A Valentine Love Letter to Our (Unconscious) Environment

February 18, 2010

It‘s not often that a writer gets such unexpected, and-I‘m quite sure-unintended credibility for an article. Whether by serendipity, synchronicity, or the collective unconscious, that seemed to occur with my January 6 Psychiatric Times blog on “Why Psychiatrists Should Go Green.”

It‘s not often that a writer gets such unexpected, and-I‘m quite sure-unintended credibility for an article. Whether by serendipity, synchronicity, or the collective unconscious, that seemed to occur with my January 6 Psychiatric Times blog on “Why Psychiatrists Should Go Green.”  Shortly thereafter, on January 31, The New York Times Magazine published a related article, “Is There An Ecological Unconscious?"

In my Psychiatric Times blog, I mentioned one of the possible unique psychological repercussions of climate change, coined solastalgia. This refers to a dangerous variation of grief, a slow and insidious response to the loss of one’s comfortable environment, a kind of homesickness while still at home. This was first suggested by the philosopher, Glenn Albrecht, who noted such changes in Australia, a country that may be the canary in the coalmine of climate change.

In the Times article by Daniel B. Smith, Albrecht expands on this concept. Albrecht now thinks that solastalgia is a global problem, “felt to a greater or lesser degree by people in different locations but felt increasingly, given the ongoing degradation of the environment.” Smith goes on to summarize how some American psychologists are confirming this hypothesis in the growing discipline of ecopsychology. They believe that deep and unconscious ecological instincts are threatened, which can result in grief, depression, and anxiety. When recognized, these reactions can be a secondary or primary focus of ecotherapy.

Recently, Albrecht also came up with a concept that seems to be the "positive opposite" of solastalgia. Soliphilia is “the love and responsibility for a place.” Some ecopsychologists feel soliphilia needs to be unconsciously enhanced, that we need to “rewild the psyche.”

Not only did these ideas seem appropriate to me, but in many ways I didn’t think that the exploration of an ecological unconscious went far enough. Hence, I wrote a Letter to the Editor, which was published on February 14 (go to www.nytimes.com, click on Magazine section, then on letter “Is There an Ecological Unconscious?”). Since it was published on Valentine‘s Day, I‘ve come to think that it might be thought of as my Valentine to our (unconscious) environment.

One simple but powerful question that relates back to Albrecht’s new terminology is what to call the problem. The goal would be to make the unconscious have the right amount of anxiety about the environment, not too little or too much. Perhaps global boiling and climate instability, I suggested, would achieve that better than global warming and climate change.

But if my letter to the Times could have been even longer, there would be much more to add, especially some of the possible historical roots of our ecological unconscious. Though later discarded because it did not seem to have clinical relevance, Freud’s “death instinct,” described in his book, Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920),  the pleasure principle could drive us toward death and malignant destructiveness. In so doing, the death instinct can make us behave in ways that seem counterintuitive. If we apply this to our environment, we can have the counterintuitive paradox of destroying the very environment that sustains us. Freud suggested rechanneling such impulses into improved child rearing; for the environment, recent research suggests children should spend more time in nature away from the computer screen.

Around the same time, Jung took Freud’s ideas to another unconscious level. Besides the personal unconscious, Jung theorized a collective unconscious, which can be passed from generation to generation and from culture to culture, often in the more conscious guise of religion and myth.

If we look at the 2 creation stories in the Old Testament, we may wonder if there is an unconscious conflict of biblical proportions! The first story suggests that mankind should use the environment for its own needs, while in the second, mankind is created out of the earth’s dust and expected to steward the environment. The second creation story ends with Adam and Eve being expelled from the Garden of Eden for eating from the prohibited Tree of Knowledge.

Could these apparently conflicted and complex stories be reflected in our collective unconscious about the environment, and help explain our unending environmental debates and inaction?

Later, Eric Fromm updated the concept of a death instinct in The Heart of Man: Its Genius for Good & Evil. He was concerned about a “syndrome of decay” from the influence of industrialization, so that necrophilia would overcome biophilia. To stop this, Fromm suggests at the end of his book, “Indeed, we must become aware in order to choose the good . . .”