When talking about the injustices of class struggle and environmental harms our current social structures support, I occasionally hear calls for violent revolution –mostly from those questioning the effectiveness of peaceful protesting.
Ecopsychology when I was an early student was not a political study. In fact many teachers and academics seem to do back flips to avoid political discussions of environmentalism in the classroom. But back flips were needed, to avoid the pressing questions of our era and the absolute intersectionality between these modes of viewing the world. I remember being nearly in tears in a graduate classroom, as a part-indigenous person hearing a teacher explain that it [environmental collapse] was “no ones fault” and we are all [perhaps equally] responsible.
It took me years to really process this idea. Beyond my dislike for those who had harmed my ancestors and robbed them of land and livelihood, beyond my fears for future children who could not survive in a world populated by sociopath elites, it has taken a long time to understand this teachers lesson, and even today it is one that I take in context.
Ecopsychology is a branch of transpersonal psychology, the study of spirituality and mental health. Ecopsychology urges us to take a systems-theory approach and to release the “us vs. them” attitude. My own linage of ecopsychology studies is also influenced by Tibetan Buddhism, and so there are spiritual assumptions there as well to consider: of our “karma” or life lessons and exchanges together, of our interconnection, of the release of the belief in “the other” –our illusion of separation from everything else.
Ecopsychologists also study the how and why environments collapse at our own hands. And this study inevitably leads to questioning capitalistic systems. It is, I wager, really impossible to discuss the reasons behind environmental woes without exploring our social structures, our assumptions, and our choices in leadership. Capitalism for me comes up a lot, as it is a system built much like a pyramid, build on infinite growth (within a finite planet) and built on class systems that absolutely solidify “the other” in human minds.
What is “the other” in trans-personal philosophy? The other is partly a figment of our imaginations… in some studies of spirituality we see ourselves as one with all life, and truly, from an environmentalist and ecologist perspective this is physically accurate. We cannot live without the myriad of complex ecosystems that support, shelter, and nourish us. We cannot live without the support systems of our human social structures, our kin, our loved ones. Humans are not robots built to exist as islands unto themselves -perhaps a surprise to those raised in individualistic, Capitalistic societies- we inhabit complex social and political structures, complex ecosystems, and a complex, interwoven biosphere. The world may not need us, but we, as individuals, absolutely need it.
We need ecological diversity more than I wager we are able as a species to comprehend. As researchers find penicillin in a fungus deep in the forest we may come to realize as scientific beings each strand of DNA complexity on the whole of earth is useful and important –even if we cannot find its for-human-application at present. Diseases and genocides are more likely in environmentally imbalanced areas, our climate crisis is incomprehensible even to those who are no longer in denial about it. We do not know what will become of us without re-balancing and reviving these systems, but we have a vague –and abysmal– picture of what could happen if we do nothing.
Our own extinction seems to be either glibly referred to by cheeky comedians or called an outright lie by politicians and world leaders who benefit from our current environmental attacks and apathy. But no matter what psychological coping mechanism we use –dissociation, denial– it is still very much there. As a species we need to remember -not disassociate- from this crisis, not shy away from looking at a ghastly infection that truly needs to be treated. We cannot be afraid, and we cannot be in denial.
That leads us to revolutionaries and why I often as a ecopsychologist and activist feel rightly caught between two different extremes. On the one hand there are radical activists who would see predatory elites jailed or otherwise gone on the other I belong to a community of spiritual teachers and healers who also believe no one and everyone is responsible… so how do you mediate such philosophies?
I once had an ecopsychologist tell me she would “never be seen at an anti-war rally” and would “definitely like to come to the pro-peace rally”. She was speaking on semantics, and perhaps showing a psychological lesson to us all in mental health of positive versus negative struggle. Even the word “struggle” might make some Buddhist-oriented psychologists uncomfortable. Aren’t we supposed to “live in the moment”? Shouldn’t we be dwelling in peace?
The argument for living peaceably is a solid one. For one thing, even at the basest physiological level a calm mind is a resilient mind. Those who practice meditation for example are found to have higher immune-function, better social relationships, higher intelligence and reasoning capacity, and enjoy greater longevity and ability to focus. A calm mind, devoid of excess stress and aggression hormones not only benefits cognition but the entire body’s physiology. It turns out other clinical research has been finding the once abstract concept of “love” indeed truly does heal. Those with loved ones close by -or even in one study just a living plant in their hospital room- heal faster. So why not, if we are talking about healing our planet and our social structures, begin with calm, and begin with love and interconnection?
Is that not the most revolutionary thing we really can do, in a world thwart with conflict and division?
