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.]

t r u t h o u t | Rethinking Education as the Practice of Freedom: Paulo Freire and the Promise of Critical Pedagogy

What Paulo made clear in "Pedagogy of the Oppressed," his most influential work, is that pedagogy at its best is about neither training, teaching methods nor political indoctrination. For Freire, pedagogy is not a method or an a priori technique to be imposed on all students, but a political and moral practice that provides the knowledge, skills and social relations that enable students to expand the possibilities of what it means to be critical citizens, while expanding and deepening their participation in the promise of a substantive democracy. Critical thinking for Freire was not an object lesson in test taking, but a tool for self-determination and civic engagement.

via www.truthout.org

Anybody else out there feeling a desperate need for a more informed and engaged citizenry?

After you read the article by Giroux, take a look at The Avatar Decade by Susan Reed:

"The populist message of 'Avatar,' that everyone can ultimately act on their conscience, makes it a movie not just for the 21st century, but for all time. The positive use of technology is helping to level the battlefield as people find new ways to connect on issues of global importance that transcend the self-interest of nation states."

In different ways both articles speak to a new energy afoot. There's something new coming and I'm hearing all kinds of voices beginning to bring it into words.

The Gospel of Contradiction: An Interview with Mary Gordon | RDBook | ReligionDispatches

Why is the character of Jesus so powerful? Why is he such a hit? Bestselling writer Mary Gordon re-reads the Gospels, asking these questions, among others, and trying to figure out why fundamentalist readings of scripture, grounded in fear and rage, have come to dominate the understanding of religion in this country.

via www.religiondispatches.org

Hawk's Notes: I really enjoyed this article and hope to read Gordon's latest book, Reading Jesus. Some of the broader issues Gordon speaks to were the same ones that inspired the questions behind my paper, Reading Harry Potter. But the article also came in serendipitous time for a post I finished yesterday in which I explore some teachings from my spiritual tradition that have driven much contemplation about my work in social and environmental justice, as well as my interest in psychoanalysis.

Read my post, Cain and Abel in the 21st Century here.

Permalink for Reading Harry Potter (it's long!) here.

Link to Reading Jesus at amazon.com.

Drew Westen: How Race Turns up the Volume on Incivility: A Scientifically Informed Post-Mortem to a Controversy

It all depends on what you mean by racism. If you mean that the average American consciously believes we should discriminate against Mexicans because their skin is brown, no, any more than the average American consciously believes a black man is incapable of being President. But does it mean that the average American harbors unconscious biases that render Mexican immigrants less "like us" than English immigrants--and that those biases make it easier for many to wonder whether a black President shares their values, loves his country, or can put his country before "his people"--even though the people who reared him were his white mother and grandparents?

What's been missing from our national discourse on "is it race or isn't it?" is the distinction psychologists and neuroscientists have made for over two decades between conscious and unconscious (often called "explicit vs. implicit") prejudice.

via www.huffingtonpost.com

Hawk's Notes:

Drew Weston gets at the point I made yesterday about resistance to notions of anything "unconscious" in the American collective. I believe this is a valuable article for anyone desiring a better world and wondering how we make one, wondering what makes change happen.

One gripe I've had with many approaches to grassroots organizing -- which I think is a key to change for the better -- is a failure to apprehend and integrate necessary elements of individual psychological wiring and process into theories of organizing.

The reverse is often true, of course, for people -- including me -- who came into such discussions from psychoanalysis, psychology, etc. My involvement is grassroots activism and anti-racism training over the past few years has been extremely valuable for exploring those places where the rubber of the individual psyche meets the road of society.

I think this is one reason I so much appreciate Drew Westen, George Lakoff, Slavoj Zizek and others who bring thinking about individuals (and individual brains) into thinking about culture (and brains of the Other).

Anyway, this is a subject that I am passionate about and will be writing more on at this blog, as well as my new one exploring my anti-racist journey at Word Press: Raising Cain.

I Stand with Lt Watada

One of my first thoughts after the events of 9/11 was that I should buy a gun and go after whoever killed my countrymen and countrywomen. It didn't take me long to quash that idea...first of all, I'm too old and out of shape, and second of all, I had no clue who I would go after. Third...well, there were lots of reasons not to go that route once the first wave of trauma and grief had passed.

The Iraq thing was a very different situation for me...I have opposed that invasion and occupation from the beginning. I believe that the orders that sent our military forces out to shock and awe Saddam Hussein were illegal and immoral. Thus the deaths of Iraqi civilians--men, women and children--amount to nothing more than homicide, and the death of each military men and women is nothing but filicide in disguise (or unsymbolized in the unconscious) by those at the top of the food chain who gave the orders.

That's why I joined thousands of others on June 27th who support Lt. Ehren Watada, the first commissioned officer to refuse to return to Iraq because he feels it would make him a party to war crimes.
"It is my conclusion as an officer of the armed forces that the war in Iraq is not only morally wrong but a horrible breach of American law....As the order to take part in an illegal act is ultimately unlawful as well," he said, "I must as an officer of honor and integrity refuse that order."

One of Watada's supporters is Col. Ann Wright (US Army Ret), a 29-year veteran with the Army and Army Reserves, and a 16-year member of the US diplomatic corps. Wright resigned her position with the State Department in 2003 in protest of the Iraq war. Writing for TomPaine.com, Wright describes the situation facing Watada and 10 others who have gone public with their refusal to go to Iraq because they believe that war to be illegal. She says that refusal to obey an illegal order is a long-standing tradition in American armed services, but that to do so also exposes the soldier to great risks if a military court finds that the order was lawful.

I agree with Col. Wright that civilians also have a duty to speak out when we see our leaders committing illegal acts.Watada's action raises important moral and ethical issues that deserve wide and open discussion by you and me, by military and political leaders, by anyone committed to our ongoing exploration of democracy.

For some great quotes on the senselessness of war, check out these words of wisdom from some old West Point grads. I'll close with this one: "The powers in charge kept us in a perpetual state of fear--kept us in a continuous stampede of patriotic fervor--with the cry of grave national emergency. Always there has been some terrible evil to gobble us up if we did not blindly rally behind it by furnishing the exorbitant sums demanded. Yet, in retrospect, these disasters seem never to have happened, seem never to have been quite real." Douglas MacArthur, Class of 1903