Inventing a Psychology of Our Relationship to the Earth

John E. Mack

If we do not speak for earth, who will? If we are not committed to our own survival, who will be?
—Carl Sagan

In April 1990 I was in Japan for a United Nations conference, held in the industrial city of Sendai, on the relationship of science and technology to international peace and security. On the night before returning to the United States, which happened to be Earth Day (April22) while sleeping in a typical old-style Japanese inn in Kyoto, I had a dream that reflected my experience of coming back to a country that had been changed drastically from the place I had once known. Thirty years ago my wife and infant son and I had lived for two years in Japan near Tokyo in an old house with shoji screens and tatami mats in a country of exquisite beauty. I returned to a polluted land desecrated by the mindless excesses of industrialization. On every small hill was a tower for power lines, which draped themselves ungracefully across the countryside, dominating the landscape of miniature rises and subtle contours.

In my dream I am on a hillside just across the Hudson River, perhaps in New Jersey, through which I had driven so often with my parents in my childhood on the way to the seashore. Someone is lecturing to a group of us, as if we were at the United Nations conference for which I have come to Kyoto, telling us that there is still much beauty in the New York City environs. Then, with others from the conference, I take a kind of quick aerial and ground tour of these hills but see no beauty, for on each field of straw-colored New Jersey swamp grass there is at least one rectangular industrial or commercial building. Furthermore, there is an unmistakable chemical stench that pervades the scene, which is only partially acknowledged by the group.

The scene shifts to a meeting around a conference table where people are sharing their experiences, and what is bothering them. I say that what troubles me most, beyond what we have witnessed, is when someone, or a policy, or some enterprise, contradicts or denies, or pretends that reality is different than what my own experience tells me it is, that is, it invalidates my direct experience. Then a man sitting across the table from me-a kind of combination of an energetic representative of the British scientific establishment who was at the conference and of a younger person more eager for change-reacts intensely positively to my sentiment and I feel very much supported.

I will return shortly to certain of the dream’s meanings.

We sense now a need for a new psychology of the environment in order to understand what we have done, and continue to do, individually and collectively, to the earth that is our home, so that we may change our behavior, locally and globally, in order to save its life. But how is this to be done? How do we invent a new psychology of our relationship to the Earth? I use the word invent, because of its implication of creating something new, an entity, a combination that has not been put together before.

Without a human problem there is no psychology, or at least not a clinical or dynamic one, so we start by identifying the problem, one that might have existed before, but which has gained preeminence as a result of new historical and cultural circumstances. Freud and his followers to a degree invented psychoanalysis in response to the fact that the extreme, deceitful ordering of men and women’s sexual lives by a rigidified bourgeois society was becoming emotionally intolerable and producing behavioral and physiological manifestations that could not be understood or treated by the medicine or neuropsychiatry of their day. We confront now a new kind of problem, global in scope, namely, the agonizing murder of the life systems of the earth, the home on which we depend for everything, which affects each of us in profound personal ways, no matter how intensely we may deny it.

This new psychology must include not only the development of a body of theory that would understand or interpret our relationship to the environment, but also ways of working with clients and patients that will bring forth direct or disguised thoughts and feelings in relation to the environment and empower constructive initiatives. At the very least, this must mean that when we hear expressions of distress about pollution or other forms of environmental destruction in dreams and other communications, we not hear or interpret these simply as displacements from some other, inner source (Gerber, chapter 7, this volume). For example, a young woman in a human growth workshop that I co-led in Manhattan complained that she could not do all of the work, which involved exercises using rapid deep breathing, because the air was too foul. “I can’t breathe,” she said repeatedly. “It’s just too toxic. Are there chemicals stored here?” (There were not. The room we used was a dance hall on the lower West Side.) Others in the workshop resonated with this woman’s complaint, and acknowledged the foulness of the city’s air. But they were able to complete this part of the workshop. Although her complaints could have been connected to early childhood experiences of disgust or intrauterine distress (“toxic planetary influences or insufficient nourishment”; Grof 1988), there was no opportunity to explore this possibility. Yet the acknowledgment of the validity of her complaint enhanced positively her further participation and experience in the workshop.

