Anthony Rankin Wilson

Psychotherapy and the Earth

Who IS The Patient? Part I
Posted 27 September 2013 by Anthony Wilson |


I am more poet than scientist. I am more drawn to the spaces between things than the things themselves. I have the eye of a lone wolf yearning to be part of the pack yet suspicious of the conventions and confinements of belonging. All of these potential blind-spotted tendencies permeate the following pages.

This paper is intended as an introduction and as a reference resource.

This invitation to walk with me upon the ground of other’s ideas tilled with my own, meanders, takes its’ time, requests patience. Patience for a fumbling consciousness embarking on an uncertain journey of synthesized ideas and service to our suffering world of wonders.

The paper points toward four themes:

unborn fins, maple leaves, wings, and hands need us to remember forward;

there is no outside: we ARE the poisoned vast oceans and the choking night air and the vanishing topsoil and the unforgiving sun;

we tenders of the psyche need now more than ever to extend ears of empathy beyond human-kind to the ecosphere and listen carefully to how the earth is speaking through us and our patients.

and we need to talk with each other of these things.

Anthony Rankin Wilson
October 2011

© The author

Who IS The Patient?

Psychoanalysis, Ecopsychology, and The Environmental Crisis:

Conceptual and Clinical Implications


Incorporating my own history of awakening and wondering who IS the patient, this paper attempts to provide definition for the “environmental crisis” and a brief history of the emergence of ecopsychology as a recognized contributor to analytic and psychotherapeutic theory and practice. Following an exploration of the psychology behind why we are participating in the destruction of our ecosystems and what appears as “apathy”, I propose expanding our conceptions of the “self” and the “unconscious”. How intersubjectivity theory may serve the understanding of our relationship to the more-than-human world will be discussed, as will how symptoms of the environmental crisis may be appearing in our session rooms. The role that defenses play in managing knowledge of the crisis will be reviewed. Exploration of what it means to work as an environmentally-minded analyst/psychotherapist and how we may collude with our patients’ dilemmas and anxieties will follow, incorporating case vignettes from my practice as an analytic-relationally oriented psychotherapist, co-influenced by Reichian and archetypal/Jungian psychology. This paper stands on the shoulders of many others who have written in depth of these issues and will serve throughout as a partial literature review. My hope is to start a ball rolling, provoke thought and reflection, and encourage analysts and psychotherapists to bring their heads, hands, hearts, and voices, to the task before us.
[Patient confidentiality has been protected through name changes and disguised narrative content.]
[Paper presented to The Toronto Society For Contemporary Psychoanalysis, November 5th, 2011.]
[Note: MTHW stands in for more-than-human world or MTH for more-than-human.]


“What can I say that I have not said before?
So I’ll say it again.
The leaf has a song in it.
Stone is the face of patience.
Inside the river there is an unfinishable story
and you are somewhere in it
and it will never end until all ends.”

--Mary Oliver, Swan

“Tell me the story of the river and the valley and the streams and woodlands and wetlands, of shellfish and finfish. A story of where we are and how we got here and the characters and roles that we play. Tell me a story that will be my story as well as the story of everyone and everything about me, the story that brings us together in a valley community, a story that brings together the human community with every living being in the valley, a story that brings us together under the arc of the great blue sky in the day and the starry heavens at night...

--Thomas Berry, The Dream of the Earth


PART ONE - BACKGROUND (pp. 4 - 30)

Opening - pp. 4 - 10

The Environmental Crisis - pp. 11 - 16

The Personal - p. 11
The Evidence - p. 13
Sea and Climate Change - p. 14

Ecopsychology - pp. 16 - 30

Ecocide and Apathy - p.19
The Unconscious, Intersubjectivity, and the Self - p. 23

PART TWO - FOREGROUND (pp. 31 - 48)
Clinical Implications: The Environmental Crisis in Session

Defenses - pp. 33 - 40

Loss - p. 33
Denial - p. 37
Enactment - p. 39

The Environmentally-Minded Analyst/Psychotherapist -pp. 40 - 47

Pathological accommodation - p. 41
Questions and Listening - p. 43
Children - p. 44
Self-criticism and Grandiosity - p. 44
Thomas Doherty - p. 45
Identity - p. 45
Once again, loss - p. 47

Closing -p. 48

Endnotes -pp. 49 - 52
Further Reading - p. 53




In June, 2010, the International Association for Relational Psychoanalysis sponsored an online seminar, “Psychology, Psychoanalysis and the Environment: A Dialogue”. The goal of this seminar was to generate an international dialogue amongst interested professionals and psychoanalysts to promote thinking “about how the changing environment influences the mind and how the mind is responding to the ever-increasing threat.”

In October, 2010, the Institute of Psychoanalysis in London, England, organized a conference, “Engaging With Climate Change: Psychoanalytic Perspectives”, where almost two hundred environmental professionals, activists, and analysts gathered to discuss such topics as our “disavowal of the human dependence on nature...issues of loss and mourning as we face a new relationship with oil, and the psychic complexities of inaction.”1

This paper aspires to carry the above efforts forward, review some past contributions, and continue to open explorations of the intersection between our current environmental crisis and contemporary psychoanalytic and psychotherapeutic theory and practice.

Attempting to relate with a breadth of analysis to the environmental crisis and its’ psychological effects requires many lenses: geographical; socio-political; cultural; historical; economic; anthropological; religious or spiritual; and, psychological. The psychological has often been absent in environmental and psychotherapeutic discourse and it is not often enough recognized “that the psychological object field expands far beyond the parental relationship and that this expanded field can also importantly affect psychological behavior.”2

We will focus on what the crisis means in our session rooms, for ourselves, and for our patients. Until recently this too has largely been absent from analytic and psychotherapeutic dialogue.

