By Will Falk
So many indigenous people have told me that the levels of sustainability their traditional cultures achieved prior to the arrival of colonizers were based on lessons learned from non-humans. Implicit in these lessons is the truth that humans depend on non-humans. This dependence is not limited to the air we breathe, the water we drink, or the food we eat. This dependence sinks into our very souls.
For many indigenous people I have listened to, the basic reality of human dependence demands that humans regard non-humans, regard life, regard the universe with deep humility.
If we simply learn to listen, we will hear non-humans demonstrating humility everywhere. Trees know they are nothing without soil, so they build forests as monuments to soil health – collecting, storing, and restoring nutrients to their life-giver. Salmon know they are nothing without forests to hold river banks together, so they swim deep into the cold oceans to feed, bring their bodies back upriver to die, and, in death, feed the forests. Phytoplankton know they are nothing without a climate that allows warm and cold ocean waters to mix, producing currents that bring them their food. So, phytoplankton feed the salmon that feed the forests that store carbon that has the potential to destroy the climate that feeds the phytoplankton.
Approach non-humans with humility, and you may find them willing to teach you.
It was the stars who put me in my place. I know this, locating myself in my memories of cold nights in the open air and my sleeping bag, watching the clear sky from the shoulders of sacred Mauna Kea in Hawai’i. I rest north to south. The Southern Cross sits low on the horizon, just above the outline of my toes warmly wrapped in down. I arch my back and look high above me where Polaris holds the sky steady. To my right, the sun pulled the darkness over like blankets on a bed and fell asleep. In the space between Venus and Orion’s Belt, there are more shooting stars than I have wishes. To my left, a faint anxiety grows. When the sun wakes, its siblings – the stars – will disappear.
“I” diminish in these moments. My mind quiets and there are only the gifts the stars give.
Stars are so fundamental to our existence they give us the ability to contemplate the process that allows us to perceive them. Perhaps, this is why stars are so beautiful. When we view them, we see the beginning of everything.
Stars are the oldest nuclear reactors. The gases they burn produce energy at such great magnitudes they are visible on Earth from hundreds of thousands of lightyears away. They burn like this for time unfathomable until they die in great explosions. When stars explode, the violence alters hydrogen and helium to shower the universe with materials like carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, iron, and sulfur. These materials are the basis of life.
Stars give me the ability to experience. I can experience because I have a body. The elemental showers dying stars produce have organized- first as neutrons and protons, then as atoms, and finally as air, water, soil, stone, and flesh – to form my body. But, stars don’t form only human bodies, they form bones, fur, and fins; skin, scales, and exoskeletons; mountains, oceans, and the sky.
Stars give the universe the first wisdom: For there to be life, there must be death. After a life spent in service as a sun, warming a community of planets, a star dies. It is a violent death – a death that destroys a solar system. But, it is a necessary death. A death that transforms the old into a possibility for the new.
My last essay in this ecopsychology series “The Destruction of Experience: How Ecopsychology Has Failed” generated some curious responses from, specifically, ecopsychologists and ecotherapists. Many of them were provoked to defensiveness, denial, or both by my words. In fact, one commentator Thomas J. Doherty, a psychotherapist, was moved to write an essay for the San Diego Free Press where he characterized my report of the failure of ecopsychology as “greatly exaggerated.”
The responses suggest that some of my readers felt like I was attacking their life’s work. Of course, I was. Ecopsychologists, however, need not feel alone in their failure. With the destruction of the planet intensifying at an ever-faster pace, we are all failing.
As I’ve sought to understand the responses I received, I’ve realized that many students of ecopsychology employ a different definition of “success” than I do. Quite simply, their definition is infected with human supremacism.
One way to understand the difference is to ask: Would extinct species characterize reports of the failure of ecopsychology as “greatly exaggerated?” Would Pinta Island Tortoises, Pyrenean Ibexes, Falklands Wolves, Rocky Mountain Lotuses, Great Auks, Passenger Pigeons or any of the 200 species that were pushed to extinction yesterday, the 200 species that were pushed to extinction today, or the 200 species that will be pushed to extinction tomorrow characterize reports of the failure of ecopsychology as “greatly exaggerated”?
