Birthing the Ecological Self
by Dr. Renée G. Soule
What are environmental crises inviting us to become? Perhaps we are invited to become who we actually are: Earthlings. Beyond (and beneath) social identities, we are Earth in human form—breathing expressions of an evolving system, what Arne Naess identified as the ecological Self. This identity is not a distant goal. As Naess observed, “We may be in, of and for nature from our very beginning.” ii The ecological Self is a felt-sense of multi-layered constitutive relations as one’s core identity, an organic (not esoteric) non-duality. Life itself is learning and evolving within, through, and as us.
However, a habitual “me and only me” perspective dominates as a survival tactic. This limited self renders wild inclusivity inaccessible and worthless. Identity that is deeply related to one’s immediate environment is not only overlooked and undervalued, it is also under-educated and locked in shame avoidance strategies. Being “in, of, and for nature from the beginning” means that all of nature is included in our personal experience of breathing, thinking, struggling, laughing, and loving. Hidden in plain sight, this unity is difficult to recognize. Can fish know water? Can we feel the sun in our warm tissues?
Luckily, identity—one’s sense of self—can be awakened and cultivated. Identity is malleable and, when faced with limitations, seeks new avenues of self-expression, Though exploration, conscious empowerment and expansive experience, ongoing maturation of identity is also possible. Identity ripens under the right conditions. These include education, community, and ecstatic experience. (Conditions may also include death, crises, and trauma—but these need to be held in a frame of initiation to be helpful.) We are each born with unique genius and purpose. Committing to the flowering of identity as a vehicle for this purpose is a fluid adventure that is chosen. Identity evolves. It breathes. It dies and is reborn. As we all know, identity can stagnate, be exploited, and enslaved by cultural norms. Mired in a particular culture, identity chafes and explodes entrapments. Thereafter, identity can be lost. Then it seeks an update, a new home, and fresh expression of one’s purpose. Identity is drawn to, and suffers, initiation.
Identity can expand and become more inclusive or it can shrink and become ego-centered, myopic, and impervious to feedback. To a large degree, shrinking or expansion is a choice. This is good news. Ecological identity can be developed and encouraged to consciously evolve. Ecopsychology is devoted to this possibility. The ecological Self can be one’s center of gravity, a place from which to make decisions, take action, and find solace. As a basis for environmental ethics, turning toward the ecological Self is more reliable than any law, social contract, or societal norm. Cherishing life trumps moral duty. An ecological Self naturally and beautifully follows norms of environmental ethics.
This being the case, promoting the ecological Self could, and I believe should, be a primary focus of environmentalism. If all politics is identity politics, what identity is promoted in traditional activism? As Naess says, we need to hear about our ethical shortcomings from time to time, but we are more likely to change through encouragement, expansive experience, and a deepened perception of reality—which includes a deepened sense of Self. Naess calls this approach “deepened realism.” iii Deepened realism is central to ecopsychology. Rather than moralize, we vitalize.
Many people have sense of ecological belonging, but it comes and goes. It is not yet a stabilized identity. On the weekend, we are decent Earth citizens. Come Monday morning, we take shelter in cloaks of denial. Ecological schizophrenia causes deep suffering in our world—personally and collectively.
What sustains coherent ecological identity? I observe that people who are committed to and rooted in mature ecological identity shine with inner light and brim with enthusiasm. It’s quite remarkable. Could this energetic quality be perpetuated while doing practices that develop the ecological Self? Joanna Macy says yes. A frisky (and ornery) example of this possibility, she experiences the ecological Self as a dynamic and metaphoric construct of identity. Like a nerve cell in a neural net, this Self opens to the charge of other neurons. Imagining and stretching into this energized belonging brings into play wider resources and capacities that are not available to a firmly boundaried sense of self. There are distinct paths that lead us, to borrow Macy’s images, from “Earth as Lover” to “Earth as Self.” If commitment to expansion and inclusivity is energizing, then let’s focus on that. Let’s seek out and promote direct and imagined experiences of larger ecological belonging and then let the power of nature do its healing work.
Direct experiences can happen intentionally, or by grace within crisis situations. (Note: Grace falls more easily on prepared ground….) When protecting one of the few remaining rainforests near his home in Australia, John Seed, describes a powerful experience of ecological identity that occurred when facing bulldozers. “I was gripped with an intense, profound realization of the depth of the bonds that connect us to the Earth. I knew then that I was no longer acting on behalf of myself or my human ideas, but on behalf of the earth, on behalf of my larger self, that I was literally part of the rainforest defending herself.” Perhaps action itself, action taken on behalf of who or what you love beyond narrow personal interests, is a starting point for identity expansion.