As much as anybody, I want to see the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico be the final wake up call needed to move our society away from oil and other fossil fuels. One likely outcome of the tragedy will be an upwelling of activism toward that end. And yet, if the past 40 years of environmentalism are any indication, the transition will continue to be too little too late, and the collapse of civilization as we know it will continue unabated. Why? Because there is a vitally important piece of the equation that continues to go missing in the culture of environmentalism and in society in general. That piece can be summed up in a single word: psyche (as in psychological). It's a word you don't hear much. And yet, in so many ways, it's the most important word in the world.
The word psyche comes from the Greek and means "soul" or "mind" or the "breath of life." Our addiction to oil is a psychological phenomenon. The roots of oil addiction lead directly to our thinking, to our deepest beliefs about who we are, what the world is, and how we are to be in the world. For the vast majority of us North Americans, our worldviews and core beliefs include entitlement, superiority, and a sense of separation from each other and nature. Much of what informs these beliefs is unconscious. Core beliefs are "core" precisely because they were formed early in our lives, well before the rational aspects of the brain came online. They create our most basic personality traits and habits. Core beliefs can be worked with but it takes awareness, time, and energy.
It's our thinking that has created the different crises we face today environmental, economic, and social. They didn't just happen. They are not natural phenomena. It's our thinking that creates addiction to luxurious levels of personal comfort, to superiority complexes, and to the most dangerous belief of them all: that we are separate from each other and from nature. The study of the human-nature split is the territory of ecopsychology. For over thirty years I've been interested in the question of why we are destroying our own life support system and so much of what is beautiful in the world. Ecopsychologists argue that the answer lies in the human-nature split. We are not separate from nature but we think and act as if we are. Such a split leaves us homeless in a very fundamental way. Out of that homelessness springs insecurity and insatiable appetites that may soothe but never alleviate the deep-seated loneliness, emptiness, and fear we experience. The human-nature split is the primary wound, the "original trauma," to use Chellis Glendinning's phrase, that must be healed if we are to find our way to sustainable lives and societies.
To be sure, separating, or to use the psychological term, individuating, is thought to be an important and natural part of growing up for human beings. It's part of the work of childhood and adolescence. But problems arise when development gets stuck there. Much of the work of adulthood lies in expanding one's circle of identity by experiencing and understanding the interrelationships between and interdependence of things. Individuality not only remains, it's strengthened by the process of embracing diversity and the interconnected nature of reality. We appreciate ourselves and our unique place in the scheme of things in a more profound way, and at the same time appreciate and respect all other beings more deeply as well. The move toward healing the human-nature split expands the sense of self in the direction of an eco- or ecological self, a self that includes nature in its circle of identity.