Life at the Edge: Rethinking the Human-Environment Relationship

By Richard Coon Department of Sociology Carroll College Waukesha, WI 53186

Keynote Address: LEAF conference. April, 2001

How we got here

The twentieth century caused many people to begin to question the sustainability and morality of modern industrial civilization. People such as Lewis Mumford (1963), writing in the critical tradition of Karl Marx, questioned the social ramifications of advanced industrial capitalism.

For most early critical writers the prepotent social issues revolved around human to human relationships. It wasn’t until the middle and later parts of the century that people began to examine the impact of advanced industrial capitalism on nature. Aldo Leopold, one of the pioneering scholars in the field of conservation ecology, pointed out that humans held ethical positions toward their relationships with each other but did not have what he called a "land ethic" (1949). Both Mumford and Leopold questioned the manner in which capitalism transforms the human and natural environment into one almost solely defined by the economic market system. As Mumford puts it: "to think in terms of mere weight and number, to make quantity not alone an indication of value but the criterion of value ? that was the contribution of capitalism … (p. 25, 1949) The keen insight of Leopold also noted the power of the economic market system to shape human perspective. For example, in A Land County Almanac he suggests that humans must "quit thinking about decent land use as solely an economic problem (p.262, 1949). It wasn’t until later in the century, however, that numerous writers began to question the impact of modern industrial civilization on the sustainability of the natural ecosystem.

Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring (1965) is heralded by many as the beginning of the modern environmental movement. In the 1960’s many people began to suggest there might be fundamental problems with the manner in which our modern civilization used and abused the natural ecosystem. Then, in 1972 Donella Meadows and her colleagues published the book The Limits To Growth. Using the most sophisticated methods of the time, Meadows et. al. called into question the very sustainability of our contemporary way of life. From that point on more and more scholars began to interrogate not only the sustainability but the sanity of contemporary life.

Since these early seminal books were published, literally thousands of articles and books have been written focusing on the impact of humans on natural ecosystems. Numerous research studies indicated the potential negative physiological impact of industrialism on humans but it was only in the latter portion of the century that many individuals began to wonder about the impact of our modern lifestyle on human psychological well being.

Due to what Catton and Dunlap term the "dominant western worldview", humans were not conceived of as being an integral part of the natural landscape. For example, they argue that one of the basic assumptions of our social system is that "(p)eople are fundamentally different from all other creatures on Earth, over which they have dominion" (p. 34, 1980). Due to this feeling of being different from the rest of the ecosystem people tended not to connect what was happening to the Earth to any sort of negative psychological or social maladies for humans. Yes, it had become obvious that various environmental conditions could cause physical disease in humans. Yet with modern societies belief system vested so deeply in empiricism and analytical physical science it was much less obvious that our psycho-spiritual lives were being damaged by our nature disconnected lifestyles as well. As Mumford pointed out, because our western paradigm is so econo-metrically grounded, our perspective has become quite myopic. Generally speaking, only issues that fit our physical science orientation are considered appropriate, or even realistic for that matter. Certainly it seems reasonable that the type of food we eat could have an impact on our well being but to suggest that our relationship with the natural environment could cause us to manifest psycho-physical maladies runs counter to our belief in being somehow special and therefore outside the boundaries of mere nature. Hence, the acceptance of a meaningful relationship between human psychological well being and natural ecosystems has been slow to be articulated.

The Cultivation of a Human-Nature Perspective

In the past few decades or so, more writers have suggested that human well being is inextricably linked to nature itself. People such as the eminent research biologist E.O.Wilson have suggested a form of innate nature love he calls "biophilia". In 1973 Arne Naess wrote a seminal article on what he termed "deep ecology". This article laid the ground work for the birth of a whole new perspective in environmentalism. Naess called for a deep rethinking of the normative structure of modern society. He also argued that humans only reach a truly mature self when they are able to see themselves in communion with the total field.

Around this time various other thinkers began to articulate a general position stating the relationship between humans and the natural environment. In this same general time frame a number of individuals were beginning to practice a form of wilderness based transformational exercises. Robert Greenway, one of the early figures in ecopsychology, began taking people out into the wilderness for extended periods of time to help them penetrate more deeply into their "natural" selves. Michael Cohen began similar practices, attempting to help people connect more deeply with natural systems. A general consensus was growing among an increasing number of people that in order for humans to maintain optimal well being they needed to maintain their connection to the Earth from which they evolved. In the context of this newly emerging perspective people began to articulate various models of the human-nature relationship. One of the most interesting and yet least developed, is that of ecopsychology.

