Psychological Roots of the Environmental Crisis

By Peter Russell

Man . . . Health . . . Environment
Closing Symposium of European Year of the Environment.
Luxembourg, March 1988.


We have heard over the last few days about the dangers facing us in terms of pollution, the toxicity of many of our products, the loss of our forests, electromagnetic pollution, the nuclear threat, the depletion of the ozone layer, and many other factors that threaten our health, and probably also our survival as a species. We have also heard about the many changes that are needed in government policy, industrial practices, education, health care, and environmental management if we are to cope successfully with these issues. All these issues are very real and very urgent. And certainly need our fullest attention. But they are, I believe, all symptoms of a deeper underlying problem.

We might compare humanity to a person who has fallen sick. His skin may be erupting in boils; he may have pains in the stomach and be running a fever. A doctor who merely gave the person ointments, pain relievers and something to suppress the temperature would not be considered very wise. Clearly, true healing requires that, in addition to treating the various symptoms, one must also look more deeply at what underlies them. Perhaps a foreign bacteria is present; maybe there is vitamin deficiency; or possibly the person's emotional state is responsible. If the roots of the symptoms are not also attended to then it is almost certain that the sickness will reappear, possibly in other forms. Similarly with humanity. Our lack of respect for Nature, our short-term thinking, and the damage we have caused to the biosystem, are all symptoms of some deeper underlying problem. We certainly need to clean up our act, but if we do not also look to the root cause of our inappropriate behaviours, then it is very possible that it will erupt in other symptoms.

So the question I wish to address is: What is the root of of our environmental crisis? Or to put it another way; Why is this conference necessary in the first place? Why is it that one species out of millions can disrupt the natural balance in so many ways and with such dire consequences?

In doing so I want to put the whole environmental issue in a much larger perspective. We are often so engrossed in our own particular historical period that we fail to see the full historical and evolutionary significance of the challenges we are currently facing.

It is, I believe, no exaggeration to say that we are living through the most exciting and challenging times ever in human history. Certainly there have been other very significant times - the rise of the Egyptian culture, the Fall of Rome, the Renaissance and the Reformation, to name but a few - and to the people who lived through them, they probably seemed to be the most significant times ever. But none of these times carried the same implications for the future of humanity as do the closing days of the twentieth century.

These are times of unparalleled opportunity. The scientific and technological potentials are enormous. We have at our disposal the means to create the world almost any way we choose. Yet, despite these fantastic opportunities, the seeds of disaster are all around us. The very technology which gives us so much potential is also threatening our very existence. This may turn out to be the final period of human history.

Of all our technological achievements, the one that probably best characterises these times is our step out into space - a development which in evolutionary terms is probably as significant as the early amphibians' step from the sea onto land. We accomplished a dream almost as old as humanity itself. Not only did we push ahead the frontiers of technology and science, we also gained a new perspective of ourselves and planet Earth. For the first time we saw ourselves from the outside, and the view changed our thoughts and feelings in some unexpected ways.

For the early astronauts the sight of the planet floating in the blackness of space was a profound spiritual experience. One of them described it as "instant global consciousness . . . you are no longer an American citizen or a Russian citizen, suddenly all those boundaries disappear - you are a planetary citizen."

Moreover, the view of our planet not only changed the hearts and minds of the astronauts; the pictures they brought back also had a profound effect on the rest of us. The picture touches us in some deep way, as a result of which it has probably become the most common image in the world today. In some respects it is the spiritual symbol of our times. It symbolises the oneness of all humanity, and the oneness of all life on Earth. In this one image is reflected our whole concern for the planet and the fate of the human race.

Another realisation that struck some of the early astronauts was, that seen from a distance of a hundred thousand kilometres, the whole planet looked as if it might be some huge single living system. They were in a sense having a direct intimation of what has now become known as the Gaia Hypothesis - so called after the Greek Earth goddess. This theory suggests that the whole of the Earth's biosphere functions together as a single living system, maintaining the optimum conditions for its continued existence and evolution. The different species might be likened to the different organs in a body, each having its own function, and each supporting the functioning of the body as a whole. Thus we might think of as the tropical rain forests as something akin to the liver; and the oceans and atmosphere perform, among other things, the function of a circulatory system. Of course the timescales are very different. Our days and nights might be likened to the heart beat of the planet; and the seasons are more like her breaths.

