Our mental instability is probably nowhere so manifest as in our attitudes to the environment. Having spent the last four decades threatening the planet with thermonuclear devastation, we are now destroying its forests, its climate, its atmosphere. Global warming is a case in point. The costs of ignoring it are immense, the benefits of preventing it extensive. Yet, collectively and for what seem to many people (chiefly politicians) to be compelling reasons, we ignore it. Who stands to suffer most from all this destruction? We do. Why, then, don't we stop it? Ah, well . . .
The Voice of the Earth is a bold attempt to analyse this crisis of rationality and point the way towards a more earth-centred wisdom. In part, Roszak takes his cue from Freud, who was the first 'to raise the ominous possibility society itself might be psychopathological and so cannot serve as a standard of health'. Freud did not pursue the political implications of collusive madness: where Freud feared to tread, however, the Greens have swarmed and colonised.
Environmentalism is not merely a political movement: it is also a complex and deep-rooted revaluation of our attitudes towards the world outside, and also inside, ourselves (that the two are linked, as Roszak points out, is one of its most important messages). Why do people hug trees, undergo 'wilderness therapy', wear T-shirts inscribed with emblems of whale, elephant and tiger? In the space of a generation, the landscape of the Western mind has fundamentally altered: the task Roszak sets himself is to describe the new landscape that is, through the mists, phantasms and convulsions, taking shape.
I do not think he succeeds. I say that with regret, since I am an admirer of his writings, which have often succeeded in isolating and describing, at an early and therefore seminal stage, the elements of a shifting culture. He comes to the task with ideal qualifications, so I am not sure whether anyone could have succeeded. Roszak talks about a 'modern science of the soul', but perhaps that is a contradiction in terms. Can you pin down the psyche - particularly the collective psyche of a generation - like a butterfly? Is that not the job of poetry and literature?
What we have, instead, is a comprehensive primer on all the forces underpinning our psychic orogenesis - a kind of geomorphology of mind. We travel through Taoism, Gaia, deep ecology, Freud's id, Jung's collective archetypes. We dally with cosmology, quantum physics, the noosphere of Teilhard de Chardin, the anima mundi of the Greeks. We admire the Bushmen, the Pawnee Indians, even, surprisingly, Chief Seattle (Roszak acknowledges his words are apocryphal, but still quotes them). We praise the holists, disparage the reductionists (does anybody have a good word to say for Descartes these days?).
For those unversed in the green critique of the last decade or so, much of this will make fascinating, if at times frustrating, reading. Ultimately, it fails to convince because it fails to cohere - Roszak has woven the carpet but does not show us the figure. Where he succeeds is in demonstrating the extraordinary richness of its texture. Early in the book he remarks on the counter-productiveness of 'scare tactics and guilt trips', arguing that only a 'psychological transformation' - certainly not reason or facts alone - can restrain our 'runaway industrial civilisation' and keep the planet healthy. I agree - but wonder if we will only understand that transformation after it has occurred.Reuse content