Ecopsychology: Reductionism Is Just One Way of Knowing

In the mid-Eighties, when I had finished my dissertation, I asked a famous Jungian theorist to take a look at it. If the truth be known, it was not the tightest dissertation ever. That was, in part, inexperience, as well as my taking on difficult ideas about the mythic nature of place. In any event, the famous, generous man did me the good turn of reading over the manuscript, then replied, “It’s simple. It’s all about the relationship to the  mother.”

I was not then, nor am I now, sure he was right. Yes, as Winnicott repeatedly pointed out, our relationships with others, human and non, harken back to our relationships with our earliest caregivers. Winnicott thought the imaginal space that opens between “mother” and “I” as we mature was the place of culture, relationship, and engagement with place. For him, life took place in an emotional and cognitive “holding environment” between mature self and emotional memory of primary early relationships.  This is mirrored in our referring to Pachamama as Mother Earth, and our fantasies about the Earth as both nurturing and devouring.

That said, I am leery (as I imagine would be Winnicott) of  severe reductionism. I am reasonably sure collapsing very personal and profound experiences of relatedness with, and to, the planet into recapitulations of our first relationships does a disservice to us and to Pachamama. I also feel concern least confusing metaphor with experience justify the destruction of our living planet. (I remember hearing Mary Catherine Bateson say, at a conference, that her Japanese friends had asked her why we in the West insist on calling the planet “Mother Earth” when we so often do not LIKE our mothers.)

I am concerned that psychoanalytic reductions ignore the lived experience of a world that is reciprocal and engaged with us, that responds to ritual and ceremony.  I am bewildered by assertions that a responsive planet is a figment of imagination or simple wish fulfillment. Would it not make make more sense to suggest that biological mothers are an expression of a complex, responsive, emergent, living planet? (One can be reductionist on this path, too. For instance, one can develop “rules” from observing complex systems, then use the rules to “predict” the forms those systems will take under emergent conditions. The reduction occurs when one makes the questionable leap to thinking the system is ONLY the rules.)

Tomorrow I begin to teach a course on Ecopsychology. The course has to speak to the volumes of research on humans and our ways of experiencing, and relating to, ecosystems, and the ways those interactions and conceptualizations inform self. Yet, there is the real risk of reducing complex, emergent, reciprocal behaviors to the purely psychological. This is, in large part, a question of epistemology.  Reductionism, including that of psychoanalytic thought, is a central tenet of Western thought and perception. Generally, Indigenous ways of knowing are more experiential, relational,and reciprocal. These differing epistemologies create very different understandings, patterns of relationship, and culture, and, in the Americas, have resulted in five hundred years of conflict, misunderstanding, and genocide.

I plan to  open the class with a sharing circle to encourage students to talk about their real, almost unmentionable, reasons for being in course. I hope we will return to that circle each class, creating the conditions, over the duration of the semester, for openness, revelation, and mutual trust. This is more of an Indigenous style of teaching, supporting students to create, or allow, meaning through experience. We will still read and explore what others have to say about place, ecology, and self. Yet, if all goes well, students will leave the course grounded in their own knowing of the emergent, relational nature of place and planet.

I’m not the same person who received the note from the imminent psychoanalyst and scholar. Back then, the young man I was thought about the note, and tucked the dissertation away for safe keeping. Well, not completely. I have continued to think about matters of pace, planet, and self. I have continued to teach, and to conduct ritual and ceremony. Today, if I were to respond to that gentleman, I might say, “Yes, relationship to place and planet is indeed about first caregivers. Beyond that though, well, its complex.”

4 thoughts on “Ecopsychology: Reductionism Is Just One Way of Knowing

  1. A lovely post, each word chosen with care and imbued with meaning. I wish I could join your class.

    Oh how I love Winnicott, in so many ways.

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