Pollution of the Psyche, or Psychological Rubble?

By Gold, Philip | Insight on the News, April 11, 1994 | Go to article overview

Pollution of the Psyche, or Psychological Rubble?


Gold, Philip, Insight on the News


Whatever happened to nuclear psychology?

A decade ago, a small legion of psychologists, psychiatrists and assorted other therapists began lecturing America on the emotional costs of living in the nuclear age. Fear of the bomb, they announced, was responsible for everything from rising suicide and divorce rates to declining scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test.

Their gospel was proclaimed via news release, television talk show, academic conference, congressional hearing and church pulpit. Nuclear therapists offered programs and seminars to help people get in touch with their hidden fears. Then, as both their supporting data and the Soviet Union melted down, nuclear psychology vanished.

But now.... they're baack! This time, it's called ecopsychology: Think globally. Act locally. But first, learn to grieve for the planet.

At first glance, it might seem that the old bunch merely crossed out "nukes" and wrote in "ecology" on their grant applications to the P.C. Weltschmerz Foundation. Still, it would be wrong to dismiss ecopsychology as more of the same, for this time, at least some of the practitioners also are taking a hard look at their work. Their message is that ecopsychology - the creation and nurturing of a new sense of what it means to be a human being on this planet - can help heal the Earth.

But first, psychology needs to rethink its own basic premises. Or, as Terrance O'Connor, a Silver Spring, Md., therapist whose work draws on ecological themes, puts it, "Before we can save the world, there needs to be a way of looking at yourself that's not self-obsessed."

It won't be easy. Ecopsychology well could go the way of its predecessor with its 15 minutes of sound and fury. But that would be unfortunate, for ecopsychology is at least as much about psychology's shortcomings as about ecological crisis.

Ecopsychology is new - still barely a ripple in the databases. Not even the name is firm. Some call it environmental psychology; others consider it a subset of ecotheology, ecofeminism or deep ecology (a theory holding that fixing the environment is far more than a technical problem). There also is a certain muted tension within the field. According to Yaakov Garb, a South African emigre with a doctorate in environmental education from the University of California, Berkeley, not a few practitioners tend to regard one anothers' products with a certain wariness.

Still, there is no disagreement on ecopsychology's neonatal status. Even proper terminology - a technical vocabulary, that sine qua non of professional seriousness - is scarce. But once ecopsychology finds its voice, it well could use it to repudiate the types of psychology and psychotherapy that have dominated Western civilization for the past century. In fact, this repudiation would involve nothing less than revision of some basic Western ideas about human nature.

According to William Keepin, program director of the Positive Futures Project in New Mexico, "Psychology is complicit in the tyranny of the scientific worldview." Keepin, who earned a doctorate in mathematical physics before retooling for this new career, says that "psychology suffers from physics envy," and that "you [still] see it in newfangled New Age trying to model [its psychology ] after quantum physics." Human experience, he believes, can't be compressed into some formula modeled on what into in the natural sciences. Nor should psychology, he argues, keep mistaking the transient for the eternal.

"Psychology at its worst," he writes, "takes up fashionable social and cultural norms, organizes them into a 'theory' for which there are inevitably plenty of supporting 'data' all around and presents this as indisputable scientific fact about human nature."

That is a sin for which many considered nuclear psychology especially guilty. But the sin, according to Keepin, goes far deeper. For the past 100 years, nearly all the major psychologies (including the early Jungian) have started from the premise that the individual is fundamentally alone - separate from all others and from an abstraction called "nature.

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