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What follows is the introduction to my book, Moving to the Earth’s Beat: the road back from eco-despair. The book speaks to those who suffer from that malaise. 

After being invited to join this forum I hesitated to do it. Why?
Because my voice is not that of a peer, it is that of someone who could have been your patient but who relied instead on his own self-analysis to find a way out of his own eco-despair.
Do I belong on this stage?
I am not sure but I venture onto it with the hope that my perspective will be of some use to you I hope, in your work with others who suffer from what may be this signature malady of our time and to answer some questions for you and me.


What it’s about

The funk hit me suddenly. In hindsight I can see that it had been building for a while, but when it broke out into the open it came as a surprise. It was both unexpected and hard to explain. There seemed to be nothing in my situation to be depressed about. I was in good health, and had people in my life I cared about and who cared about me.

I was one of four partners in a small consulting company located in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was doing well. When I joined it there were four people in it: two partners and two staff assistants. I made it five. Now, seven years later, there were twenty-four of us in our Harvard Square office, and another dozen in our affiliates in the U.K., Holland, and Germany.

Our business was based on work we had done to identify elements of the thought process that successful inventors use in their work. We were the first in our field to make parts of that process explicit. The Random House Dictionary extracted a common noun from the name of our company, Synectics, and defined it as “the study of creative processes, esp. as applied to the solution of problems by a group of diverse individuals.”

Clients hired us to run problem-solving sessions for project teams when they needed to do some fresh thinking. Initially we worked primarily with engineers and scientists from the Research and Development departments of companies such as Kimberly-Clark, General Foods, Exxon, and Johnson & Johnson. Then their marketing and organization development groups discovered us.

Ours was an unusual line of work. There was no short answer to the “and-what-do-you-do” question, but it was hard to conceal how pleased we were to be doing it. We existed at the wild edges of the business world, unconstrained by its conduct and dress codes. We could work in sneakers and sandals, and wear our hair long. At day’s end on Fridays, staff members trickled into our second floor “living room,” a roughly twenty-by-thirty-foot loft space in which we could both run sessions and party.

The long wall across from the entrance had two French doors in it. Three easels were mounted on the wall space that separated them. Black leather couches formed a big “U” in front of the easels, and an oriental rug covered the space between them. On it was a table made of a solid core door sitting on four wooden cubes cut from an old beam. Several other cubes served as end tables. A dozen or so directors’ chairs provided additional seating. There was a long table behind one of the couches. When sessions were held on the floor, drinks were set out on it at the end of the day for the participants. Most welcomed that opportunity to relax after a long day, often with a working lunch and a couple of short breaks. On Fridays, it was the staff’s turn to relax and party.

I enjoyed my work. I had no trouble giving it sixty or seventy-hour weeks because it energized me. It was both my work and my favorite recreation. And then, suddenly it seemed, that changed. It was as if I were my usual self one Friday evening, a different person at the end of the following week.

What happened? It took me almost a year to figure out, first, what ailed me and then to develop a remedy for it. I was, it turned out, like the miners’ canary, among the early victims of an emerging virus, the one that causes eco-despair. Unlike the canary I was still walking and talking, though my spirit had a hard time getting out of bed. The first symptom was a growing awareness that our way of life had put us on a high-speed train headed for a nasty ecological crash. Then came the question that felled me: was there any reason to hope that we would be able to change course in time to avoid it, or at least to slow the train enough to minimize the damage?

I feared the answer was no. The train was propelled by a hyper-consumption lifestyle that we equated with progress and success for us as both individuals and as a species. We were addicted to it. I didn’t think enough people could be convinced to quit or quit aspiring to it. In developed countries it would mean giving up too many conveniences that we considered our birthright. Like cars and air conditioning and ever-increasing supplies of electricity and running water, both cold and hot. In the developing ones it would mean letting go of the dream of attaining that lifestyle.

The impetus for the change was not going to come from our political and business leaders. It had to come from us, the consumers. Together we had a lot of economic clout — we accounted for two-thirds of the GNP in developed countries. What we needed was a consumer uprising that forced the invention of a different economic order. But I couldn’t see it happening, because I’d lost faith in our collective good sense, and in the power of our big guns, Science and Technology. If you see your kind heading for a precipice and see no way to keep them from acting like lemmings, you are left with two choices. Stop caring about them and focus on getting the most out of your life while you can. Or get depressed. Why couldn’t I settle for the first option?

I talked to therapists about my problem, but that didn’t help, so I worked on it on my own. I got lucky and stumbled into an explanation of it in some books that happened to be sitting on my shelves. The authors included the psychologists Abraham Maslow and Viktor Frankl.

What I heard them say was that there is a part of us that transcends the boundaries of the personal ego. It identifies with its world — with other people, with other living things, with the earth. It experiences the pain of these “others” as if it were its own. It can be deeply bothered by the way things are out there. Such as injustice, or poverty, or the abuse of children or of the environment Not a reason to get bummed out if you feel that something can and is being done, by you or by others, about the wrong you feel needs to be set right, and that the fight can be won.

But this requires you to believe that the forces on your side have what it takes to prevail against those that create the “wrong.” Difficulties arise if you lose that faith. You are then left with two choices: recover that faith or live with your pain.

