Environmental Justice and the Psychology of Occupy


I was invited to participate on a panel led by indigenous activist, author and poet Dorinda Moreno of Fuerza Mundial Global/Pueblos en Movimento, “Indigenous Psychologies and the Occupy Movement: Building Synergies for Social Change, Inclusion and Solidarity from Tahrir and Time Square to Chiapas and Beyond.” This was the opening plenary panel at the 30th Annual Psychologists for Social Responsibility symposium, “Psychology and the Occupy Movement: Synergies for Social Change,” held in Washington, DC July 12-14, 2012. Following are my prepared remarks, about one quarter of which I had the time to cover.


I’d like to start off with a quote that is directly applicable to environmental justice, the mental health profession, and the occupy movement. “The major problems in the world are the result of the difference between how nature works and the way people think.” Biologist, philosopher, and pioneering systems thinker, Gregory Bateson.

I approach environmental justice as the marriage of ecology (the study of relationships) with social justice. I also apply the four core natural systems principles from which sustainable ecosystems emerge–mutual support and reciprocity, no waste, no greed, and increasing diversity–to cultural change that is life-affirming. After all, the prime activity of living organisms is the tendency to self-organize into mutually supportive relationships that support the web of life. This is the process which functions to provide maximum opportunities for individuals and groups to reach their potential and fulfill their purpose. From this comes the guiding axiom of the non-profit my wife and I co-founded and run, Coalitions Of Mutual Endeavor: True justice is not possible without sustainability, and without justice there will be no peace.

Sustainability is, however, at odds with the dominant Western paradigm that is based on dominator hierarchies, exploitation and imperialism—the root causes of displacement, forced migration, and destruction in general. This is the paradigm that modern psychotherapies seek to support by creating acceptance, compliance and obedience within their client base. If that doesn’t work, we’ve got the best drugs that government subsidized patent monopolies (BigPharma) can supply. (And people think that drugs haven’t been legalized in America.)

The Occupy movement is beginning to question the most damaging manifestations of this paradigm such as war and greed, and must now begin advocating realistic alternatives in order to build the movement. One of the most effective movement building techniques is creating coalitions to build critical mass based on a common goal and shared values. I believe it is a moral imperative and ethical stance for mental health professionals to support this shift, instead of focusing on trying to make us feel sane about living in an insane world.

Natural systems principles provide a foundation and framework for an entirely natural way of thinking that’s congruent with earth-centered ancient indigenous wisdom. Because it is more natural, it also requires less time and energy to improve quality of life for all life than what Business As Usual assumes is required. The entire framework is thoroughly grounded in systems science, and applied ecopsychology—helping people remember how to think and act the way nature works—provides a modern scientific language and validated methodologies to put these concepts into play in our daily lives and in the creation of social institutions that embody ecological integrity, social justice, economic equity, and participatory democracy.

Generally speaking, a healing psychology that can support a fundamental paradigm shift will be one that helps us overcome, replace and move beyond force-based ranking hierarchies of domination, that helps us reconnect to the natural world (which includes to each other and our communities), and helps us heal our pathological sense of the other. It must become obvious that our greatest strength and resiliency comes from, or is a function of, our diversity and the quality and quantity of the relationships we can build and maintain that support the web of life we all are dependent upon for basic health, fulfillment and to reach our potential as individuals and societies.

The broad based environmental movement can neither restrain nor constrain itself to just being about environmentalism. As this movement is, or should be, firmly grounded in ecology, the environmental movement is really about relationships–in particular, healthy, mutually supportive relationships.

Thus, the environmental movement is really about community. This starts with the family, and scales all the way out to the universal. Each scale, layer, or subset has its own unique manifestation and attributes, but emerge from the same basic principles that work on the sub-atomic, biological, and cognitive levels. I refer to this universal binding force as attraction relationships (more on this in a moment); Brian Swimme calls them allurements; Ervin Laszlo refers to the subtle field or 5th Force which works at the quantum level. Poetically, and perhaps even literally, it is love manifest.

This is the basis for my belief that the models and metaphors supplied by healthy, vibrant and resilient ecosystems—which provide a highly functional example of sustainability with billions of years of supportive evidence to build on–can be directly applied to social institutions as well as individual lifestyle choices. It also grounds my belief that sustainability–when clearly defined in an ecologically sound and legally defensible manner—is the root of an Earth jurisprudence.

Thus, my basic premise is that applied ecopsychology and systems science provide a modern scientific validation for ancient indigenous wisdom, as well as providing a systemic framework for progressive change. This includes the ideas that we are all interconnected, interdependent, and we come from the Earth. This means a healthy planet requires a healthy people, and vice versa. What we do to Earth we do to ourselves, and greed, aggression and domination are not so much an integral and immutable aspect of human nature as they are natural reactions to untenable situations, to the inability to fulfill natural expectations, or a combination of attributes emerging from these two concepts.


A methodology in applied ecopsychology developed by Dr. Michael Cohen of
Project NatureConnect known as the Natural Systems Thinking Process (NSTP)
recognizes that every individual is biologically, psychologically and spiritually part
of Nature’s nonpolluting, intelligent ways. However, humanity suffers great
personal and global troubles because over 95% of our time and 99.9% of our
thinking in Western Civilization is disconnected from Nature. In compensation and
through denial, we exhibit unreasonable, hurtful, greedy behaviors which
negatively impact the health of all life on the planet–including humanity itself.

The NSTP is an ecological process–that is to say, a process of developing
mutually supportive attraction relationships–that focuses on healing the personal
and environmental ills caused by the dualistic world view held by Western society
and science that we refer to as Enlightenment thinking. However, it goes far
beyond treating just the symptoms and politics that are the result of this mindset. It
has the potential to catalyze the major shift in human consciousness needed to
overcome the destructive behaviors that are negatively impacting human and
environmental health, as well as positively contribute to the causes of peace,
justice, solidarity, equity and democracy.

Through a series of simple yet powerful sensory outdoor activities, participants not
only personally experience the positive attraction relationships between human
and environmental health–a unity with something bigger than the ego–but they
become highly motivated to restore the wellness of humanity and Earth. People
learn to think and live the way that Nature works by creating moments that let
Earth teach.

It is not pathological to feel the pain of a tortured and dying Earth, our original
mother, or any of our fellow species–let alone our human kin who are being
suppressed, oppressed and exploited. In fact, in an interconnected universe, a
universe that is friendly to life and its evolution, just the opposite is true–it is
pathological not to.

The standard clinical response, of course, is just to medicate away these feelings.
Consider for a moment that most physical illnesses emerge from stress, and the
fact that about 50% of Americans, of all ages, require at least one prescription
drug per day to either make it through their day or to be able to tolerate their day.
20% require three or more prescription medications per day. When you add in
alcohol and other recreational drugs that are self-prescribed, the majority of
Americans deal with reality by medicating it into submission. But as J.
Krishnamurti said about a century ago, it’s not a sign of good health to be well
adjusted to a sick society.

Within the field of ecopsychology, it is proposed that the modern perception of
humans as separate from and not connected to nature is one of the phenomena
that leads to the destruction of the environment. This consequence is thought to
follow in part by seeing the Earth itself and other biological organisms as little
more than an infinite supply of resources or as something to be conquered and
tamed to meet selfish human desires. It is also a truism that people won’t fight to
save what they don’t love.

Our disconnection from nature, and the greed, addictions, and other destructive
behaviors that manifest in the individual psyche due to this disconnection carries
into the institutions and social systems we create. We have a world economy that
is unsustainable. We have wanton destruction of the environment and rampant
abuse of people’s inner nature.

However, since we come from Nature, are a part of Nature, and actually require
Nature to even exist, we feel this destruction and other abusive behaviors through
stress, depression, feelings of isolation, and a rash of social ills as we
subconsciously try to deny this primal connection. We deny the pain we are
actually inflicting upon ourselves, future generations, other species, and the
supportive biosphere of all life. We deny the obvious fact that knowingly destroying
one’s life support system is a very good definition of insanity.

A change toward values that appreciate and celebrate our dependence on Nature
is desperately needed as we start the 21st century. In order to heal and restore
our senses of well-being and self-worth we must concurrently restore the health of
Earth’s ecosystems and biosphere.

