You cannot solve a problem with the same kind of thinking that has created the problem.
The World Health Organisation predicts that depression will be the biggest cause of death globally by 20301. As a responsible counselling practitioner I am ethically obliged to ask myself what may be the causes of this increase and explore ways in which I might work to mitigate them. Along with the impacts of globalisation, the communications revolution, consumerism, increased poverty, work-related stress and environment fears, one dimension which has been identified as a possible cause of this crisis is the increasing separation that humans experience from nature. This may be a result of a literal separation from the more-than-human world experienced as part of the rapid urbanisation project which has taken place globally in recent decades, the psychological impact on individuals of the destructive tendencies of our industrial growth society2, or may be rooted in a kind of ontogenic (or developmental) crippling which can be charted back as far back as the invention of agriculture3.
Urban civilisation creates the illusion of a shortcut to individual maturity
by attempting to omit the eight to ten years of immersion in non-human nature… the real bitterness of modern social relations has its roots in the vacuum where a beautiful and awesome otherness should’ve been encountered. Westerners may now be the possessors of the world’s flimsiest identity structure. We are childish adults who keep our society going only at the private cost of massive therapy, escapism, intoxicants, fits of destructive rage, enormous grief, subordination to hierarchies… and a readiness to strike back at the natural world we dimly perceive of having failed us.
Paul Shepard, Nature and Madness
Our cultural heritage of anthropocentrism prevents us from seeing what is literally staring us in the face, the reality that our sense of self is not only found in relationship with other humans but also in relationship with the world, which is much more than just the human world. Western cultural values place us within a hierarchy above all other living things, but this way of seeing the world tends not acknowledge that all living things are interconnected. This is not a radical idea. We are interconnected in as much as we all share the same planet, a view which is illustrated by the phenomenon of The Overview Effect4, the cognitive shift in perspective experienced by astronauts gazing down at the earth from orbit.
Jean-Paul Sartre described a process (which he called “The Look”) whereby we tend to fail to appreciate the subjective reality of other people and consequently they become like objects in our field of experience5. As we objectify other people we also objectify the more-than-human world. Trees become objects and so do the birds which nest in them. If we are unable to appreciate the subjective reality of the tree or the birds then to some extent we remain separate from them, disconnected in the same way that we can be disconnected from other people. Alienated from other people and from the more-than-human world everything can become an object to be used or consumed. This is the domain of what Kanner and Gomes call “the all-consuming self”6. The level at which this all-consuming self narcissistically experiences the world barely scratches the surface of the depth of relationship that is possible.
- World Health Organisation (2011). Global burden of mental disorders and the need for a comprehensive, coordinated response from health and social sectors at the country level. Online: http://apps.who.int/gb/ebwha/pdf_files/EB130/B130_9-
- Macy, J. & Brown, M. (2010). Coming Back to Life: Practices to Reconnect Our Lives, Our World. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society.
- Shepard, P. (1995). “Nature and madness” in Roszak, T., Gomes, E. & Kanner, A. (eds) (1995) Ecopsychology: Restoring the earth, healing the mind. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books. pp.21-40.
- White, F. (1998). The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution. Reston, Virginia: American Institute of Aeronautics & Astronautics.
- Sartre, J-P. (1989) Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology, trans. Barnes, H.E. London: Routledge. p.252.
- Kanner, A. & Gomes, E. (1995). “The All Consuming Self” in Roszak, T., Gomes, E. & Kanner, A. (eds) (1995) Ecopsychology: Restoring the earth, healing the mind. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books. pp.77-91.