“You have to destroy to rebuild” an activist friend said to me with implicit authority– implying the systems of old must be rapidly and perhaps violently dismantled before the world can know this abstract “peace”. He represents the anti-war rally, or perhaps the anti-anything movement. The concept of for or against a system here is psychologically notable, in that we base our identities and collective goals not on what we build and create, but what we don’t want, what we fight against and destroy. From a psychological vantage –in terms of success rates, mental health, and behavioral and social results– framing one’s activism in the negative may not be the most effective strategy.
When it comes to violence in revolutionary struggle, I believe it is something to seek to understand without condoning or promoting. We are all animals, and most animals do react to tense and threatening situations with violence. We see studies on the neurophysiology of the left and right and see that indeed conservative minds are apparently more prone to registering fear and disgust, so why not more prone to setting up systems of defense?
In one study interpretation, it was expressed that the right wing mindset was evolutionarily designed to protect us from diseases and other threats from neighboring tribes. The liberal minded –presumably you and I– were happy to meet foreigners, thought new accents were refreshing, wanted to trade and barter and listen to each others music, try each others weird food. The republican mindset was possibly back then our villager friend, the skeptic who warned us when the neighbors we wanted to party with looked plague-y, or like they might stab and rob us in the night. Back then, humanity likely existed in small villages and nature was far less apparently tamed. We had more predators, more diseases, and our right-wing-minded friends were always there to rein us in and keep us safe from the neighbors outside.
But today, liberals and conservatives clump in globs of localized thought bubbles, unfriending and unfollowing one another and subscribing to opposite “fake news” streams, segregating in hordes. We often forget the other exists, and when we remember, we grimace to witness a symbolic cultural civil war. This right vs. left extremism isn’t just present in America, but all over Europe and many other countries struggling with the recognition of the refugee crisis as it pertains to human rights, our colonial histories of racial inequity, and perhaps the instinctual drive for some to load guns and build walls.
Who is right? Well, I think the liberals are… and not “right” even morally speaking but in terms of evolution strategy. Being afraid of your fellow human at such a massive scale when we have now dominated the planet as a species and 50% of us dwell in cities is NOT in our context a prudent social strategy. It’s hard though, as a psychologist studying human beliefs and behaviors to simply say the left is right and the right is wrong, when the more accurate reality is the right should have our sympathy for being afraid of people who are different, afraid of losing jobs and resources and afraid of the ever amorphous global “terrorist” threats. The right are WIRED for these concerns automatically just as anyone else with a psychological difference may not consciously choose to view the world in such a light. Nature is smart, nature designed us a certain way, but when massive environmental changes are afoot, the people who survive are the ones who adapt. It is the liberal ideology -share, collaborate, open borders, and befriend- that will ultimately insure fewer human lives are lost in the great turning. To collaborate internationally across country lines to reverse climate change together, to feed our collective children and families, and to engineer for stabilization and species regrowth. Fighting one another –as the nationalist might suggest– is a distraction from our much larger and more pressing common human goals.
In an apocalyptic situation the right wing mindset might still hold. Most of the planets soil is poisoned by nuclear fallout, half the worlds cities would be underwater from icecaps melting and we all use Gerry-rigged recycled and toxic electronics while trying not cannibalize each other. Stocking and securing your bunker from enemies and nuclear spills would be of highest priority. If the nuclear and climate holocausts do come, by all means, call the right-wing ideology evolutionary sound.
In a utopic situation, we would lay down arms. As a species we would have to realize no one is free unless all people are free. The excuses we once had for war, genocide, and slavery are wholly unacceptable. We would have to begin looking at our environmental systems not as cash-cows but as collective and important resources to be true stewards of. We would engineer gardens with enough food for everyone, and design systems to distribute resources equally and uplift all people and all ecosystems. Our goals would not only be for ourselves but for our communities, our entire species, and lastly our entire biosphere (and perhaps someday beyond). A bug going extinct would be unacceptable, just as unacceptable as a human to human aggression or murder. We would not kill except to keep things in balance and feed ourselves, and being humane and compassionate would be of a higher priority than any previous social system has ever known.
There would be no jail, only rehabilitation, and there would be no slavery. People would work for the sake of it and with the intent to provide and foster greater genetic diversity and species revival. All we would care about for the first 100 years as a global society would be feeding and hosing all people -including climate refugees-, re-balancing ecosystems, dismantling nuclear threats, and reversing climate change. These goals would be realized peacefully and methodically, each day, each of us would “clock in” to a shop or garden, and diligently work though the arts and sciences in collaborative efforts towards these ends –in whatever areas we were previously trained. All “old world” jobs would be restructured for more sustainable, pro-social gains. Someday, if successful, we will have automated life-balancing systems and begun perhaps again genetic experimentation and space exploration, after insuring the rights to life of all people, and securing planet Earth’s status as an environmental refuge. This would likely take hundreds of years, and would be an overarching goal our great-great grandchildren might be aware of and look to, after the hard work of dismantling past war-infrastructure and automating biosphere calibration systems are complete.