But if the Earth is a living organism, what function we do play in it? Or do we play any useful function? The biosystem has, after all, survived quite well for several billion years without us. One possibility is that humanity is becoming a global brain. When we consider the ways in which telecommunications are linking us together across the planet, we find that there are indeed many parallels with the way the brain in an unborn child develops. Moreover, if the pace of development of information technology is sustained it will only take a decade or two till our global telecommunications network equals the complexity of the human brain. Such a perspective has several interesting implications, which I have explored in more depth elsewhere, and I will not go into them further here. Instead I want to consider another, and far more sobering possibility, namely that humanity may be some form of planetary cancer.



Cancers can reproduce very fast, and without any regard for other organs around. Cancer cells are essentially selfish cells, fulfilling their own needs at the expense of the organism as a whole. They are a part of the body, yet in many respects behave as if they were completely separate. They are also very stupid cells, destroying the very system on which their existence is totally dependent.

The parallels with humanity are not hard to see. Our population has been growing very rapidly, with little regard for the environment. Our own needs, or apparent needs, usually take precedence over those of our surroundings. We are a part of the biosphere, and totally dependent upon it, yet we behave as if we were apart from the biosphere. We eat into the environment, eradicating natural ecosystems, spreading deserts of sand and concrete. We let our toxic wastes flow out into the environment, poisoning other species with hardly a blink. Moreover, we too are very short-sighted, for if we continue we may well destroy the biosystem, and hence ourselves.

Some believers in the Gaia hypothesis have suggested that if the planet does take care of herself, adjusting to changes in atmosphere, oceans and soil, so as to preserve the optimum conditions for continued life, then she will be able to adjust to humanity, and evolve means to deal with our pollution and the other damage we have created. Our increased carbon dioxide output, for example, might be compensated for by an increase in marine micro-organisms which absorb the gas, leading back to state of balance.

I believe such a view is dangerous for two reasons. Firstly, our rate of devastation is probably occurring over a much more rapid timescale then she can adjust to. But more importantly, the Gaia hypothesis suggests that the planet looks after its own welfare; she has no particular brief to preserve humanity. If we threaten the well-being of Gaia, then perhaps the best thing she could do would be to get rid of us.

And there are any number of ways in which she could do this. A nuclear war could be considered the Gaian equivalent of radiation treatment, although in both cases this should only be considered as a last resort since it leads to damage of otherwise healthy parts of the body. We could wipe ourselves out without a bout of planetary chemotherapy - a nerve gas accident would do quite nicely. Or we could simply poison ourselves out of existence.

Or perhaps Gaia could summon her own immune response. Could AIDS be the response of the planet to a rather irritating species? It certainly would be a rather neat solution on her part - destroy the cancer without harming any other part of the system. Or is AIDS just a planetary warning shot across the bows? Perhaps we should be grateful that it is relatively difficult to spread. If AIDS had been as contagious as a common cold, then the whole of humanity would have been infected, before we even knew the disease existed. Although it is sobering to remember that the AIDS virus is evolving a hundred times faster than most other viruses, and may yet develop such virulence.

However, I do not want to suggest that the healing of the planet necessarily requires the end of humanity. But if we are to avoid this rather depressing end, we must explore how we can rid ourselves of our own malignant tendencies. To see how this might be done, and what it entails we need to look a little more deeply into the causes of our malignant attitudes.



In one way or another, the many crises which we face are all the result of decisions we have made. The decisions may have been made by individuals or groups. They may have been made with awareness of their impact or in ignorance. They may have been made with the best of intentions or out of selfish motives. Yet, however they were made, they originated from human thinking.

Evolution has blessed us with the faculty of choice and free will, and through them we have become active agents in the evolutionary process. Yet, for one reason or another, we have frequently used this gift in ways which do not appear to support our own evolution or that of life as a whole. The fact that we have not always chosen wisely, suggests that the criteria behind our decisions may be in error; our intentions have not been in line with those of Nature.

