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Vital Signs: Psychological Responses to Ecological Crisis (Ed: Mary-Jayne Rust & Nick Totton, Published Karnac 2012)
Book review: Caroline Brazier
Perhaps one of the most exciting aspects of this time of planetary turmoil breakdown, despair and hope is that it confronts us so strongly with profound questions about what we are like as human beings
The struggle to rectify our relationship with a failing environmental system provides humanity with perhaps the greatest challenge that it has yet to face. In recognising forces of destruction which have already been released through our collective action, we are both the implicated and the victims; perpetrators and powerless in a potential catastrophe. Making sense of this situation and finding a response to it faces us not only with difficult social and technical questions, but also, more significantly, with a struggle to make sense of our collective position, and even our humanity, which goes right to the core of our being. Ecological crisis brings into question our very nature as animals and as humans and throws into the spotlight the search for the meaning of life itself.
In such circumstances, psychotherapists, as facilitators of the exploration of personal meaning, seem bound to reflect upon the environmental context in which they, and their clients, operate. The increasing interest which some therapists are showing in environmentally based therapies and aligned areas of work is therefore particularly welcome. A growing movement of practitioners, who take the situation seriously enough that they can no longer divorce their conversations with individuals from the larger context of environmental change, is reflected in the recent publication of a collection of papers under the editorship of Mary-Jayne Rust and Nick Totton.
Vital Signs: Psychological Responses to Ecological Crisis is, as is purports to be, a collection of responses which speak from a variety of perspectives and voices. As such it reflects the breadth of the community who practice eco-psychology and environmental therapies. Among its contributors are writers and practitioners from a variety of related fields including psychotherapists, academics, educators, and those involved in practical activism. The book aims to represent the emerging British voice in the movement, but includes among its twenty chapters some papers which reflect work from the United States and mainland Europe. Whilst some chapters are written by people well known in the field, others come from relative newcomers and bring a taste of grass roots work and viewpoints.
With such a variety of material it is impossible to comment on every chapter, however in this review I would like to comment on some of the significant themes which emerge in the writing.
Many of the chapters, as one might expect, take their lead from the deep ecology movement, which grew out of the work of Arne Naess in the 1970s. For example, in chapter five and chapter eighteen, both written by Margaret Kerr and David Key, the writers draw strongly on his theory as a basis for their understanding of the unconscious process as it emerges in the Natural Change Project and other wilderness work which they conduct in the Scottish highlands. Naess is also referred to by both Rust and Totton in their respective chapters and the deep ecology movement of Naess and Macy is cited and clearly influential on many other writers in the book.
The deep ecology movement tends to view the way forward in terms of a reconnection with the natural and the wild through a spiritual, one might say mystical, expansion of the sense of self. According to such models, the way out of environmental crisis is through identification with the planet itself and a sense of interconnection with the bio-system as a whole. Another metaphor which is used to describe the planetary problems is that of sickness, and in chapter three, Gaia with AIDS, Peter Chatalos combines James Lovelock’s Gaia theory with ideas drawn from Naess, suggesting that the reason why humans are failing to respond to the crisis as a part of a planetary self-healing system is because of this lack of identification with the whole. Human psychology differentiates and separates us from the rest of nature.
Many of the writers in the book thus explicitly or implicitly explore the philosophical basis of potential change. In addition to Chatalos, a number of the writers see humans as being at the root of the ecological problem and advocate solutions which involve some sort of return to our wild, embodied nature, as for example Viola Samson in Chapter one. Such ideas of the wild are also found in chapters by Totton, Rust and Bradshaw.
Such perspectives often refer back to the Buddhist teaching of Interdependent Co-arising. Such is the influence of Macy and others in the deep ecology movement that ideas of inter-connection and inter-being predominate in the thinking of many environmental theorists. I note, however, in passing, regret that theorists in this book have not drawn on the earlier Buddhist teaching of Dependant Origination which emphasises humans’ dependant nature rather than our inter-dependence. As James Lovelock suggests in his Gaia hypothesis, the planet will survive without humans, albeit in an afflicted form but humans will not survive without the planet.