What is human supremacism?
In his 2016 book The Myth of Human Supremacy, Derrick Jensen coined the term “human supremacism” and gave human animals the analysis we so badly need to understand the murder of our non-human kin.
Human supremacism is a system of power in which humans dominate non-humans to derive material benefit. Agriculture is a classic result of human supremacism Agriculture requires clearing the land of every living being in order to plant and harvest a single crop which is then used to feed humans.
Human supremacism makes the fossil fuel industry possible. To produce electricity, to fuel cars, planes, and ships, to produce fertilizers for their crops, humans poison water, rip the tops off mountains, carve scars into landscapes, and fundamentally alter the climate. Even so-called “green energy” is produced by humans dominating non-humans as fragile desert ecosystems are destroyed for wind farms, rivers are dammed for hydroelectricity, and the land is gutted for metals and minerals like copper and aluminum to be used in solar panels.
The power humans have gained over non-humans is rooted in human supremacists’ maintenance of a monopoly of the means of violence over non-humans and their human allies who dare to challenge human supremacism.
The history of wolf-hunting in civilized nations, as just one example, demonstrates this monopoly. Despite centuries of demonization, wolves pose little direct threat to humans. However, when agriculture encroaches on the homes of wolves’ traditional prey causing these species’ populations to collapse, wolves will eat domesticated animals. Human supremacists throughout history have responded with wolf extermination campaigns. The extinction of so many wolf species while many other wolf species tinker on the edge of extinction is testament to the wrath of human supremacism.
Deep ecologist, Neil Evernden, pointed out that scientists in vivisection labs cut the vocal cords of the animals they experiment on. If humans heard the screams of their non-human kin, they would not murder them. Human supremacism takes this practice to the psychological level. You can physically cut the vocal cords of individual non-humans you plan to torture. Or, you can achieve a total silencing of the non-human world if you convince whole human societies that non-humans are incapable of communicating, incapable of screaming, incapable, even, of feeling pain.
Human supremacism cuts the vocal cords of the non-human world, and achieves this silencing, by developing cultural myths teaching that non-humans are “resources” to be used by humans. Living forests are no longer living forests; they are so many square feet of board lumber. Wild rivers are no longer wild rivers; they are so many cubic meters of water. Old-growth prairies are no longer old-growth prairies, they are so many acres of tillable farmland.
Another myth human supremacism propagates is the notion that humans are superior to everyone else. Because humans are superior, human domination of non-humans is completely justified and natural. Jensen shows how strongly humans cling to this sense of superiority. He writes, “Human supremacists – at this point, almost everyone in this culture – have shown time and again that the maintenance of their belief in their own superiority, and the entitlement that springs from this belief, are more important to them than the well-being or existences of everyone else.”
Human supremacists cannot tolerate anyone who reminds them of the insanity of human supremacy. They systematically annihilate traditional cultures and indigenous peoples with sustainable cultures based on human humility. Despite their best efforts to silence the non-human world, on a fundamental level the task is impossible and human supremacists come to hate non-humans for refusing to die quietly. And no one dies quietly. Human supremacists hate the reminders, so they must destroy the reminders, and in the destruction they are reminded again. If we do not stop human supremacists, their vicious cycle will only end when there is total silence.
The responses I received for daring to suggest that ecopsychology has failed reveal that the maintenance of human supremacism is more important to many ecopsychologists than ensuring the survival of life on earth.
Let me be clear: There are positive trends within ecopsychology. At its best, ecopsychology uncovers the connection of human souls to the soul of the world, illustrates human dependence on the non-human, and demands effective action to protect the soul of the world and the non-humans we depend on. At its worst, ecopsychology privileges human psychological health at the expense of non-humans, seeks to use the natural world to promote false feelings of peace, becomes an anesthetic in the face of planetary collapse, and is infected with insidious human supremacy.
