Heather Smith's Reviews > Voice of the Earth: An Exploration of Ecopsychology

Voice of the Earth by Theodore Roszak
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's review
Jan 19, 2013

it was amazing

The founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, did not believe that psychoanalysis would bring men to happiness. Far from it. In his view, his theory of psychoanalysis was the "third outrage" in humankind's long, arduous march from superstition to civilization. The first was Copernicus' discovery that our Earth is not the center of the universe; the second, the Darwinian revolution in biology which robbed man of his sense of being specially created by God, relegating him to having descended from animals, implying an ineradicably animal nature in him; and the third, Freud's own theory of the unconscious, wherein the "ego" of each person is presumably not even the master of his own house.

When Freud was writing at the turn of the century, a pessimistic, brooding atmosphere pervaded the intelligentsia. Darwinism and entropy were the dominant strains of cosmological theory. Freud was a doctrinaire materialist. He saw man as a body with a reservoir of instincts, and psychoanalysis was essentially an inquiry into "the demands made upon the mind in consequence of its connection with the body." Ultimately, however, Freud's search for the physical foundation for the psyche reached a dead end. Roszak writes:

[Freud's] vision of a lifeless, uncaring universe was so grim that it proved to have no future in psychiatry. It yielded an image of the human psyche trapped in the desolation of an infinity where it finds no consolation, no remorse, no response to its need for warmth, love and acceptance. (58)

Roszak, a Professor of History at the University of California at Berkeley, argues that Freud's despairing vision of life continues to haunt the major schools of psychiatric thought. As such, modern psychiatry "has...cut itself off from nature at large and [ministers] to the psyche within a purely personal or social frame of reference . . ." The consequence is that psychiatry and psychotherapy occur within an unacknowledged, negative context in which the universe is considered alien and hostile to human consciousness.

According to Roszak, the underlying assumptions of the psychoanalytic worldview are themselves a major source of neurotic suffering, severely limiting any curative help available through psychoanalysis, or, for that matter, psychotherapy. Existentialists did not get beyond Freud's essentially negative vision of nature, but merely added layers of their own analysis to it. The natural world is described by Existentialists as one to which the individual is "thrown"; existentialists tend to see the environment (Umwelt) as little more than the sum of thwarting physical necessities. Roszak writes:

What we have here is a denatured environment precisely as we might expect urban therapists and their clientele to know it: a blank, characterless, somewhat bothersome background to "real life," which is social and personal (65).

In virtually every school of contemporary psychiatry or psychology, from Freudian to the post-Freudian Object Relations school to Existentialism and Humanistic Psychology, we find the concept of the environment either reduced to mean the social environment, or depicted as alien to human beings, a place where man is uprooted and abandoned. Roszak quotes Mary Midgley:

The impression of desertion or abandonment which Existentialists have is due, I am sure, not to the removal of God, but to this contemptuous dismissal of the biosphere--plants, animals, and children. Life shrinks to a few urban rooms; no wonder it becomes absurd (66).

In cogent, persuasive language, Roszak calls for a new psychology--"ecopsychology"--which sees human beings as inseparable from the natural environment, part of a continuum which includes plants and insects and animals. From the viewpoint of nonhuman nature, he writes, sane behavior (as described by psychologists and psychiatrists) might seem madness. "But as the prevailing Reality Principle would have it, nothing could be greater madness than to believe that beast and plant, mountain and river have a `point of view.'"

The book is divided into three sections: Part One, Psychology; Part Two, Cosmology; and Part Three, Ecology. Part One explores the psychological aspects of a world divided into overdeveloped, overpolluting industrial nations and "developing" nations anxious to join the industrial club. Roszak asserts that the world's environment cannot handle many more industrialized nations living at the level of U.S. consumption. The solution to Third World poverty, then, is not adoption of the wantonly wasteful consumerism of the U.S., since such a situation would lead to worldwide environmental catastrophe.

Roszak claims that one reason the environmental movement is ineffective is that it is splintered into so many different groups, each fighting one urgent issue, that it exhausts the public keeping up with the latest crisis. He also says that the corporate elites are busily typecasting all environmentalists as misanthropic subversives bent on destroying our way of life--a replay of the 50s "Red Scare" only now the "Green Scare."

In part two, Roszak essays the new physics, making a compelling case for purpose and design in the universe, and challenging the Darwinist orthodoxy, prevalent among modern scientists, that all life on earth evolved to its present state by purely random causes. Randomness, according to Roszak, has become a dogma among many scientists; and theories which accept teleological arguments are taboo.

The acceptance among most scientists of the validity of the Big Bang theory, including the notion that the universe is 4.5 billion years old, has caused the old notion of everything evolving randomly to be highly questionable. Given an infinity of time, it is not hard to see how any number of complex systems could come into being randomly; given 4.5 billion years, however, there is a point at which the probability that such complex systems as the spiral nebulae and life on earth unfolding by chance becomes virtually zero.

Roszak discusses developments in the Gaia hypothesis, the notion that the earth is a single, self-regulating organism; the parallels between the Deep Ecology movement and feminist spirituality; systems theory and the new deism, and much more.

In the final section Roszak argues convincingly that a convergence of the newly emerging cosmology of Deep Ecology, Systems Theory and the Gaia Hypothesis--what he calls the New Deism--may, aided by enough artists and visionary philosophers, mature into an ecologically grounded form of animism.

Within this new context, sanity and madness take on new meanings. The urban-industrial "reality principle" represses much that is essential to our well being: wild places, spontanaeity, the organic, the feminine. How, Roszak finally asks, does the planet respond to the "reckless monkey cunning" of its troublesome human children? He poses a question: "what if the `narcissism' we see emerging in the high industrial societies has a creative role to play in taming our Promethian delusions?"

This book is deep and complex. It is difficult if not impossible to adequately review it succinctly. But despite its philosophic complexity, it can be grasped by the lay reader. For all who are concerned about the fate of the earth in the early twenty-first century, it is must reading.
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