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.

via tennesseehawk.typepad.com

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

Fighting Like Cats and Dogs

If images on the tube aren't enough, I have a war in my own house to remind me of the ongoing horror show in the Middle East. Of my four adopted pets--Miss Celie the Walker hound, and three cats: Buddy, George and Isis--Celie and George (I'm guessing) had the most traumatic pasts. Building a workable relationship with each of them has been a challenge, and with each other they enact the stereotypical dog-cat wars. This has been a source of anguish, study and experimentation for me, a person who values peace here at home in Frog Pond Holler.

Compared to the Middle East, though, the situation in the holler seems more easily to morph toward healing. Kids and animals can do that. I've always been amazed in my psychoanalytic work with children at how quickly they will engage in explorations of their inner workings compared to adults, whose reluctance keeps old losses and hurts locked up like scorpions in acrylic paperweights.

Unfortunately, this happens to groups and nations as well. In his book The Need to Have Enemies and Allies, Vamik Volkan notes that the longer a group or nation engages in violence without mourning the losses, the more the conflict becomes "psychologized." In such cases, says Volkan, hidden emotional issues and more primal methods to resolve them come to dominate and modify real-world aspects of the conflict.

Volkan's interest in large-group violence did not emerge from an ivory tower or some place disconnected from current hot spots in the Middle East. Not only did he grow up in Cypress prior to geographical separation of embattled Turks and Greeks, but he often refers to an event whose significance--perhaps for all of us--becomes clearer as the Middle East boils and American foreign policy reveals its true and not-so-shining colors. The occasion was an address to the Israeli Parliament on November 20, 1977, and the speaker was then Egyptian president Anwar el-Sadat, who talked of his hopes that Arabs and Israelis could break through a remaining wall that prevented true reconciliation:

This wall constitutes a psychological barrier between us, a barrier of suspicion, a barrier of rejection; a barrier of fear, of deception, a barrier of hallucination without any action, deed or decision. A barrier of distorted and eroded interpretation of every event and statement. It is this psychological barrier which I described in official statements as constituting 70% of the whole problem.

Suspicion, rejection, fear, deception, hallucination, distorted interpretation--strong words, perhaps. But those who've found the desire--or necessity by way of suffering--to explore the expanses and depths of their own minds will immediately recognize the territory of which Sadat spoke. They will understand the parallels between enemies and allies as we relate to them in our minds, and the re-creation of those relations in the world. Sadat's insight speaks to the maturity of the mind that conceived it, a maturity that seems lacking in the minds of many leaders and diplomats today.

The dog-cat wars in the holler intensified about the same time that the recent crisis with Israel and Lebanon erupted. Or did I imagine that it did? I tried several things that I thought would help resolve the skirmishes, but I only became more frustrated, and my pets rekindled old spats I thought they'd settled. After a few days of this, my frustration turned to sadness and disappointment. I caught myself in a moment of suffering so clear as to be one of those aha! moments--my interventions confused Celie and George and made me feel helpless to keep the peace.

Thus I restored a two-pronged approach that centered on letting them take down their own wall while I held an image of a peaceful household, and stood by to issue a loud bark if I thought somebody was about to get hurt. This worked pretty well. Within a week or two they were sharing one of the larger pet beds and eating snacks within a few feet of each other. When George first came out of the woods to find a new home, he had claimed the porch and defended it against canine encroachment. Now, as I finished the draft of this essay, I happened to look outside to see George and Celie stretched out on the porch together. On occasion Celie still imagines that George covets her smelly old bone, and George still arches into a hair-raised hiss if Celie walks by too fast, but generally the dog-cat war in the holler is over. For my part--though I feel a need to bark occasionally--I am mostly left to ponder my temporary slide into primitive mental functioning, and to analyze my reactions to warring parties at home and abroad.

In the past few years we have witnessed remarkable developments on fields of battle in our minds and in the world. Nation by nation, group by group, family by family and individual by individual, the way we relate to Earth and to each other is being called into question. The best of who we are as a human race continues to shine and evolve, but the worst of who we are is being forced out of hiding and into the light. There's no way to simplify what we're seeing as we look into our own souls and study the events unfolding in the world around us. And there's no way around it. The time is ripe for each person, family, group and nation to root out ancient terrors and losses, to grieve them and heal them, and then to move on.

Some resources, if you're interested:

Dr. Volkan's more recent books include Bloodlines: From Ethnic Pride to Ethnic Terrorism; The Third Reich in the Unconscious; Blind Trust: Large Groups and Their Leaders in Times of Crisis and Terror; and Killing in the Name of Identity: A Study of Bloody Conflicts.

Dr. Volkan founded the Center for the Study of Mind and Human Interaction. Though the center was closed in 2005, the University of Virginia still maintains the center's home page at http://www.healthsystem.virginia.edu/internet/csmhi/ -- lots of good information there.

A great book by Lloyd DeMause, The Emotional Life of Nations, is available free online at http://www.psychohistory.com/. Lots more free reading at that site on the history of child rearing practices and DeMause's psychogenic theory of history. You can also sign up for a discussion listserv in which members analyze current events in terms of psychohistorical theory.

This article also appeared at OpEd News: