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Environmental Protection: Moving toward a higher law

Reading Paul Verhaeghe's On Being Normal and Other Disorders a few years ago had a profound impact on the way I think about myself as a psychoanalyst, Earth citizen, and activist for social and environmental justice. At about the same time, I was researching the impact of surface coal mining on Tennessee's headwaters.

During this process, I had some Eureka! moments of intersection between these fields of knowledge that seemed to spiral around Verhaeghe's main thesis: Our psychological identity is co-created with that of an "other" (say, a parent, a culture, a nation, a planet). If this is so, argues Verhaeghe, then the way we define any deviation from "normal" must also acknowledge that pathology is based on this self-other matrix and does not rest upon (or within) just one of the subjects.

In everyday life, such an idea is not of much consequence unless we want to "fix" a "problem." Then we have to remind ourselves that all treatment approaches depend upon a therapeutic relationship to be effective.

My Eureka! moment had to do with a realization that this healing principle operates whether I am working as a psychoanalyst to alleviate the suffering of a person, or as an activist to alleviate the exploitation and oppression of people and nature.

An example that came to mind was the difficulty activists often have when we engage with governmental and legal systems around protection of our homelands. Just as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) names psychological suffering in a way that takes us further from the sufferer, so does the naming of remedies in the limited language of environmental policy and law take us further away from the trauma of exploitation.


NWP 21 hearing in Knoxville, TN on October 13, 2009 [photo by Cathie Bird]

As I have written in other posts, the formulation of arguments in that setting is forced to mesh with the language of the laws that govern environmental assessment, regulation and enforcement. In recent years, political and regulatory bodies have claimed to make a space for "environmental justice" but, to date, we still have many examples of failure to protect land, air and water, in spite of our testimony.

I think we can look at these failed environmental "treatments" in the same way as failed therapies. Somehow, our diagnoses have been pinned to an environmental equivalent of the DSM. We need a new way of doing things that allows all parties in the relationship to be a subject in this intersubjective process. My "!" at the end of Eureka was that we have failed as a human collective to protect the environment because we have failed to see land, air, water, plants, animals  as subjects – as opposed to objects -- that not only exist, know and act, but have a right to do so.

For a time on the North American continent, this higher law was known and lived by citizens of the First Nations. After initiation of First Nations genocide by European colonists, governing documents and laws of the United States evolved to protect white male privilege. To the extent we allow such laws to remain on the books, we collectively and unconsciously endorse structural racism that inherently denies subjective freedom, especially for people of color and our shared environment. Environmental law specialist, Robin Craig, says that until citizen's rights to a clean and healthy environment are amended to the U.S. Constitution, it’s likely that scientific, economic and social justice will fail to receive due consideration.

Our collective task now is to figure and feel our way out of this mess. And though we don't often hear about it through mainstream media – or our public schools -- there is a lot of evidence that all has not been lost.

The ancient wisdom of a higher law continues to be held in trust for the national collective by our brothers and sisters of the First Nations and other Indigenous peoples of Earth. As a start we could demand that our local, state and federal governments at least consider the protection-production model of relationship to the environment practiced by First Nations citizens.

Earth and its citizens are moving – however slowly -- toward higher ground, though much of this journey and its long history remain unconscious. Which brings me back to Verhaeghe. In his Preface, Verhaeghe describes a certain polarization of surface and depth, with a pendulum's swing between what information has more value: what we can see at the surface or what is hidden but operates on human consciousness nonetheless.

"The sheer complexity of human behavior," notes Verhaeghe, "demands that we reconsider the nonvisible mental constructions directing it.”

So far -- in my own psychoanalytic explorations of humankind's relationship to nature -- it seems clear that such a process is a key to discovery of mental, emotional, structural and spiritual resistance that prevents planet-wide liberation of people and nature.


[Since this article concerns an intersection of psychoanalytic thinking and environmental protection, I am cross-posting it from my Earthbytes blog.]