How Being “an Environmentalist” Became an Identity

A trippy collage photo with a mountain scene and rainbows shooting out of someone's eyes.

“If everyone tripped on psychedelics, we’d do more about climate change,” declares the headline of an article recently published by Vice Media. Activists, scholars, and other writers have long pondered the capacity of hallucinogenic substances such as ayahuasca and peyote to “expand” consciousness, inviting a renewed appreciation for our interconnected, interdependent ecological condition. Many describe this experience as “more real than real.” As another proponent writes, “You are the hallucination; the ‘you’ is illusory; the self is a fiction.” In other words, what organic hallucinogens reveal to us is that the self-identity we take for granted on a daily basis not only gets in the way of understanding nature, but also isn’t part of nature to begin with. It is artificial.

In many ways, this kind of argument concerns identity as much as (if not more than) environment itself. If nothing else, the resurgence in popularity of organic hallucinogens demonstrates how closely intertwined the concepts of identity and environment are in the popular as well as critical environmental imagination. Socially mediated identity positions—that is, matters of race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and selfhood itself—exist in close relationship with people’s environment, as the work of environmental justice continues to illustrate.

A sepia-tone picture of poet Gary Snyder, a key figure in the environmental movement, in 1969
Gary Synder, often known as “Poet Laureate of Deep Ecology.” Image from the cover of Riprap, & Cold Mountain Poems, 1969.

Psychedelic environmentalism also illustrates how many narratives told about this relationship involve a dismissal of self-identity altogether. That story is hardly new. The poet Gary Snyder wrote several decades ago that “there is a problem with the . . . human ego. Is it a mirror of the wild and of nature? I think not: for civilization itself is ego gone to seed.” In this comment, Snyder aligns the self with “civilization” and a lack of self with “nature.” He also does so using the same psychoanalytic terminology—such as ego and unconscious—that often animates psychedelia.

The convergence of these ideas—environment, identity, and psychology—is no accident. Modern American environmentalism emerged in the 1960s at the same political moment as more explicitly identity-based movements like Women’s Liberation and Black Power. Psychoanalytic terminology entered environmentalist vocabulary at the same time, just as it did for other movements organized around matters of gender, race, and ethnicity. But as Snyder’s example illustrates, in environmentalist contexts such references often tend to pit nature and culture against one another rather than explore and clarify their interrelationships. Perhaps more importantly, this fantasy of self-erasure in nature paradoxically positions the vanished (often white and male) self as the privileged subject of environmentalism. In the process, such vocabulary often encodes social differences even as writers presume to transcend them, reinforcing whiteness, especially, as a matter of nature and relegating others to the “artificial” sphere of culture.

Ecology and Psychoanalysis in the 1960s

Psychoanalytic thought was one way that environmentalists responded to ecology’s rise to political prominence in the twentieth century. Ecology first reached a lay audience in 1962, when Rachel Carson published Silent Spring and consequently inaugurated the modern environmental movement. The same year, the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) drafted its Port Huron Statement, which announced the formation of the American New Left. This movement drew a great deal of inspiration from the popularity of psychoanalysis in the mid-twentieth century, not as a clinical practice but as a foundation for social theory. The coincidence of these two events has informed environmentalist thinking and writing since.

As a movement, the New Left sought “natural” libertarian alternatives to the “artificial” political order of the postwar United States. Its leadership often articulated this opposition in terms of repression, elevating self-liberation to the forefront of their program. Sigmund Freud suggested in Civilization and Its Discontents that the conscious self or ego is “a shrunken residue” of the psyche, the result of a variety of repressions imposed by modern civilization. Activists likewise generally argued that modern society not only oppressed its citizens but also repressed their psyches, limiting individual self-fulfillment and self-expression. The New Left sought not only to arrange authentic political institutions but also to recover authentic self-identities—what Doug Rossinow calls the movement’s “politics of authenticity.”