It is said that we teach what we need to know. Though this paper has aspirations of informing you, more basic is its’ role as invitation to slow down. And in this slowing down it is invitation to experience the currents of your body, apprehend and articulate your intuitions, and become mindful of your thoughts as we contemplate, together, what it means to be analysts and psychotherapists amidst environmental crisis. Writing this paper was one way for me to do just that. Slow down. And allow literature review and reflection to descend from my intellectualizing writers-mind into my sensing-body. The research and writing ordeal, over time, disturbingly penetrated persistent vestiges of denial and increasingly revealed itself to be, above all other intentions, my own attempt to “get it”.

I believe there is an urgent matter before us.

How can we nurture in ourselves and our patients a mind and body that experiences and values its’ fundamental embeddedness in the more-than-human-world/MTHW? It doesn’t matter whether if, as some believe, it is now too late to avert the catastrophic effects of climate and sea change. It does matter, perhaps in unprecedented ways, that those charged with caretaking the inner worlds and psychological health, the aliveness, of fellow citizens - us psychotherapists and analysts - begin to explore these issues.

The capacity to be curious and disturbed at the same time is vital to our exploration. This paper invites engagement with your own experience and then, hopefully, subsequent conversations about that experience. It is an invitation to explore other angles on truth; fears, and our defenses against those fears; and what matters most to us.

I also hope to provide an overall atmosphere that will be true to the heart and intent of the intersubjective perspective, in other words, “help lift [your] affective experience [of the more-than-human] to higher levels of organization by facilitating its articulation in verbal symbols.”3

Throughout this paper I will suggest a focus on your body experience along with past memory of MTH experiences. According to current neurological theory, repeated focusing will trigger neural firing in areas of your brain associated with those experiences and given enough repetitive focus over time may begin a cortical renovation. Fostering a link between various domains of experience - body, emotional, representational - “is the neural equivalent of the psychological integration we hope to facilitate for the patient through a relationship that is more inclusive and collaborative than those that originally shaped him.”4

This paper also utilizes intersubjectivity theory as its’ primary relational paradigm given its’ systems perspective and value placed on perspectivism and mutuality. I extend this beyond the human realm to include the more-than-human. This emphasizes that not only humans have perspectives.Appreciating this expanded perspectivism may enable us to experience our own immersion in the natural world while better recognizing and understanding the stories and symptoms of distress in ourselves and our patients.


I was a cottage owner in the 1980’s. My first wife had bought 10 acres of beautifully ravined and forested lakefront Shield land north of Kingston. It was the first semi-wild geography I came to know intimately as an adult. But it was also the site of a chainsaw

massacre that still grieves me. My neighbor’s brief instructions on how to notch and cut a tree trunk did not prepare me for the sense of power I felt when the saw rumbled in my hands, ready to effect my intent of cutting a view to the lake. Nor did it ready me for my fear of the machine’s swift, unforgiving purpose. I was like a madman. I was a madman! I cut tree after tree leaving what was previously alive strewn on the ravine slope. No acknowledgement of the tree’s sacrifice to my vague vision. No gratitude for what the tree had already given to life - photosynthetically enabling human life, roots holding the steep slope intact, absorbing rainfall. No acknowledgement of the trees’ perspective.


I was born in 1950 on the lip of the 10,000 year old North Saskatchewan River valley. This valley is the city of Edmontons’ geologic heart, carved through millennia to its‘ current flood plain. Glacial waters from the Saskatchewan Glacier in the Rocky Mountains snaked across the plains and carved the silt down to Cretaceous bedrock. The North Saskatchewan River served as a highway for the First Nations and eventually became the major waterway by which settler fur trade penetrated western Canada. This river, its‘ terraced valley and ravines, and the abundant stands of aspen, willow, and conifers, offered sensual otherness to the imagination of my exploring child-body and mind.

The river itself was swift-moving and opaque with silt. Its’ waters brown and visually impenetrable. Standing at its‘ edge would make the hair on my neck stand up and my belly queasy with strange simultaneous urges to run away and jump in. It was terrifying and alluring. I kept my distance and usually retreated to the maternal safety of narrow foot trails rising from the flood plain through the trees and hills of the ravines.

Here, my friends and I would build forts out of deadwood, and listening to the wind in the trembling aspens, imagine that immanent danger was hiding behind the rustling of the leaves. We would dig through the topsoil and sand and clay to bury our pinecone and rare garbage treasures, fingernails black with earth. Cultural ecologist and environmental philosopher, David Abram, writes that we do not live on the earth, we live within it.

I lived inside this river environment as I had once lived inside the contours of my mothers’ body. As my mothers’ body did, it shaped my experience of and attitudes toward my own body and the earth, ridges and valleys of brain-tissue becoming the neurological substrate of environmental concern. It is not unreasonable to think that my reciprocal relationship with the North Saskatchewan River and its’ valley is as much a part of my desire to express concern through this paper, and engage in conversation with you, as any other relationship I’ve had, human and more-than-human.


And what are your memories of play and communion with the more-than-human-world? Do you have images and body memory of a favored climbing tree? A silent woods that welcomed solitude, tears, and dreaming? Swimming for hours in a sandy-bottomed lake? An experience of wildness that was threatening, awe-inspiring, perhaps terrifying? A beloved pet? A secret backyard hiding place? Below these memoried landscapes of childhood lie some of the underground wellsprings of concern.


Analytic psychotherapist and environmental philosopher, Shierry Weber Nicholsen, writes: “Concern encompasses the emotional complexity of relatedness in separateness. It develops...from our capacity to identify ourselves with what is not us.”5 This is the terrain of transitional space where imagination and creative play arise and the child transitions symbolically from the shared mother-world to the wider world of teddy bear and river valley, reinforcing and widening the experience of me/not me. For the human, this sets the stage for empathy and concern, and ideally not just for other humans, but also for the MTHW.

