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Esteem 2016


Distributed by Green Planet Films, PO Box 247, Corte Madera, CA 94976-0247; 415-377-5471

Directed by Peter Charles Downey
DVD, color, 55 min.

General Adult
Environmental Psychology, Ecology, Psychology

Date Entered: 12/22/2017

Reviewed by Andrew Jenks, California State University, Long Beach

This thought-provoking documentary contemplates the connections between the separate fields of psychology and environmental science. The Australian director approaches the topic from a very personal point of view. His father had committed suicide, he suffered abuse as a child, and he had a history of self-harming. After having produced numerous documentaries on environmental themes, he had a cathartic moment where he sensed a connection between self-loathing and the abusive and exploitative relationship that so many people in the modern world have toward nature.

The attempt to link environmental degradation to attitudes and psychological factors is not new. Going back to the late 1960s, environmental scholars and activists have discussed the link between psychology and environmental crisis. The historian Carolyn Merchant suggested that Western science and technology are rooted in a patriarchal culture that has produced a rapacious and exploitative attitude toward the natural world, which assumes the supposedly inferior position of the female. The Medieval historian Lynn White linked environmental degradation to Christian ideas in Genesis that God gave the natural world to humans for their exploitation, so that they might be fruitful and plentify (and boy, did they plentify!). Judeo-Christian civilization thus encouraged an attitude of dominion rather than stewardship toward the natural world, creating the environmental crisis of modernity and the Malthusian dilemma of overconsumption and over-procreation.

This film invokes the psychology of self-help and self-esteem to create an idiosyncratic environmental psychology. Clearly sympathetic to the director’s thesis, numerous psychologists and sociologists present a number of provocative claims: that power and control over nature is compensation for our own individual insecurities; that competitive individualism and consumerism provokes a profound sense of individual insecurity and dissatisfaction that is manifested in an aggressive and bullying attitude toward others and to the natural world; that the Western emphasis on individualism isolates us from others and from nature, creating antagonistic relationships and a profound sense of insecurity. Ultimately, then, the root of the environmental crisis is the psychological condition of insecurity, and the solution is developing a healthy sense of self-esteem: hence, the title of the film.

Having provided a diagnosis of the problem, the director’s interview subjects then proceed to their proposed cure. That cure borrows heavily from Buddhist practices and from more or less standard solutions offered by therapists to their insecure and unhappy patients. Suffering, says one of the psychologists, comes from a sense of separation from others and from nature. We can reclaim connections to others, and to nature, by recognizing that we all share a profound feeling of vulnerability. That recognition will supposedly help us become more humble, more caring, and more committed to the goal of being a steward of other people and nature, just as they are transforming themselves into our own stewards. Accepting our own vulnerability thus becomes a source of individual strength and self-esteem as well as an asset we can use to help and care for others and for nature.

The documentary is certainly provocative in its highly personalized presentation of the thesis that what we lack, and what will heal our relationship to nature, is more self-esteem and less self-loathing, and once we love ourselves we will then love and respect nature. The subjective and highly personal quality that makes this a compelling documentary, however, is also a source of its weakness. The interview subjects, while articulate and clearly committed to their ideas, also are sympathetic, mostly enthusiastically so, to the director’s thesis. A broader sampling of professional psychologists would provide a better sense of how the psychiatric profession as a whole treats the argument made in the film. Also lacking are concrete examples of how self-loathing translates into environmental degradation. We hear experts proclaiming that this might be the case, but the film stops short of making that case. As a result, the central claim of this interesting film remains abstract and less convincing than it otherwise might be – though certain to provoke lively debate.