A recent post by Duane Elgin identifies the need to focus our energies where it really matters: on dimensions of human consciousness that have contributed to, and exacerbate, our current and pressing urgent ecological crises.
Quoting Speth on this topic, Elgin writes,
I used to think the top environmental problems facing the world were global warming, environmental degradation, and eco-system collapse.. but I was wrong. The real problem is not those three items, but greed, selfishness and apathy. And for that we need a spiritual and cultural transformation.” – James Speth
I would argue that our thinking about these three “items” of greed, selfishness and apathy, must go deeper. It’s not enough to signal out these dimensions. They are what are most readily observable, the tangible expressions of rampant degradation carelessness, and irrational self-harm through ecological destruction. Rather, what would seem considerably more productive would be a systematic consideration of what underlies these three aspects of human behavior and consciousness.
Let’s take apathy, clearly a topic of great interest for me. I am invested in apathy because of the way it is used to describe a state of being, when in fact it is a symptom. Apathy itself means nothing: it is a mask, a presenting symptom (to use clinical jargon) that, if followed with inquiry and curiosity, may yield unexpected insights.
For example, in my PhD research study, I conducted in-depth interviews with participants who may be likely considered as “apathetic” based on their survey responses. They did not engage in any particularly clear environmental actions or behaviors, were not involved in any environmental groups, and consumed much mainstream media. What I found was in fact a much more complicated story. Throughout the interviews — and I conducted three in-depth, open ended interviews per participant, using free association rather than overly directing the dialog — I found contradictory narratives, loss, confusion and yes, some expressions of “apathy.” However what was without question was also the presence of concern, care, anxiety, sadness, excitement, and moments of inspiration. How this was expressed and manifested through our “actions” was where it became complicated.
I don’t believe apathy, nor greed or selfishness, is the place to stop. It is the beginning of our investigations. We need to be asking the questions about what constitutes selfishness, and the perception that we are in fact separate from the biotic systems of which we are, alas, a part of. We need to be asking questions about empathy – not only celebrating it’s recent “discovery” neurologically, and the implications for how we do business – but how empathy can be socially supported, nurtured, and taught.
I believe Harold Searles got it right, when he wrote about apathy back in the late 1960s. This is a man who was tuning in to the levels of ecological crisis and pervasive apathy, writing about it, and still now we remain enthralled by behavioral economics, rather than what is actually going on.
The current state of ecological deterioration is such as to evoke in us largely unconscious anxieties of different varieties that are of a piece with those characteristic of various levels of an individual’s ego-development history. Thus the general apathy… is based upon largely unconscious ego defences against these
anxieties (p. 363).
What this means is that our awareness of how vulnerable we are in relation to nature can evoke intolerable anxieties, that are not dissimilar to the infant’s experience of herself as an autonomous, yet dependent being. This is mapped into our neurological story. This is our neurological story: a story of awareness of our vulnerable and fragile condition. The question is, what we do with that. Apathy, greed, selfishness – arguably symptoms and expressions of something entirely different.