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Psychological Sustainability

We know that our increasingly developed way of life is putting unsustainable demands on the planet and its resources, but is it also putting increased demands on our resources as people, our psychological and emotional resources? Aside from the physical imperative to conserve and protect the environment, is there a deeper meaning and motivation for us, perhaps our psychological well-being depends on it also? Are we equipped, individually and collectively for global citizenship? As well as the unsustainable demands this progression has piled on our physical environment, what of its impact on the psychological environment, perhaps this has limits too.

Mental health statistics would suggest this to be the case. Is it a coincidence that the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that 1 in 4 people will develop some form of mental illness at some point in their lives? According to the mental health charity MIND, approximately 17% of Britons suffer from some depression or anxiety and the WHO estimates that by 2020 depression will become the second most important cause of disability in the world.

Andy Bell, of the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health, has estimated that the cost of ignoring mental distress at work is £1,000 for every employee in UK business.

It is interesting that we use mental health as the dominant barometer of our state of being, a reflection of our exaggerated emphasis on ‘mind’. What we really mean when we suffer ‘mental health problems’ is that we recognise that there is some sort of disruption to our balanced state, a unique point for each of us, as we all have varying degrees of tolerance of shifts in our states. Provided these shifts remain within our tolerances we ‘feel’ ok and can function. When they shift outside our tolerance range, we no longer ‘feel’ ok, bringing about further imbalance as we react to the uncomfortable feelings. What we actually register is a ‘feeling’ state, not merely a state of mind. So to reflect this broader idea of balance in our state of being, I’ve devised the concept of psychecology.

‘Psyche’, contrary to popular usage, does not mean ‘mind’. Its origins can be found in myth, deriving from the name of the Greek goddess Psykhe, who, in her time, symbolised the human soul. So the use of ‘psyche’ is inclusive of its legacy and its current use, it represents for us the totality of our feeling state, to include mind. Psychecology represents the relationship between our state of being and our environment. They are co-dependent, imbalance in one, creates imbalance in the other, by shifting our state we affect the environment, and shifts in the environment affect our state. They are inextricably linked, as indigenous peoples have known and lived by for millennia. Everything works when man lives in harmony with nature, respecting the necessary balance. Indigenous people have not endured the separation of mind from the broader state of being, so their ways, their actions, their decisions, values and beliefs derive from a very different state – the fundamental recognition that man and nature are co-dependent, that all is well when in harmony, balance and cooperation. And Indigenous science is now being recognised as making an important contribution to the science of sustainability, a valuable repository of knowledge of psychecology, of how to live in balance and in harmony. Psychecology provides the framework within which we can investigate psychological evolution and its relationship with sustainability.

Whilst it is something that is rarely acknowledged, we have a deep connection with our environment that affects us, mostly unconsciously, but nevertheless significantly. First used by Erich Fromm, a modern day social psychologist, the term ‘biophilia’ describes this state and its effects are evidenced in many ways. Patients have been seen to recover more quickly in wards where they can see trees out of the window, showing the instinctual nature of this connection and its effects. Stroking a dog lowers one’s blood pressure. People with autism are assisted by interaction with horses. We are elevated by connection with alterity.

Sustainability demands us to behave according to evolutionary success yet we are driven by an hedonic reward system and this presents the core of the problem. We are overwhelmed with the evidence that our current choices are unsustainable, yet we continue to make them, we continue to follow our hedonic motivations and our internal rewards. We are using our technological capability to serve our internal reward and motivations systems, even though we know this to be detrimental to our survival, detrimental to our fellow creatures and to the environment. It’s this that we urgently need to address, the unexamined motivations of our hedonic internal rewards system.

Our ability to model things and predict their long-term success is a primary factor in our development and growth. In contrast, the hedonic system seeks reward in the here and now, to pursue good feelings and avoid negative ones. This is largely unconscious, but is also largely a result of conditioning. This might explain the significant cultural differences between technologically evolved and psychologically evolved societies. Indigenous cultures are premised in psychecology and so they are able to delay gratification in favour of future benefit. If they are walking the forest in search of a medicinal plant, they will only pick the third one they find, confident in the knowledge that they have not taken more than the forest can provide. This protects the future supply. As community and cooperation is the founding paradigm, they also defer self-interest, so even though they may need or desire the plant, their commitment to the group is a greater reward than self-satisfaction. Contrast this with the developed cultures of individuation, competition, accumulation, self-satisfaction, and immediate gratification.

This contradiction between what we can model as future goals and our own immediate reward system is a systemic factor in our individual and collective resistance to change. It is also behind the nagging feelings of frustration, of failed self-help and personal development and the failure of will over desire in our numerous endeavours to change our behaviour. We’re increasingly able to model desired choices and behaviours, but unable to follow them in favour of more gratifying immediate goals. Ironically, but also perhaps encouragingly, as these goals are often the result of social conditioning, it gives us a helpful route in the sustainability agenda. We can see how this conditioning can powerfully influence our hedonic system. Trends can be established almost instantly, desirability manufactured in moments, and a whole market of demand and supply created almost overnight.

There are no doubt many causal factors behind the current and projected increased demand on mental health services, but it would seem likely that the state of internal conflict between long-term goals for success and the inability to overcome our hedonic system of reward could be a strong factor. Coupled with our imbalanced psychecology through our individuated, mediated, urbanised and industrialised world, these statistics are more understandable.

In this context sustainability takes on a new dimension. The call to do the right thing for the environment, because it is the right thing to do, is eventually over time, vulnerable to disillusionment and disempowerment. It is far more relevant and compelling, to illuminate the unconscious connection, the vital nature of it and the part it plays in our state of being. We then have a different reason for engaging with sustainability, we actually move to a new territory, no longer simply focused on ways to continue to develop, progress and grow sustainably, with ever more ingenious technologies to manipulate, manage and exploit our environment. The key driver in this scenario is still technological evolution. From a renewed perspective, the key driver diametrically shifts to psychological evolution, where we are motivated toward an improved state of being.

It seems evident that there is no shortcoming in our ability to model long-term goals and predict future consequences; in fact our technological development is ample evidence that we excel at this. The area that is severely lacking and hence warrants our attention is our internal reward system. We can powerfully influence this in two ways, firstly by establishing new social values and embedding these into our conditioning. Secondly, to develop individually, to illuminate our internal landscape to find understanding of the system of reward, to evolve to expanded states of consciousness of the origins and effects of our motivations and pursue alternative routes to the positive feeling states that we desire.

And finally back to psychecology.

What we can learn from the indigenous worldview is, that living from a place of respect and reverence for the environment and for other animals creates the most profound sense of belonging, of connection and respect in ourselves. We are at our best, experience our most positive states when we are benevolent guardians of our environment, living as closely to it as possible, honouring its sanctity and its limits.

A sustainable world is dependent upon healthy relationship – with ourselves, each other and the world around us. From this place our desires shift, our motivations change and the environment benefits, and therefore so do we.


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