The transitional space of the MTHW has shrunk through the ages along with the boundaries of the self. As profound identification with the otherness of the natural world has been withdrawn, concern for that that is not human has diminished. The “myth of the isolated mind”,6 as Atwood and Stolorow call the outcome of this shrinking, filled this shrunken-self. This has left us gasping for air and seeking relief from the unfortunate burden placed on valuing connection with our own kind to the exclusion of the more-than-human.

It is one of the propositions of this paper that we need to extend the boundaries of the self as traditionally conceived in analytic theory. Others have written of this as the “extended self”7 or “ecological self”8. This selfopens out from primary identification with other humans and through experience begins to include nature’s otherness within its’ identity. We do not live on the earth, we live within it. Nature is not out there. It is in here. It is us. Pollution of our air and waterways can be experienced, and needs to be experienced, as the pollution of our own bodies, which indeed it is. These two uniting elements, air and water, cycling through us with each breath, every drop of water.


Ten minutes in a 2001 psychotherapy session opened a fissure in my conceptualizing mind that has remained open, indeed widened, and through which has poured a steady flow of questions and the unsettling feeling that my clinical meaning-making foundations were being eroded, parameters breached.

I’d been seeing a 56 year old man, Jack, for about 6 years in twice a week psychotherapy. It was a May afternoon when he proudly and excitedly told me of having just purchased two personal water craft (PWCs), or jet skis, for his recently renovated cottage. His enthusiasm assumed a shared understanding between us that his longstanding fear of play and its’ potential for emotional exposure was giving way to an increased capacity for autonomous self-expression and pleasure.
Coincidentally, I’d just read that such water craft were the fastest selling pleasure craft in North America. And, that their two-stroke engines polluted the water and air with surprising amounts of residue. Jet-skis and riders were gaining notoriety, through sound and wave effects, for disturbing wildlife that nested and dwelled near shorelines as their riders exercised the jet skis’ particular freedom of mobility.

Though I had been reading about environmental concern and psychology since the early 90’s when Theodore Roszak published the first depth exploration of ecopsychology, “The Voice of the Earth” (1992), Roszaks’ analysis had remained intellectualized. It lay dormant in the session room and within my clinical reflections.
Until this 10 minutes of surprising inner conflict.

I let the moments pass in the session without apparent disruption of the therapeutic connection, saying nothing of my confusion, anxiety, and earth-first protectiveness, but these moments seeded into fertile internal terrain, took root, and broke ground. This paper, one of the shoots seeking clarity and the energy of daylight, is an attempt to wrestle with the conflict and invite you into exploratory dialogue.

What was the conflict?
Was this solely transference/countertransference; a collision of subjectivities? Was I envious of his financial prowess and growing capacity for risk-taking? Was there an oedipal wish to undermine him? Knowing something about my socio-political and environmental concerns from waiting room reading and prior exchanges, was there an aggressive, testing edge to his narrative? Was I reacting to that?

Where were my allegiances?
My clinical priority is obviously embodied presence with Jack. This is my responsibility, my professional task. However, in those alarming conflictual minutes, “priority” was not so clear.
As I recall, my thought sequence was something like this:
if I am the voice of the earth, why, amidst the current environmental crisis, would this voice remain banished from therapeutic process and rendered mute?;
if it is true that, as activist, John Seed, says:
“I try to remember that it’s not me, John Seed, trying to protect the rain forest. Rather, I am part of the rainforest protecting itself. I am that part of the rainforest recently emerged into thinking”,9
then my conflict and passionate urge of allegiance to the earth and the MTHW is understandable and instinctually attuned.

But what about the contract - my patient’s healing need of me?
But then again, in these days of crisis, what of the MTHW’s healing need of me?
Who IS the patient?
Were there two patients, human and MTH?
In crisis times, what is my relative responsibility to both?
How do I clinically walk this territory of conflicting loyalties and serve both responsibly?
It has been 10 years since then. I move slowly!
However, in the meantimeI’ve noticed a growing exploratory space in my session room where clients are bringing their environmental concerns, dreams, and experiences in the MTH world. Perhaps my ears are more attuned now, and as well, environmental awareness has grown through those 10 years. Climate change, for example, is no longer a fringe issue. There is frequent media reporting of health issues related to changes in the environment like increasing asthma rates related to air pollution, and skin cancer threats related to the thinning of protective atmospheric layers. The environmental crisis has increasingly penetrated collective consciousness.

Maybe as I’ve grown to feel less internally reactive to these areas of conflict when they arise in a session, it may be intuitively safer for clients to bring themselves and environmentally related themes.

I am also hearing differently the significance that the MTH has for my patients. For most of my years as a clinical social worker and psychotherapist, references to the land as place and solace, or relationships and encounters with other creatures, including pets, would not register as significant enough experiences to notice and explore in depth. Such experiences would be subsumed too soon by the patients’ human and interpersonal concerns.

Following the loss of my first marriage 20 years ago, and the beloved cottage, trilliums, forest, Shield rock, and silky lake-water that went with it, I began to spend more time in the backcountry of Ontarios’ Algonquin and Massassauga Provincial Parks. My present wife and I spend at least 3 weeks a year canoeing in Massassauga where there are few people and abundant speechless contact with the MTHW. Like my early experience of the North Saskatchewan River and its’ valley, this intimate prolonged immersion has over the years dissolved the delusion of an “out there”. The silence. The rhythms of sunrise and sunset. Ancient rock and cushioning pine needle, brushes of breeze, and mutually aware interspecies contact with snake and turtle all become an outer skin indistinct from my own. And indistinct, as well, from my own interior backcountry of mood and imagination. I am reminded of origins. And I am reminded that however uniquely self-reflective we may be, we are creatures utterly dependent upon the MTHW for our existence. “Mind is not a human property, it’s a quality of the earth.”10

David Abram says that to speak of the natural world as alive, or possessing forms of consciousness, is dismissed as delusional or animistic in our technological, scientific civilization. Perhaps we must behold our own delusion that it is not.