By contrast to ideas of a return to the natural, Paul Maitney’s chapter four, Longing to be Human provides a refreshing move away from the glorification of the wild, or return to Eden, pointing out that it is our animal instincts for consumption and greed which are at the root of environmental problems. In contrast to the popular ideas of connection to our animal nature, Maitney sees the human capacity for thought and spiritual insight as the source of any possible salvation for the planet and thus roots a possible future in our evolutionary capacity. In place of inter-dependence he advocates differentiation, and he supports the view that spiritual and religious values have always had an important place in the regulation of human society and the overcoming of instincts such as greed. Whether or not one agrees with this position, which stands out against the predominating culture of the book, this chapter particularly stimulating and well argued.
Consumerism and the emphasis on individualism understandably raise questions in a number of chapters. Many of these discussions are theoretical, but Rosemary Randall, in chapter seventeen, addresses these themes in practical ways by discussing how groups set up in Cambridge under the Carbon Conversations project challenged people to reduce their carbon footprint. Another practical example of environmentally based work is chapter eight by Inger Birkeland and Astri Aasen which beautifully describes their work with school children.
In a book on the relationship between psychotherapy and the environment, it is perhaps not surprising that one of the most exciting chapters is that of Nick Totton, who offers an analysis of therapeutic methodology based on his reflections on wildness. In this chapter Totton rejects the prevalent culture of outcome orientated therapy and proposes a non-interventive, meaning-making process. He proposes a model which, rather than regarding therapist and client as an isolated dyad, sees them as engaged in a shared process which is part of the greater system of human and non-human phenomena, and as such holds and works with aspects of the greater whole. The therapeutic relationship is itself an eco-system and is embedded within a greater eco-system.
The individual cannot exist or be understood without the group/s of which it is part; likewise the group cannot exist or be understood without the individuals who make it up.
Totton’s chapter proposes a reconsideration of many therapeutic expectations, such as the sanctity of the traditional therapeutic boundary and ideas of intentionality and control, in favour of a co-creative process in which shared encounter and exploration unfolds within an ambiance where no certainty of objectivity becomes possible because all positions are part of the whole. Such proposals have obvious critiques within the current therapy paradigm, but nevertheless hold an important counter-position which is potentially enriching and refreshing to the whole profession.
The final chapter of the book picks up this theme of the voice from the margins. Chris Robertson draws on Jerome Bernstein’s concept of borderland consciousness, presented in chapter fourteen, the consciousness which expresses itself through a special intimacy with the natural, the animal and the wild. In chapter twenty, Robertson explores ways in which the outsider and the marginal person may provide insight into the missing aspect of a situation. Echoing Totton’s questioning of the value of hard boundaries, he proposes that it is especially in these undefined areas at the margins of social groupings that borderland consciousness emerges, bringing new perspectives which have the potential to bridge the spaces between human society and the wider, stricken planet.
An anthology is always a mixed affair, like the box of assorted sweets there will always be some flavours more favoured than others, but in the varied range of styles and content of the chapters in this book there are many important views offered. The book touches both the experiential and the theoretical in equal measure so will appeal to people with different agendas, and it has sufficient fresh thinking to stimulate those seeking a more intellectual take on the subject without being overly academic. At the same time I felt that most of the chapters were an unpacking and illustration of perspectives which have been in play for some time. With the exceptions of those which I have highlighted, I felt the book did a good job of presenting the current status quo rather than extending it, but this said, much of the cutting edge work being described is practical and does not necessarily lend itself to verbal interpretation. As descriptions of encounters with the wild, they can at best be reportage after the event.
If the book gives hint of ways forward and new developments in thinking these probably come in the discussions of the role of the boundary and the consequent critique of modern notions of self-hood, independence and therapeutic purpose. These discussions informed by, but not beholden to, the ecological debate seem live and vigorous, and have the potential to revive some of the creative energy lost from the profession in recent decades. Whether this will improve our relationship with our planet we have yet to see, but one hopes it may.
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