If you believe the mental health statistics for North America, just about everyone you see is a member of a dysfunctional family. Just about everyone is struggling to cope with an inner turmoil.
For the most part, say advocates of ecopsychology, they are the faces of exiles. People divorced from their biological roots and snared in a society that has increasingly isolated them from nature.
Like Molly, a patient from the clinical files of a U.S. psychologist, they are burdened with a sense that something is going terribly wrong with the world. Yet they are being asked to put that apprehension on hold in order to cope with everyday life.
Molly is not the real name of the deeply troubled patient. She was 45 years old when her case was reported three years ago, a successful lawyer in a prominent law firm, a mother and a wife in an apparently picture-perfect family. Yet she was besieged with feelings of inadequacy, despair, guilt, and anger.
They resulted in anxiety, insomnia, lack of appetite, and a disinterest in sex, which persuaded her therapist to pronounce her depressed.
To ecopsychologists, she was not depressed at all in the conventional sense, but « emotionally imprisoned’’ within a culture that was asking her to ignore what she was seeing around her — environmental degradation, poverty, homelessness, a shrinking future for her children — and to get on with life.
From the Mollys of this world, there is a basic lesson to be learned by environmentalists, says Theodore Roszak, one of the more prominent advocates of ecopsychology. Instead of trying to motivate people by « trying to scare them, shame them into doing the right thing,’’ they should be trying to help people work through their grief « over what we’re doing to the Earth.’’
Andy Fisher, 33 years old and a former exile, agrees. After graduating from Queen’s University in geotechnical engineering in 1987, he was looking forward to a rewarding career, working in a well-known engineering consulting firm and specializing in ground water issues.
« As an engineer, I was looking at the ecological crisis as a technical problem. But I knew instinctively it wasn’t a technical problem. I had this hunch that there was something that just wasn’t right. . . . I could feel my soul slipping away.’’
So he quit engineering and enrolled in York University’s Faculty of Environmental Science, took his masters degree with a thesis that examined the ecological crisis as a form of collective madness. He is currently in his fourth year of a Ph.D program, and his fourth and final year of training as a psychotherapist at the Gestalt Institute of Toronto. On graduation he plans to work as a psychotherapist.
It’s in the « experience of interconnectedness with nature’’ that we will find healing, he says. « We need a culture that teaches respect for nature. Instead we have a culture of exploitation.’’
When I asked him if there was a psychologist who had written a book offering a clinical analysis of ecopsychology, whom he would recommend, he suggested Chellis Glendinning (My name is Chellis, and I’m in Recovery from Western Civilization, Shambhala Press, Boston, 1994, $17.50).
« The nature of living beings is essentially wild,’’ Glendinning says, and humans are no exception, having « evolved over millions of years — through savanna, jungle, and woodland — to live in communion with’’ the land.
Denied that communion, we have become dysfunctional, « drinking ourselves to oblivion. Shooting up drugs, Raping our babies, Gunning down strangers. . . . Mowing down forests. Blanketing valleys and mountains with deadly poisons. Spewing garbage into rivers. Building machines to exterminate life.’’
With our mass technological society, we have extended dysfunction to pathological proportions, she says.
The idea that society has dislocated us is not new. Sigmund Freud was saying somewhat the same thing in 1930 with Civilization and Its Discontents . . . contentious as that work is.
The ecopsychologists maintain that communion with nature can be reestablished, and it doesn’t mean going back to the land and living a primitive existence. Reacquainting ourselves with the wild can be accomplished in a thousand different ways, they say, but only if approached with a readiness to honour all living things.
And that, in a society dedicated to dominion over nature, requires a fundamental shift in attitude.