At the same time, though, the advent of ecology presented a challenge to the self’s potential authenticity. Its disclosure of the myriad biophysical interrelationships that constitute individuals undermined the notion that there ever could be a singular, unique self. Because the body houses microbes, absorbs nutrients, and nourishes soil and other creatures with waste and decomposition, it’s difficult to draw a simple distinction between self and environment.

The Ego in Environmental Writing

For some radicals, ecology just shifted the scope of what counts as authentic. Some began to argue, after Freud, that because the ego or self forms in the sphere of “civilization,” self-identity is itself yet another form of repression—one that might be disposed of through a variety of means (including psychedelics). In other words, environmentalists influenced by the New Left’s politics of authenticity began to align a distinction between nature and culture with a distinction between ecology and ego (or socially mediated identity in general). Environmentalism itself became a matter of freeing oneself from repression, based on the suggestion that a truly authentic self is not a self at all. Authenticity became a matter of identifying with the ecosystem as a whole.

Environmentalism’s psychoanalytical vocabulary often encodes social differences even as writers presume to transcend them.

Many voices from the New Left turned to ecological politics in earnest when the movement began to fracture in the late 1960s, and Freudian social theory followed them. As new generations drew inspiration from their predecessors, psychoanalytic concepts spread. The philosopher Paul Shepard explicitly built on Civilization and Its Discontents in Nature and Madness (1982), writing that our lack of coherent selfhood in infancy is more inclusive of “living plants” and “unfiltered, unpolluted air” than the ego we develop as we grow. The historian Theodore Roszak entreated readers to “become the Earth and all our fellow creatures on it” by tapping into an “ecological unconscious . . . at the core of the psyche, there to be drawn upon as a resource for restoring us to environmental harmony.” Murray Bookchin, the father of social ecology, denounced the Western valuation of “intellectual experience over sensuousness, the ‘reality principle’ over the ‘pleasure principle,’” over the course of 40 years. And Snyder, too, pitted civilized ego against natural eco.

In all such cases, writers and activists used psychoanalytic terminology to work within a shared narrative template: “artificial” social forms, including the self, limit an innate, psychological state of continuity with our surroundings—an authentic identity grounded in the whole ecosystem rather than the individual. In other words, the New Left’s politics of authenticity—and the psychoanalytic ideas that grounded it—made possible an enduring environmentalist tradition that frames ecology as an identity position rather than a scientific philosophy.

Environmentalism in the Age of Identity

Some writers who invoked this shared narrative template also explicitly framed their work as an attempt to “follow the minority tradition”—a reference to other, concurrent cultural movements that challenged liberal American institutions by advancing race, gender, and other social indexes as models of identity. Writers and activists among these movements also worked within a similar psychoanalytic narrative as the New Left. Some feminist scholars, for example, emphasized how society’s patriarchal hierarchy repressed women’s authenticity in particular.

Framing ecology as an identity position would seem, in this context, like an expression of a sort of environmentalist identity politics. What distinguishes environmentalist use of psychoanalytic terminology, though, is that it’s rarely (if ever) used to advance the interests of a particular identity (along lines of race, gender, ethnicity, or otherwise). Instead, writers like Shepard, Roszak, and Snyder universalize all peoples in terms of shared connection to the more-than-human world. But they also divide them into two categories: those who are repressed and on the side of “society” and those who are not and on the side of “nature.”

What sort of rhetorical effect does this narrative of repression produce? For starters, it pits an “authentic” ecological identity against “artificial” social ones, including those organized around matters of race, gender, class, and so forth. Another way of putting it is that this kind of vocabulary minimizes or erases altogether—intentionally or otherwise—the lived experiences of women and people of color, especially.

A black and white photograph of Terence McKenna who argued for psychedelics towards environmental identity
Terence McKenna considered hallucinogens’ ability to dissolve “artificial” repressions as a means of communing with the more-than-human world. Image by Jon Hanna.