Change, however, is happening. A mere generation ago most people weren’t used
to regularly hearing phrases like ozone depletion, carrying capacity, global
warming, and the 3Rs – reduce, reuse, recycle. People weren’t aware of the global
impact of destroying the tropical rainforests; an environmental impact statement
was unheard of; “endangered species” was a quaint concept best left to others to
worry about, and loss of biodiversity was thought to be of little consequence
anyway. People don’t want to think about the fact that no food chain means no

However, even with the growth of ecological awareness people still need
persuading. Psychology and the Occupy movement must have as one focus an
understanding of altering behavior by shifting consciousness, raising awareness,
and providing avenues for action. As Margaret Wheatley points out, people want
to participate, and if you invite them in, they will create a world that has them in it,
and will work to make it happen.

I’m coming to understand the positive outcomes of taking the time to understand
and work with people’s motivations–whether it’s reason or passion, altruism or
selfishness. Initially, you must meet people where they are. This little bit of
common sense is no where near as common as it should be. If you start with an
assumption of greed, your tone will be one of contempt. If you start with the idea
that people are stupidly self-destructive, your tactics will run from over-bearing to
dictatorial. Shame easily turns to resentment, and accusing people of being
disconnected from the source of life and cowering before illegitimate authority will
only produce defensive rigidity.

We don’t want to overload people with anxiety and guilt, we don’t want to vilify the
public, and we don’t want to make the task appear impossible due to the enormity
of the situation and the forces allied against change. But we must also deal
honestly with this latter truth. People, for the most part, have made the best
decisions possible given the information that is readily available and purposefully
presented by the status quo and its protection mechanisms. People must become
aware of their complicity, but starting with blame is counter productive.

Ecopsychology must become and remain credible in the public eye.
Ecopsychologists in particular must become activists outside of their offices. They
must make a personal commitment to live and demonstrate personal
empowerment through the activism required to be the archetypal warriors in
Nature’s crusade for sustainable survival.

Traditional psychotherapies

One of the planet’s foes is the advertising industry with its relentless pushing of
compulsive consumption. The way it feeds addictive substitutes for natural
attractions is a use of psychology against the environment, and a case can be
easily made that it is unethical from the perspective of human well-being.
Psychology must work to restore balance and encourage values that don’t imperil
Earth, but that instead encourage and facilitate a shift in values to those that
support the Global Life Community.

Like Jung’s psychoid, partly psychic and partly matter, “me” has a material
substrate, the liveliness of matter shows that the human subject is composed of
the same nature as the world it comes from. Psychology cannot ignore the
consequences of the mind’s connection to the world at large. A healthy mental life,
a harmony with one’s deep self, is not merely a journey to the interior but a
harmonizing with the physical world.

Psychotherapies must admit that feelings are not more subjective than air quality
in the healing process. Using herbicides on crabgrass is as repressive as what
some do with their childhood memories. Abuses that have been suffered in one’s
deep interior pale in comparison to the abuses going on in one’s environment,
abuses that one may even commit or comply with.

The “me” is not merely subjectively internal. Healing in the external world is as
therapeutic as healing in subjective internal feelings. The bad place one is in could
be more than a depressed mood or anxious state of mind. It could also be an
environmentally sealed factory, a far-flung suburban subdivision, the congested
freeway that connects the two, or the loss of one’s land to corporate appropriation.

Environmentalism is a vast, worldwide movement that includes the complex
adaptive system of everybody and everything. It is constituted of the human
species, the flora and fauna, the oceans and mountains.

Current psychotherapies are dwarfed in comparison, dealing only with
introspective personal, private fears, desires, and guilty secrets. There is no link
between the personal and the planetary.

But in the world soul the human soul has its home. The Earth and the human
species are both crying out for changes that can institute healing, for a new basis
for sustainable emotional and economic life.

Environmentalists must find allies in psychotherapists, and vice versa.
Environmentalists have mainly used the statistics of impending doom and the
coercive emotional force of fear and guilt. They treat people as if they can’t be
trusted to behave as the living planet’s children.