Ecopsychology: One description

Recently, numerous scholars have begun to formulate a broad field of concern which has been termed ecopsychology. Actually I believe the term ecopsychology may be a misnomer. A more accurate term might be ecohumanology. The reason I say this is that the breadth of topics associated with this field goes well beyond psychology. This conceptual field is grounded on a set of assumptions which connect with nearly all aspects of the human project. For example, John Scull describes the field "as spanning a range of questions from ecology through religion, anthropology, sociology, and political economy, to the psychology of individuals." (p. 5, 1999) The boundlessness of the parameters of the field make it difficult to categorically define just what one is talking about with regard to ecopsychology. Robert Greenway laments this situation when he writes "(t)here are no boundaries in this realm, although it is commonly assumed, more or less, that any human activity means ‘psychology’, and anything having to do with ‘nature’ is ecology, which , together, cover just about everything." (p.3, personal communication) Along a similar vein, John Davis states that "(e)copsychology is developing rapidly as a field of study, and it has no single definition yet. The term is used in different ways by several different practitioners and researchers." (p1.`davis/ep/ecopsy.html) There do seem to be some core principles associated with the framework however.

Some of the basic principles underpinning ecopsychology:

* I believe the fundamental assumption of ecopsychology is that there is a primary relationship between the human and more than human world and that this relationship is significant relative to the well being of both humans and the Earth. That is, ecopsychology "proceeds from the assumption that at its deepest level, the psyche is sympathetically bonded to the earth that mothered it into existence". (Jed Swift, p. 5, personal communication)

* A related assumption of the field is that traditional science has a dualistic bias which disallows it from fully comprehending the meaning of the human-nature relationship. Jed Swift puts it this way, " (e)nvironmental psychology, because of its continuity with a dualistic research tradition, is simply not capable of disclosing those meanings which concern the more radical field of ecosychology." (p. 7, personal communication)

* Another interesting aspect of the field is that ecopsychology seems to have a nascent or somewhat latent metaphysical thread. Many of the insights of ecopsychology fit quite well with a Buddhist perspective. John Postma, paraphrasing the work of John Davis, notes that "(e)co refers to house or home, psyche to the soul or spirit, and logy to a specific kind of speaking or science/theory. So, ecopschology is the study or theory of the home of the soul." (p.1, personal communication) Nussbaum points out that although "(e)copsychology is focused on healing … a spiritual or religious aspect is also part of its scope". (p.3,

* Amplifying the primary assumption of the field is the belief that there is a disconnection between humans and the natural world which is seen to be fundamentally related to many of the maladies we now face in contemporary society. There are various reasons posited as causing this disconnection, ranging from the materialist attitude associated with science to the consumerism associated with modern capitalism but one of the core goals of this framework is to somehow heal or remedy this disjunction.

Wilderness therapy is one vehicle used to help people once again reconnect with their ecological self. Robert Greenway summarizes the state of the field nicely as follows: "Ecopsychology" rushes ahead in many directions, like an amoeba on speed, an unfolding "metadiscipline" at the core of which are :

(1) a deep concern over a deteriorating environment;

(2) a deep conviction that humans are, somehow, the cause of the deterioration;

(3) a growing but very diverse and confused conviction that it is something about the "human-nature" relationship that is the source of the problem (i.e. "the wound"); and

(4) a hope that, since "eco" to most people means, generally "nature" and "psychology" means, generally and variously "psyche", "mind", and behavior, a putting together of these fields into an "ecopsychology" might be helpful in healing the rocky relationship between humans and nature and thus reverse the trend towards human-caused planetary destruction." (p1. Personal communication)

Mismatch Theory: An Interesting Variation

An interesting variation on the theme of disconnection or discontinuity between humans and the living environment is found in the field of evolutionary psychology. Various individuals have begun to articulate what is known as the mismatch hypothesis/theory. What this hypothesis suggests is that humans evolved in relation to a set of conditions that were very unlike those within which we live today and this discontinuity between our evolved characteristics and those of our present society are causing us numerous problems. "Mismatch theory is based on five basic assumptions:

(1)human nature evolved in prior ancestral environments (EEAs),

(2) most human evolution ceased with sapiens around 40,000 years ago,

(3) massive cultural and technological change has occurred in these 40,000 years,