Ecopsychology’s human supremacist infection is as understandable as it is unforgivable. All of us born into the dominant culture have been indoctrinated to the central tenets of human supremacism. Radical psychologist R.D. Laing, who spent a brilliant career trying to understand how we arrived at a moment where humans were empowered to destroy the planet through forces like thermonuclear war, explained how deeply this indoctrination runs. He wrote, “Long before a thermonuclear war can come about, we have had to lay waste our own sanity. We begin with the children. It is imperative to catch them in time. Without the most thorough and rapid brainwashing their dirty minds would see through our dirty tricks. Children are not yet fools, but we shall turn them into imbeciles like ourselves with high I.Q.s if possible.”
Despite these high I.Q.s that even good-hearted ecopsychologists are equipped with, human supremacism is so entrenched that it is almost invisible. On his way to ripping the mask off human supremacism, Jensen wrote in his study of hatred The Culture of Make Believe that “hatred felt long and deeply enough no longer feels like hatred, but more like tradition, economics, religion…” And, when ecopsychologists place the primacy of human mental, emotional, spiritual, and even, physical health over the continued existence of forests, mountains, rivers, non-human species, and the planet’s capacity to support life, we must extend Jensen’s idea to conclude: Hatred felt long and deeply enough no longer feels like hatred, it feels like ecopsychology.
Too many ecopsychologists, ecotherapists, and so-called environmentalists spend the vast majority of their time devising means to promote human mental health and feelings of peace, hope and acceptance through phenomena like what Doherty calls in his essay “nature contacts.”
Reducing non-humans to “nature contacts” objectifies them. Human supremacist ecopsychologists view living forests as therapy tools. They view rivers as anti-depressants. When humans view forests and rivers as objects to use to gain mental health, they act like men who view women as objects to use for sexual gratification, and white people who view people of color as objects to use for economic benefit.
But, living forests and wild rivers live for themselves.The world is not filled with “nature contacts.” It is filled with aspen groves, great-horned owls, elk, black bears, pinyon-juniper forests, rainbow trout, this smooth blue pebble, that red rock canyon, a particular wisp of fog moving through sage brush. In short, the world is filled with living beings who exist for their own purposes that you and I may never understand.
Ecopsychologists demonstrate where their concern lies through their actions, or what they actually do in their day-to-day lives. When students of ecopsychology are more concerned with how the natural world improves human mental health than they are with the murder of the natural world, they are acting as human supremacists. When their day-to-day lives are spent leading “wilderness immersion trips” for the sake of healing human minds while that very wilderness is threatened with human-induced collapse, they are acting as human supremacists. When their day-to-day lives are spent in the clinic office helping clients “cope” and “adjust to” the insanity of civilized culture while that culture threatens the existence of life on earth, they are acting as human supremacists.
I am writing this series because I know there are students of ecopsychology who want to wield ecopsychology’s insights to make the environmental movement more effective, as I do. But to do this, we must be willing to take an honest assessment of ecopsychology that goes beyond human health, to the health of the natural world.
Exploring the different definitions of ecopsychological success helps us make this assessment. It is only possible to consider ecopsychology a success if you subscribe to a liberal, human supremacist worldview.
The human supremacist definition of success begins with what appears, at first glance, to be a series of obvious conclusions. First, human actions are causing planetary collapse. and humans actions flow from human psyches. So, it follows that changing human psyches is the path to stopping planetary collapse. For human supremacist ecopsychologists, planetary collapse is a tragedy, but it is a tragedy for the trauma it causes humans.
While I have no problem with the conclusion that human psyches need to change, I do have a problem with the means liberal ecopsychologists think will achieve this change. Most people on the Left, attach positive connotations to “being liberal” and may be surprised by my criticism of the liberal worldview. Nevertheless, one reason planetary collapse is intensifying is the failure of the Left to forsake liberalism for a radical analysis.
The brilliant author Lierre Keith has devised an accurate articulation of the liberal worldview. She explains that, for liberals, the basic social unit is the individual. For liberals, individuals can be understood separate from the social environment constructing them. Liberals believe that attitudes are the sources and solutions of oppression, that pure human thought is the prime mover of social life, and, therefore, education and rational argument are the best engines for social change.
