- Published: 24 April 2013 24 April 2013
I appreciate very much the way you speak about your love of Earth, and your poems and invocations. Polly, it is wonderful to hear how far your work has come in such a short space of time.
As an ecopsychologist and also as the daughter of a Jewish woman who was nearly killed by the Nazis when she was 3 years old, I welcome Eradicating Ecocide because I see real value in naming what is happening and its scale and giving it its due status.
Relating with Earth as our larger self lies at the heart of ecopsychology. Recognising that our bodies are integral to Earth’s body, just as are rock, soil, tree, corn, bird, mole, horse, spider, wind, sunlight, water … and all the other forms of life which may be crowding into your minds now. Allowing that our minds are integral to Earth’s mind … Knowing that Earth too is part of a larger self and reaching for what that might mean …
“Recognising”, “Allowing”, “Knowing” … words we ascribe to mental activity, if we forget our body sense …
Body sense. Visceral intelligence. Embodied wisdom. Ours and Earth’s. Earth’s which is also ours.
These are expressions of ecopsychology, and there are many many more.
Underlying where we are now, at the start of the collapse of Earth’s life support systems generated largely by human activity, are so many systemic factors. Ecopsychology proposes that underpinning them all is modern humanity’s perceived separation from Earth.
Separated, individual consciousness is a vital aspect of being human, enabling identity, agency, desire and personal expression of universal, archetypal experience. Separated, individual consciousness allows reflection on what it means to be of the human species. It can, equally, reveal to us what it means to be of the whole Earth community.
In Vital Signs, the first UK-based ecopsychology anthology edited by Mary-Jayne Rust and Nick Totton, I wrote about the image in the Eden story of the barrier of a sword of fire and cherubim that God put in place to prevent the newly self-conscious Adam and Eve from eating the fruit of the Tree of Life “lest they become as Gods” as the Bible put it. As we know, the human species is wielding God-like power now. I suggest that the barrier of the sword of fire and cherubim can also be thought about as a description of the immense difficulty modern humans have in retaining a sense of connection with Earth, with Eden and the Tree of Life, once separated, individual consciousness arrives. Acknowledging that section of Genesis as our creation story and treating it as a dream, I focus on God’s almost immediate association to the Tree of Life after the first couple eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and I argue that this linking of the two trees, the only two in Eden to be named, may point to a developmental task. I accept their eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge as the moment of transition into individual self-consciousness, and I suggest that our developmental task hidden in this story is to cultivate equally our sense of interconnection and commonality with the rest of life here alongside our sense of human uniqueness. In modernity’s cultural failure to recognise such a task over millenia, we have failed to wield our power lightly and so our potential for destruction, which mirrors and expresses Earth’s own destructive forces, is coming to pass.
I also see the Eden story as an archetypal story, a myth in the sense that I once heard William Golding quoted as naming, “a truth that can only be told as a story”. All the images I’ve seen of Adam and Eve shut out of Eden show them in utter grief and desolation. A close-up of one by Renaissance painter Masaccio in 1427 is at http://www.artble.com/imgs/8/9/6/323596/636075.jpg. As possible archetypal images, I suggest they depict how being torn from interconnection with larger nature causes an unbearable rift, a tear in the psyche. An incalculable wound.
And of course an archetypal story speaks to what is as well as to what was. Those images reveal that there is a moment when we know what is lost. And, surely, what is lost is our sense of being part of Earth’s extraordinary, abundant creativity, to which death and destruction are integral.
That moment of knowing what we have lost is pivotal – how we respond to it shapes all that follows. In my view, not having a cultural, storied frame, which includes Earth, for that transition from interconnected consciousness into separated consciousness is a critical factor in the trajectory Western civilisation has pursued. For without such a storied frame, what is lost is conscious, positive identification and relationship with Earth – and the potential to find one’s small but valuable place inside a beautiful and terrible, sophisticated and complex larger whole. With that, we lose the appropriate context for the creative and destructive powers which ebb and flow through us, and so we lose the containment that comes from knowing that these immense powers derive from something larger than ourselves to which we belong. Looking at, say, a pride of lions devouring a buffalo to nourish their own lives – the sheer rawness of nature – can make it hard for us to want to belong and yet it is vital that we know we do.
When conscious identification with the first source of life is no longer available, I think that unconscious identification with one’s own creations becomes inevitable.
Images of Adam and Eve outside the Garden reveal their sense of smallness, their shame, their abject poverty in their newly separated state. Another by Thomas Cole in 1828 can be found at http://www.mfa.org/collections/object/expulsion-from-the-garden-of-eden-33060. Without a storied frame for this critical juncture, I think what happens is an unconscious taking into the individual self the very powers one newly lacks access to which originate in and thereby properly belong to the larger whole.
Hubris, I think, is characteristic of this state, because what is unconsciously appropriated to the tiny self is too huge, and inflating oneself is the only way to carry it.
These are the conditions which spawn denial, and the continuum of behaviours that relate to it like knowing and not knowing, and knowing and not acting. For me, the first and main purpose of denial is to uphold and protect the core sense of one’s own validity. I want to underline that: To uphold and protect the core sense of one’s own validity. We can see from Cole’s painting just how threatened the core sense of one’s own validity can be when connection with the larger whole is lost.
And those of us who study the unconscious see how particular energy centres within it insatiably gather to themselves anything that looks remotely relevant. The painters I have referred to show us a wound of such character and scale that it forms this kind of energy centre. Here I think a cluster gathers around the idea of being valid, a cluster made up of similar notions like being good and innocent. And a process develops in which, identified with one’s own creations, one makes them very large and then lives inside them as expressions of validity, goodness and innocence – all as a way of defending oneself from knowing their opposites, which are equally present, unconscious and unregulated. What is also defended against is seeing the equal validity, goodness and innocence of anything that threatens this constructed identity – and so one has license to kill. Earth is the greatest threat to this constructed identity.
All this means that there is a real psychological state in which one is genuinely incapable of seeing one’s own destructiveness. Polly described earlier how she has witnessed many people in the corporate world being unable to listen to and look at the damage that some of their activities have caused to local people, their ecologies and also to migrating birds. I think that what she observed is rooted in this deeper, genuine incapability to see one’s own destructiveness. It is unfaceable. In this way, denial is doing its job – upholding and protecting the core sense of one’s own validity.
I have come to think about the work of psychotherapy as creating the conditions in which the unfaceable can be faced. And one of the questions at the centre of the Climate Psychology Alliance is whether it is possible to create similar conditions at a more collective level to enable the unfaceable to be faced. I don’t know if they define their work in the same way, but various people, including Paul Maiteny, Mary-Jayne Rust, Ro Randall, Tom Crompton and Zita Cox, have been experimenting with different models and the Alliance seeks to learn from, where appropriate support and, with them, build on their pioneering endeavours.
I think this work involves walking a tightrope between on one side boldness, strength, determination and confidence and, on the other, what might be humility. I think that creating the ‘genuinely enabling conditions’ that Polly seeks involves finding ways to deeply honour the state of mind which I have been describing, rooted as it is in the incalculable wound we all share. Otherwise we increase the need for denial and thereby strengthen its grip. I don’t know about any of you, but ‘deeply honouring denial’ challenges me greatly. I have to find new ways to come to terms with and contain the kinds of feelings I imagine many of you also grapple with: frustration, fury, fear, hatred, contempt and even a desire to kill. Some are mine and some, not integrated by those who cannot face their destructiveness, are playing in the space between us and it can be hard to distinguish between them.
These perspectives have brought me to more consciously investigate my own needs to feel good and innocent as a way of upholding my sense of validity. I’ve been surprised by occasional new feelings of empathy with people who live their lives in opposing ways to me – what I perceive as Earth destroying ways – and there have been odd moments of desiring to get to know them better, which I put down to the empathy. I do fear being drawn into collusion, but if I can allow these feelings in more I’m hoping now I’ll find a new language, one that, through genuine relationship, will open the door for them to turn and face the unfaceable. That’s where I am in this experiment that so many of us have taken on and I hope it contributes something towards Eradicating Ecocide.
From CPA conference
16th March 2013 London
Main speaker: International barrister Polly Higgins: " The Earth Needs a Good Lawyer