(4) human beings in modern environments are often mismatched with their evolved natures, and

(5) the frequency and magnitude of mismatch for a particular individual is correlated with both physical and psychological pathology." (Kent Bailey, Virginia Commonwealth University)

Nesse and Berridge suggest that, "the mismatch between our bodies and modern environments is a major cause of behavioral and medical problems" (Science, p. 64, Oct. 3, 1997). Cosmides and Tooby support this perspective, arguing that our evolutionary background selected for a set of characteristics which do not always fit well with the world we now live in. "Our ancestors spent well over 99% of our species’ history in hunter-gatherer societies. That means that our forebearers lived in small, nomadic bands of a few dozen individuals who got all of their food each day by gathering plants or by hunting animals…. Natural selection is a slow process, and there just haven’t been enough generations for it to design circuits that are well-adapted to our post-industrial life…. For example, it is easier for us to deal with small, hunter-gather-band sized groups of people than with crowds of thousands…. In many cases, our brains are better at solving the kinds of problems our ancestors faced on the African savannahs than they are at solving the more familiar tasks we face in a college classroom or a modern city.(Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, p. 6, Generally speaking, evolutionary psychology is a model or perspective which orients one to thinking about humans in a particular way. It is what Herbert Blumer called a "sensitizing concept". It isn’t so much that one seeks to prove evolutionary psychology as it is that evolutionary psychology provides one with a theoretical model which helps explain present outcomes. As Cosmides and Tooby note, "(t)he …principles are tools for thinking about psychology, which can be applied to any topic…" (

Thus, as ecopsychology is an emerging narrative within the field of psychology and ecology, so too is evolutionary psychology an emerging narrative in the field of psychology. The importance of an evolutionary psychology approach for ecopsychology is that it can help those in the field create a conceptual container which will aid them in thinking about what aspects of the social system present problems for people in contemporary society. Ecopsychology, like deep Ecology, is a morally grounded approach (Scull, p.1, 1999) which is concerned with remediating the human and environmental maladies arising in contemporary social organization. As such, the insights evolutionary psychology provides should help ecopsychologists fashion remedial practices to help humans function better personally and thus, act in less damaging ways toward the environment.

An Integrated Ecohumanosophy

Naess, writing about what he calls ecosophy, states that, "(t)he ending ? sophy stresses that what we modestly try to realize is wisdom rather than science or information." (Naess in Tobias, p. 258) Like Naess, I too am more concerned with wisdom than mere knowledge, hence the approach I am calling for relies more on the wisdom associated with sophy, as in philosopy rather than the colder logic associated with logy as in science. Contemporary humans need to wisely create a self directive narrative which draws upon the findings of all fields of knowledge and crafts those findings into a life story which will help us organize ourselves such that we can meet our human needs without destroying the environment from which we came. Insights from evolutionary psychology, such as the idea that humans will probably function better in small groups, can be useful in terms of helping us organize ourselves to optimally function in groups and enhance feelings of well being.

The intentional communities movement may be one of the important ways in which humans can organize themselves to meet their personal and economic needs while at the same time lessening their impact on the environment. It is my belief that the crises we face today are social in nature as much, if not more, than they are individually psychological. In order to effectively deal with the varied maladies of the present world we will need to rethink many of our contemporary institutions, all the way from our economy to our family systems. For, you see, as indicated in evolutionary psychology, it isn’t that humans have changed but rather that our living context has and we need to intentionally reconfigure our institutional arrangements so they are more conducive to the human/bio-physical world rather than to some sort of post-industrial market place. We need to utilize the insights of sociology, ecopsychology , deep ecology as well as various forms of spirituality to give us direction at this precarious point in human history. Ehrlich suggests that humans need to foster a "quasi-religious" understanding of our relationship to the Earth (Suzuki and Knudtson, 1992). We need to reintroduce an organically oriented morality into our guiding narrative. Our moral order must be grounded in life rather than economic success. As David Suzuki says, "(w)e need a radically different way of relating ourselves to the support systems of our planet" (Suzuki and Knudtson,1992).

