Caring for the Earth and for our environment seems to have been a notion dear to humankind since the dawn of time. Even to this day, many of those societies that are deemed “primitive” for having retained elements of a lifestyle that most human societies abandoned millennia ago exhibit, to some degree, a sense of protection of the Planet.
Nowadays, global climate change and environment and wildlife protection have never been more talked about, with the prospect of humankind irremediably damaging our Home. At the same time, this destruction of our environment is taking its toll on us: some natural resources such as oil, soil and fisheries are being used up, and subsequently conflicts and entrenched hunger are being exacerbated by this scarcity.
Our profligate use of the Planet is backfiring on us psychologically, as if we had a latent need to empathize with Earth’s condition, as if it were a person. Others even dare speak of a “Nature Deficit Disorder” in children.
As a clinical psychologist, I attempt to build theories about human emotions based on contact with individuals. I have been wondering about the implications of seeing the Planet as having a direct, spiritual and psychological relationship with every single one of us. Using the framework of psychoanalysis, symbolisms, and a touch of ecological philosophy, as well as research on ecology, I shall try to offer a perspective on the use of culture in our fight to protect our Earth.
Symbols and depictions of Earth as a nurturer have been long present in human societies. For example, the Yggdrasil tree from Germanic mythology connects different parts of the world, and is revered by the gods themselves as a source of holiness and a symbol of life and power. In that same mythology, it is from two trees that mankind has been created, from the raw fabric of nature. The Christian Bible holds the creation of our species in the clay, an element born from the soil itself.
“The Yggdrasil tree, from Germanic mythology, connects different parts of the world and is revered by the gods themselves as a source of holiness and a symbol of life and power.”
Also, it is not uncommon to see the Earth being prayed to, and being invoked, as being the “Mother of Life”, and the mother of all living things in its dominion. Various peoples long to return to her, to her embrace, and bury their bodies in her, tying their souls with her mercy. Indeed, with such a focus on giving life and providing for us, no wonder that across many cultures, fertility deities are goddesses sharing a deep affinity with the Earth. They are portrayed as mothers, answering the prayers of their offspring.
Philosopher Mircea Eliade proposed a reflection about the “Mother Earth”. He compared Earth to the mother, on a symbolic level. Just like the mother, it is the first object of attachment that we encounter in the objective world. Earth holds us like a mother, it nurtures us like a mother does, providing food, chemicals, wood, and answering our every need in a seemingly omnipotent way, akin to the vision an infant has of its all-powerful mother until it has grown enough to fend for itself.
Moreover, clinical experience has demonstrated instances when patients separated from their homeland (immigrant workers, refugees, nomads) exhibit symptoms of depression and anxiety, echoing the situation of a child deprived of its mother’s care. The similarity comes from the feeling of abandonment from the loss of a familiar, known, secure, gratifying object.
Psychoanalyst Melanie Klein theorized, from her observation of babies, that an infant at some stage fears that it has “damaged” its mother by clinging to her and feeding off her, and this causes the child to enter a phase of depression subsequent to so much guilt. This guilt actually allows us to mature enough and form a psyche that can both withstand frustration and develop an ability to feel remorse.
“Are we moved enough by the plight of the planet to question ourselves, deal with depression and make amends at the same time?”
This would mean that guilt and the ensuing need to “repair” are experienced at the very early moments of our life. While these theories are quite controversial, the central message is that humankind is capable of developing a stable psyche because of our very deep capacity to feel bad about our actions, and to delve into a more ”gentle” identity and accept to make amends by learning, by “being good”, and then by repairing the damage we have caused. As children, we thrive on a “good enough mother”, rather than an all-powerful mother, and the guilt from damaging the mother, by claiming too much from her — in another form of all-powerfulness — is one step towards socialization and the integration of norms and values.
In practice, it is often very apparent in adults how many of their everyday actions have a source in their early interactions with their mothers. In regards to Earth, this is something that is quite apparent too: we do feel deeply moved by the consequences of our use of Earth and our all-powerfulness towards her.
One main question remains though: are we moved enough by the plight of the planet to question ourselves, deal with depression and make amends at the same time? If we are not, we should think of ways to allow ourselves to be moved by those feelings so familiar and yet so terrifying because they force us to confront the possibility that we are in fact powerless and our ultimate fear of becoming victims of something we cannot control at all — the revenge of she who created and fed, and on whom we depend for everything.
Culture as a mediator
Since the times of the ancient Egyptians, and even before, culture and its practice were a means to give hope to humankind by reassuring us about death, the separation from life and its benevolent sources, through rituals and rites. Various civilizations have harvest rites in order to honor the Earth: they have not only ecological and economic benefits, but also psychological ones. By recreating with symbols and reenactments our fantasies of immortality and reunion with the First Object, the Territory of Ultimate Gratifications, we create a psychic phenomenon that comforts us.
Moreover, cultural norms — delivered through the rites of passage and rituals — allow human beings to put a distance between them and topics too painful to deal with at an individual level, such as death and separation. By providing rules through which to respond to these situations, culture both protects and heals; it has the ability to connect with our deepest emotions.