The root of the error is not so much in our behaviour as in the thinking that underlies it, and the beliefs and values that underlie our thinking. The nuclear threat, the greenhouse effect, the destruction of the rain forests, the widescale extinction of species, acid rain, soil erosion, the depletion of the ozone layer, the problem of atomic waste, pollution, the energy crisis, the North-South crisis, the economic crisis, the food crisis, the water crisis, the housing crisis, the sanitation crisis, the AIDS crisis, and all the many other crises that humanity faces are each symptoms of a deeper psychological crisis. Our motivations and goals are in some way inappropriate.

Again there are close parallels with cancer. In essence cancer is an error of programming. In the heart of every cell are a set of chemical programmes, often loosely referred to as the genes, which contain instructions on how to build various complex proteins. These proteins underlie a cell's structure and behaviour. Although each cell in a body contains the same set of programmes, different parts are switched on for different cells, and at different stages in the same cell's development. As a result, only a small proportion of the thousands of programmes in a particular cell are active at a given time.

Sometimes, however, sets of instructions which should be "off" are switched on. This can happen for a number of reasons. Radiation from space, atomic waste or medical treatment may damage the control sequences - the switches in the gene. Toxic chemicals in the air, in water or in food, may damage the programmes. Or a virus may enter the cell and replace the cells genetic material with some of its own.

Often the results are benign. But sometimes the cell may begin growing and reproducing itself. Guided by a set of instructions totally inappropriate to its natural function in the body, it becomes a "selfish", rogue cell no longer acting in harmony with the rest of the body. This is the beginning of cancer.

Likewise humanity's malignant tendencies could be considered to stem from errors of programming. In this case the programmes are our attitudes, beliefs and values; our basic operating principles; the mind sets we have about who we are, what is important.

We may take the attitude that our own benefit comes before that of others. We may believe that we can own the land, own the planet's natural resources, and even own other lifeforms. We may value our material possessions for the status they give more than for their utility. We may think that we can become happy through accumulating personal wealth. Given assumptions such as these it is little wonder that we then misuse our creativity. Thus the roots of humanity's malignancy lie deep within our minds, at the very heart of our functioning. Our errors in programming condition many of the choices we make, causing us to use our creativity and technology in ways which benefit us only in the short term - and even this is questionable.

What drives our decision making are needs. We have various physical needs - air, food, water, warmth, shelter - and we have various psychological needs - belonging, recognition, security, control, stimulus. Most, although not all, people living in the more developed countries have our physical needs met; indeed, one of the goals of social development is the adequate fulfilment of these needs. What drives us is our psychological needs.

The need for security, for example, often manifests as the need for wealth- although money also, of course, offers a sense of status. Much of our social behaviour is geared towards gaining the approval and recognition of others. The foods we choose to eat are often chosen more for their ability to stimulate the taste buds than their nutritional value; and if they can be consumed in classy restaurants, we gain an added psychological boost.

Unfortunately however, whereas our physical needs can be satisfied - we do not want to eat more than two or three meals a day - our psychological needs are rarely fulfilled. A person may gather a great deal of wealth, but does he feel more secure as a result? He finds new sources of insecurity. Others may try to steal his wealth, and he has to employ "security" companies to defend his accumulated wealth. Or you may discover the gastronomic excellence you have been searching for for years. Does this then satisfy you? Or are you left wondering when you might be able to repeat the experience? It seems that we have become stuck with various needs that are not really necessary.

Some have argued that human beings have a hardware fault. Somewhere in our evolution our brains have "mis-wired", with the result that we are born with an inherently selfish, aggressive and competitive nature. But I want to suggest that it may in fact be a software problem - an error in our programming. In which case there may be hope for humanity; for perhaps the error can be corrected. But to know whether or not this is possible, we must first ask why we hold on to our psychological needs so strongly. What underlies our psychological needs?



The answer, I believe, lies in one of our deepest psychological programmes of all - our survival programming. The urge to maintain one's physical integrity is very natural, and is something to be found in all creatures. Yet human beings also have an urge to maintain their sense of psychological integrity - their sense of self and personal identity.

Most people's primary sense of identity is derived from their experience and interaction with the world. I "am" my personality, my character, my job, my social status, my sex, my body, my nationality, my name, my family, my ideals, my beliefs, my education, my interests, my clothes and even, sometimes, my car. None of these are really who "I" am; they are things we have or do, things that describe us and identify us to others. They are all derived, in one way or another, from our experience and interaction with the world around. They are how the "I" is seen rather than the essence of "I".