But what kind of psychology is relevant to a problem of this scope? What would a psychology of the earth be like? It would need to be comprehensive, holistic, systemic – I am not sure what the correct terms would be except that they must convey the fact of wholeness, connection, interrelatedness and complexity. It would have to be a dynamic psychology in the sense that it would need to explore profound, largely ignored conscious and unconscious feelings, impulses, and desires in relation to the physical world, rather than one of the variations of neurophysiology or biochemistry that now dominate the American psychiatric establishment. In addition to recognizing the systemic nature of the problem, the practitioners of this dynamic psychology of the environment would need to tell unpleasant or unwelcome truths about ourselves-here is one of the meanings of my dream-as we have learned to do from psychoanalysis, but now in an altogether new arena. We would need to explore our relationship with the Earth and understand how and why we have created institutions that are so destructive to it. Even in Freud’s time, dynamic psychology was relational, initially describing the forces connecting the agencies of the psyche (id, ego, and superego), and between and among individuals in dyadic relationships, families, and small groups. But a relational psychology of the earth would be much broader, including our connectedness to peoples and other creatures all over the planet and with the earth itself as a living entity.

Actually we (by “we” I mean, by and large, citizens of Western and other industrialized nations, for many native cultures experience and avow a very different relationship to their environment) do have a psychology, or at least a prevailing attitude, conscious and unconscious, toward the earth. We regard it as a thing, a big thing, an object to be owned, mined, fenced, guarded, stripped, built upon, dammed, ploughed, burned, blasted, bulldozed, and melted to serve the material needs and desires of the human species at the expense, if necessary, of all other species, which we feel at liberty to kill, paralyze, or domesticate for our own use. Among the many forms of egoism that have come to be the focus of psychodynamically oriented psychologists in an age of self-criticism about our narcissism, this form of species arrogance has received little scrutiny. This attitude contrasts dramatically with the pragmatic, live-and-let-live and reverential relationship with nature that is reflected in the words of native American leaders such as Chief Seattle and Sioux Medicine Man John (Fire) Lame Deer, who recognize our complete interdependence with the earth and the need to live in balance and harmony with nature. “This we know,” Chief Seattle told a Pacific Northwest Assembly in 1854,

the earth does not belong to man; man belongs to the earth. This we know. All things are connected like the blood which unites one family. All things are connected. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth. Man does not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself. (Chief Seattle 1988)

More than a century later Lame Deer wrote:

To come to nature, feel its power, let it help you, one needs time and patience for that. Time to think, to figure it all out. You have so little time for contemplation; it’s always rush, rush, rush with you. It lessens a person’s life, all that grind, that hurrying and scurrying about. (Lame Deer 1972)

The seemingly mindless destruction of the natural landscape by the Japanese, a people who have been known for their delicate appreciation of nature, attests to the degree to which disciplined industrialization and accretion of wealth can overwhelm such sensitivities and separate us from the earth itself. This cutting off of consciousness from a connection with nature, and the spirit that most peoples throughout human history have experienced as inherent in it (and in us, of course, as part of nature), is one of the supreme negative achievements of modern, industrially developed man. This separation is painfully demonstrated in modern Japan, and is reflected in my dream. One must wonder how or why we have done it, how we have so overdeveloped the use of reason at the expense of feeling, in the service of a fear-driven need to conquer other peoples and the material world on a planet with a growing population that is perceived as yielding finite, diminishing resources. Chief Seattle shared this bewilderment. “In your perishing you will shine brightly,” he warned, “fired by the strength of the God who brought you to this land for some special purpose [and] gave [you] dominion over this land and over the red man. That destiny is a mystery for us” (Chief Seattle 1988, 72).