Liberal, human supremacist ecopsychology, because it embraces the notion that the basic social unit is the individual, focuses on healing human psyches one individual at a time. Because liberal ecopsychologists obsess over human thought as the primary culprit in psychopathology, they insist that individual education and rational argument are the best ways to heal widespread, cultural psychopathology. The prevalence of ecotherapy, whether its the healing of individuals in the clinic office, on wilderness immersion trips, or simple talk-therapy sessions conducted outside, is the result of a liberal belief that individual education will save the world.
The liberal, human supremacist worldview allows for ecopsychological success to be achieved on a personal and individual level. For liberal ecopsychologists every person, who alleviates depression with walks in a forest, or engages in grief work to come to acceptance of mass extinction, or finds a personal sense of joy amidst the destruction, is a success.
My definition of success, on the other hand, is biocentric and radical. A biocentric definition of ecopsychological success recognizes that non-humans have souls, too, that human souls and non-human souls are expressions of Life’s soul. And, with these souls, comes a right to exist on their own terms. Humans are responsible for planetary collapse and changing human psyches is necessary to stop the collapse. But, the biocentric definition of success recognizes that the human psyche is fundamentally dependent on relationships with non-humans. So, the development of healthy human psyches requires, before anything else, a healthy biosphere.
My definition is also radical. Though most people misunderstand “radical” to mean “extreme,” radical simply means “getting to the roots.” For radicals, “getting to the roots” means understanding, and then dismantling, oppressive power structures on a global level. As part of this, radicals see groups and classes as the basic social unit. An individual’s group or class socially constructs the psyche. Most importantly, radicals understand that material power – the physical ability to coerce – is the prime mover of society. Social change, then, requires organized resistance geared at wielding power.
While I am very happy for individuals with access to existent natural communities who alleviate their mental illnesses through ecotherapy, these individual victories will be more and more difficult to come by so long as more and more natural communities are destroyed. As natural communities are destroyed, rates of human psychopathology will accelerate. Humans will become evermore insane while they cause ecological collapse and, causing ecological collapse, they ensure the impossibility of the physical survival of life.
Liberalism – with its individualism – and human supremacism – with the narcissism it facilitates in the human species – encourages ecopsychologists to ask “What can I do?” This question is no longer adequate. A biocentric, radical analysis pushes us beyond asking “What can I do?” to ask: “What needs to be done?”
More than just human individuals need to be saved. Human cultures where widespread psychopathology is impossible need to be created. To achieve these cultures requires dismantling the power structure causing ecological collapse, the power structure crushing sustainable cultures, and the power structure thwarting efforts to recreate sustainable cultures. Civilization – defined as a culture resulting from and producing humans living in populations so dense they require the routine importation of food and other necessities of life – is this power structure.
Civilization must be dismantled. This will not be achieved in the mind. Civilization is not an emotional state. It is not a misunderstanding. It will not be cured with rational argument.
Civilization is maintained by force. Men with guns and bombs ensure that business is conducted as usual. These guns and bombs give human supremacists power. They give human supremacists the ability to coerce everyone else. Human supremacists gain their guns and bombs, the physical force they require to protect civilization, through destruction of natural communities. Guns and bombs require mines, pipelines, and factories and the pollution mines, pipelines, and factories produce. To deprive human supremacists of their power requires depriving human supremacists of their physical ability to exploit natural communities. It requires dismantling mines, pipelines, and factories.
The question is, what are we waiting for?
In the end, we are waiting for death. This death can be psychological. We can let the misguided hope in ineffective tactics die. We can let the mistaken belief that human well-being on a collapsing planet is possible die. We can let the insane insistence that we are more valuable than non-humans die.
Or, all of us will die.
I return to the stars. The stars illuminate our radical dependence on the non-human world for our existence. The stars teach that death brings new life. Death can be painful. I’m sure the death of a star, and the incineration of a solar system, is incredibly painful. But, after the pain, after the death of the old, a new life begins. Human supremacism must die, so a new human humility can begin.