Abram writes that one of the functions of the magician is to coax “our senses to engage the strangeness of things once again...freeing up our sensing bodies to begin to see and to hear and taste the world creatively...”.11 We perform this function in an embodied analysis or psychotherapy, supporting our patients within the intersubjective field dynamics to engage our mutual otherness, our “strangeness”, in order to “hear and taste the world creatively” once again.

Many of this papers’ primary themes - an extended or ecological self; the evolutionarily profound intersubjective relationship humans have with the MTHW; and what it means to be an environmentally-minded analyst/psychotherapist - may evoke a strangeness in the reader. Steeped in the psychological and developmental primacy of the

human-human relationship, to begin to take seriously the possibility that there is an urgent need to place the human-MTH relationship in the middle of our theory building, and at times, practice, may provoke aversion, and fight or flight from such otherness.

Abram: “I’m thinking of the truth no longer as a measure of the match, or fit, between my representations and the way the world actually is. I’m suggesting that truth is something entirely different, that language is not at all about representations - that language doesn’t represent the world from outside, but rather that our language is itself part of the world, that it bubbles forth in the midst of the world. Hence it can’t represent things; it is a way of relating to things....Truth a right relationship between me and the world around me. Truth is an index, if you will, of the quality of relationship that a particular culture has with the land that it inhabits. If the land is ailing, or is dying, as a result of the lousy way that that culture interacts with the rivers and the soils, then I’d say that culture knows very little about truth - regardless of how many supposed facts it has amassed regarding the measurable aspects of its world.”12

Your passionate clinical and social concerns may be different. There are many other issues of critical importance within our complex and stressed planet. Atrocites in the Congo; the Palestinian/Israeli morass; epidemics of diabetes and obesity in post-industrial nations; cultural and linguistic genocides across the globe; widening income disparity; overpopulation: all of these deserve our clinical attention. All of these may have some of their roots in our theme.

However, because of the foundational dimensions of the environmental crisis (without air, water, and soil there would be no awe, there would be no self); and because the crisis still resides largely outside analytic discourse, I believe this particular issue deserves our overdue attention and dialogue. Psychoanalyst Susan Bodnar writes: “Relational patterns evolve from dyads, families, communities, and cultures - and those interlocking networks of meaning originate in a material and earthly environmental field.”13

Perhaps you doubt whether there is an environmental crisis. Or, believe it’s a false alarm. The word “crisis” too alarming to be believable and smacking of religious apocalyptism. Perhaps where you dwell shows few obvious signs of change or distress. And if there are signs, you write them off as cyclical manifestations. Or you normalize the changes - “that’s just what cities are like.”

So, why am I drawn to this issue, and, why have I committed to this belief?

Let’s now turn to these questions and then attempt to provide definition for the “environmental crisis”?



“We have trod the face of the Moon, touched the nethermost pit of the sea, and can link minds instantaneously across vast distances. But for all that, it’s not so much our technology, but what we believe, that will determine our fate.”

--Tim Flannery, Here On Earth

The Personal

I am attracted to what is not being talked about. Maybe we all are.

My psychology was deeply shaped by the secret of my paternal grandfather’s suicide in 1927. My father and I bore his first name as our middle. My father, and his mother who lived with us for many years, kept the secret under a shroud of silence and shame, until my grandfathers’ last living brother wrote of it when I was 25. My father and I were never able to speak about this. I was a child bewilderingly mortified anytime I had to speak or write my middle name. Primed for my choice of profession, it is what is not being said that lures my attention. My emergence from debilitating inexplicable shame and finding my own voice to speak of the “elephant in the room” continues, and no doubt fuels my passionate wish to undress denial of the mounting evidence of crisis.

A sense of guilt that I should be doing more; grandiose responsibility for saving us from ourselves and an accompanying underlying passivity; repression of desire; and the renunciation of my own destructive aggression all play a part in my behavior, fantasy, perception, and experience of the environmental crisis. This personal psychology influences whether I react or I respond. Emotional reactiveness clouds my thinking. In conversation with you, it will arouse your defensiveness. Though I do not dwell in profound pessimism for long, I have a tendency towards seeing the negative before admitting the positive. Sitting in the garden I will see my dislikes and what is still to be done before I perceive and experience the here-and-now backyard beauty.

I also turn to the MTHW for counsel, holding, and retreat. Perhaps I do this more than the average urban-bred baby boomer. The MTHW has often been my place of greatest safety. Though emerging out of childhood with sufficient capacities to be a good-enough parent, form adult friendship attachments, and have intimate partners, I remain cautious in letting my guard down and putting myself in others’ hands. This wariness relaxes in the backcountry, even in challenging circumstances, and while at home in Toronto finds a deeper ease while dwelling in my backyard garden with columbine and cardinal.

It is good to know such things about oneself when engaging and awakening to these days of environmental crisis. The earth is best served by a decentered, self-reflective consciousness that softens defenses and withdraws as much as possible the rigid occluding subjectivies of a human psychology. Our patients will be best served by our capacity to see the weave of personal and ecological suffering.

