For me, the most symbolic and significant political fight (among many) that is taking place in the United States in recent times has been the fight to stop the Dakota Access pipeline near the Standing Rock Reservation. This conflict is significant because it exemplifies a condition that I call "ecopsychopathy." There are about 200 classified forms of mental illness, and this is one that I would like to add to the list. Echopsychopathy can be described as a "lack of empathy, connection, or sense of responsibility with the natural world, resulting in its abuse and exploitation."
The inability to empathize is the main characteristic of psychopathy. Psychopaths are emotionally disconnected from other people, who are only objects to them. They have no "feeling of fellowship", no ability to feel pity or guilt. This allows them to commit acts of cruelty and exploitation that would go far beyond normal human beings. Since they have no feelings for others, there is nothing to stop them from inflicting suffering on them and exploiting it on their own.
This is a perfect description of the attitude of our culture towards the natural world. Many of the world's indigenous peoples feel a connection to nature that we, the "civilized," seem to have lost. Indigenous peoples perceive a sacred character in nature, feel that they share its being with it, and are therefore reluctant to harm it. This is typified by the Lakota holy man, Black Elk, who said: “Every step we take on Earth must be done in a sacred way; each step should be taken as a prayer ”. And it is also exemplified in the opposition of the Sioux people to the access channel to Dakota.
On the other hand, the eco-psychopathic attitude of mainstream American culture sees nature as nothing more than a supply of resources. Natural things are objects. They only have value to the extent that they can supply us with raw materials. They are not alive, they are not sacred and they do not deserve our respect. We cannot empathize with nature, in the same way that psychopaths cannot empathize with other human beings.
The consequences of this disorder are enormous, and vastly exceed those of any other psychological condition. At an immediate level, echopsychopathy produces a degradation of our living environment that causes dislocation and discomfort. As the fields of ecopsychology and ecotherapy have shown, human beings have a strong sense of connection to nature. We feel at home, because it has been our home for hundreds of thousands of years. Contact with nature heals us. Lack of contact with nature hurts us.
On a more macrocosmic level, echopsychopathy threatens the survival of the human race. The end point of our exploitative and manipulative attitude towards the natural world is undoubtedly the complete disruption of the fragile ecosystems on which our life depends. This disruption is already underway, resulting in the mass extinction of other species (at the rate of 100 per day, by some estimates). And if left unchanged, human life will become increasingly challenging, until we suffer cataclysmic consequences.
Indigenous peoples have always recognized that we suffer from ecopsychopathy, although they have not used that term. Almost from the first moment the Europeans reached its shores, the Indians were horrified by their exploitative attitude towards the land, their determination to tear apart the earth's surface to tear it apart in search of resources and wealth. As Chief Seattle is said to have said in 1854, "his [the white man's] appetite will devour the Earth and leave only a desert."
Perhaps all is not lost however. Fortunately, there can be an essential difference between echopsychopathy and psychopathy. Most psychologists believe that psychopathy is incurable. But this may not be the case for echopsychopathy. Although our general culture is affected by ecopsychopathy, there are many millions of people who feel a strong feeling of empathy towards nature. As the protests at Standing Rock demonstrate, many of us are appalled at the systematic abuse of the natural world by our culture, as Native Americans have always been.
Perhaps there is a cultural change underway. Perhaps we are beginning to remember something that other peoples have always known: that we do not live in the world, we are part of it. When we abuse nature, we are only abusing ourselves. We are connected to nature, whether we are aware of it or not. And our survival depends on being able to feel this connection.
By Steve Taylor, Ph.D.
Wake up world