Our goal as a species would be to create a “Noah’s Arch” of genetic material, to learn more about this, and to eventually consider populating other planets (assuming we get bored running out of goals after massive global scale environmental cleanups are no longer needed). Such goals would replace individualistic –and psychologically 2-dimensional- goals of capitalist success and power. The arts, research and engineering would be a large part of future space exploration, and perhaps designing also for greater leisure as these systems progress.
This is a different sociological goal than our current fractured state. The goals of other right-wing humans to protect themselves from one another –and the goals of elites seeking to amass two-dimensional concepts of power– only serve to thrust our entire species back into life-threatening times (and now, in a much accelerated context). Such contexts really aren’t preferable to anybody when carried out to these extremes. The richest elite still has a stake in this, as mother nature would be happy to wipe out every one of us if not well cared for, regardless of class. Those who seek job security and protection for their families, are truly more threatened by melting ice caps and acidifying seas, than their immigrant neighbors. There comes a point when those who seek to blame others or put the burden on the backs of other humans will still not be safe from this impending threat; meanwhile the ultimate resolution to developing a more sustainable global society is being shown to be deeply connected and correlated to to social welfare. The ideology that protects us from our eras largest threat, is the one that sees it’s neighbors as valid collaborators, not subordinates or enemies.
So what of those who consider violent revolution to overthrow predatory systems of power?
When backed into a corner, a wild animal that is otherwise peaceful will lash out. As Nick Hannuer puts it, “pitchforks [from the public] are coming” for 1%ers who do not wake up to their responsibility for positive global change. I think this is a good analogy for the question of violence in the struggle for a better world. There is nothing wrong with running from danger you can’t beat, defending a loved one from a threat, or defending yourself from an attacker, it is just your nature.
In the context of global economic and environmental collapse, a case could be made that this is the point we have reached at a massive scale. Children in America are now suing the government over it’s apathy toward climate change, and the world recognizes this as a stark reality: generations of people mortgaging their offspring’s future at a higher cost than we could ever fathom. But there is a limit to the justification of negativity and conflict, and we all know it.
We feel it when we see someone go down and the other keeps hitting… we judge this sociologically on the scales of human definitions of “good and evil” in countless storybooks and Hollywood movies. Sometimes, violence and aggression happen. Sometimes, we even root and coo for it like audience members circled around a gladiator ring. As a spiritual person, I abstain from saying aggression for the sake of human liberation is necessary, but I also try not to meet this predictable reaction with excessive surprise or scorn (more than empathy). I recognize my own aggression as a biochemical fact of nature, something my ancestors gave me to survive, something that is automatic and not unlike a drug, but also nothing at all to be glorified.
“I was drunk” You might hear someone say over an anti-social incident…. And sometimes we think this excuse makes an extreme behavior understandable and other times we think that alcoholic jerk needs to get it together. Aggressive chemical dependency is the same sort of thing. There are predictable things in this world that could scare any of us or set us off –even on massive, revolutionary scales. It’s not as important to dismiss aggression as a fact of life as it is to know when and how to understand this as a physical mechanism of mother nature, and how to be another aspect of that nature where such predictable violence hits a stopping point.
We are not designed to always fight. And while theorist after theorist have cited Darwin’s “survival of the fittest”* as a justification for brutal aggression and subjection of our own species (*a capitalist interpretation of his work, and a phrase Darwin never actually uttered), we know that aggression is not really a primary feature of our species’ social fabric and consciousness. We’ve lived in a society that for generations has glorified competition and aggression as tools of “freedom” and predatory capitalist dreams. In reality, Darwin’s observations and evolutionary theories largely focused on cooperation –an analogue of love– as a primary factor for why and how we have come so far.
Why not then, see this cooperation in a time of distress as a revolutionary act? The mediation between these philosophies (activism, environmentalism, and ecopsychology) is to understand aggression as a forgivable aspect of being alive, but never to mistake this consequence of struggle for the great turning itself. The goal is not to stir violence, but to demand for oneself the ability to plan for and design progressive global shifts without it.
You cannot do what you cannot first imagine. Perhaps peaceful revolution is statistically unlikely at this time. But that is not the logical reality but a choice of our species. If more people could design and imagine progressive transitions without violence, such transitions would become increasingly more likely.
The most hopeful part of all this, is that there are actionable things you can do within your community to foster greater solidarity, greater food and energy independence, and greater progressive goals, without harming anyone, and without waiting for approval or permission. So in the end, there is a peaceful revolution there, in the hearts and minds of all of us who get to work each day, quietly and without much upheaval or fan-fair, to ensure our creations for a better world come to life. There are infinite struggles our world knows that intersect on these lines, and it is indeed a much bigger task than we can comprehend as individuals. But just as this is true, so too are the infinite and deliberate ways we can each shift the trajectory of our fragile planet, and our even more fragile societies and loved ones within it.