Jungian analyst, Jerome Bernstein, writes:

“Borderland people personally experience, and must live out, the split from nature on which the western ego, as we know it, has been built. They feel (not feel about) the extinction of species; they feel (not feel about) the plight of animals that are no longer permitted to live by their own instincts...Such people are highly intuitive...deeply feeling...highly sensitive on a bodily level. They experience the rape of the land in their bodies...Often they suffer from “environmental illness.”14

Bernstein writes that though Borderland people may share some similarities to the Borderline Personality, they are different, and must have their trans or non-rational experiences investigated with respect. These patients’ experiences should not be simply pathologized or passed off “as metaphor for something else on a more abstract level.”15 Borderlander or not, I increasingly do experience what Bernstein describes - not feeling “about” habitat destruction, but feeling it. And along with these profound identification experiences and the consequent clinical conflicts earlier described, comes the fear, if these are shared, of being labeled, shamed, and dismissed.

My environmental concern arises out of some of the above personal history and psychology. Others’, including Bernstein, would say it arises as part of the “Compensatory evolutionary shift wherein the western psyche is in the process of being reconnected to nature from which it began its psychic split over 3,000 years ago.”16 Be that as it may, I am one of those possessed by a level of concern that does not abate.

And, how did I arrive at the belief that indeed we are in unprecedented times?

Who knows?

Perhaps the tipping point was some critical mass of accumulated information gathered from trusted sources mixed in with my mid-life experiences in the backcountry and stirred with the steady march of time towards possible grandchildren. The future became more real as I imagined my two daughters having children. And then, someday, grandchildren perhaps having children themselves. When I began to frequently wonder what kind of world and quality of life I would bequeath them, there was a shift in felt urgency about the crisis.

Dare we believe trustworthy sources that speak of this unprecedented-in-scale crisis, catalyzed for the first time by one species? Do we finally accept that indeed we do need to be concerned, not just about the quality of life for future generations, but also about whether our planet will be able to sustain human life if we do not change course? After this ambiguous tipping point and my concerns about what might be in store for the 21st century and beyond, I found myself wondering if it might not be better all round if my daughters did not have children. This thought shocked me. And still does. But I fail in denying it.

The Evidence

As we walk toward this ground of evidence, pause. Notice your thoughts. And try sensing, however subtly, the shifting of your somatic temperature, your feeling state.


“The moment we started agriculture was the moment in which we became active participants in creation. We insisted on having that knowledge. That, to me, was the Fall. But it was an act arising from innocence and a simple desire for more energy-rich carbon and food.”

--Wes Jackson, The Sun magazine

You may already feel bombarded by the bad news statistics of the environmental crisis and readily employ reflexive defenses of denial - “this isn’t really’s just another punishment story guilty people tell themselves”; or minimalization/normalization - “yeah, yeah, we’ve done bad things to the earth, but we always have and we’re still here, the earth is resilient, and our intelligence and technology will save the day”; or numbing/splitting - “I know there’s terrible stuff happening to the environment but I don’t want to know it’s true, because if I did know what I know, I’d get overwhelmed, depressed, even despairing, and then what little care-free leisure space I have would be consumed by anxiety.”

It is important to notice these defensive formations. Otherwise, in reading what follows, you will likely remain defended and consequently, untouched.

Our analytic/psychotherapeutic trade is in tracking our thoughts and feelings, being able to reflect on them, and embody responsiveness more than reactiveness. This is necessary when conversing about the environmental crisis. This skill is an important part of what we have to offer to “The Great Work: Our Way Into the Future”, as theologian Thomas Berry titled his last opus, describing what must be undertaken in the 21st century.


We know that environmental mismanagement, or ignorance, played a significant role in the collapse of past societies like the Easter Islanders, the Anasazi, the Maya, and the Greenland Norse. Deforestation was often a major contributor, as was overfishing, the extermination of other species such as large animals or edible plants, and soil damage. These four factors are all increasingly present today, not just locally as in past collapses, but across the globe. As well, “The Anasazi and Maya were among the past societies to be undone by water over a billion people lack access to reliable safe water.”17

In addition to deforestation, overfishing, species extinction, water availability, and soil depletion, we are facing a unique, unprecedented threat in sea and climate change. I’m focusing particularly on these two for reasons of brevity and scale. We also know that there are many other inter-related dimensions to the environmental crisis which feed and amplify each other, such as:

declining biodiversity;
the transfer of species to places where they are not native;
toxic chemicals and pollution;
and the rise of human populations who are moving from being low [environmental]impact people to “high impact people...”.18

However, all of the above dimensions are dwarfed in scale by the over-arching nature of sea and climate change.

Sea and Climate Change

Human activities produce gases like carbon dioxide and methane that escape into the atmosphere. Increasingly these gases have damaged the protective ozone layer and acted as greenhouse gases that absorb sunlight and thus lead to global warming. Though humans have always produced these gases through burning fires, and wild ruminant animals have always produced methane, the scale of human-related emissions is historically new. The industrial and post-industrial eras’ ever increasing burning of fossil fuels like coal, oil, and gas; deforestation; and the growth of the life cycle and supply chain of domesticated animals (cows, pigs, and chickens) raised for human consumption, are three of the ways we are increasing the carbon content in the atmosphere and fundamentally altering our planets’ balance. As author Bill McKibben writes: “The idea that humans could fundamentally alter the planet is new.”19

Below is a summary climate change calendar that provides a brief glimpse through time of concerned voices and the resistance to hearing their message:

It was first identified as a possible danger by a Swedish chemist in the late 19th century.

