Vanished: Extinction, Grief, and Wise Environmental Action
Allen D. Kanner, PhD
Not so very long ago, sand dunes covered much of the San Francisco coastline and a small butterfly, the Xerces Blue, fed on vegetation unique to the area. But during World War II the U.S. Army, as it built up the San Francisco Presidio, destroyed the last remaining butterfly colony. At that moment, the Xerces Blue joined what scientists are calling earth’s sixth massive extinction spasm, the last one occurring 65 million years ago with the demise of the dinosaurs and many other life forms. In the current spasm, three to ten species are going extinct daily. If the current rate of destruction continues – and it is in fact accelerating – in 30 years half of all plant and animal species will be gone. But unlike the previous five extinction spasms, a single species, Homo sapiens, is responsible for the sixth one. In the process, humanity is risking its own elimination.
Horrific as extinction is, hasn’t the world already been alerted to the global ecological crisis by the vast amounts of publicity given to climate change? Why bring up yet another overwhelming environmental problem?
From an ecopsychological perspective (Fisher, 2002; Roszak, 1992; Roszak, Gomes, & Kanner, 1995), two vastly different constellations of images, associations, and reactions are evoked by climate change and extinction, each with profound implications for subsequent interventions. Climate change, for example, brings to mind huge chunks of ice crashing into the Arctic, hurricanes slamming into cities, and wars erupting due to resource depletion. The story is of humanity, now the world’s rogue species, heating the atmosphere through pollution, and nature responding with a vengeance. The emotional reaction to this scenario is one of shock, fear, and anxiety. How have things gotten so bad so fast, and what are we to do?
Dramatic as this is, climate change is still likely to evoke the cultural mindset that has created the crisis in the first place. For it depicts humanity and the impersonal forces of nature as engaged in a monumental battle. Once more, the natural environment is seen as a separate, dangerous, even hostile entity that has to be conquered if we are to survive and thrive.
As many environmentalists have noted (Roszak, 1992), Western society has long taken an antagonistic stance towards the natural world. In this view, our species is the “crown of creation,” and its genius and creativity is expressed in no small part through its ability to master the planet. As a result, modern technology is designed to control nature rather than work with it. The dominant economic system, capitalism, requires an ever-expanding exploitation of natural resources, which it terms economic growth. A narcissistic fantasy in which every person’s wish is the planet’s command has become the scientific, technological, and social ideal. Other species, which are considered fundamentally inferior, are treated as resources to be utilized in the grand human project.
In sharp contrast to climate change, extinction focuses our awareness onto the plight of other species. Their suffering, loss, right to exist, and well-being come to the fore. The extinction crisis unveils the epic evolutionary tragedy that human activity is creating. The images are more personal than those of climate change, for they bring attention to that species of butterfly, or wildcat, or tree now forever vanished. Rather than shock, fear and anxiety, there is guilt, and even more significantly, grief.
Why is environmental grief critical to wise environmental action? As psychologists, we are well aware of the healing power of grief and of the harm done when people move to action too quickly after a major loss. Following a death or breakup, we have witnessed the new depths of insight and feeling, the shift in values, and the greater subtlety of decision that ensues when grieving is allowed its due. At the same time, we know that when mourning is denied or truncated, old patterns repeat, behavior becomes manic or counter phobic, and insight and growth fail to emerge.
Similarly, when people mourn for the thousands of forms of life that have disappeared due to human activity, or just for a single vanished species, they become closer to nature and approach it with far more compassion. Grief softens defenses and allows people to directly experience their interdependence on the rest of the natural world, a scientifically more realistic assessment of their situation than the distant, masterful stance that Western culture has adopted. The inward journey of mourning provides opportunities to reassess environmental values and to break away from old patterns of domination and alienation. Grief is the flip side of compassion, for people only mourn for those about whom they do care.
The major environmental organizations, such as the Sierra Club, have apparently decided not to publicize the current extinction spasm because the topic does not bring in donations (Van Burg and Thompson, 2010). Stated differently, these groups fear that extinction is too depressing for a death-denying, youth-worshiping society such as our own. But as I have been discussing, this is psychologically naive. Unacknowledged grief will interfere with the complex and substantial cultural and personal transformation that the planet now requires of us (Kanner, 2010). But it is also psychologically naive simply to confront people with the incomprehensible loss that is taking place and then ask them to change their ways. How might our field be of service here?