This book tells the story of how I regained hope that we could change our ways quickly enough to, if not avert, then at least soften the blow of an ecological crash. I tell it now for two reasons:

Because it will be hard, for others who catch the malaise, to get the help they need to uncover its root causes. It’s not easy to find therapists who in their practice make use of the findings of Maslow (and others who are part of what he called the “Third Force” in psychology). This was the case when I needed them, and it continues to be the case today. Why? The answer, according to several friends who are psychologists, is that their training focuses them almost exclusively on the non-transcendent part of our psyche. This is also why the needed help is unlikely to be found in publications by them, whether in books or blogs.

And I tell it now because it is no longer only my story or that of a few other kindred “miner’s canaries.” Eco-despair may prove to be the signature malady of our time.

An online article published by Time magazine is titled In Despair Over the Polar Bear. It begins with the story of a forty-one-year-old mother of two who “gets a stomach ache” every time she looks at a nearby volcano with a glacier at the top that has “definitely been receding over the years.” It goes on to say that psychologists now have a name for her condition: “eco-anxiety, the overwhelming and sometimes debilitating concern for the worsening state of the environment.” And, “As signs of global warming accumulate, therapists say they’re seeing more and more patients with eco-anxiety symptoms. Sufferers feel depression, hopelessness, and insomnia, and go through sudden, uncontrollable bouts of sobbing.” *

Back in the early eighties there were no eco-psychologists of either the pop or the pro variety. The therapists I consulted focused on other possible reasons for my depression. The idea that we were heading for an eco-crash seemed at the time to be a far-out one, and if the threat was real there was plenty of time to do something about it. Yes we’d created environmental problems, but there were people working on them. One obvious solution to my distress was to support that work either directly or indirectly by minimizing my contribution to those problems — insulate the house, buy recycled paper, don’t drive a gas guzzler, whatever.

A possible second explanation for my angst was that I hadn’t outgrown my atavistic need to stay connected with the natural world. So go hug a tree, or spend time in a nearby National Forest. But I didn’t think immersions in the wilderness would help. Even looking at pictures of such places deepened my angst — they made vivid what it was that we were destroying. Contact with the natural world did once feel good, but that was to happen again only after I emerged from my gloom.

Variations of those two commonsense remedies are what most eco-psychologists seem now to be selling. But if the angst is rooted in a loss of hope that we, collectively, can get off this train we are on or slow it down significantly, then these are at best temporary painkillers, not a cure for the ailment. I hope this book will help you to grasp the root causes of that angst and to put together a remedy for it.

To the extent that you are not as engaged in the fight to save our habitat as you would like to be, I hope this book will help move you past a couple of the things that held me back. One was not seeing clearly enough that I had a very personal, here-and-now reason to do it.

There is a consequence of pollution and habitat destruction that is being almost totally overlooked: its impact on our psychic health. A part of us is viscerally connected to the earth, making it sick invites souls sickness. But it’s easy to ascribe its symptoms — such as anger, anxiety, and depression — to other causes. What I needed — and describe here — is a way to determine the extent to which these feelings are rooted in the realm of the individual ego versus that of the more connected self.

The second thing that held me back was loss of faith in our collective ability to avert or minimize the impact of an eco-crash, whether in our lifetime or that of our now and future children. I found hope in two places: evidence that we do have what it takes to win that fight; and reasons to think that we can increase the odds of doing that if we align ourselves more closely with the forces that work to maintain the health of the organism that is our biosphere.

This book also describes how a move to a more sustainable future can be catalyzed by the gifted storytellers among us, be they writers or rappers or moviemakers. If you are one of these folks and are not already engaged in that effort, I hope you will be moved to join it.

A preview of what follows

Have you caught — or are you susceptible to catching — a case of eco-malaise? Easy question to answer if you know you are depressed about what’s happening to our habitat. But what if you have caught the malady and it’s in an initial mild stage that manifests itself in subtle ways, such as a general increase in irritability or impatience or feelings of unease? In hindsight I can see that this is what happened to me, and that the resulting state of mind diminished my ability to bring my “A” game to my work for at least a couple of years.

Even after the problem broke out into the open as a depression, it took time to figure out its cause. I knew I was bothered by what we were doing to our environment, but why wasn’t that reason to be moved into action instead of into despair? To answer that question I first had to answer another: was the cause of my funk something else?

The first part of this book is an account of what I needed to do to answer those questions. It was, in essence, an exploration of what made me tick, as an individual and as a member of our species. I hope what I learned about myself will bring into sharper focus aspects of your own psyche in one or both of two ways: Yes, that’s me too. No, not me, but it makes me think of something that feels more apt.

The questions I had to ask along the way were not new: Who am I behind the face I present to others and to myself? Why do I feel as I do about my world? What do I believe the nature of things to be, and to what extent is that based on secondhand ideas? Which of those inherited ideas keep me from being at peace with my world?

Old questions, but the act of asking them helped me tailor the answers so they felt relevant to me.

Part two of this book is about imagining a way forward. OK, I understand why I feel as I do, how do I get out of this pit?

What reasons are there to think it’s not too late to avert or minimize the impact of the eco-crash for which I think we are headed? How do I rekindle faith in the power of our best instincts to win the fight to save our habitat? If part of the anwer is to be open to the idea that we might get an assist from the earth’s equivalent of a health maintenance organization, how do I square that idea with my inner skeptic — the part of me I think of as my modern, hard-science-based sensibility? Can I see a way forward that doesn’t require anyone else to do that squaring?

To find answers to these questions I had to pull together ideas about the nature of things from the viewpoints of both our scientists and traditional Native Americans. I hope going along on my excursions through those worlds will help you to create an antidote for your eco-despair, one that may or may not resemble mine.