But if this is our only sense of identity we are stuck in a trap. For when one of the things which from which we derive our outer identity changes or is threatened, our sense of identity is threatened.

We may respond with anxiety or fear. We may defend our character. We may go out of our way to establish our social status. We may worry about wrinkles on our bodies. We may feel insulted if someone forgets our name. We may argue for hours defending our beliefs. We may be proud of our education, and like others to be aware of it. We buy expensive or fashionable clothes in order to ensure the approval of others. And if someone damages our car, or even insults it, we may not always respond as you might expect a rational, intelligent, sane creature to respond. The result is that we spend a considerable amount of time and energy on protecting, maintaining and defending this outer identity.

It is this derived sense of identity which is responsible for many of our apparent psychological needs. A sense of self derived from the world around needs to feel secure that the world around is not going to change in unpredictable ways, or ways which threaten it. It needs to feel in control of the world, so that this sense of self is continually reaffirmed. It seeks the approval and recognition of others, for without them its status would be threatened. The net effect is that we come to love things more than our own being.

If this were as far as it went, such sad and unnecessary behaviour would be benign. But its consequences spread out into the world around. We end up exploiting the world around in service of this partial sense of self - and "the world around" includes other people as well as our physical and biological environment. Our need for recognition and approval can lead us to make inappropriate political, economic, environmental or industrial decisions. Our need to defend our beliefs can turn others into enemies, make us kill en masse, and focus half our technology on weapons of war. Over-concerned with our psychological survival, we consume resources we do not need, disperse toxins we could contain, and carelessly eliminate many of the other species who share this planet with us.

We often think of big business as the exploiters of nature; but we are all exploiters in one way or another, and we are all to blame for the crisis we find ourselves in. So long as people want to have mahogany furniture, or want to eat hamburger meat from fast food outlets, it will be financially worthwhile for others to cut down the rain forests. One of the reasons it is profitable for farmers to use pesticides is that the supermarket-shopping housewife wants to buy vegetables that look nice, without the blemishes of caterpillar teeth. We continue to pour ever increasing amounts of carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide into the atmosphere because the man in the street prefers to drive around in his own private petrol-thirsty automobile.

You can certainly legislate to some effect, but the very nature of legislation means that it is nearly always in conflict with some individual's needs; if it were not it would hardly be necessary. The USA, for example, has for several years had legislation on car exhausts, mainly in the form of catalytic converters. But catalytic converters reduce a car's power and performance, and this conflicted with some of the needs of the drivers' identities. Many have discovered, however, that by thrashing the engine down the freeway for a while one can burn out the catalytic converters and regain power, performance - and prestige. Each year a million cars fail the test, get fitted with a new catalytic converter, only to lose it a week later.

Humanity's problem is that it has become riddled with self-centredness. Its as if the minds of humanity are diseased with a mental virus called "ego". And this mental virus poses a far more dangerous threat than does the AIDS virus. For it is this self-centredness that governs our attitudes, and keeps us locked into behaviour that is neither for own good nor that of the planet. It often prevents us from making the very changes in our behaviour that we know are so essential.



This problem of egocentricity seems to be uniquely human. The great apes do not seem to have egos that need continual reinforcement, why is it that we do? And why do we do so in ways that are so obviously damaging to our own long term interests?

The answer probably goes back to the two things that most distinguish us from all other creatures. The first is our highly developed symbolic language. Among other things language gave us the ability to describe and define our experience. This has led to science, understanding, communication, caring and the evolution of human culture. Without the many spin-offs that language gave us, we would never have evolved to the stage we are at now. But there are possible pitfalls to giving too much value to language.

So successful is language in its ability to describe and define, that we unwittingly make the assumption that everything can be described and defined. Possibly this is true in so far as our awareness of the world is concerned. We can label our experiences, express their qualities, and relate them to other experiences. But what happens when we try to describe or define the experiencer, the self, the "I"? Any attempt to do this in words, means that the self, which is the user of language, is attempting to use language to define itself. Through language we are able to throw more light on the world, but can we throw light onto the self, which is the source of the light?