So a psychology of the environment would be an expanded psychology of relationship, a conversation or experiencing in the deepest parts of our being, of our connection with the earth as sacred. I say sacred because I do not believe that a mere threat to survival will be sufficient to create this new relationship without a fundamental shift in the nature of our being, as Vaclav Havel – who surely must have been personally revolted to discover the environmental catastrophe which his communist predecessors left him and which I witnessed from a train traveling from Prague to Berlin – so eloquently told the U.S. Congress: “Without a global revolution in the sphere of human consciousness, nothing will change for the better in the sphere of our being as humans, and the catastrophe toward which this world is headed – be it ecological, social, demographic or a general breakdown of civilization – will be unavoidable.” (Havel 1990)

But here we encounter a problem in developing the new psychology. For it must, by virtue of the very nature of the task, be a psychology that includes a powerful spiritual element. This will mean, for example, a reanimation of the forests and of nature, which we have so systematically and proudly denuded of their spiritual meaning. As a recent article in the newsletter of the International Research Center for Japanese Studies (Nichibunken), entitled “Animism Renaissance” (Yoshinori 1990), which acknowledges Japan’s “responsibility for a great deal of destruction of tropical rain forests” (2) points out, “severe natural destruction started at a point parallel with that of the disappearance of Animism” (4).

Here then is the problem. By and large we in the West have rejected the language and experience of the sacred, the divine, and the animation of nature. Our psychology is predominantly a psychology of mechanisms, parts, and linear relationships. We have grown suspicious of experiences, no matter how powerful, that cannot be quantified, and we distrust the language of reverence, spirit, and mystical connection, recalling perhaps with fear the superstitiousness and holy wars of earlier periods. Academic psychology, embodying now a reverence of numbers, tight reasoning, and linear thinking in opposition to intuition, direct knowing, and subjective experience is likely to look askance at efforts to reinfuse its body with the imprecise notions of spirituality and philosophy, from which it has so vigorously and proudly struggled to free itself in an effort to be granted scientific status in our universities, laboratories, and consulting rooms.

But this cannot be helped. For the route to a new psychology of the environment, which might contribute to our protecting it, probably cannot be achieved by measuring our reactions or talking about the problem. Only experiences that profoundly alter our view of nature and reconnect us with the divinity in ourselves and in the environment can empower people to commit themselves to the prodigious task before them. The therapeutic methods must be powerful enough to shift the ground of our being so that we experience the earth in its living reality. This is why people like Walter Christie (1984, 1985) and his wife Ellen, Joanna Macy (1983 and in this volume, chapter 2), and Stanislav and Christina Grof (1988), who have been pioneers in creating methods of reconnecting us with the earth and with ourselves in nature, rely on experiential, imaginal, and consciousness altering or opening approaches. Interestingly, people who open themselves to this connection, discovering their “ecological selves,” seem often now to encounter disturbing images, bad smells, and other psychological experiences suggesting the earth’s desecration in their dreams, fantasies, and deeper consciousness. This can become intolerably painful but also seems to empower people, impelling them to take action on behalf of the deteriorating environment. I have been struck by the fact that powerful images of the earth’s polluted landscape are appearing with increasing frequency on the covers of leading magazines and in a proliferation of articles in newspapers, magazines, and books, and there are more and more television and radio programs about how we can save the earth. It is also possible that these images are now significantly penetrating our cultural consciousness and may contribute to fundamental changes in behavior and policy.

