Giving Voice to Nature Loss

Jennifer Taylor

For my Masterís degree in Counselling Psychology at the University of Victoria on Canadaís Vancouver Island, I did a qualitative study of the Nature Loss experience. In this article, I describe some of my research experience, focusing on one of the emergent themes: Giving Voice to Nature Loss.

My experience of Nature Loss, that is, my response to perceiving nature as something that is disappearing around me as a consequence of human consumption is a complex one. There are aspects of grief to it - I am seeing something I care about disappear - something that has meaning for me. I am watching trees being cut down, land being paved over, and animals being forced into smaller and smaller enclaves as humans continue to expand outwards in the world. There are aspects of blame and anger to this experience - both towards myself, as I am a participant in the consumption of nature, and towards the commercial/socio-political institutions and select (elite) individuals that profit from the loss of nature. Looming over all of this is a sense of hopelessness and helplessness - the forces behind the over consumption of nature are well entrenched.

I want to make it clear that I do not include the human consumption of nature for essential sustenance as a part of Nature Loss. We need to take a certain amount from nature in order to sustain ourselves: those basic needs of food, shelter, and clothing. That we are part of the foodchain is a given. Nature Loss represents more than this, it represents a taking from nature that is "too much," more than the environment can sustain. It also represents a very anthropocentric view of the world, anthro or human-centred, a worldview that positions humans and their needs and wants at the top of the heap. Human needs are valued over the needs of any other entity in the universe.

Here my experience grows more complex: I do not always choose to put the needs of nature first. I want to enjoy my life, and not be overly burdened by considerations of the most environmentally correct behaviour, or shame for putting my needs first.

As I explored this experience, it became more obvious that it is one that is not validated in our society. I found no words to describe it, and concluded that traditional Western psychological theory makes no mention of it. I finally began to call this experience "Nature Loss" in order give it a name. Yet, despite lacking a name, I found it was something familiar to many. As I spoke to others in the course of my research, I observed a reaction in them: a movement from puzzlement to understanding, followed by an outpouring of their own experience. It was as if, given the language and the forum, people strongly wanted to express their experience of Nature Loss, usually for the first time.

Not surprisingly, a survey of contemporary academic psychological literature reveals that very little research has been done in areas relevant to the focus of this study. The investigations that come the closest typically comprise research into cognitive behavioural approaches towards changing human behaviour in order to improve or maintain the condition of the environment, failing to consider the social and political context of environmental issues. I drew support from the writings of the Deep Ecology Movement, Ecopsychology, and Ecofeminism, with a focus on the Despair and Empowerment work of Joanna Macy, and conducted interviews with individuals who had experienced this phenomenon. Some of the themes that emerged during analysis of the transcripts I entitled:

  • Giving Voice to Nature Loss;
  • Nature Loss as "Wrong";
  • Implications of Personal Participation in Nature Loss;
  • Valuing the Human Community;
  • Nature Loss as "Too Much";
  • Transforming the Pain; and
  • The Bigger.

The theme of "Giving Voice to Nature Loss" emerged quickly, even as I started asking myself questions. This is what I recorded in my fieldnotes:

Can you remember a time when you saw or heard something about the loss of the natural world that made you feel concerned about the environment? Tell me about this experience. I approach this question with distaste. My heart cringes: No I donít want to go there, I donít want to answer this old question. I donít want to feel it again. In the same way, when I drive the Malahat. I love it, the feeling of getting out of town, heading to see family, or for a holiday. Free! But peppered in there, and I feel the hard knot in the centre of my chest right now, the anxiety in my belly, the tightness of my breath. I want to cry. But donít let it, because I might be crying all the time. If I let myself feel it. Itís when I drive over the Malahat that I feel it the most. Over and over again. I see the changes over time. I donít want to talk about it, write about it. Now, I resist, I want to go somewhere else, to drink coffee to distract. It is too hard to stay here too long. Speaking to Others Every time I have mentioned this to new people, I feel the fear. How do I explain my thesis topic? Ö Oh, it makes you sad to see trees cut down, land paved over --maybe you should study sensitive people instead. As if the problem is within me, within us, as if, I should change and then things can be alright. Oh, but it is much more than just sad that a tree is cut down. It is above that; it is all about our connection to that tree, it is the way it was cut down, and the meaning of its death.

As I analyzed my transcripts of the interviews, one of the first things that stood out for me was the complexity of "giving voice" to the experience. There is a lack of a popular forum, and language to discuss this topic, and, even the "inner voice" was silenced. Intensive "listening" to oneís painful feelings about what is happening to the world was akin to looking at the sun, it burns if you look too long. Your life can come to a standstill if you are exposed to these feelings without a way of processing or coping with them.

Part of my own process of writing this thesis has been a struggle with owning my own voice, and allowing myself to legitimize the human nature relationship. From the time I first began, when I could find no name for the phenomenon that I wanted to study, I realized that there was no mainstream language for this. I began talking to my peers about what I wanted to do, struggling and experimenting with different ways of naming and explaining to them. I found different responses along the way. One that stands out was from someone who assumed I wanted to study what it was like to live in the aftermath of a landslide or earthquake. There appeared to be not just a lack of language, but a lack of support at social, political and institutional levels for this kind of exploration. It hovers at the edge of psychological theory, not comfortably grounded in existing accepted theory, yet often embraced with interest by individual clinicians and counsellors.

It helped when I was finally able to settle on the term "Nature Loss" to refer to the phenomenon, because then I was able to talk about it with more ease, not complete ease, but more ease. It is interesting to experience first hand the difficulty of expression when the experience has not been "languaged": it seems there is no one who wants to hear about it, there is no forum in the mainstream helping professions and the Universities in which to speak of it. This must apply to our clients as well as ourselves, for if they did want to speak about their feelings for the earth, they have an additional obstacle to try to overcome - lack of name for it. The effect of this is a silencing, a vague sense of shame that results in this experience remaining a private one. For myself, having these words enabled me to develop a way of talking that was more easily understood by my participants, my peers and myself.

Over time, I began to recognize another response when I spoke about my study topic - a response that energized me. Once people "got" the concept, many of them seemed to "light up" and their own stories came pouring out. I wrote in my field notes "it was as if I had caught them on fire" by bringing it up. The way they spoke of it was as if it was the first time they had ever given words to their experience. In this way it was novel, but, on another level, it sounded very familiar, something they were intimate with. The "spark" was an opening; a name for something they hadnít realized was legitimate. I heard so many stories, and feelings about what was happening in the world, it convinced me that people need and want to be heard on this.



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