The self trying to describe and define itself is rather like a person being sent into a dark room, flashlight in hand, and being told to find the source of the light. All that he sees as he shines the light around are the various objects which the light falls upon. However hard he looks he cannot find the source of light - and may well conclude there is some mystery at play, or that the light has no source. But the light is still there. Similarly when we seek the self through the normal modes of experience, all that we can describe are the various experiences which the light of consciousness falls upon. However much we try to grasp the self in words or concepts, we fail to find the source of our experience - and we may well conclude, as many have done, that there is some mystery at play, or that there is no such thing as the self. But we are still aware.

Crucial as language may have been in the evolution of human society, it has little value when it comes to knowing our true identity. Indeed, if we believe that we can describe the "I", it can put us at a disadvantage. All that can be described of ourselves are the aspects of our being that can be experienced, either by us or by others. Thus in trying to define ourselves to ourselves, we all too easily come to identify ourselves with our outer selves, the self that can be seen. We derive a sense of identity from our bodies, our relationships, our behaviour, and from the perceptions of others.

This limited mode of identity may well be an inevitable stage in a species' evolution of self awareness. If language gives the mind the ability to reflect upon its own nature, and appreciate the concept of self, then it is very likely that our first sensings of our identity will be those which language can handle - our outer identity.

For most human cultures the consequences may not be too serious, and have little consequence for the rest of humanity. Many of the materially less-developed societies, seem to have successfully integrated the needs of the ego with the needs of the group. The consequences start to become serious when this derived sense of self is combined with the other feature which distinguishes us from all other creatures - our opposable thumbs.

This unique feature allows us to grasp objects of varying shapes and sizes, manipulate them, and perform delicate operations with them. Combine this beautiful evolutionary advance with a brain able to think, gather knowledge and contemplate the future, and you have a creature able to make a rich variety of tools - hammers, axes, spears, clothes, boats, wheels, windmills, steam engines, telephones, computers and space vehicles. The whole of human technology can be seen as the amplification of the power inherent in the human thumb.

Technology has amplified our ability to influence and change the world for our ends, and in ways far beyond the capacities of any other creature. If those ends are the ends important for our survival and welfare as a species then technology could be a great asset. When, however, those ends are the ends of an identity that continually seeks to change the world in order to have it reinforce its sense of individual existence, then it can become very dangerous to all concerned. A high technology not only amplifies our ability to satisfy our physical needs, it also amplifies our ability to satisfy our psychological needs - and the needs of a faltering sense of identity can be virtually limitless. Thus technology can also amplify without limit our illusory sense of self, the error in our internal programming.

As soon as the ever hungry ego consciousness starts using high technology a species starts heading for trouble. In the words of the late Gregory Bateson:

"If this is your estimate of your relationship to nature, and you have a high technology, your likelihood of survival will be that of a snowball in hell. You will die either of the toxic by-products of your own hate, or simply of over-population and over-grazing. The whole of our thinking about who we are has got to be restructured."

In other words high technology and an under-evolved psyche cannot coexist for long. One of them must go. There is little chance of technology disappearing - and few would want it to. It is our psyches that must change. It is the ego that must go.



I have argued that at its root, the crisis of our times is not so much an environmental crisis, an economic crisis, a population crisis or a political crisis; it is in essence a consciousness crisis - a mismatch between our psychological development and our technological development. In terms of our understanding of the world around and our technological ability to change it according to our wishes, humanity has certainly advanced immensely over the last few thousand years. We are, in this respect, undoubtedly the most advanced species on Earth. But in terms of our inner development our advance has been much slower. As a consequence, we have not yet the inner wisdom and freedom to use our new powers for the good of all.

We should not necessarily judge ourselves badly for falling out with Nature in this way. It may well be a temporary, but inevitable, phase in the evolution of an intelligent species that develops both technology and a sense of self. If dolphins had had fingers and thumbs, they might well have had to face a similar psychological crisis.