The current ecological crisis is of such enormity that, as social animals, we probably cannot cope with it solely as individuals. Instead, we may need collective activity moderated by art, ritual, and various forms of communal gatherings in order to fully confront the calamity and absorb the grief. Only then may effective global action be possible. Psychologists, with our insights into motivation and behavior, have much to contribute as leaders and participants in such communal ventures. Here I will briefly touch upon two such projects with which I have been involved.
Artists have been leading people out of the labyrinth of denial from time immemorial. They do so through beauty, drama, symbolism, humor, an uncanny sense of the moment, and a host of other approaches. For these reasons, in the late 1990’s, Mary Gomes, PhD, a psychologist at Sonoma State University, and I started the Altars of Extinction Project. We provided a group of artists with information about local species that had gone extinct at human hands and asked each artist to design an altar for a particular species. The result was a series of exhibits around the San Francisco Bay Area featuring a set of vastly different but exquisite altars that together formed a memorial space that people found compelling and moving. The exhibit included places to sit quietly, a comment book, offerings (e.g., flowers), and descriptions of each species, including the ecological processes through which it had come to an end (e.g., habitat loss, pollution, hunting, etc.). Those who attended found the exhibit inspiring, and thought provoking. To our knowledge, no one came away overwhelmingly depressed, although grief was a common reaction. Several of the artists said they had developed a strong emotional bond with the species on whose altar they had worked.
As a result of Altars of Extinction, Dr. Gomes and I were interviewed for Call of Life, an award-winning documentary on extinction produced by psychologist Chera Van Burg (Van Burg, this issue; Van Burg and Thompson, 2010).The film provides an unusually comprehensive overview of biodiversity from a scientific, political, social, spiritual, philosophical, and psychological perspective.
These examples, which are of psychologists working in a multidisciplinary context to create community-wide interventions, are consistent with the ecopsychological emphasis on clinical psychology moving beyond the “office” and into the larger social realm. Such an expansion, however, runs headlong into a historical bias in our field that states that the most effective way to help people is through direct personal contact. This bias likely reflects the hyperindividualism of our society.
Nevertheless, many forms of psychopathology, such as sexism, racism, and the abuse of the natural world, are partly systemic in origin. Dysfunctional behaviors and beliefs are frequently built into our major institutions and cultural practices. To address these largescale issues, political, economic, and social interventions are needed that incorporate a sophisticated and compassionate understanding of the human psyche. The opportunity exists here for clinicians, in collaboration with others who are skilled at operating in the broader public sphere, to benefit huge numbers of people, well beyond what can be accomplished through therapy alone.
The time for our profession to redefine its purview is long past due. Given the vast ecological challenge at our doorstep, at this juncture in history every psychologist needs to ask how her or his particular interests and skills can be applied to environmental concerns, both on the individual and community level. The worldwide crisis we now face, which includes climate change and species extinction, needs to move from the periphery of our profession to the center of our theories, our research, and our practice. We have an ethical obligation to overcome our field’s entrenched denial of the problem. For there is so much that we have to offer – and so very much at stake.
Fisher, A. (2002). Radical ecopsychology. Albany: SUNY Press.
Kanner, A.D. (May/June, 2010). How much change will the Earth require of us? Tikkun, 25, vol.3, 39-40.
Roszak, T. (1992). The voice of the Earth. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Roszak, T., Gomes, M.E., & Kanner, A.D. (Eds.). (1995). Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, healing the mind. San Francisco: Sierra Club.
Van Burg, C. (Producer), & Thompson, M. (Director). (2010). Call of life: Facing the mass extinction [Motion Picture]. United States: Species Alliance & Video Project.
|Allen D. Kanner, PhD, has been a leader in the field of ecopsychology since the early 1990s. In 1997, Ute Reader chose him as one of the national top 10 activist psychotherapists for his work. In 2000 he co-founded the national advocacy group, Campaign for a Commercial- Free Childhood. Dr. Kanner is a Berkeley, CA child, family and adult psychologist. He is co-editor of Psychology and Consumer Culture: The Struggle for a Good Life in a Materialistic Society, and Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind.