Ecopsychopathy and Unsustainability: The End of Life as We Know It
In a recent blogpost, I wrote some introductory thoughts about what I’m calling “Culture Collapse Disorder,” an eco-psycho-pathological disorder in which human-made stressors stemming from culture and development (and their correlating underlying connected psychological issues) are causing a drastic systemic imbalance, manifest by a critical rise in adverse conditions for earth and its inhabitants.
In short, the way of life most of us are living in modern consumer culture is simply not sustainable and the symptoms and resulting suffering are mounting. These days, while many of us choose to distract ourselves through compulsive consumption of goods, services, technology, peak experiences, entertainment, celebrity and even psychotherapy, the unconscious knowledge that we are in a time of transition is beginning to bleed through into our everyday understanding.
Culture Collapse Disorder is an idea based on a related aberration that manifested in the natural world beginning in late 2006: Colony Collapse Disorder the mass collapse of honeybee colonies in which the hive—the container—literally breaks down because the worker bees fail to return to the hive, abandoning the queen bee, the unhatched brood, and the stores of honey. Contemporary consumer cultures, which have been the foundation of the western world for decades, are generating lifestyles, behaviors and mindsets that are destroying our home places and our home planet on a mass scale. By consciously or unconsciously refusing to acknowledge the magnitude of the damage we are creating and thus failing to take any action to prevent or repair the damage on the level required for us to survive as a culture, we are on the brink of a major transition in which life as we know it will change forever.
The fundamental issues behind our disorder show up on a spectrum ranging from eco-apathy on one end, and ecopsychopathy on the other. Eco-apathy represents our capacity to bury our heads in the sand and our emotions along with them, unable to surrender to the horror we might feel if we truly allowed ourselves to understand what we’re doing as a culture to the planet. In his incisive book, Psychoanalysis and Ecology at the Edge of Chaos, psychotherapist Joseph Dodds (2011) outlines reasons for our seeming indifference or incapacity to take action including denial, feelings of powerlessness, scapegoating, splitting, dissociation and the general incapacity to deal with feelings of anxiety and fear. In this state, many of us simply live our lives, unable to question or act on the conundrum we face, incapable of making the necessarily changes that will allow us to enter in a reciprocal relationship with Earth and to find equity again.
Ecopsychopathy speaks to destroying the earth through our conscious or unconscious pathological tendencies—in part due to our consumer lifestyle that we so frequently and overwhelmingly take for granted, and in part due to a deep-rooted sense of entitlement that has evolved along with development and so-called “progress.”
In the arena of mental health, there is no strong consensus between organizations about the symptoms and criteria of psychopathy, and no association has sanctioned a set definition of psychopathy. Frequently, a diagnosis of psychopathy is based on patterns of behavior, while measurements are based on personality traits; thus, definitions range from traits or behaviors of an individual who is cold-blooded and predatory (from "Psychopathy: A Clinical Construct Whose Time Has Come", Robert D. Hare, in Criminal Justice and Behavior) to one who is “color blind” with respect to normal emotional experience. (See the reference here, in ‘Factors’)
By some, psychopathy has been defined as “the darker side of an individual that may seem ‘normal,’ well-adjusted and well-meaning” (From the Handbook of Psychopathy), while Scientific American magazine featured an excerpt from What Psychopaths Teach Us about How to Succeed (Dutton, 2012), which insinuates psychopathic characteristics are far more common that we might think: “Traits that are common among psychopathic serial killers—a grandiose sense of self-worth, persuasiveness, superficial charm, ruthlessness, lack of remorse and the manipulation of others—are also shared by politicians and world leaders.” At the same time the author insists, psychopath who falls at the other end of the spectrum may exhibit traits our culture teaches us to admire in those we deem successful: “fearlessness, focus, lack of empathy and mental toughness.”
“Eco” comes from the Greek word “oikos” which means “house, dwelling place, habitation” (EtymOnline.com). Thus, “ecopsychopathy” describes a spectrum of disordered behavior toward home, including impulsivity, egocentricity, lack of empathy, callousness, ruthlessness, manipulation, and lack of remorse among others. Regardless of the definition you may choose to adopt, I believe all of us can locate ourselves on the spectrum somewhere when it comes to the way we behave toward nature, even if it stems from simply being part of a culture that is ecopsychopathic at its core.
Lacking a sense of participation in a larger earth community, humans have become anthropocentric, assuming the rest of life is at our command, dominating and taking whatever we feel entitled to. And, it’s critical not to miss how implicated and interconnected we all are. Every human being throws away on average each year seven-and-a-half times his or her body weight. While I may pride myself on recycling as much as possible, large quantities of fossil fuels are still required for the garbage trucks to pick up my recycling, a large amount of which statistically never makes it to being recycled due to the cost of recycling or the lack of appropriate resources to do so. (See a great infographic here about recycling)
And, though I would never condone deforestation of the Amazon, I still purchase products that include palm oil, beef from cattle that graze on large tracts of land, or gold or silver jewelry and other products that are produced by clear cutting the natural flora and fauna of fragile ecosystems in ancient forests. More, I don’t wonder where my next bite of food is going to come from and often totally ignore the fact that in many third world countries they must first find and cut the wood with which they will cook their next meal, before even figuring out where the food will come from.
Too, while I am horrified at reports that 80% of the water in the Ganges River in India which so many people use for drinking and bathing is untreated sewage (Get the story here) or that thousands of pig carcasses from animals that died from a mysterious outbreak of disease at a factory farm further up the Shanghai river have been discovered floating downstream where villages are dependent on the water there for drinking (Read the news here), mostly I still take it totally for granted that I can turn on my tap and have clean, fresh water for my own needs any time of the day or night and would be traumatized to have to give it up. (Visit here for more details of why we continue to clear-cut the world’s rainforests). Finally, let’s not forget that if you drive a car like I do, or ride a bus, take a taxi or an airplane, you are contributing to greenhouse gas emissions which are changing conditions on our planet faster than ever, a clear act of mistreating the earth and all its inhabitants.
The phenomenon of Culture Collapse Disorder is terrifying and untreatable as long as we don’t acknowledge the disorder at its core. Our capacity to destroy the only home we know—earth and all its ecosystems, environment, species, and so on—is a fundamental symptom of just how deep the imbalance lies. At this critical juncture in our culture, we must make a fundamental shift back into balance. It’s not a question of sustaining life as we know it: life as we know it is simply not sustainable. And, while we can—and must—make changes on an individual level in our everyday lives and continue to call for larger global initiatives to be supported by governments going forward, these actions are simply touching in at the surface level, the level of symptoms of the disorder. By making the symptoms go away, we have not addressed the core underlying issue.
Jungian and archetypal psychologist James Hillman believed that symptoms are part of the speech of the soul (The Psychopathology of Every Day Life); thus the symptoms we are collectively experiencing may be considered the voice of the anima mundi, the world soul. Taking a curative approach to simply silence the symptoms is a “killing game” that extinguishes part of the soul. As a culture and humanity, we must look more deeply at the issue and come back into relationship with a living earth that needs us as much as we need it. We can do that by starting to listen and engage, paying attention to dreams or spending time in reverie in Nature, turning our attention to the way life and intelligence surrounds us at all times. Ecopsychologist David Abram suggests we have an inherent capacity to communicate with nature in his book, Becoming Animal, and that through conscious intention and perception with our senses, we can engage intimately with earth (See the abstract for my recent review in Jung Journal).
Ecotheologian Thomas Berry states:
The Earth with its layers of land and water and air provides the space within which all living things are nurtured and the context within which humans attain their identity. If in the excitement of a secular technology reverence for the Earth has diminished in the past, especially in the western world, humans now experience a sudden shock at the devastation they have wrought on their own habitation. The ancient human-Earth relationship must be recovered in a new context, in its mystical as well as in its physical functioning.
There is need for awareness that the mountains and rivers and all living things, the sky and its sun and moon and clouds all constitute a healing, sustaining sacred presence for humans which they need as much for their psychic integrity as for their physical nourishment. (From “Evening Thoughts: Reflecting on Earth as Sacred Community”)
The notion of Culture Collapse Disorder, a critical and dangerous pathology which affects us all, may be seen as terrifying and it’s unveiling a negative outlook of doom and gloom, but it is critical that we begin to look at it as finding a diagnosis is often the first step to treatment. As environmental attorney and author James Gustave Speth insists, “We need to be reminded of the nightmare ahead…we will never do things that are needed unless we know the full extent of our predicament” (in A Bridge at the End of the World: Capitalism, The Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability, p. 234.
What happens next is up to all of us. If we individually and collectively persist in our tendencies to eco-apathy and our ecopsychopathy, the transition to a new way of being on the planet may be harsh and sudden, leveling the playing field in a massive upheaval. If we are able, as Carolyn Baker suggests in her timely and inspiring Navigating the Coming Chaos to understand we are “married to everyone and everything,” we will be more equipped to make the transition more reflective, intentional, and creative, and to “increasingly glimpse the momentousness of our connection with every person in our world” (p. 50)—and, I would add, to the world itself, gradually finding our way back around to a way of life in which we walk more softly on the earth, ask permission for what we take and give back something in return, and fully enter the community of all nature.
Bonnie Bright is the founder of Depth Psychology Alliance, the world's first comprehensive online community for depth psychology, and hosts a podcast, Depth Insights, as well as editing the semi-annual scholarly e-zine of the same name. She recently founded www.DepthPsychologyList.com, a free online database to find or list depth psychology oriented therapists and practitioners. She holds Masters degrees in Psychology and Depth Psychology, and is a Ph.D. candidate at Pacifica Graduate Institute in Santa Barbara, CA. Follow her on Twitter @bonniebright5 or on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/BonnieBright.DepthPsych