This consciousness crisis probably comes upon an intelligent species very quickly. As soon as it emerges from the biological phase of its evolution into its cultural phase, a species is engaged in a dash through history. The dash begins with the emergence of self-reflective consciousness, and ends in the species' consciousness crisis. As the species rapidly evolves, it develops the means of its own demise. And as its development accelerates, it brings the testing point ever closer. It is as if a window in time opens before the species. Can it pass through this crucial stage in its development and come out safely on the other side - whatever that may be like - before the window closes again. For humanity this dash begun around the time of the Neanderthal Revolution, 50,000 years ago. And it looks as if the window in time is now about to come to an end. We are in the last moments of this evolutionary dash, in a race against time itself.

As a species we are facing our final examination; and it is a psychological examination; it is in fact an intelligence test - a test of our true intelligence as a species. In essence we are being asked to let go of our self-centred thinking and egocentric behaviour. We are being asked to become psychologically mature, to free ourselves from the clutches of this limited identity, and express our creativity in ways which benefit us all.

Moreover this test is not something that is going to happen in the future; we are taking it right now. We are at that final examination point. And the question that has been set is very simple: Are we as a species able to use the awesome power we have developed for the good of the Universe? Do we have the intelligence to do it? If not we fail the test - and fail as a species. Moreover this test is one with a time limit, and I fear the time left is running out fast.

This test is not just being posed to governments, corporations and scientific institutions; it is being posed to all of humanity. Can we each personally realise that our real identity is not dependent upon the things we gather around us, the way others see us, or the way we like to see ourselves?

Can we realise that the ego-mode is not the only mode, and certainly no longer the most appropriate? And can we then release ourselves from its grip, and allow our true intelligence to shine into the world?

We know this shift is possible for we have seen many examples of people who have lived it - the St Theresa's, the St Francises, all the other saints, whether they be called saints or just simple people. We know inside that this is how life can be lived and should be lived, but somehow we feel it is too far away, or not for us. Or we are too caught up in the world, with no time to spare. Or we feel trapped in other ways.

We also know that it is not beyond us. Many of us have at times known what it means to simply be oneself, secure in one's own existence. It may have been triggered by a beautiful sunrise, through falling in love, in meditation, or in a confrontation with death. Suddenly the mind falls back into its natural state, a state of ease.

What we do not know is how to allow this ease to fall upon us. We are so caught up in all the things that we believe we need, we never allow time to let it be.

Perhaps we need the psychological equivalent of the Manhatten Project. "The Manhatten Project", you may recall, was the code word for the development of the first atomic bomb. It had been realised that in the newfound energies of the atomic nucleus was the potential to release vast amounts of energy. Initiating a chain reaction could create a bomb a thousand times more powerful than the high explosives of the day. The development of such a bomb was seen to be of the highest importance for ending World War II, and hence for global security. Consequently scientific, technical and financial resources were pumped into a number of research and development institutions across the USA. The result was the detonation within less than three years of the first atomic bomb.

Now, nearly fifty years later, it is becoming clear that there are enormous untapped potentials within human consciousness, the nucleus of our being. If this power can be released humanity could begin to tackle its problems much more wisely, ending the possibility of world war, and greatly increasing our chances of survival. If this need were recognised and resources put into projects to explore how to facilitate our awakening, then we could have an Inner Manhatten Project, and one of far greater value than the original project. Whereas the original Manhatten Project was founded to win a war against other people; this Inner Manhatten Project would help us win the war against ourselves.

The wisdom of the human psyche already exists in many spiritual traditions, philosophies and psychologies. But it needs to be pulled together and researched in order to bring out the essential wisdom in a manner which the person in the street can relate to. This is not to advocate a return to religions of the past, but to rediscover the sacred within us in the language and technologies of the twentieth century.

At the beginning I likened humanity to a person who has fallen sick. Any lasting remedy must seek to find the underlying cause of the malady. Certainly we need to do everything we can to reduce the damage we are causing to the environment. But if this is all that we do we shall find the same inner malady reappearing in other symptoms.

The root of our environmental crisis is an inner spiritual aridity. Any truly holistic environmental policy must include this in its approach. We need not only to conduct research in the physical and biological sciences, we also need to explore the psychological and more sacred sciences.

This conference is entitled "Man", "Health" and "Environment". You will note that the word "health" comes in the middle. If the relationship of man to the environment is to become a healthy relationship, then man himself must become healthy. This does not just mean seeking to remove the many causes of ill health that abound in the world today, but also actively promoting true psychological and spiritual health.