To return to the example of hallucinogens, New-Age gurus such as Terence McKenna often argued in the 1970s and 1980s that the “consciousness expansion” offered by substances such as peyote and ayahuasca not only signaled the breakdown of the ego but also, as a result, a rediscovery of a more authentic identification with the ecosystem writ large—one that social forms, from race and gender to selfhood itself, repressed. McKenna, among others, often pointed to Indigenous tradition to back up the claim, suggesting that Native peoples by default exemplify unrepressed, unmediated identification with environment. Though celebratory, this interpretation of Indigenous experience perpetuated settler-colonial narratives that “uncivilized” Native peoples somehow exist outside social forms, including cultural traditions of their own as well as the devastating effects of settler colonialism itself. Celebrating freedom from repression in the abstract obscured concrete social realities of Native life in the United States, including lived conditions of environmental racism.

In an environmentalist context, psychoanalytic vocabulary has largely functioned to universalize ecological experience. In turn, it has also effaced the uneven distribution of ecological harm that Native, Black, and other peoples of color have weathered for centuries. Complex, intersecting identity positions such as woman, man, Black, white, Indigenous, and settler do indeed take shape socially—too often at the expense of those they describe—but to articulate these ideas solely in terms of artificiality is to ignore, devalue, or deny the material conditions and consequences of their emergence, as well as asymmetric environmental concerns facing marginalized peoples.

Multiple Paths for Environmental Identity

These examples represent just one of many environmental rhetorics that emerged in the twentieth-century United States. This account of “authentic” environmental identity arose alongside cultural movements that produced race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality as models of identity with which we are more familiar. Even though writers presented ecology as an “uncivilized” identity position, they inevitably reflected and recycled political concerns and rhetorical strategies from across the political landscape, starting with the New Left’s politics of authenticity.

But it’s worth noting that the mostly white New Left itself developed its understanding of political dispossession through its engagement with Black civil rights and Black Power activists. These fields, like Women’s Liberation and other movements, hosted their own, still vital debates over the scope and limits of identity. Participants in the social movements of the past sixty years hardly agreed on the definition of “identity” or “authenticity” at all.

This vocabulary minimizes or erases altogether—intentionally or otherwise—the lived experiences of women and people of color.

While the era brought the concepts of identity and environment together, psychoanalysis provided only one language for understanding the relationship between them. Even as some writers adopted a rhetoric of authenticity from “the minority traditions” they observed, such as Black Power and Red Power, other environmentalisms emerged from policies of community organization and self-determination among those same movements.

Environmental justice coalitions took shape in the same crucible, also negotiating the tensions and relations between identity and environment. Environmental justice leaders, however, have tended to articulate identity in terms of consistent, shared oppression rather than authentic, innate nature. The movement views identity and environment not as unchanging essences, but as mutual points of social negotiation. As a result, it eschews the division between nature and culture—and all the identities we live—that psychoanalytic terminology has typically (though not always) implied.

The concepts of identity and environment exist in close relationship—one made that much more contentious by the renewed political importance of both since the middle of the twentieth century. How we navigate that relationship, though, relies a lot on the vocabulary we use to do so. Psychoanalytic language does political violence to marginalized peoples when it frames socially mediated identities as “artificial” effects of repression and reiterates racist exclusions as a result. The renewed popularity of organic hallucinogens is just one of the venues where this terminology persists. It doesn’t matter how many studies prove psychedelics’ ability to enhance consciousness. We also require greater care at the level of language in order to foster more inclusive and equitable futures for environmental politics of all sorts.

Featured image: Psychedelics have connected people within the environmental movement to “nature.” Image by Ryan Haran, 2010.

Alexander Menrisky is a Lecturer at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, where he teaches in the Department of English & Communication and the Honors College. He is the author of Wild Abandon: American Literature and the Identity Politics of Ecology (Cambridge University Press, 2020). He also curates the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment’s (ASLE) Teaching Resources Database. Website. Twitter. Contact.