In 1988, a NASA scientist, James Hansen, put climate change on the political map when he testified before a U.S Senate Committee that he was virtually certain that recent record temperatures were the result of growing concentrations of carbon dioxide and other atmospheric human-generated pollutants. Though necessary research was to follow, fossil fuel interests mounted counterattacks, “pressuring governments and creating confusion about the science of climate change.”20

In 1992, 1670 of the world’s scientists from all fields issued a joint statement, the World Scientist’s Warning to Humanity, stating: “Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course.”21

In 1995, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, a task force of leading climate scientists from 98 countries, issued an unequivocal report that

“1) warming is happening rapidly; 2) human activity is causing it; 3) the warming is likely to unleash devastating weather disturbances ranging from unnaturally heavy storms and floods to heat waves and droughts; and, 4) it is therefore urgent that carbon emissions be cut sharply all over the world, but particularly in the industrial nations where these emissions are heaviest.”22

In November 2009, emails were hacked from one of the worlds leading climate research units at the University of East Anglia in England with subsequent accusations that data had been manipulated.

This small window of climate change science discreditation was finally closed in May, 2010, when leading scientists, including 11 Nobel laureates, cleared East Anglia of wrong-doing and stated in a letter published in the journal “Science” that:

“There is compelling, comprehensive and consistent objective evidence that humans are changing the climate in ways that threaten our societies and the ecosystems on which we depend....Society has two choices: we can ignore the science and hide our heads in the sand and hope we are lucky, or we can act in the public interest to reduce the threat of global climate change quickly and substantively.” 23

In May, 2011, a report by the International Energy Agency, a Paris-based autonomous policy-advising intergovernmental organization, reputed amongst environmental policy makers as politically motivated and over-confident with an institutional bias towards traditional energy sources, uncharacteristically stated that “Greenhouse gas emissions increased by a record amount last year (2010), to the highest carbon output in history, putting hopes of holding global warming to safe levels all but out of reach.”24 The chief economist of the IEA reportedly said that at present, ironically, “The significance of climate change in international policy debates is much less pronounced than it was a few years ago.”25


Environmental journalist,Alanna Mitchell, writes: “some scientists I have met argue that instead of calling this the age of ‘global climate change’, we should call it the era of ‘global ocean change’ or marine climate change’.”26 She provides a compelling argument, based on research and interviews with marine scientists, that “changes to the atmosphere are serious...but...changes to the ocean are far more so. The ocean is a bigger system. It’s more critical to the life support of the planet. And the changes that once affected only the atmosphere are now big enough to impact the is clear that the ocean contains the switch of life. Not land, not the atmosphere. The ocean. And that switch can be flipped off.”27

The ocean is where most of life is and in the ocean are plankton which produce half the oxygen we breathe or “every second breath we take.”28 She suggests we think of these “microscopic creatures [as] the real lungs of our planet. The ocean controls climate and temperature and the carbon and oxygen cycles of the planet, as well as other chemical systems that give all living creatures life - including us.”29

Through the oceans’ absorption of carbon dioxide and heat created by climate change, we are altering “the ocean’s acidity, patterns of saltiness, temperature, volume, ice cover, function within the planet’s carbon and oxygen cycles, and possibly the physical structure of the currents as well.”30

Overwhelming evidence of environmental crisis is there if we are inclined to search out trustworthy voices who speak of it. Here’s a last word from Alanna Mitchell before we turn to the birth of a psychological response to the crisis - ecopsychology.

“...The brains [of humans and apes] are arranged in a similar way, except that the occipital and frontal lobes in humans are better developed. The occipital lobes give us the gifts of sight and visualization....Even more important to our survival...are the highly developed frontal lobes...which ‘serve to maintain the balance between caution or restraint and sustained active pursuit of distant ends...and...the quintessential human power of abstract thought - the ability to see metaphorically. To understand. It is...what makes us human....‘Fully human’ is to exercise restraint while we pursue far-off goals...In all of humanity’s 150,000-year history, it seems to me that this is the moment to harness the human gift of being able to plan.”31



Frontal lobes notwithstanding, we’ve evolved to be far better at recognizing and responding to short-term immediate threats. However, our environmental crisis, including sea and climate change, presents itself as a uniquely long-range problem. The human tendency to discount the future through our pursuit of short-term goals is confronted by our increasing capacity to predict the long-term cumulative effects of those short-term goals.

Ecopsychology arose, in part, as a response to the increasing scientific and anecdotal evidence of what we are doing to our ecosystems and the implications this has for future generations. Its’ aspirations are devoted to this far horizon. It’s roots are many.

Some would say ecopsychology is a revival of ancient aboriginal wisdom that acknowledged the land’s sacred aliveness and the necessity of knowing, honoring, and living within the limits and cycles of the land.

“Does it serve the people for seven generations...Is it for the children yet to come?”32

“The country knows. If you do wrong to it, the whole country knows. It feels what is happening to it.”33

American naturalist and a grandfather of the environmental movement, Aldo Leopold’s land ethic of the 1930’s is “usually taken to be one of the first statements of Deep Ecology...[and] held that no one can fully understand an ecosystem until they try to ‘think like a mountain’.”34

Marine biologist Rachel Carson published her landmark book, “Silent Spring”, in 1962. Exploring the devastating unintended consequences of the agricultural spraying programs that began in the 1940s, her work is often seen as ushering in post-war ecological consciousness and the environmental movement itself.

In 1972, Arne Naess, a Norwegian philosopher and co-founder of the Deep Ecology movement, differentiated between shallow ecology (the fight against pollution and resource depletion to benefit the health of developed countries) and deep ecology, which rejects the human-as-separate-from-and-dominator-of-nature image and replaces it with a systemic, relational, human-embedded-within-nature image.

