Among all the profiles and hit pieces, there’s been surprisingly little attention paid to Jordan Peterson’s attitude to environmentalism. One of the most prominent new voices in popular intellectual culture, supposedly out to tackle the major threats to our civilisation. And yet, when it comes to arguably the greatest challenges we currently face, either he’s quiet, or his remarks are slanted and disparaging, and rarely taken to task. Something stinks.
He once spoke unequivocally in support of environmentalism. In 2014 he was invited to speak for a Canadian marine sustainability group at his university in Toronto. He seems sincere, though it comes across as something he’s accepted an invitation to lend his name to rather than a cause he’s committed to.
As with many issues, there’s a modicum of balance buried in his copious output, enough for defenders to dig out and wield. But overall he projects a strident cynicism about environmentalism, deeply at odds with the gravity of our situation. He rages about the threat to ‘natural order’ posed by challenges to gender norms, then reposts a stream of ideologically-driven articles minimising concern for capitalist ecological impact.1 How to parse this bizarre contrast? Some form of cultural-psychological displacement seems like the best explanation. Sometimes it’s easier to kick down than face up to serious fears.
I want to dig into Peterson’s attitudes here, deeper than his lip service to balance, to explore the implications beneath his championing of a dangerous current of ‘eco-scepticism’ — occasionally just as dangerous, in our urgent situation, as easily-dismissed denialism. The environmental debate doesn’t need to be entirely shut down for things to be worse than they would be otherwise; its waters just need to be muddied enough to stall decisive action.
A brief survey of Peterson’s pronouncements on the matter will give an indication of ingrained biases, not far below the surface. Sketching some plausible reasons for these biases will lead us deep into Peterson’s home territory of archetypal psychology. I’ll examine how Peterson’s championing of the Hero archetype feeds into his political commitments and ideological biases (and vice versa), leaving the perspective he represents ill-equipped for exploring and coming to terms with the dark forest of ecological complexity.
Along the way there’ll be some ideas and perspectives which, let’s say, resist easy absorption. For me, understanding these things is definitely an ongoing task. Hopefully, if something rings true, but very quietly, this piece can serve as a useful introduction to further reading and thinking.
Strap in, this may take some time.
Peterson on environmentalism
Let’s start with a response to one of Peterson’s better interlocutors, Jonathan Rowson, who interviewed him at the RSA.2 Asked about climate change, Peterson accurately pegs complexity as a key issue. ‘You cannot fix a complex system unless you understand it,’ he says, lambasting young people who protest. Fair enough, right?
The problem here — invisible only if you skim the surface — is that for the most part, these protestors aren’t trying to ‘fix’ the climate. They’re trying to stop people breaking it. They’re not trying to interfere with a complex system, they’re trying to stop other people interfering with a complex system. Peterson’s right about complexity, but he misrepresents the dynamics of the issue so as to shoehorn in his loathing for young activists. But by his own conservative argument against messing with complexity, he should be out protesting with the young activists.
What’s more, for the most part protestors take their cues from the very people who are best placed to understand the complexity in question: climate scientists. Peterson makes much of competence hierarchies. But his hierarchy rap is curiously absent here. Of course there’s debates to be had about the details of climate science and our response to it, but the basics seem overwhelmingly clear — according to the competence hierarchy.
So much for the competence hierarchy.
I’ve been impressed by Peterson’s Dostoevsky-fuelled advocacy of taking the opposite tack to using ‘straw men’ in argumentation — using a ‘steel man’ or ‘iron man’. That is, instead of creating a false or unrepresentative caricature to knock down, set your strongest image of your opponent before you and see how you fare against that.
I’ve been less impressed by his atrocious record of applying this tack, especially regarding the environment. How does Peterson characterise the environmental movement?
The environmental movement … basically says: benevolent Nature (that’s the positive Feminine), negative Culture, because culture’s out there rapaciously destroying the pristine wilderness of Mother Nature, and the negative Individual, too, because human beings are part of that as individuals, we’re a cancer on the face of the planet. … It’s one-sided.4
I want to say, ‘Dude… it’s one-sided because you just made it so!’ Which would be true. I mean, I’ve known people who do basically think that we’re a cancer on the face of the planet and nothing else. But they don’t constitute ‘the environmental movement’. Does this idea permeate the environmental movement in any sense? Well, I would question the intelligence and sensitivity of anyone who diligently studies human history with an eye on ecology and never entertains this idea, even in passing. Peterson himself entertains it. But this just becomes part of his deceptive rhetoric, as he credits himself with balance and rips it away from environmentalism.