Ecopsychology, with its moral orientation toward health and well being for all natural systems, can help us do just that. It gives precedence to the human spirit and the well being of the natural world rather than privileging the requisites of the market. Ecopsychology assumes a deeper core to the human condition. It’s concerns are with the moral and spiritual well being of humans as well as their merely practical or physical needs. This communion of ecological thinking with human behavioral analysis represents a new turn in our conceptualization of the human condition. By creating a truly integrated understanding of the human condition, one which is grounded in nature, we may well be able to reconfigure our human systems before we step over the edge.

What would a radically different system look like?

As noted earlier, evolutionary psychology suggests that humans evolved in small groups of hunters and gathers. One of the insights being articulated more and more recently has to do with human group organization. Sociologists have argued for many years that the psycho-social organization of human groups makes a significant difference in terms of how people act in and conceive of the world. For example, in The Good Society (1991) Robert Bellah and his associates note that humans "live through institutions". That is, humans are informed by the psycho-physical patterns which direct there living experiences. Daniel Quinn (1999) and Thom Hartmann (1999) both agree with this, based on their assertion that re-tribalizing our living arrangements can act to transform our life styles in positive ways, both for humans and for the other than human world. Quinn, in accord with the ideas found in evolutionary psychology, believes the tribe is to human organization what the pod is to whales or the pack is to wolves. It is our "natural" living arrangement. Coon (1996) argues along these same lines, suggesting that we are at a time in history when groups of people might well begin experimenting with just such living arrangements in hopes of creating contemporary tribal models which will help to realign ourselves with our primal nature as well as conserve our resources. A primary working assumption here is that if people become more contented with their lives as an outgrowth of the institutional arrangement they live in, they will not seek their personal satisfaction solely in terms of consumption, thus lessening their impact on our dwindling resources. This reconfiguring of our primary institutional life matrix is just the sort of fundamental change Suzuki is calling for.

In writing about the need to rethink our present state a affairs, Thom Hartmann (1999, p. 174) lists several traits of tribes:

1. Political independence ? "A tribe is a politically independent unit, usually numbering between a dozen and 200 members."

2. Egalitarian structure ? "Leadership in a tribe is an advisory role, not an authoritarian one."

3. Locally based, dependent on renewable local resources ? "The two key concepts here are ‘local’ and ‘renewable’. Tribes live in intimate contact with their local environment, and so usually develop religious and social/law systems which emphasize the importance and value of the natural world."

4. A sense of unique identity ? "A member of a tribe is born into that tribe. The tribe defines his or her identity."

5. Respect for other tribes ? "While tribes occasionally compete or come into conflict, they most often cooperate, as seen in the rituals of the potlatch and pow-wow. One tribe may view another with disdain for their social, religious, or other practices, but there are few historical records of tribal people engaging in genocide. (Actually, much of this is close to the general idea of bioregionalism.)

Quinn, in his book Beyond Civilization, suggests that the core of tribalism has to do with the fact that members orient their lives toward goals which are significant for the group as a whole as well as for the individual. Economic actions in the group are directed to the welfare of the group as much as to the self interest of the individual. Certainly an orientation of this sort is not common in contemporary capitalism with it’s emphasis on self interest, which I believe to be one of the core reasons for our present alienation from the larger context of our lives. Both Coon and Hartmann suggest that intentional communities have the potential to be contemporary manifestations of tribal forms of human organization. People in such intentional groups tend to be more willing to guide their actions toward group goals and are generally more concerned about the impact of their actions on the ecosystem. Fostering an outlook that defines wealth in terms of human attributes rather than merely economic ones, such groups may be able to create fulfillment for members in ways that our present, materially based, atomistic society can not. People socialized into the normative moral order of intentionally remedial or therapeutic groups may be able to shape their own consciousness so as to overtly work on creating feelings of connection to nature and to other human beings. Such practices may ameliorate feelings of alienation created by our larger social system. By understanding the root of the problem as one of social organization people will be better able to reconfigure their lives to deal with problems of mismatch which may be at the core of our present environmental crisis.

Finally, I’d like to end the formal portion of the presentation with these thoughts. Rene Dubos asserts that, "The characteristics of the environment in which we develop condition our biological and mental being and the quality of our life."(In Suzuki and Knudtson, p. 56, 1992) John Scull also points out that one of the central foci of ecopsychology "has been an emphasis on small group, community, and face-to-face contact as a way to change ecologically significant behaviour and establish healthier relationships." (1999, p. 6) It is based on reasoning such as this that I believe reshaping our institutional patterns along intentional lines and taking control of the context of our lives is so important, not only for us but for the Earth itself.

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