Ecopsychology–Gaia’s response to the Thousandth Monkey

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.~~ Shunryu Suzuki, “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind”

earth from apollo 17I live in a world of media sound bites and illiterate sign makers. When a book comes along that makes me reach for the dictionary and fosters cognitive dissonance in my brain, I like that.

Theodore Roszak’s The Voice of the Earth debunks popular myths such as the Thousandth Monkey and the Entropy of the Universe that have been kicking around in my mind since high school science classes. I like that, too.

In this post, let me introduce you to one of the key players in the field of Ecopsychology, why he is important, and how his message may be the way out of the ecological morass in which we now find ourselves.

The Mean Greenies: scare tactics and guilt trips

When Walter Cronkite first did his TV news series on Planet Earth back in the 70s, I listened. Cronkite was our original Father Figure, and when he spoke up, it had to be important! 

But human nature has a way of habituating to the new, making it old news. When ecology consciousness threatened to sink back into the La Brea tar pit, believers cranked up the volume so people would pay attention. 

Soon there were fanatics hugging trees, laying down in front of bulldozers, stopping boats on the high seas. While it made good headline fodder, it splintered a cause that, while well meaning, was becoming increasingly chaotic in its own right. It seemed to wield a colossal stick that made us scared (for a while) and made us feel guilty (over and over) for simply breathing.

In fact, one list from Earth Island Journal did not offer simple things we could do to reduce our ecological footprint, but rather started with:

  1. Dismantle your car
  2. Become a total vegan
  3. Grow your own vegetables
  4. Have your power lines disconnected
  5. Don’t have children…

No wonder we stopped chasing that train pulling out of the station—there was simply no way we were going to catch up!

Roszak argues that we need a new approach to solving the problem. The only way out of the crisis we have created he says, is to think outside the box, and The Voice of the Earth does just that.

The myth of the thousandth monkey

To illustrate the power of chance in the creation of the universe, it was suggested that you put one thousand monkeys in a (very large) room for an infinite period of time, banging away on a thousand typewriters (being before the days of computers). It was argued that, given enough time, the simians could create the entire works of Shakespeare.

Roszak takes a closer look at this urban myth. “The difference between random dots, formed letters, meaningful words, coherent sentences, reflective works of literature is also a question of time, cultural time.” 

He reflects that there are thousands of years of unique, unrepeatable cultural history involved, before said monkeys ever take up their task. These specialized cultural developments, he goes on, are simply impossible under the laws of random chance.

Further, at the biological level, he points out that sentient life as we know it, did not appear until three-quarters of the way through the history of time. Again, by chance? That the precise, very limited band of conditions needed for life to emerge just happened to be there?

No, contends Roszak. Rather, there is an open system in play, working to nurture those elements needed in precisely the right formulation at exactly the right time for the eventual creation of life as we know it. 

Dissipative system structures vs. universal heat death

In nineteenth century science, a study of heat engines produced the universal heat death theory. Simply stated, this was that all things in motion will eventually progress toward entropy, or total cessation of all movement. The universe runs out of energy and turns into a lifeless black lump forever more.

This theory broadened from its origins to become the second law of thermodynamics. For a century it was accepted without question, but Roszak argues perhaps the time is ripe to take a closer look.

Rather than ‘time’s arrow’ moving us unilaterally in one direction, Roszak and others argue in favor of an oscillating pendulum motion. Perhaps after the Big Bang comes the Big Crunch back to another Big Bang (which even our children’s children’s children will not be around to see!) Why, he questions, is one theory any better than another? 

Roszak draws upon concepts born during World War II, when systems theories that came into play to govern complex movements of troops and materiel.

Perhaps, even as there is an elaborate open system that keeps all the parts of the human body working in smooth coordination, there may also be something on a microscopic scale, as well as a macroscopic scale: systems governing our earth, and beyond. He titles this sentience, Gaia, or Mother Earth. 

And perhaps, even more exciting, he suggests that system is not moving toward eventual extinction, but rather, swinging back and forth, an eternal pendulum clock rewinding itself. He draws here on the work of Ilya Prigogine who first mentioned the paradox of dissipative creation: that we are moving from chaos, to order, back to a creative chaos once again.

Hope for the future through diversity: the carrot rather than the stick

Roszak does not believe we are headed for ultimate destruction, but rather believes that we have a choice.

 He suggests that diversity is the health of all ecosystems. If we embrace diversity: in ideas, in nature, in our cultural systems, we will create the world we want, one piece at a time. The carrot, if you will, rather than the stick.

He suggests that we:

  • Scale down.
  • Slow down.
  • Democratize
  • Decentralize.


Is the possibility for a better world just pie in the sky? 

After reading Roszak’s book and reflecting upon it for a while, I think we have a real opportunity to make a difference. 

For example, witness the movements towards simplicity, small business loans to poor farmers, Positive Psychology. Even Starbucks is jumping on the bandwagon with Fair Trade coffee. Green is in. Not because we feel guilty about it, because it is the right thing to do.

A very personal example for me is this Blog, which has the potential through RSS feeds to be read by millions, worldwide. Connected to this is (small plug here)  my online store  which offers a diverse group of unique products  again, through the magic of the Internet.

Through the Web we all have the ability to connect with literally the entire world, one person at a time. And maybe that’s where it all starts.

Read the book: The Voice of the Earth

I’ve just scratched the surface of this broad-reaching volume. 

Roszak tackles chaos theory, the evolution of psychology, anthropic principle, Deep Ecology, the Gaia hypothesis, and systems theory. 

Some good reading here. It will allow you to pause, and to reflect on where we go from here.

Well worth the effort!


About Author, Pegasus Quincy Mystery Series

I write a mystery series about a young rookie deputy on her first assignment in the Verde Valley of Arizona.
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