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Sunday, December 14, 2014

Nature Deficit Disorder–A Big Business

The Ecotherapy Movement promotes the improvement or restoration of the ‘human-nature’ relationship, and by so doing aims to rebalance our lives.  Americans spend between 85-99 percent of their time indoors, advocates say, thus distorting the psychological, spiritual, and physical balance we once had in an earlier, more pastoral age.

“Ecotherapy” refers to healing and growth nurtured by healthy interaction with the earth…Ecopsychology, the study of our psychological relations with the rest of nature, provides a solid theoretical, cultural, and critical foundation for ecotherapeutic practice.This perspective reveals the critical fact that people are intimately connected with, embedded in, and inseparable from the rest of nature. Grasping this fact deeply shifts our understanding of how to heal the human psyche and the currently dysfunctional and even lethal human-nature relationship. (www.ecotherapyheals.com)

Advocates of Ecotherapy recommend the following:

  • Inreach: receiving and being nurtured by the healing presence of nature, place, Earth.
  • Upreach: the actual experience of this more-than-human vitality as we relocate our place within the natural world.
  • Outreach: activities with other people that care for the planet (loc.cit.)

The movement is popular because it unifies spiritual longing, psychological health, and commitment to the environment.  Environmentalists are too outward-directed, and religious ascetics too inward-looking; but Ecotherapy fully integrates the spiritual nature of man with the spiritual nature of the Earth.  In marketing terms, it has found a vacant consumer niche; created a strong brand image which signifies commitment, idealism, and purpose; and developed a sales strategy which includes products, services, and technical support. Perhaps most importantly, like all New Age movements before it, it cynically taps into vast reservoirs of personal insecurity, providing an institutional home which is both alternative and strong.

Those who believe in the Gaia Hypothesis, a theory which states that organisms interact with their inorganic surroundings on Earth to form a self-regulating, complex system that contributes to maintaining the conditions for life on the planet, come the closest to this inclusive, integrated world view. Gaians reject the idea of us-them, humans-nature, and see all life as a part of one, universal system.  This semi-spiritual notion is far from the original idea of the scientist James Lovelock who was trying to deduce a universal theory which would explain the complex interrelationships found in nature; but the idea of a sentient Earth coincides perfectly with a New Age movement which deliberately discarded logic and rational exegesis for belief, faith, and uncomplicated spiritual vision. The way to enlightenment was not through cognition but intuition.

Ecotherapy has wisely and perfectly piggy-backed onto Gaia’s practical mysticism.  Both movements incorporate both a  philosophy of love, compassion, and dignity; while at the same time offering an anodyne for psychological pain and suffering.

Ecotherapy got an unexpected boost from the movie Avatar, James Cameron’s spiritual vision of a world of perfect harmony – a Garden of Eden where not only are all living creatures linked together by spiritual bonds, but to all deceased ancestors. Cameron’s fictional vision was part Carl Jung, part New Age mysticism, and part Gaian environmental beauty.

Ecotherapy advocates couldn’t believe their good fortune.  Here was a movie which visually and emotively recreated the world in which they believed. Communing with nature is not simply the means to facilitate human connections, but to join with a universal life force. Cameron, his producers, and the studio has made millions from the movie; and Ecotherapy with is rapidly expanding wholesale and retail sales machinery, will soon be in the same league.  Both Cameron and Ecotherapy spin fantasy and romantic idealism, and both make money from the enterprise.

I shared the Ecotherapy idea with a good friend of mine in Washington.  “Nonsense”, he said.

He had recently spent a week in a small town in western Montana; but resisted requests to swim in the hot springs, trek up to the snowline, and observe bears and elk. “ I spent my time hanging out in bars with cowboys, trailer moms, and rock musicians”, he said. He was not interested in grizzlies, bighorn sheep, and river trout; but couldn’t get enough of the stories of old-timers who remembered the Great Snow of ‘72, the valley fires of ‘03, and the oil and gas boom of the 2010s.

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“If you have seen one mountain, you have seen them all”, he said, “but no two people are ever alike.”

The originators of Ecotherapy, on the other hand, believed no such thing; and knew that there was money in ventures strengthening the bond between man and nature.  They understood New Age philosophy, the spiritual nature of Environmentalism, and the anger and frustration of Americans living in a politically divisive, increasingly fragmented society. Their angst was real. ‘The talking cure’ was expensive and increasingly irrelevant.  Xanax, Zoloft, and Prozac were quicker, cheaper, and easily available; but pacified rather than cured.

A return to nature was the perfect solution – it was organic, pure, and inspirational.  An old-growth forest of 2000 year-old redwoods was as close as one could get to the Garden of Eden. Southern swamps were primeval and spiritually fundamental. Midwestern prairies simulated the inspirational wilderness of the Holy Land.

The commercial opportunities are endless. In addition to the hundreds of ‘clinics’ which are springing up around the country, books, skincare products, and ecological gifts are big revenue-producers.

Understanding the nature of social movements, marketers have organized eco-therapy holiday tours, vacations, outings, and spas. American enterprise at its best.

