian” ecological heritage?
That should be our “Greco-Romano-Christian” ecological heritage. The Hebrews possessed a remarkably lucid feel for nature and sacred places. For that matter so did the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Christians, but their habit of thinking in abstractions, of building empires, and of seeing matter as either unreal or dead paved the way for the industrialists and the mechanists.
Give an example of how this plays out politically.
Conquerors tend to be privately timid people who don’t feel at home in the world. They build artificial environments like technoscapes, corporations, sects, and empires so they can belong somewhere. It’s never just about money or territory: it’s about control. Fearing the world and trying to control it. Think of the poisonous envy they must feel toward the earth-based cultures they uproot. It’s probably a law of human nature that people with unhealed wounds of displacement inflict displacement on other people too.
What is terrapsychology?
Originally the fieldwork and research approach now known as “terrapsychology” called for the deep study of the presence or soul of place, including the things and creatures within its ambit. To the original terrapsychological emphasis on finding a contemporary language to describe the aliveness of locales once thought inhabited by a specific spirit or genius loci we add the task of drawing on environmental psychology, conservation psychology, ecology, geography, and related empirically based approaches insofar as they support embodied, storied, intimately registered resonances with the places we investigate and dwell in.
How has this been received?
On the whole, very well. People are hungry for the kind of information and perspectives that help them understand their resonance to what happens to the places where they live.
What is the relationship between terrapsychology and ecopsychology?
Terrapsychology is an evolution of ecopsychology, depth psychology, Living Systems, Goethean phenomenology, and bits and pieces from other fields. Whether terrapsychology embraces/includes ecopsychology or vice versa will have to be decided by scholarship, investigation, and research. It's too early to tell.
How is terrapsychology different from native/aboriginal methods of tending the spirit of place?
Terrapsychology draws on some of those methods, and needs to because of the ancient wealth of wisdom they contain; but it also includes depth psychology, some psychohistory, ecology, and other contemporary disciplines. Also, native methods weren't designed to deal with places as heavily wounded by colonization, pollution, warfare, etc. as those we now live in after centuries of conquest.
Why do you reject explanations of the person-place connection that invoke mysterious energies or fields?
Firstly, because such explanations don't explain much. "Places vibrate to what was done there." What does that tell us? Nothing, least of all the nature of such a connection. Appeals to subtle energies might be correct or not, but they tend to remain vague catch-alls. Secondly, they are just as literalistic as explaining the connection in terms of measurable fault shifts or luces of sunlight. We're looking for deeper, more symbolic, more psychically potent linkages, such as when a visitor in San Francisco finds her mood shifting up and down like the steep hills there. We're interested in how the style or discourse of a place works its way into us.
Do you have a psychological tip for environmental activists?
Don’t shame or frighten the audience. They only tune it out, and nobody needs a 21st-century Puritanism that treats driving an SUV or failing to recycle like sins. Tell people what they can do to make a difference.
But if the theater is burning and I have a blowhorn?
...then the audience goes outside, sees no immediate danger to themselves, and ejects you from the theater. Actually, a better analogy would have them sitting at home in front of the TV. They see you screaming at them and simply change the channel. --If you feel you must scream, go ahead, but I prefer tactics that meet people where they are.
Are people ready for deep transformations in their relationship to the land?
The responses have been enthusiastic. If you want some numbers: in 2001, 59% of a sample of the population thought protecting the environment more important than producing energy (CBS News poll, 9/4/2001). 52% of a different sample said protecting it was more important than encouraging economic growth (ABC News poll, 8/1/2001), and 61% of another sample agreed that “protecting the environment is so important that requirements and standards cannot be too high and continuing environmental improvements must be made regardless of cost” (CBS/NYTimes poll, 3/13/2001).
How many people are doing terrapsychological work now?
About twenty that I know of. But everyone who really listens to the land and experiences it deeply as a living subjectivity is doing terrapsychology.
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