What I have described so far is, in a sense, the easy part of the problem. Deepening our conscious awareness, reanimating our connection with the earth, is important and can lead to responsible initiatives by individuals. But the stench of my condensed Japanese-New Jersey dream landscape, the pollution of our world, and the destruction of its resources by the earth’s expanding population are the problems of humankind as a whole, acting collectively through institutions, especially business corporations, often with direct or indirect governmental support. For a psychology of the environment to be meaningful, it must address these powerful institutional, structural, or systemic realities. Social institutions are, in a sense, the expressions of our collective psyches. But we come so much to take their existence and modes of operating for granted that to consider openly that we have the power to modify, transform, or dismantle them will, inevitably, encounter intense resistance because of the political, economic, and psychological vested interests with which they are associated. To bring about structural changes of this kind, psychologists will need to work closely with policymakers, corporate leaders, economists, and many people representing other related disciplines and groups committed to social change.

The political and personal resistance to environmental transformation can be flagrant. When I was in Japan, I read that industrial pollution in Korea had become so severe that, among other things, the water in the public water system in Seoul was condemned as unsafe to drink. A professor at Seoul University who documented the severity of the industrial pollution problem was fired from his position, and people who supported environmental change were accused by the government of being communist sympathizers. I had a similar experience in Paris in 1988 upon returning from a conference in Findhorn, Scotland, on “Politics as if the Whole Earth Mattered.” Fresh from hearing moving talks about the pollution problem and the Green movement in Britain and elsewhere in Europe, I shared my experience and concern with a French psychologist, who dismissed these environmental concerns as communist propaganda, despite the fact that her own senses – just breathing the air in Paris – could confirm their truth.

Resistance to facing the costs of environmental transformation may extend beyond top management to the shareholders themselves. Initiatives proposed by shareholders from various environmental groups were overwhelmingly rejected by the vastly greater numbers of the company’s supporters at Exxon’s annual shareholders meeting in April 1990. Pleas about wildlife destruction, poisoning of children by toxic chemicals, and other dangers from hazardous waste were ignored, presumably because reparative or healing actions might reduce shareholders’ profit margins and dividends. One Exxon spokesperson suggested to the environmentalists that they should, “store your car, stop flying airplanes and walk or ride a horse in the winter snow or summer heat” (Hayes 1990). Over and above the speaker’s insensitivity, the remark is interesting for its implication, which is not so far off the mark, that what is at stake is the way we live in a developed society and the fact or extent of industrialization itself.

It is not realistic to expect that the environmental crisis will be solved simply by deindustrialization. But the unwelcome news the new psychology for the environment will need to communicate is that the unbridled license given in the West to free-market forces, and the irresponsible overbuilding of heavy industries in the socialist systems, have both led to the same disastrous result-a planet dying in the excesses of human waste. As my barber put it, “Johnny, we are drowning in our industrial feces.” The greatest challenge we now face in this rapidly changing world is to create political institutions that use the resources of power and responsibility) in conjunction with economic structures that are accountable to future generations of human beings, to other species, and to the earth itself. Psychologists of the environment, while enabling increasing numbers of people to connect with the earth and its transcendent meaning, must also participate with committed citizens and community and corporate groups in a broad-based movement that must aim at nothing less than the transformation of our political and economic institutions. Ultimately this means joining with others in a search for alternatives to the material values that now dominate the spirit in the United States and much of the world.

An environmental movement on the scale necessary to bring about the changes that are essential for protecting the earth, a process to which psychology has a useful contribution to make, must be authentically international and cross-cultural in two senses. First, we in the West or developed countries must be aware how powerfully precedent-setting is our example. When we destroy our own forests, pollute our air, and poison our streams with our industrial and personal garbage, it little avails us to admonish developing countries for unhygienic industrialization. Often-heard arguments, such as the fact that we cut down our timber in a more orderly manner than the developing countries that are destroying their rain forests, become trivial in relation to the psychological and economic forces involved. Second, we need to be aware of the economic priorities and vital needs of the peoples of developing countries. Campaigns to save natural resources, such as trees and animals, upon which impoverished peoples depend for their livelihoods, without addressing the material needs of those societies, cannot be effective.

In sum, a psychology of the environment to be comprehensive must include at least the following elements:

1. An appreciation that we do, in fact, have a relationship with the earth itself, and the degree to which that relationship has become inimicable to the sustaining of human lives and those of countless other species.