I met a young follower of Ecotherapy on a recent trip to San Francisco.  She had left the city to live in Mendocino County, had been trained in Ecotherapy, and was working as a therapist at a local Nature Wellness Center. She was enthusiastic and committed, and although she made less than the minimum wage, she felt that the rewards of her mission were enough.  Her trajectory from San Francisco office worker to ecotherapist was familiar. She had moved to California from Chicago to escape the winters and the prairie, and soon became an enthusiastic biker.  She spent as much time as possible on the beach or in the mountains. 

She quickly became active in the Environmental Movement, contributing and then volunteering in campaigns to protect the redwoods, estuaries, sea lions, and the deserts.  Perhaps because of her traditional religious upbringing which she never fully dismissed, she subscribed to the spiritual side of the Movement.  She became a Gaian, and her secular purpose (advocacy, political activism, and demonstrations) was strengthened by devotional energy.

When she first heard of Ecotherapy, she knew it was for her.  She was particularly taken with the ideas of a particularly well-known advocate who said:

I am a flower person, a water nymph, a sprite, and a butterfly.  I caress and embrace trees.  I taste the waters of springs and brooks. I smell the perfumed scent of meadows and forests. I was once reticent – ashamed in fact – about my desire to express my feeling of intimacy with the natural world; but Ecotherapy changed my life.  Practicing the profession has allowed me to share my experience with others – to guide fellow travellers along the path which for so long was hidden from me. I have become one with nature.

Brilliant! Not only did the Movement extend its reach and influence through canny publicity and media use, but through the evangelism of  its growing staff of engaged and committed therapists. They set the style and tone, and were so convincing in their appeal to both environmentalism and spiritual evolution that the clientele grew by leaps and bounds.

The marketing vision of the founders of the movement some 15 or 20 years ago was truly canny.  Amidst the hundreds of New Age, alternative therapies in the country, they found the perfect niche – nature-spiritualism-environmentalism.  My young friend recounted only one incident that took the blush off the bloom of the rose.

Aromatherapy had become increasingly popular in Northern California, and the Center for Sensory Renewal was becoming a serious competitor.  It was obvious that Ecotherapy clients were succumbing to the mystical allure of aromatherapy which also was built on the premise of naturalism and eco-friendliness. According to proponents, aromatherapy “ is a form of alternative medicine that uses plant materials and aromatic plant oils, including essential oils, and other aromatic compounds for the purpose of altering one's mood, cognitive, psychological or physical wellbeing”  It was not surprising, therefore, that Sensory Renewal was drawing clients from Ecotherapy.

The Mendocino Clarion ran a series of articles on the topic. “NEW AGE WARS – THE BATTLE FOR SPIRITUAL GROWTH” was one headline.  The journalist had been educated at the Columbia School of Journalism and did his thesis on the muckraking and social exposés of the early 20th century, and had no sympathy for either enterprise.  He had recently done an article on Magnet Therapy, but could get no traction.  The producers and marketers of magnetic products were careful enough to make no absolute claims about the curative properties of magnets, so no legal case could be brought against them.  As far as consumers were concerned, the journalist quickly found that those who had spent a lot of money on magnets were unwilling to say that they had been duped.

 

My mother always insisted that I ‘get out of the house’ and ‘get some fresh air’; but she was more interested in physical exercise than nature.  For a while I hiked in the Southington mountains and spent hours reading Wordsworth by Mooreland Pond.  I had my nature phase, but as soon as I left Connecticut for New York, it was over.  The country was no match for the excitement of the city.  I never felt the need to get out.  Everything I had ever wanted was there.  There is no more heady and satisfying an environment than that of New York. .

During my long professional career in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, I was routinely invited to visit game parks, and national preserves.  I turned down hikes in the Rwandan rainforests to see silverback gorillas.  I politely refused many requests to visit the lemur colonies of Madagascar.  I turned down rafting on the Zambezi, tours through the Costa Rican rain forest, and trips down the Napo River in the Amazon.  I, like my friend in Washington, preferred to hang out in local bars, relax by the hotel pool, smoke a cigar in the Cuban lounge, and eat foie gras and capitaine a la crème. .

My therapy has always been urban diversity. Walking through the bazaars of Calcutta, the markets of Old Delhi, the outer-ring neighborhoods of Paris, or on the New York City High Line was enough renewal for me. The air of the congested city was just fine. Trees were a distraction. I have always preferred the East River to the Yellowstone.  Brooklyn to Montana. Skyscrapers to cabins. Bars to campfires.

Although I think that Ecotherapy, Aromatherapy, and Magnet Therapy are cockamamie 21st century incarnations of Snake Oil, I am a big fan of their business acumen and enterprise and wish that I had had the idea or enough money to invest in these feel-good, be happy schemes.  I don’t subscribe to its philosophical or spiritual principles; but who cares? Alternative therapies, medicine, religion, and social groupings help keep the economy booming, so why quibble over principle? I don’t mind the odd walk in the fresh air, but always quickly return to the comforts of home.

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