The Earth has shaped us physically, psychologically, and spiritually over thousands of years. Hidden beneath all the layers of modern living, neatly tucked away and almost invisible in an ancient layer of the psyche, is a fundamental aspect of our personal and collective human existence. Behind the smartphones and tablets, the computers, cars, pasta machines, and all the technical gadgets, underneath all of our social, political, and economic issues, beyond even our parents, children, and loved ones is an aspect of our lives that is so fundamental that without it, we would not exist. I am speaking of our relationship to the Earth, much of which is unconscious. While there are many psychological imbalances that pose challenges to our health and wellness in the modern world, according to Theodore Roszak (1992/2001), “the anguish of what I call the ‘ecological unconscious’ has emerged in our time as a deeper imbalance” (p. 13). The root of our psychological health and wellness, from this perspective, is shifted from the expectations of the cultural world to the demands of the ecological psyche and how it relates to the natural world.
Ecopsychology has brought to our attention that the relationship we have to the Earth is an interdependent one. When the Earth suffers, we suffer. When we cut ourselves off from the natural world, we suffer psychologically. In other words, our psychological wellness is dependent on an active and conscious relationship to the Earth—on our eco-psychological maturity. Our sense of wellness and our very existence, along with everything we know and everything we have comes through our relationship to the Earth. Everything we are, including our emotional and psychological states of being ultimately, comes from our relationship to the Earth.
Much of our relationship to the Earth is what I call terracentric. When we hear of environmental crises, we feel something—anger, guilt, shame, anxiety, fear. These emotions can become overwhelming, forming a slow traumatic event in our psyche. We often try to keep these kinds of feelings at a distance. We might push them away, rationalize things, or distract ourselves with something else until something happens that triggers them, and we react, often in knee-jerk anger or depression. We might feel called to change our ways of living to reduce our footprint, we might become an environmental activist, volunteer, or strive to change things in some other way. Well-intentioned and absolutely imperative as these things are, it all too often feels like we are nothing but a drop of water in an endless ocean of grief. We become discouraged, hopeless, despondent. Despite our attempts to keep the deep and painful emotions at bay, ecogrief can and does consume us and our effectiveness to make changes is diminished.
Our relationship to the Earth is not only terracentric though. Much of our relationship to the Earth is what I call geocosmological. All that we are comes through our relationship to the Earth, but the Earth came from somewhere else. Over untold time, the universe formed the Earth. Therefore, our relationship to the Earth is also a relationship to the universe. All that we are comes also from the cosmos. In moments of reflection on this simple but powerful truth, we experience a completely different range of emotions than in terracentric moments. Awe. Wonder. Amazement. Astonishment. We experience these emotions when we contemplate the starry sky or when we experience a beautiful moment of the Earth in her landscapes, wildlife, sunsets, and more. In these kinds of experiences, we sense an unmistakable quality of oneness with the Earth. We fall in love with all that is and feel empowered. The negative emotions of the terracentric that we have successfully avoided often return with a vengeance in these moments, perhaps making us believe that we don’t “deserve” to experience awe and astonishment, that we have somehow forfeited our right to celebrate our oneness with the Earth and the rest of the Earth community. We might then attempt to avoid the positive feelings of the geocosmological in the same way we avoided the ones from the terracentric.
In other words, driven by this “anguish” of the complexity in the ecological unconscious, our relationship to the Earth is a complex one. There is a state of being where the two approaches and the process of becoming aware of them come together. This state of being can be called the ecological Self. All aspects of our relationship to the Earth, whether terracentric or geocosmological, are a part of the Ecological Self, which can also be understood as a relational process—it is both the mature relationship to the full ecological psyche, conscious and unconscious and the process of development of that mature relationship. Based on the interdependent relationship of humans and the Earth, the ecological Self is the determining factor of our health and wellness. The health of the ecological Self, in turn, is not determined by ego wishes or cultural expectations, but by our relationship to the natural world. Considering the avoidance and repression of feelings discussed above, many aspects of our relationship to the Earth have become unconscious and seemingly in conflict with other aspects.
The energy of the avoided (repressed) feelings discussed above becomes the unconscious ecological shadow of the conscious psyche and exerts control over our actions. Ecological shadow material is formed in the attempt to avoid through repression undesired feelings of one approach and is then projected onto the other approach, creeping into an ever-darkening collective ecological shadow in dangerous, habitual, and unconscious ways of being on the Earth. Our personal layer of the ecological psyche thus impacts and is impacted by the world. The approach on which the shadow is projected becomes the object of all the repressed material that the projecting ego refuses to acknowledge. Thus, the ecological shadow causes us to remain unaware of our true relationship to the natural world and dictates our emotional state toward the Earth without our permission. This causes the continuation of the exploitative relationship to the Earth and the ecogrief we feel at it to darken even further. Rather than truly confronting the full ecological psyche, modernity has created a collective ecological shadow that expresses itself in compulsive and repetitive addictions, the destructive nature of which becomes apparent when it is seen in environmental crises.
Roszak (1992/2001) went on to describe the ecological unconscious as the “living record of cosmic evolution” and as the “’savage’ remnant within us, that rises up subjectively to meet the environmental need of the time,” making the task of ecopsychology to “awaken the inherent sense of environmental reciprocity that lies within the ecological unconscious” (pp. 96, 301). The environmental needs of our time are many. Growing out of the collective ecological shadow are the aspects of our exploitative, compulsive, and addictive behaviors in relating to the Earth. Addressing them must therefore begin in the confrontation of the ecological shadow. In other words, ecopsychology is charged with the confrontation of the ecological unconscious in the absolutely imperative task of regenerating a healthy relationship to the Earth. It is becoming able to listen to and integrate the ecological shadow that will empower us individually and collectively to address the many ecological crises with which we are faced. With eyes wide open and Informed by the ecological unconscious, ecotherapy and eco-coaching confront the complexity of our terracentric and geocosmological relationship to the Earth and cosmos, developing an ecopsychological Self and nurturing regenerative health and wellness for us and the Earth.
Roszak, T. (2001). The voice of the Earth: An exploration of ecopsychology. Grand Rapids, MI: Phanes. (Original work published 1992)