Therapists must broaden their understanding of human sanity to go far beyond the
shell of the human body. The Diagnostics and Statistical Manual of the American
Psychiatric Association only includes one Nature related disorder; Seasonal
Affective Disorder. However, even this depressive mood swing plays second fiddle
if the depression can be related to seasonal unemployment. Nature once again
loses out to the economic.

Our culture calls it madness to listen to the voices of the Earth, to think that the
non-human can feel, speak, and be heard. Could it be that by asserting this
particular conception of madness, psychotherapy itself is guilty of defending the
deepest of repressions, the form of psychic mutilation that is most important to the
advance of industrial civilization? This is, of course, the assumption that the Earth
is nothing more than a dead resource and a bottomless pit for waste. And so
modern psychotherapy focuses on trying to make us feel sane about living in an
insane world.

Within modern psychotherapy, Freud bears much of the responsibility for this
self-destructive mindset. He was convinced the external world began at the
surface of the skin, and in “Civilization and its Discontents” said that
psychotherapy was responsible for patrolling the “boundary lines between the ego
and the external world.” We teach children that the permissible way to see the
world is through repression of cosmic empathy, a psychic numbing we label
normal. Even humanistic psychology sees self-actualization as nothing more than
heightened personal awareness, and existential therapists make alienation from
the universe the very core of our authentic being.

For Freud, “Nature is eternally remote. She destroys us – coldly, cruelly,
relentlessly.” But from the 1990 conference Psychology as if the Whole Earth
Mattered, it is pointed out that when “the self is expanded to include the natural
world, behavior leading to destruction of this world will be experienced as
self-destruction.” Walter Christie said “to preserve nature is to preserve the matrix
through which we can experience our soul and the soul of the planet Earth.” Sarah
Conn contends, “the world is sick; it needs healing; it is speaking through us; and
it speaks the loudest through the most sensitive of us.”

Theodore Roszak comes to the conclusion that at the core of the psyche lies an
ecological unconscious, there to be drawn upon for restoring our connections to
and balance with Nature. All methodologies which purport to be ecopsychology
need to understand people as both shaping and being shaped by the natural
systems environment. This makes ecopsychologists and environmentalists
compassionate allies to Earth in a project that is a positive contribution and a
noble cause: “that of returning the troubled human soul to the harmony and joy
that are the only solid basis for an environmentally sustainable standard of living.”

Liberation Psychology

The question has been posed, why aren’t Americans in the street on a regular
basis due to the economic meltdown, environmental collapse, unpopular wars,
loss of civil liberties and other basic rights, and the basic inequity and injustice
imposed by a paradigm that is built on domination and exploitation? And that’s just
the general milieu. Then there are the specifics, such as the taxpayer bailout of
the financial institutions that caused the economic collapse, the Supreme Court
selection of the idiot from Texas, and the selling of our democracy to the highest
bidder–whether foreign or domestic.

Liberation psychology makes the connection between this unwillingness to act and
classic abusive relationships. I came to this conclusion myself while attending the
6th World Water Forum and listening to people talk about the failures of market
mechanisms to provide water and sanitation, and then stumbling over themselves
in calling for market mechanisms to provide water and sanitation. As a culture,
we’ve developed a co-dependent abusive relationship with economic growth.

Liberation psychology, however, is not a clinical methodology; it is a critique of
traditional therapies which underdetermine causality by seeing behavior as only
the result of intrapsychic processes which are independent of historical, cultural,
and environmental factors. Thus, it shares commonalities with Auyervedic
medicine in treating the family, community, and environment in order to affect
personal health. Congruent with my own research in natural systems, liberation
psychology also says that much distress does not have an internal cause, but is a
reaction to external events, imposed trauma or oppressive environments. This
framework allows people to understand their relationship within the dominator
hierarchy, and how they participate in it–either complicitly or complacently.

As in ecopsychology, there is an explicit focus on healing instead of medicating or
making people feel as if there is something broken in them if they can’t adapt to
the industrial paradigm, accept their imposed place in the world, or if they actively
oppose empire, elite hierarchies, and corporate rule. Traditional therapies reduce
all structural problems to personal, internal ones. This is the basic scientific
reductionism of Enlightenment thinking in action.

