Tikkun Magazine, May/June 2010

How Much Change Will the Earth Require of Us?

by Allen D. Kanner

When Paul Wapner raises the issue of mastery vs. humility as a central environmental dilemma, he is asking how extensive a change would be necessary for humanity to adopt a humble stance toward nature. Many believe that such a shift would require a transformation of all spheres of society, from the political and scientific to the spiritual, psychological, and cultural. They wonder if our species, as a result of the powerful technologies now at its disposal and the global scale of its activities, has come to a day of reckoning with its dark side—its violence, oppression, and greed. In order to achieve long-term sustainability, do we now have to grapple with these shadowy proclivities as never before, or failing to do so, risk extinction?

This is apocalyptic stuff. It might be a vast overreaction, one in which a branch of the environmental movement is projecting its utopian desires onto the current ecological challenges. But the truth is, we are in uncharted territory, and people who believe they know what is going to happen are refusing to acknowledge the gaping uncertainty of our planetary future. That said, there are a number of compelling reasons to seriously consider the need for a global transformation of consciousness. Here I will touch on three.

First, the anti-globalization and environmental justice movements have documented in great detail how, almost without fail, ecological degradation is complexly intertwined with the abuse of one group of people by another. This is most dramatically illustrated by the Global North's exploitation of the Global South's natural resources. I agree with Ken Conca that since we are in the grip of a worldwide crisis that requires worldwide cooperation, an unprecedented level of social justice may very well be necessary for humanity to restore the ecological balance of the planet.

Second, a shift in individual and personal identity may need to occur that builds on our deep past. For much of our species' existence, societies and individuals formed intimate bonds with their local habitats—with that mountain, river, or forest—that were so strong that the land was experienced as part of the self. Embedded in such an identity is a sense of responsibility for the local environment that is as intense as a person's loyalty to her or his family.

In sharp contrast, in modern society neither cultural nor personal identity incorporates the natural world, except perhaps as property. Instead, the cultural stance toward nature is one of superiority, emotional distance, and a sense of entitlement that assumes human domination of the planet as a birthright.

In an essay I wrote in 1998 for The Humanistic Psychologist, I identified the narcissistic themes that underlie this attitude, calling them "Mount Rushmore Syndrome":

So striking is the Memorial that the presidential profiles overwhelm Mount Rushmore itself. The onlooker is swept up in human grandeur—dazzling technological prowess, artistic magnificence, the imagination and daring of the project itself, and a stunning attention to detail down to the gleam in each president's eye produced by strategically placed granite shafts.

In much the same way, the United States has imposed its human face onto the nation's countryside, overriding nature's presence with monumental cities, insatiable suburbs, extravagant pollution and a national ego to match. The result is an overdeveloped landscape that, like Narcissus absorbed by his reflection in a pool of water, mirrors back to Americans only themselves.

Narcissistic individuals are compelled to control and subjugate those around them, and a narcissistic society is ill equipped to form an intimate relationship with its habitat based on respect and cooperation. Yet just such a humble bond may be essential to maintaining a viable relationship with the planet. 

The relentless pursuit of mastery is responsible for the remarkable fact that most of modern life is environmentally destructive. Here's why: We design our technologies to force nature to obey our will, rather than to work in harmony with the environment. These mastery-driven inventions are then introduced into exceedingly complex and subtle ecosystems about which we have little knowledge. Inevitably, the systems rebound—global climate change being an obvious example—in ways that are far beyond our ability to control. Our culturally arrogant response is to intervene with even more disruptive technology, as seen in proposals to fertilize the ocean's phytoplankton with iron to absorb carbon dioxide or launch orbital sunshades to block sunlight. Such interventions will likely accelerate the crisis. Thus, for sheer pragmatic reasons, humanity's technological genius needs to be guided by a humble and cooperative approach to the natural world.

Third is the question of motivation and, more specifically, what might ensue if we act primarily out of fear of climate change, resource depletion, and the like. Global environmental laws, treaties, and institutions built on chronic anxiety regarding environmental catastrophe will ultimately unleash a backlash that will include resentment, cheating, and even rebellion, as well as a hatred of nature. Love is a far more sustainable source of motivation than fear (although both may be necessary at this juncture). The more ecological actions emerge from feelings of awe, joy, and compassion for the natural world, the more durable our commitment to the land will be. Our institutional structures and spiritual practices, therefore, may need to be fundamentally overhauled so as to foster a rich and vibrant connection to nature that deepens over the course of a lifetime, as well as from one generation to the next.

Will the earth require a qualitative reduction in human aggression, oppression, and greed? We won't know for some time. The wisest course at present is to keep this question constantly before us, to befriend it, and to turn to it as a warning, a guide, and a beacon.

Allen D. Kanner, Ph.D., is a cofounder of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (, co-editor of Psychology and Consumer Culture and Ecopsychology, and a Berkeley, California, child, family, and adult psychologist.

Kanner, Allen D. 2010. How Much Change Will the Earth Require of Us?. Tikkun 25(3): 39

tags: Eco-Spirituality, Environment  
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