2. An analysis of traditional attitudes toward the earth in our own and in other cultures that may facilitate or interfere with the maintenance of life. The dominant attitude to the earth in the industrially developed countries has been one of unchecked exploitation.

3. The application of methods of exploring and changing our relationship to the earth’s environment that can reanimate our connection with it. These approaches must be emotionally powerful, experiential, and consciousness-expanding, opening us to ourselves in relation to nature.

4. An examination of politics and economics from an ecopsychological perspective. Political and economic systems, institutions, and forces embody collective attitudes toward the earth and its living forms but have a compelling life of their own. Psychologists committed to environmental change must, therefore, work with professional environmentalists, policymakers, population experts, corporate leaders, economists, and representatives of relevant other disciplines to make these structures compatible with an environment that can support the continuation of human life and well-being.

5. This will mean, even more than in the case of the nuclear threat, that, to be effective, psychologists will need to become professionally and personally committed and involved outside of their offices and laboratories. We must discover new forms of personal empowerment for ourselves and our clients that integrate exploration and activism, becoming – men and women together – archetypal warriors in the battle to protect our planet.

Kurt Vonnegut has recently captured the monumental seriousness of the environmental problem. It is too serious, he says, to be dealt with through humor. “Jokesters” he writes,

are all through when they find themselves talking about challenges so real and immediate and appalling to their listeners that no amount of laughter can make the listeners feel safe and perfectly well again. I found myself doing that on a speaking tour of campuses in the spring of 1989, and canceled all future engagements …. I said that the whole world faced a problem far worse than the rise of another Hitler, which was our destruction of the planet as a life-supporting apparatus of delicate and beautiful complexity.

     I said that one day fairly soon we would all go belly up like guppies in a neglected fishbowl. I suggested an epitaph for the whole planet, which was: “We could have saved it, but we were too darn cheap and lazy.” (Vonnegut 1990)


Chief Seattle. (1988). In Thinking Like a Mountain: Towards a Council of All Beings, ed. J. Seed, J. Macy, P. Fleming, and A. Naess, 67-73, 71. Philadelphia: New Society Publishers.

Christie, W. (1984-1985). A Series of Six Articles in 1984 and 1985 on “Human Ecology” in Habitat, Journal of the Maine Audubon Society.

Gerber, Lane A. (1992) “Integrating Political-Societal Concerns in Psychotherapy” in Psychology and Social Responsibility: Facing Global Challenges, edited by Sylvia Staub and Paula Green, New York University, pp. 165-181

Grof, S. (1988). The Adventures of Self-Discovery: Dimensions of Consciousness and New Perspectives in Psychotherapy and Inner Exploration, 12. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Havel, V. (1990). Address to the United States Congress, February 21, 1990. Washington Post, February 22.

Hayes, T. C. (1990). “Exxon Voters Reject Environment Plans.” New York Times, April 26, p. A22.

Lame Deer, J. (Fire), and Erdoes, R. (1972). Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions, 116. New York: Pocket Books.

Macy, J. (1983). Despair and Personal Power in the Nuclear Age. Philadelphia: New Society Publishers.

Vonnegut, K. (1990). “Notes from My Bed of Gloom: Or, Why the Joking Had to Stop.” New York Times Book Review, April22, p. 14.

Yoshinori, Y. (1990). Animism Renaissance, Nichibunken Newsletter. The International Research Center for Japanese Studies (Nichibunken), January 1990, no. 5, pp. 2-4.

  • John E. Mack, M.D. was a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

© 1992 John E. Mack, M.D.
Originally a chapter in Psychology and Social Responsibility: Facing Global Challenges, edited by Sylvia Staub and Paula Green, 1992 NY University. Also published in ReVision, vol. 14., no. 2, pp. 102-106.

  Subject Area: Political Worldviews

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