Ecocide: The Psychology of Environmental Destruction
Why Can't We Live in Harmony With the Rest of Nature?
Posted June 18, 2014
Recent scientific reports about climate change make grim reading. A new paper published this week in The Economic Journal by the respected UK economist Lord Stern states that the models previously used to calculate the economic effects of climate change have been ‘woefully inadequate.’ They have severely underestimated the scale of the threat, which will "cost the world far more than estimated." (1)
What makes the situation even more serious is that climate change is just one of the environment-related problems we face. Others include the destruction and pollution of ecosystems, the disappearance of other species (both animal and plant), water shortage, over-population, and the rapacious consumption of resources. In my book Back to Sanity , I suggest that human beings may be collectively suffering from a psychological disorder (which I call ‘humania’), and our reckless abuse of the environment is one of the best pieces of evidence for this. Would a sane species abuse their own habitat so recklessly? And would they allow such dangerous trends to intensify without taking any serious measures against them?
Indigenous peoples were in no doubt that our attitude to nature was pathological, and would lead to disaster. They have been consistently appalled by our lack of respect for the natural world, and systematic abuse of nature. Over 150 years ago Chief Seattle compared the white man to "a stranger who comes in the night and takes from the land whatever he needs." With great foresight, he warned President Franklin Pearce that his people "will devour the Earth and leave behind only a desert."
The Psychological Roots of Ecocide
The term "ecocide" has recently been coined to describe the potential danger we face. And even though the dangers are obviously linked to social and political factors, I believe it’s important to look into the psychological roots of "ecocide." What are the psychological causes of our abusive and exploitative attitude to nature?
In my view, there are two main psychological factors. The first is what I call our "over-developed sense of ego," or intensified sense of individuality. You could argue that this is the essential difference between Western so-called "civilised" peoples and tribal indigenous peoples. Most indigenous peoples don’t seem to exist as personal, self-sufficient egos to the same extent that we do. Their sense of identity seems to include their community and their land. For example, the anthropologist Silberbauer noted that for the G/wi people of the Kalahari Desert in Africa, identity was less more ‘group-referenced’ rather than individual, so that people would identify themselves in terms of their kin or another group (2). While according to Boydell, the indigenous peoples of Fiji have a concept of “the self-embedded-in-community [which] contrasts with the western value of individualism with its idea of the self as separate and separating from others.” (3).
This is part of the reason why many indigenous peoples feel such a strong attachment to their land. The Fijian anthropologist Ravuva, for example, noted that Fijian’s relationship to their vanua or land is “an extension of the concept of self. To most Fijians the idea of parting with one’s vanua or land is tantamount to parting with one’s life” (4). However, our heightened sense of individuality creates duality and separation. It "walls us off" within our own egos. It means that we perceive nature as something "other," that we see natural phenomena as objects which we are entitled to use for our own devices.
Our ego-separateness means that we don’t feel connected to the "web of creation," the network of life on Earth. As a result, we don’t feel a responsibility to the rest of the network, or a duty to preserve its harmony. Instead, our separateness makes us feel entitled to dominate the rest of nature, which is why we feel entitled to own land and natural resources. This is one of the traits that indigenous peoples found most difficult to understand. Ownership implies a position of superiority and dominance. Since we know that we are conscious and alive ourselves, and perceive natural phenomena as not being alive and conscious, we feel that we’re superior to nature, as a master is to a slave, and so feel entitled to dominate it.
The second factor is our :de-sacralised" vision of nature, our inability to sense the "being-ness" of natural phenomena. As children, we perceive the world around us with intense and vivid perception, and the natural world does appear alive to us, but as adults, our vision of the world becomes de-sensitised and automatic. We "switch off" to the vivid "is-ness" which we experience as children. The phenomenal world becomes a shadowy, one-dimensional place. In Australian Aboriginal terminology, we lose the ability to "enter the dreaming" of natural things. And again, this encourages us to treat natural phenomena as objects. It means that we don’t have any qualms about abusing and exploiting the natural world, tearing up its surface in search of resources and polluting it with our waste.
Indigenous peoples traditionally respected nature because of their sense that all natural things—not just animals but plants, stones, and the whole Earth itself—are in some sense alive. They appeared to have the ability to empathize with plants, animals and the Earth, and so were reluctant to damage or destroy them. As the great Native American philosopher Luther Standing Bear wrote of the Lakota Indians, "Kinship with all creatures of the earth, sky, and water was a real and active principle. In the animal and bird world there existed a brotherly feeling that kept the Lakota safe among them." This meant that, for the Lakota, in anticipation of the modern animal rights movement:
"The animals had rights—the right of a man’s protection, the right to live, the right to multiply, the right to freedom, and the right to man’s indebtedness—and in recognition of these rights, the Lakota never enslaved an animal and spared all life that was not needed for food and clothing." (5)
Is a Shift Underway?
This psychological interpretation might seem to make our predicament even more bleak. If the fundamental problem is a psychological one, then the only sure way of ensuring our survival as a species would be for us to undergo a psychological shift – specifically, to transcend our sense of separateness and regain a sense of connection to nature and a "sacralised" vision of the natural world. And how could a shift like this take place?
But perhaps this shift is already taking place. The last few decades have seen major cultural changes which suggest that, collectively, we may be slowly moving beyond "ego-separateness." These include a healthier and more open attitude to sex and the human body, increased empathy and compassion, and an increased recognition of the rights of others. The last few decades have also seen a massive wave of interest in "spiritual development"—in Eastern traditions such as Buddhism and Yoga and practices such as meditation—which can be seen as part of this trend. And of course, ecological awareness and environmental concern are related to it as well. A more reverential attitude to nature has developed, a sense of connection to our environment, a gradual return to the empathic and respectful perspective of indigenous peoples. Perhaps we are beginning to recapture a shared sense of being with nature, and a sense that natural phenomena possess their own being or subjective dimension.(See my book The Fall for a fuller discussion of these developments.)
Hopefully these trends will grow stronger, until there is a powerful collective will to take effective long-term action against these problems. If not, Chief Seattle may tragically be proved right.
2. Silberbauer, G.B. (1994). ‘A Sense of Place.’ In Burch, E.S. & Ellanna, L.J. (Eds.), Key Issues in Hunter-Gatherer Research, Oxford: Berg, p. 131.
3. Boydell, S. (2001). ‘Philosophical Perception of Pacific Property: Land as a Communal Asset in Fiji.’ Pacific Rim Real Estate Society, Jan, 2004, p. 21.
4. Ravuva, A. (1983). Vaka I Taukei: The Fijian Way of Life. Java: Institute of Pacific Studies, University of South Pacific, p.7.
5. Chief Luther Standing Bear. (2014). Retrieved 3/6/2014 from http://www.firstpeople.us/FP-Html-Wisdom/ChiefLutherStandingBear.html