Psychology and Environment: Summary

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For the past month I have been participating in an on-line seminar about psychology and the environment. The seminar ended (see previous posts here, here, and here) with many questions.  Do psychologists have any special contributions that can help with our environmental crisis?  How can psychology contribute to the discussions on climate change? See my final thoughts after the jump.

The Psychological Contribution

Can psycologists or psychoanalysts contribute value to a discussion about the environment than the average person?  I think they can and indeed understanding how people think and behave can usefully augment the fields of climate science, economics and sustainability. While the human geographers have come the closest to developing a theory that links individual development to geographic landscapes, it is the psychologists of all kinds who can undertsand motivation, incentive and defensive processes.  Yet, like most academic disciplines, there are some real reasons our knowledge doesn’t penetrate everyday consciousness.


Climate change discussions too often use rareified language.  I identify with the average person who turns off their intellectual curiosity due to the inaccessible language used by academics, and the patronizing one used by pundits. Most working class people, farm people, urban dwellers, suburbanites, all of us, possess direct ethnographic knowledge about our world’s problems and actually long to express what they know. If we can’t engage in more direct discourse with the people who are living through the environmental problems about which we write, we can’t connect with the very people on whose behalf we purport to speak. 

The tea party extremists have won the linguistic soul of many of this country because they speak to the everyday problem of limitations. People respond to this because WE ALL KNOW that modern life is out of control and not harmonious. People who join the tea party respond to that truth, even though, it isn’t what motivates the tea party leadership. If only psychologists and psychoanalysts (and all other left leaning movements like environmentalism) could part with our great allegiance to the “freeing” (of which there is far too much in the culture of excess) and instead impart the great concepts of “regulation, sublimation, and ego function” (of which there is far too little) then maybe some of our good ideas could do battle with the tea-party mentality that causes 54% of the residents of the Gulf to be in favor NOW of MORE offshore deepwater drilling.   

 Impatience with us/them

 Glenn Albrecht said something very helpful by framing the political discussion as such: no system of economic organization or government can survive if it depends on hurting the earth and exploiting her resources.  That to me sounds like something that could be said to anyone, anywhere. I find people in this country are open to that conversation – but not one about capitalism.
Our environmental problems can’t be blamed on capitalism alone. Whatever my personal political beliefs my larger goal is to find common political ground between disciplines. My problem with critiques of capitalism is that they don’t fundamentally help us talk to capitalists, and those are exactly the people with whom I wish to engage. I want to reach the CEO’s, senators, heads of state, etc. Humanistic beliefs of all kinds can importantly modify any systemic economic endeavor. Yet, if we begin our dialogue by firing the capitalist shot, the people who deeply believe in this economic system will react defensively rather than openly. We will shut down their curiosity.

Psychology and Social Process

There is a need to get out of the dichotomy of social versus individual. Everyone has defensive processes,  an unconscious, and motivations. Within the wide span of socio-cultural categories in which our minds operate we are also individual personalities with distinctive neurobiologies. Let me say this AGAIN – the mind is a   dialectical product of individual personality process in a sociocultural organization. Sulivan said something like we are all more human than otherwise. I say, we all are more otherwise than human — in that each person possesses a distinct “I”-ness that struggles throughout the life span to collaborate with the shared traits of others that ultimately define what we know as human, and how we understand each other.

Animal consciousness

It is important that we include the integrity of non-human life forms in our discussions of the environment. Climate change is not a human-centric problems. Sally Weintrobe alluded to Frans de Wall’s work that demonstrates primate consciousness.  See also this in last week’s Times.  I  think most people know intuitively that animal consciousness is far more profound than is acknowledged. In order to continue to behave as we do, animals have been categorized as non-human and people get accustomed to organizing their psyches around this concept. Yet when animals are harmed, some larger truth emerges and people express profound sentiments toward non-human creatures, and will take great risk on their behalf.


Political discourse can get male-heavy. There is a habit on the left that defines discourse in a particularly male way, and feminism becomes something like, “All women are free to be as male as they wish.”  So I often have issues with the male voice in the political process and in discussions about the environment. I very much want to assert that a female way of being is as valid as the male way, recognizing that female or male styles are not confined to only women or men. Elizabeth Allured’s research on children’s thoughts about environmental change reminds us that the current ecosystem challenges particularly apply to them. 

I believe that male arrogance (practiced by men and women alike) has had a great deal to do with our environmental crisis. Symbolically it is this reified male voice that has neglected the children and their future that has got us into this mess to begin with, what with all the domination, pillage, conquering, rape and massive inhalation of our natural resources.

We all fight against that voice when we stand tall and proud as a female voice (in some kind of fantastical identification with Chief Joseph) – and, once again, that doesn’t necessarily mean woman only. Along with many other men and women, I’m practicing the empowerment of a female voice that is like what the earth’s might be if she had one: generative, collaborative, prone to organizing but always flexible, responsive to stress, hardworking, eager to heal and please, resourceful, competitive when necessary, able to adapt to any contingency but quite capable of throwing the mighty storm.

The psychological contribution to climate change can be expressed as follows:  
   1)Help people talk about their relationship to the environment, whether it be repressed,dissociated, whatever. Simply legitimize the feelings of concern or loss, and validate memories about and experiences in landscapes, with animals, and with their ecosystems.  
    2) Witness, record and research these clinical testimonies.
    3) Share what we know in interdisciplinary dialogue as well as with people who aren’t academics.
    4) Empower people to actively create sustainable living practices one family at a time, or even one individual at a times.

   5) Allow the dialogue of eco-therapy to become a part of the political process by not concealing what we know because of confidentiality, or whatever. See especially Andrew Samuels work. Psychoanalytic truths have to enter into the dialogues that we ordinary, everyday people are having about the state of our lives. Trust me, there is nothing that has been said in this seminar that most people wouldn’t agree with if pitched in a slightly different tone.

The seminar was a great experience, lively and full of tonality.  I’m hoping the work completed there made a difference.

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One Response to “Psychology and Environment: Summary”

  1. Things to Toast « Ordinary Earth ™ Says:

    […] hold those relationships. Your insights were especially helpful during the gulf oil spill, and our seminar together did much to further understanding about how are minds and personalities connect to the […]

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