As Ignacio Martin-Baro pointed out, in the rush to prove legitimacy within the
scientific and political realms, psychology aligned itself with supporting the
interests of the ruling class and established power structures. Of course, if they
had just listened to William James in the first place, we wouldn’t have wasted the
last 100 years, but that’s a different lecture. Unfortunately, I see this same move
afoot today among ecopsychologists who think they must cater to mainstream
thinking in order to prove legitimacy.

Mental health professionals who treat their clients in a manner that encourages
compliance with the status quo are acting politically. Psychological schools of
thought that focus on maximization of pleasure as the primary motivation of
human behavior are similar in kind to today’s economic theories that make the
same assumption, and are based on an outmoded 18th Century understanding of
human nature. This totally ignores justice, freedom and autonomy. Helping people
adjust to oppression and exploitation leads to apathy, defeatism and learned
helplessness. How it can be justified as healing, health, or wellness is not
apparent to me.

Applications to Environmental Justice

Psychology can contribute to research in the causes and responses to inequity
and exploitation. A sad reality today is that disaster capitalists, whose mantra is
piratization, believe that exploitation is sustainable. This is the basic thinking
behind the call by the World Bank and the OECD for “Green Growth.” But the
inescapable conclusion of an objective analysis of the state of the world today is
that the Industrial Growth Society with its dependence on economic cannibalism is
anathema to sustainability; it is anathema to well-being; it is anathema to life.

Because there is a focus on oppressed communities, there is much relevance for
the occupy movement from liberation psychology. And when you strip away the
cultural myths taken for granted by the middle class in industrial societies,
especially capitalist ones, the oppressed are everyone but the elite. Although, truth
be told, the elite are even allowing themselves to be oppressed by adherence to a
mythology disguised as a scientifically validated paradigm that is inherently

Liberation psychology provides a framework for understanding the unique issues
of the oppressed, However, as it tends to ignore ecology, and the similarities with
the destruction and exploitation of the natural world, it is currently incomplete.
However, it does supply an informative subset for strengthening the explanatory
efficacy and healing modalities that are provided by applied ecopsychology,
especially the perspective of a psychology that emerges from the vantage of the

In the U.S., and all other countries controlled by an Industrial Growth Economy, a
rarely mentioned side to environmental racism is environmental classism, which is
the main reason the middle class don’t get too concerned with what’s really going
on. The middle class in the industrialized, overdeveloped world are constantly fed
the myth that things are not only ok, but getting better. In fact, since this is the best
that things have ever been, that we’re at the pinnacle of human evolution, any
alternative would make things worse. FOX News doesn’t broadcast the reports
pointing out that both the middle class and its buying power are shrinking. The
chemical companies are allowed to continue, and are not held responsible, for
their unregulated genetic experiment on the human race as they continue to
develop more ways to increase profits while our bodies, our food, and our world
become more toxic.

Since the Industrial Growth Society practices mammonism (the deification of
greed), the pursuit of increased monetary wealth is assigned a value higher than
life itself. We’ve come to believe in a technological cure for every ill, and
technological fulfillment for every want. If the products of the chemical industry
(euphemistically called “compounds” instead of toxins) are creating health
problems, then the products of the pharmaceutical industry will restore balance,
which increases the wealth and power of both industries, thereby “proving” this is
the proper path to follow in order to satisfy the American myth of progress and
prosperity through growth.

But the truth is carefully hidden, and when it rears its ugly head, the propaganda
machine of the elite shifts into high gear. We’re told that if we do anything to
impede economic growth, we won’t be able to realize the American Dream. But as
George Carlin famously pointed out, it’s called a dream for a reason… you have to
be asleep to believe it.

The impact of environmental hazards is disproportionately inflicted on the poor
and communities of color, but the path to fixing it is the realization that we all live
downstream. As Martin Luther King, Jr. was fond of pointing out, what affects one
affects all; this is the interconnected nature of reality.

