Back to the Garden

Can a wrong turn be made right?

Posted May 31, 2010

We are stardust,
Billion year old carbon
We are golden
Caught in the devil's bargain,
And we've got to get ourselves back to the garden.

Last week, children at a New York grammar school created an event to celebrate animals. Each dressed up in costume as a favorite lion, turtle, or other splendid species. One child made a poster saying: "Save the Earth! It's the only planet with elephants!" Another wore a costume of yellow scales declaring, "I'm the last fish in the Gulf." Three sixth graders simply carried a sign that read PEACE.

Nearly a half hemisphere away, others speak out on behalf of nature. Their voices are as ancient as the children's are fresh. In a remarkable paper, University of California, Davis, scholar Marisol de la Cadena describes the growing "appearance of earth-beings in social protests." [2] Indigenous political groups, such as the Ecuarunari, have inserted animals, plants, rivers, and mountains into national political and legal dialogue. The 2008 Constitution of the Republic of Ecuador now reads: "Nature or Pachamama, where life becomes real and reproduces itself, has the right to be integrally respected in its existence, and to the maintenance and regeneration of its life cycles, structures, functions, and evolutionary processes." [2]

Earth is not an environmental issue nor simply a theater set for human dramas, but a thinking, feeling, "powerful earthbeing." Justo Oxa, a Quechua elementary school teacher, speaks of this identity and relationship:

The community, the ayllu, is not only a territory where a group of people live; it is more than that. It is a dynamic space where the whole community of beings that exist in the world lives; this includes humans, plants, animals, the mountains, the rivers, the rain, etc. All are related like a family. . . This place is not where we are from, it is who we are.  I am not from Huantura, I am Huantura. [3]

After centuries of being silenced through objectification and dismissal, Mother Nature and her disenfranchised family members are making themselves heard.

This is no trendy New Age flight of fancy. Nor are these people, human and nonhuman, mere cultural erratics or "minorities." Statistically speaking, they comprise the overwhelming majority, millions upon millions of individuals and species who remain resilient, their minds and hearts pulsing in ancient synchrony despite the predatorial blast of guns, screaming chainsaws, and thundering dynamite. Attempts to extinguish through violence and denial, observes President of the Ecuarunari, Humberto Cholango, have failed:

It's inconceivable that in the 21st century, God still has to be defined according to the European standards. . . .We think the life of Jesus is the Great Light coming from Inti Yaya (Paternal and Maternal Light that supports it all), whose aim is to deter anything that doesn't let us live in justice and brotherhood among human beings and in harmony with Mother Nature. . . .The Pope should note that our religions NEVER DIED, we learned how to merge our beliefs and symbols with the ones of the invaders and oppressors.[5]

Let's face it. The Age of Anthropocentrism is over and so is Cartesian thinking. Time to move on. The proliferation of hyphenated fields-—neurophilosophy, ecopsychology, moral neuropsychology, and so forth-—make it clear that reductionism and its attendant socio-political agendas create more problems than solutions. Capitalism, imperialism, and all the other "isms" just make a bad thing worse. If any doubt remains, take a look at the Gulf of Mexico. 

The meaning of this calamity seeps into consciousness insidiously like the black British Petroleum tar that penetrates lungs and skin of birds and sea life. Unconsciously, the mind frantically seeks refuge, but escape is impossible. In this room of no exits, we stand at the lintel of past and future. The time for pondering who we are and searching for the meaning of life is spent. If there is no life on this planet, no grebes or dolphins, [6, 7] then meaning can only come from the lonely void of our own destruction, Jean Paul Sartre's hell, l'enfer, the place of condemnation where no others but people, les autres, dwell.

What has all of this to do with psychology? Everything. As Gandhi said, "A man is but the product of his thoughts: what he thinks, he becomes," and it is thoughts that form the grist for psychology's mill. Psychology is also the steward of psyche, the soul, and with that charge comes ethical and moral responsibility for what the mind creates and for what humanity becomes.

We don't need to know why our minds created this social and ecological crisis, only that we did. The children don't care why, the animals don't care why, and the Ecuarunari, Sioux, Creek, and other indigenes already know why. They only care about halting the spiral of destruction. Psychology can help by deconstructing the thoughts that caused the Gulf oil spill, the war in Iraq, and other violent trademarks of modern society. The spill must be stopped, war must be stopped, and the illusions that cause the reality of war and extinctions must be stopped. 

How to begin? First, by conceding that western civilization took a major wrong turn. As difficult as it may be to admit, today's legacy of violence and sociopathy started when we forgot that we belonged to each other and defined ourselves as different: different than plants, different than other animals, different than the tribe next door.

The next step is to listen. Listen to the Ecuarunari who carry the message of the mountains. Listen to the elephants who plea to stop the madness. [8] Listen to the New York children who celebrate life, not death and domination that characterize so many American holidays. Break the Faustian bargain, and let's get ourselves back to the garden.

[1] Joni Mitchell. Woodstock. Retrieved May 9, 2010.

[2] Marisol De la Cadena. 2010. Indigenous cosmopolitics in the Andes: Conceptual reflections beyond "politics". Cultural Anthropology, 25(2), 334-370.

[3] Asamblea Nacional Constituyente. Retrieved March 1, 2010; Quoted and cited in De la Cadena (2010)

[4] Justo Oxa. 2004: 2004 Vigencia de la Cultura Andina en la Escuela. In Arguedas y el Peru de Hoy. Carmen Marıa Pinilla, ed. Pp. 235-242. Lima: SUR. P 239. Quoted and cited in De la Cadena (2010).

[5] Humberto Cholango quoted in De la Cadena (2010). Orginal posición de la confederación de pueblos de la nacionalidad Kichwa del Ecuador frente a las declaraciones emitidas por Benedicto XVI en la V conferencia de obispos de Americalatina y el Caribe (Celam), en mayo del 2007 en Brasil. Retrieved March 1, 2010 (English translation taken from

[6] Carnivorous fish blamed for grebe's extinction in Madagascar. Retrieved May 26, 2010.

[7] Yangtze river dolphin driven to extinction. Retrieved August 8, 2007.

[8] Charles Siebert. 2006. An Elephant Crackup? New York Times. October 8, 2006.


Photo Credits: Bear photos courtesy of Charlie Russel. Sunset scene courtesy of David Lavigne. 

About the Author

G.A. Bradshaw, Ph.D., is the author of Elephants on the Edge: What Animals Teach Us About Humanity.

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