(MIT Press, 2003; 226pp)

by Shierry Weber Nicholsen

I picked this book up because it was one of the few that dealt with the psychological issues relating to our current environmental dilemma. What also attracted me was the fact that it takes a depth psychological approach to the topic and doesn’t shy away from extremely complex issues relating to the human soul and psyche.

The central question the book addresses is "How can the public mind relegate matters of the environment, which is the ground of our whole lives, to the periphery of concern, as though they were the private interest of a group called "environmentalists"?

Nicholsen quotes psychoanalyst Harold Searles, who in 1972 said "Even beyond the threat of nuclear warfare…the ecological crisis is the greatest threat mankind collectively has ever faced… My hypothesis is that man (sic) is hampered in his meeting of this environmental crisis by a severe and pervasive apathy which is based largely upon feelings and attitudes of which he is unconscious." She says this statement is "the basis of what I have tried to do in this book: to explore the psychological reasons for what appears as willful stupidity."

And this collective apathy is the central problem we face right now. Why are we destroying and colluding in the destruction by others of our own habitat and the habitat of millions of our fellow creatures on this damaged planet? If we can’t answer this question, we are doomed. And who better to answer it than those who supposedly understand deep human psychology?

The most relevant chapter for me is Chapter 5, A Severe and Pervasive Apathy: Trauma, Destructiveness, and the End of the World. Here Nicholson connects the traumas of the last 50 years, including the cumulative psychological effects of large-scale social catastrophes like atomic bomb detonations, the Holocaust, the ongoing nuclear threat, environmental degradation etc. with personal experiences of severe trauma and abuse to address our seemingly inexplicable behavior.

"The intertwining of guilt and victimization, the feeling of being somehow tainted by death, the sense of something fundamental to ongoing life having been ruined, the feeling of being isolated and silenced, the wish to shut off the emotional pain on the one hand and the urgency to reintegrate and make meaning on the other": all these dimensions she believes are at the root of why most people persist in this "willful stupidity".

Nicholson believes that Robert Jay Lifton"s ideas about the "apocalyptic" self and the "measured" self can help us understand the split in the modern psyche. "The measured self is the everyday familiar self, concerned with the individual"s life in ordinary time. The apocalyptic self is…concerned with the threat to life…It is both terrified and terrifying." We need both selves, she says. "We need the ordinary self to remember that life in its simple living is of value, and we need the apocalyptic self for its awareness of potential catastrophe."

The psychological concept of trauma is at the center of Nicholson’s explanation for our bizarre behavior. "Trauma destroys the individual"s sense of a safe world in which to live," she says. "Trauma touches levels from the family to the community to the society to humankind to the natural world to the divine. Evil enters into every trauma, for what is betrayed is ultimately our trust in goodness, or the capacity of goodness to withstand evil, the strength of life as such… In environmental degradation we experience the betrayal of the sense that life will continue, a betrayal of our confidence in the strength of the containing natural world that is the mother…and life support of us all…this combination of extreme dependency and extreme vulnerability…makes the betrayal in trauma so catastrophic."

From this extreme global trauma comes psychic numbness and even shocking behavior.

I believe this book should be on the shelves of everyone serious about ecotherapy either on the individual or societal level. It"s impossible to summarize all its ideas in this short space, but let me add a few more quotes…

"At some level of awareness, the sense, however illusory, of the security and "ordinariness" provided by confidence in the continuity of life has vanished."

"We are apathetic about this severe external problem. We go on living in such a way that the problem becomes worse, and we do not put it at the forefront of our consciousness and our concern. This response is highly irrational in terms of our welfare and survival. Such an irrational response signals an internal problem: something is interfering with our ability to deal with an important threat."

"Long-term obstruction of grief and failure to communalize grief can imprison a person in endless swinging between rage and emotional deadness as a permanent way of being in the world."

Linda Buzzell (contributor to HopeDance and fellow at the For The Future group in Santa Barbara, http://www.forthefuture.org )


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Oktober 2005

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