Paul Shepard, pioneer ecopsychologist, environmental philosopher and historian, released “Nature and Madness” in 1982 and “launched the first searching discussion of the interplay between psychology and humankind’s increasingly destructive environmental behavior. He saw our ecocidal habits being rooted in the aberrations of human development and child rearing following the invention of agriculture when human culture began to achieve a “false sense of separation from the natural habitat.”35

Eminent cultural historian, priest, and ecological philosopher, Thomas Berry, pointed to the shaping of ecologically destructive Western consciousness by the millennial vision that one day there will be long-promised redemption, peace, and justice. This can be seen in the capitalist vision of trickle-down economics where someday the disadvantaged will be saved from poverty, or in the belief that technology and modern science will save us from ourselves. He believed the millennial vision was based “on a deep resentment of the human condition, of being born, and of dying. Of being out of control. Of being dependent on the universe in ways that we can never fully understand...this resentment that the millennium has not come...drives our society.This quest for an abiding peace, justice, and abundance.”36

Theodore Roszak, author and professor of history, published the influential primer on ecopsychology, “The Voice of the Earth: An Exploration of Ecopsychology”, in 1992. In the book he explored and outlined such ecopsychological principles as:

“The core of the mind is the ecological unconscious”... and ... “the goal of ecopsychology is to awaken the inherent sense of environmental reciprocity that lies within the ecological unconscious”37;

the ecological unconscious represents “our sympathetic bond with the natural world...[and] is a defining feature of human nature, the one aspect of consciousness that has been most cruelly repressed by urban-industrial culture”38;

the ecological ego represents a psychological maturation towards “a sense of ethical

responsibility with the planet that is as vividly experienced as our ethical responsibility to other people”;39

and finally, “there is a synergistic interplay between planetary well-being and personal well-being...the needs of the planet are the needs of the person, the rights of the person are the rights of the planet.”40

Ecopsychology seeks to broaden the field of psychological focus. Ecopsychologist Patricia Hasbach writes that clinical psychological exploration began with the “mind-bound interplay of ego, id and superego....then the field broadened to take into account interpersonal forces...then it took a huge leap to look at whole families and systems of systems...Ecopsychology wants to broaden that field again to look at ecological systems...It wants to take the entire planet into account.”41

It is from this notion of broadening the field that I will later summarize the psychology behind why we are destroying our ecosystem and the timely need to expand our conceptualizations of the self.

Ecopsychology is based on the belief that the planets’ ecological health is directly related to the mental health of its human inhabitants. It questions the prevailing notions of sanity in growth, consumer-oriented culture. It would argue that individuals do not think about the effects their consumption practices have on the MTHW because of the historical rift formed between self and earth.

Ecospychology also points towards healing the underlying addictive motivations of consumer behavior so that a response-able environmental citizenry would trump the unsustainable irresponsible servicing of the growth economy. It takes on as its’ mission to determine how to initiate healthy environmental behavior based on a reciprocal respect between humans and the natural environment.

It is also a goal of ecopsychology to shift environmental action away from scare tactics and messages of guilt and shame toward a psychology that will nurture understanding and compassion for ourselves and our environment. Direct contact with the natural world is recognized and encouraged as being vital for mindbody health, as are concepts of well-being that support both ecologically and psychologically sustainable lifestyles.

In his book “Radical Ecopsychology: Psychology in the Service of Life”, Andy Fisher explores the links between the relatively recent and increasing psychotherapeutic attention to abuse and trauma and the “violation we recognize as the ecological crisis...”.42 He writes that “ecopsychology takes us to the root cultural, social, and historical arrangements that authorize, legitimate, or give rise to the simultaneous injury of human and nonhuman nature...[it] takes us to the roots of who we are as human beings in a more-than-human can speak relatively directly to how each of us experiences the ecological crisis, how we carry the pervasive mistreatment of nature (both human and nonhuman) in our bodies. In this way it can then also help identify the life-denying aspects of our society (as we experience them) and awaken our genuine hungers for a more life-centered world.”43

To close this section, I offer Roszak’s voice and his quotation from Freud’s “Civilization and Its Discontents”:

The ego seems to maintain clear and sharp lines of demarcation. There is only one state - admittedly an unusual state, but not one that can be stigmatized as pathological - in which it does not do this. At the height of being in love, the boundary between ego and object threatens to melt away. Against all the evidence of the senses, a man who is in love declares that “I” and “you” are one, and is prepared to behave as if it were a fact.” 44

Roszak then writes: “But now enlarge that insight, let it reach beyond our social relations to embrace all we have learned of the intricate bond that exists between ourselves and the biosphere that gives us life. Let [Freud’s] “you” become the Earth and all our fellow creatures upon it.”45

The next theme, “Ecocide and Apathy”, will take us deeper into ecopsychological territory, and following this, in “The Unconscious, Intersubjectivity, and the Self”, I attempt to bridge the shores of clinical intersubjectivity theory and ecopsychology.

Let’s turn now to the first sentence of the Introduction in Paul Shepard’s “Nature and Madness”, “why do men persist in destroying their habitat?”46


Ecocide and Apathy

“We’re just operating like any other species. Any species will multiply until prevented by other aspects of its’ ecosystem....We have no significant predators, so we carry on expanding until the ecosystem falls apart and stops us. It’s not nice, but it’s natural. The extraordinary thing would be if we did something else; which would involve internalizing ecological constraints.”

--Nick Totton (IARRP web seminar)

“The full flow of the Western relationship with the natural world could not be seen by so many until we got this power, which means that the Civilization’s vulnerable side couldn’t be fully seen until we actually have entered the process of killing the planet, and thereby of course ruining ourselves. But now, as we’ve begun to mature, there are millions of people awakening to this desperate situation. Despite this awakening, it’s still very desperate, because we’re so caught in this predatory basis of our existence that it’s almost unthinkable to seriously diminish it.”47

--Thomas Berry

I don’t believe we can kill the planet as Berry says. Earth will regenerate in the long term. It is the “ruining ourselves” that I note. It’s not a stretch to say that Earth would do quite well without us at this point. However, we’re here. And like any other species we want to remain here. But our behavior says otherwise, or appears to, if one looks at our self-destructive actions. How did we arrive at this ecocidal attitude towards our earth, air, and water, and consequently, ourselves?

Psychotherapist Mary-Jayne Rust writes of two stories, or myths, that western culture lives by. They get to the point of how we got here from there. She points to this thought of Freud’s as representative of the first story, the Myth of Progress:

“The principle task of civilization, its actual raison d’etre, is to defend against nature....But no one is under the illusion that nature has already been vanquished, and few dare hope that she will ever be entirely subjected to man....she brings to our mind once more our weakness and helplessness, which we thought to escape through the work of civilization.”48

Progress, in this myth, is associated with the reason-bound mind. And this mind is determined, through the manipulation of the natural world, to escape vulnerability. This attempt to dominate nature created a hierarchy of life upon which humans sit at the top, and the rest of nature is seen as lower, including our own animal nature. Those below us, animate and inanimate, are seen as resources to be used for our betterment.

The shadow side of the myth of progress, Rust suggests, is the Myth of the Fall where Adam and Eve are expelled from the garden for daring to taste the fruit of consciousness and are separated from nature in the process. This myth says there is no way back. Our own sinful nature is the cause of our expulsion and consequent unending guilt and repentance, which according to some, results in backlashes of indulgent, restoratively futile acting out ie.drug and alcohol abuse, pornography, eating disorders, compulsive shopping.

Rust writes that we are currently between stories, or myths, and “urgently need a myth to live by which is about living with nature, rather than fighting it. We need to rethink where we have fallen, and what it means to progress...Our therapeutic this space of transition, is to understand how these myths still shape our internal worlds, our language, and our defenses against change, as well as to see our own part in the oppression of others.”49

Psychologist, Ralph Metzner, has attempted in his writing to trace the historical transitions that resulted in our unusual capacity to distance ourselves from our habitat. He uses the diagnostic metaphors of autism, addiction, amnesia, and dissociation to illuminate his explorations and discern what psychology might underlie our self-destructive behavior.

Metzner begins by referencing “Nature and Madness” where Paul Shepherd proposed that as hunter-gatherer traditions began to develop agricultural domestication about 10,000 years ago, “humanity began to pervert or lose the developmental practices that had functioned healthily for hundreds of thousands of years”.50 Shepherd focused on the resulting changes in the bonding within infant/caregiver relationships and the dilution of adolescent initiation rites. He saw these changes as highly significant in producing humans increasingly alienated, territorial, and suspicious of the wild which lay progressively outside the fenced-world of domesticated animals, cultivated fields, and village borders. This growing detachment led to increasing practices of control, management, and ultimately, domination.

Metzner then turns to Thomas Berry who proposed that “Descartes...killed the Earth and all its living beings. For him the natural world was mechanism.”51 Out of adopting this Cartesian consciousness he suggests that Western humans gradually became autistic in relation to the MTHW. And like autistic children who appear unaware of and unfeeling towards the others presence, so we appear to be unaware and unfeeling toward our natural habitat.

Metzner proceeds to the transition from agricultural society (sixteenth century) to the capital-accumulating, technological society of the present. He proposes that the consumer and economic growth values of this society nurture addictive behavior. He notes that after years of scientific and anecdotal evidence of environmental distress, “Our inability to stop our suicidal and ecocidal behavior fits the clinical definition of addiction or compulsion: behavior that continues in spite of the individual knowing that it is destructive to self, family, work, and social relationships.”52

In utilizing the amnesia metaphor, Metzner writes that we seem to have forgotten “certain attitudes and kinds of perception, an ability to empathize and identify with nonhuman life, respect for the mysterious, and humility in relationship to the infinite complexities of the natural world.”53 He refers to Paul Devereux’s book “Earthmind” who writes, “For a long time now, we have been unable to remember our former closeness with the Earth. Due to this amnesia, the ecological problems now thrust upon us have come as a shock...We notice the amnesia that is really a double forgetting, wherein a culture forgets, and then forgets that it has forgotten how to live in harmony with the planet.”54

Metzner then turns to what he calls the dissociative split between spirit and nature which has been evident from the time of the Protestant reformation. This split dictated that we needed to elevate reason and overcome our “lower” animal instincts in order to be spiritual. Freud’s version was the struggle between the ego and the animal id where the price of civilization was paid within our conflicted relationship with the natural world. Metzner proposes that throughout the history of Western consciousness “there has been a conception of two selves”55 - a natural self, and a spiritual or mental self. The unreconciled conflict between the two selves has led to a growing dissociation from our bodily world of instinct and sensation. This dissociative separation is enacted in the outer world and creates a consequent disconnection between us and the body of the planet. In sharp contrast, for indigenous cultures, “the natural is the spiritual.”56

Let’s move from this summary of the historical causes and effects of “ persist in destroying their habitat” and begin to reflect on “apathy”.


Apathy, from the Greek root apathia, refers commonly to freedom from, and insensitivity to, suffering. This does not do justice to what’s really going on in relation to people’s behavior in relation to the environmental crisis. Renee Lertzman, in her article “The Myth of Apathy”, refers to the American analyst, Harold Searles, who “strongly believed the environmental movement needed to understand the ‘psychic mechanisms’ underlying the appearance of apathy. Far from being an absence of pathos, or feeling, inner feelings of anxiety, fear, or powerlessness manifest as a lack of action or a paralysis.”57

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