By Donella Meadows
–August 22, 1991–
Much as I favor recycling and writing to Congress, deep down I know that’s not enough to end our environmental problems. Even if we all buy efficient light bulbs and have no more than two children, still I suspect we will be dealing only with the surface causes of our cultural tendency to devastate nature for cheap thrills.
When I search for fundamental reasons, I end up focusing not on environmental law, the market system, or the fossil fuel economy. I find myself looking deeper than that, way down into the human psyche.
About which I know nothing. But about which I suspect we all need to learn, if we are to create a sustainable world. It’s the last place most us want to look.
Some people are expert at looking there, and I find them worth listening to. One of them is a psychoanalyst named Arno Gruen, born in Germany, raised in the United States, now a resident of Switzerland. He has written a book called The Betrayal of the Self, which comes as close as anything I’ve seen to getting at why we seem to be willing to sacrifice our own health, numerous species, and the earth’s climate for the sake of big cars and junk food.
“Human development may follow one of two paths,” says Gruen, “that of LOVE or that of POWER.” The path of love, he says, leads to autonomy, aliveness, a willingness to feel one’s true feelings and needs. “The way of power leads to a self that mirrors the ideology of domination. Such a self is merely a reflection of those types of constricting, distorted, selfish qualities that parents, school, and society have imprinted within us. What is important is that we must always be proving ourselves; this leads to a warlike stance, far removed from one in which we are able to affirm life.”
I don’t know why that passage makes me think of John Sununu, but it does.
Gruen goes on, “To test out the world empathetically, the infant must first of all enjoy the possibility of a sustained approach to its environment. This can occur only if the environmental stimuli experienced are of a low level of intensity. A mother who intuitively protects her child from being flooded by stimuli is planting the seeds from which self-motivated learning can grow. If a mother is not in a position to do this, either the child’s consciousness will be dominated by the experience of helplessness, … or the feeling of utter defenselessness will be repressed and split off from the growing self.
“As a result, people will continue to seek revenge on everything that might recall their own helplessness. That is why they scorn it in others. Scorn and contempt conceal their fear and at the same time encourage … the need for a compensatory ideology of power and domination.”
Is this why some of us turn out like John Sununu, and the rest of us let guys like him run things?
Says Gruen, “The lesson of our childhood is that power, initially experienced at the hands of our parents, promises an escape from helplessness. The wish for freedom is perverted into a struggle … to gain mastery over things outside our rejected self. Possession of things and of living beings — so the voices of our culture promise us — will bring security.”
Aha! This is where the big cars come in.
“In order to feel alive, we will need more and more external excitation. The stimuli themselves will force us into an addictive mode, even though they leave us inwardly empty. Our need will grow for what actually increases the void. There are numerous stimuli of this sort: loud music, large cars, glittering colors …. What we will finally seek for our feeling of aliveness is simply the speed with which a change in stimuli takes place. The form or content … will have scarcely any significance for us. In fact empty forms will be preferred, since those with content and meaning slow down the tempo of change.”
Television, rock music, shopping malls, the whole consumptive society — no wonder we haven’t the time or sensitivity to appreciate nature!
“The consciousness shaped by our contemporary stimulus-world is a shrunken one. This consciousness diminishes more and more severely those who are exposed to its effect. We act as if we were able to find ourselves in things outside of us, such as our possessions. We regard our life as if it were synonymous with the objects we possess, and thus our consciouness is reduced to what wares the market offers us. What we have here is the death of human experience.”
We are not hopeless, according to Gruen, but we have work to do. “Only if we can succeed in establishing contact with our inner feelings once again, will we find a pathway leading out of our plight. If we accept our powerlessness, we will not die of it. Real change comes about if we learn to deal with the fear behind our untiring search for an unreal security. Only if we undertake the painful process of bringing our fears to consciousness will we be able to open our hearts and increase our sensitivity to our fellow human beings.”
I’m not sure how this analysis leads to any concrete ideas about what to DO, but it leads me to a thought that never would have occurred to me without Arno Gruen’s prompting. I think that John Sununu needs lots of hugs. I’m sure that’s the last thing he wants, but it may be the main thing he needs. I suggest that we declare an annual Hug John Sununu Week. Do you think his Secret Service men would let us through?
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1991