In this country it’s not much of a stretch to say the poor and the marginalized are
everyone who isn’t in about the top 15% of the wealth and power hierarchy,
although the real power is held by the .1% at the apex of the dominator hierarchy.
While toxic chemical exposure affects those in poorer neighborhoods and regions
of the world to the greatest degree, in a global growth economy funded by central
banks, managed by multinational corporations, and enforced by the shock and
awe capabilities of the military-industrial complex, the concept and continuation of
life itself is the major victim.

The total environment must be respected and treated equally. Natural resources
must be allocated to all living things, and not hoarded by any one sector. We
wonder whether humans have an ethical responsibility to “care” for the earth? Or
is it simply in our best interests? Either way, justice and equity, in an
interdependent and interconnected world, requires that the whole web of life be
cared for.

Environmental justice has strong historical ties to political and economic systems
that marginalize and exploit people of color and the poor. People engaged in
public health acknowledge that the determinants of human health consist of more
than diet and exercise, and are powerfully influenced by water and air quality, by
asbestos and diesel fumes, but they also acknowledge the powerful influences of
poverty, social isolation, pyramids of status, poor education, stressful jobs,
depression, the sense that one’s life is out of control, and the startling realization
the whole world has gone crazy.

Discrimination of all kinds–but mostly racism and classism–empowers the
dominant culture of corporations and government regulatory agencies to dump,
both literally and figuratively, on the less powerful. The poor and communities of
color are exposed to much higher levels of industrial pollution, hazardous waste,
and toxic landfills. It’s four times as dangerous to be poor and twenty times as
dangerous to live in a community of color.

While environmental activism around siting issues can help specific areas in the
short term, industry releases hundreds of millions of pounds of chemical waste
directly into the environment on a yearly basis. This means that no matter how
equitably we distribute our pollution, vast numbers of children are going to suffer
from cancer, birth-defects, low birth-weight, developmental disabilities, immune
disorders and a variety of other harms. A movement for environmental justice is
going to have limited impact if the end result is to have everyone equally poisoned,
regardless of color or class.

This is one of the primary reasons counselors, therapists, and even allopathic
physicians have a responsibility to make the connection explicit between
environmental degradations of all types with presenting symptoms of almost as
many types and quit justifying the excuse that destruction, exploitation and
disease is just the price that must be paid for progress, and that if you can’t deal
with that, there’s something wrong with you.

One thing we must be careful of is that the environmental justice movement
doesn’t propagate and help maintain environmental injustice by unwittingly
reinforcing the concept of other; that environmental problems are happening to
someone else instead of to us all. It is important to put out the fires that are
occurring, but we must catch and disable the arsonist. This is one of the strengths
of multi-issue coalition building and why their creation is urgently needed.

Addressing environmental justice is similar in many ways to the problems the
progressive peace and justice movement and those who are alarmed over the
destructive growth that is occurring in their neighborhoods and communities find
themselves dealing with. We end up arguing over tactics or focusing on hot-spot
developments, and miss the systemic nature of the problem. We don’t take the
time to first create a broadly agreed upon framework that has a common goal
such as a sustainable future and a systemic process such as relocalization that
people can participate in to attain that goal. If we have a holistic strategy each of
our efforts can then support one another instead of working at cross-purposes,
and we can move from locally reactive actions to more regionally proactive

I can go on all evening about the environmental–and economic–catastrophes that
have been brought on by our way of life. The main rapidly converging crises I refer
to as the Triumvirate of Collapse–Peak Oil, global warming, and corporatism. But,
there are multiple legitimate sources you can go to for all the information you
could ever use on any of the pressing issues facing people and planet. The
purpose of this conference is what we can, and should, do about them–as well as
their effects on people, of course. Because my main point here is that we, as
psychologists and members of the healing arts in general, have a moral and
ethical responsibility to help create change that works for life.

Allow me to repeat that. Create change that works for life. This is a banner the
Occupy movement should adopt, and it also provides an effective role for healing
that psychologists can press into action. But without dealing with the fundamental,
underlying disconnection from all that is natural and naturally fulfilling, the best that
any psychology will be able to do is slap band-aids on symptoms–on the wounds
of empire.

For Earth and Life…
_dave_(this entire message is composed of recycled electrons)

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