From the Amazonian Yanomani, to the arctic Inuits, to the Namibian San, and even for people in urban areas, deep down we all harbour feelings of belonging to “a land”, and belonging to “the land”. Indeed, attachment to a place, to a scenery, to a soil that has nurtured us for generations, is one of the contributors to our sense of safety and our psychological stability. This need for a locus to lean on is vital to human existence.
Eco-activist and Noble Prize recipient Wangari Maathai was among the most audible voices arguing for a reconsideration of nature as an object deserving dignity and respect, and retribution. Personifying Earth, Maathai seems to be calling for a broader perspective on ecological issues, going beyond the traditional economic worries, and underlining the fight for our humanity and what exactly makes us human, through the fight for our Planet.
“From the Amazonian Yanomani, to the arctic Inuits, to the Namibian San, and even for people in urban areas, deep down we all harbour feelings of belonging to “a land”, and belonging to “the land”.”
The Chipko movement, led by Indian women, is an interesting example of very concrete activism, drawing on a humanization of nature and ideas of female empowerment. The Chipko movement emerged during the 70s as a form of non-violent ecological activism. Its members gathered to literally hug trees in order to prevent them being cut for industrial use. One of the movement’s supporters is renowned Indian philosopher and eco-feminist Dr. Vandana Shiva. Dr. Shiva linked the concerns of women to those of nature, stating that both were victims of a male-dominated, patriarchal society. In that vision, nature is brought back to its feminine aspect, and through identification with “her”, an emotional movement comes to life, to defend quite worldly causes.
To this day, some cultures of the world have retained a socially enforced protection of nature. That is to say that in their core cultural practices, they showcase ecological “militantism”. The traditional bamanan society of Mali — among others — have a Totemic cult for every family. Based on one’s last name, people would be required to care for and protect a particular animal species. That allowed for a “quota” of killing in every animal population and actually regulated the biodiversity at the same time. Tales tell of instances when someone would transgress the totem and become “mad” as a curse. This might have been an expression of guilt over the breaking of sacred covenants. This example illustrates a will to interlink the fate of humans with nature, to such an extent that a person would socially or mentally alienate themselves when severing ties with nature.
Lights, camera, inaction
So, how could we use those timeless values with our current cultural productions to cater to our Mother Earth? One obvious medium, as a recent article on the rise of environmental documentaries has suggested, is through film.
French journalist Eric Neuhoff stated in a controversial review of French eco-activist Nicolas Hulot’s documentary Le Syndrome du Titanic that, after watching the movie, he simply wanted to pollute more. The main argument of Neuhoff’s review was that the movie was so disheartening in its depiction of the current global ecological situation that it actually sent out the message that it was too late and that the planet was doomed to die. In that documentary, Hulot chose to show vivid images of major ecological crises and their impact on food (for instance, droughts in Africa), and animals (carcasses in the wild), all the while only scarcely commenting, letting viewers emotionally engage with the matters at hand. Many critics praising the initiative also complained about the overall execution of the movie.
That contrasts with the film Home by Yann Arthus Bertrand, available free online, and its gorgeous images of our home, the Earth. Home garnered massive acclaim from both critics and viewers, as a message of “Love to Earth”, and optimistic affirmation of the need to protect it.
One major risk that all documentaries face is that they join the chorus of constant activism which may become tiresome for audiences after a while. One question we may raise is whether such frontal endeavours are not hindering the appeal to masses in this matter of environmental activism. Home’s message, however great the execution may have been and however legitimate the overall intention was, was deemed quite simplistic at times by critics, in that it mirrored the many, constant political speeches about the need to protect our home.
In integrating culture into the fight for the Earth through movies and other forms of cultural expression such as video games or music, we might have an opportunity to tap into deeper levels of attachment to our planet by speaking directly to our emotions. At present, activism is speaking mainly to rational thoughts about environmental decline and our associated guilt and fear.
Sure, betting on fear might be considered a useful tactic, but it bets on our anxiety towards the unknown. We could bet instead on the gratifying feelings of security and nurturing that lead us to love the Earth, and find our way in vows of love, protection of the Great Mother who we have damaged so much.
Ultimately, however, by appealing to emotions in addition to hard facts, through the magic of our cultural institutions, we can assist communities to find the strength necessary, to be empowered, ecologically savvy individuals, part of a global movement to save our collective mother, Earth. This should include communication through art forms such as cartoons, or video games, that have been categorized as “lowly” for some time. My own experiences as a clinical psychologist involved in “video game therapy” have opened my eyes on the many wonderful uses some superficially simple game may have when used properly.
So, should we be hugging trees to feel better on a psychological level? Maybe in a near future, we will each be put in charge of our own totem that we will have to protect and honour in our everyday life. At the very least, we know that educating individuals from an early age to be aware of nature, by drawing upon our emotional connection to nature and our cultural platforms, has proven useful in human societies before.