So much for the steel man. From environmentalism to postmodernism and feminism, straw-manning is an important Peterson tactic, thinly veiled by his smokescreen talk of steel-manning.
In another lecture, Peterson expands on the ‘one-sidedness’ theme to explain that it’s a handy method for identifying ideological bias. Like the environmentalist distortions of the Club of Rome, whose notorious 1972 report The Limits to Growth said (according to Peterson) that we’d all die of starvation by 2000, and that ‘human beings were no better than [guess what?] a cancer on the planet’. Ha! How unbalanced and wrong can you get? Typical doom-mongers.
However, Wikipedia summarises their conclusions as follows:
- Given business as usual, i.e., no changes to historical growth trends, the limits to growth on earth would become evident by 2072, leading to “sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity”.
- Growth trends existing in 1972 could be altered so that sustainable ecological and economic stability could be achieved.
- The sooner the world’s people start striving for the second outcome above, the better the chance of achieving it.
Peterson’s characterisation is based on a fallacious popular belief5 rather than the report itself. In fact, the most recent assessments of the report, comparing its projections to what has happened since its publication, seem to thoroughly vindicate it.
So much for the attack on one-sided ideology.
Capitalist individualism and the fear of collectivism
What causes such blatant distortions? Why do they slip by, unnoticed by many if not most — even as they ironically arise in the very moment of a professed attempt to identify ideological distortions?
Of course, attacking ‘ideology’ can be excellent ideological cover. I recall hearing Margaret Thatcher railing against ideology when I was a teenager. She always seemed to phrase her attacks in a general sense. It was supposedly ideology itself she detested, not some particular ideology or other. But even as a teen it seemed painfully obvious to me that this was simply a ruse to deflect attention away from her own ideology, in order to more thoroughly cement it as the correct, natural way of things.
Thatcher’s ideology — very much Peterson’s cup of tea — was capitalist individualism, wed to a social conservatism watered down just enough to survive in modern times. It constitutes (with more leeway on the social side than on the economic side) the shaky but still reigning status quo of the past forty years or more. First embattled by facing off against communist collectivism, then emboldened by winning that Cold War, capitalist individualism has been riding very high.
The relationship between it and environmentalism is strained at best, but it isn’t simple. Interestingly, Thatcher was something of a pioneer in global environmentalism. The attempts after her death to claim her as an environmentalist hero are overstated, but in the late ’80s she was a key figure in kick-starting international efforts to recognise and tackle climate change.6 In her 1990 speech to the 2nd World Climate Conference she struck a rather un-Thatcherite note:
For two centuries, since the Age of the Enlightenment, we assumed that whatever the advance of science, whatever the economic development, whatever the increase in human numbers, the world would go on much the same. That was progress. And that was what we wanted.
Now we know that this is no longer true. …
Many of the precautionary actions that we need to take would be sensible in any event. It is sensible to improve energy efficiency and use energy prudently; it’s sensible to develop alternative and sustainable sources of supply; it’s sensible to replant the forests which we consume; it’s sensible to re-examine industrial processes …
We shan’t succeed if we are all too inflexible. We shan’t succeed if we indulge in self-righteous point-scoring for the benefit of audiences and voters at home. We have to work sympathetically together. We have to recognise the importance of economic growth of a kind that benefits future as well as present generations everywhere.7
What became of this impassioned, challenging environmentalism? By the 21st century, the lady who wasn’t for turning had completely changed her mind. Why? Her biographer John Campbell — otherwise highly sympathetic — writes:
As part of her increasingly slavish subservience to American leadership in the late 1990s, she concluded in her last book, Statecraft, that ‘President Bush was quite right to reject the Kyoto protocol.’ Half-baked scaremongering about climate change, she now believed, has been seized on by the left to furnish ‘a marvellous excuse for worldwide supra-national socialism.’ The environmental movement was just the latest manifestation of anti-capitalism, containing ‘an ugly streak of anti-Americanism.’ This U-turn, made for frankly political reasons, marks a sad retreat from her brave pioneering …8
Many cite her training in chemistry as a reason for her taking climate change seriously. Unlike most politicians, she grasped and respected the all-important scientific underpinnings of the issue. However, it seems that her later turn against the issue was indeed more political than scientific, fuelled by reading publications emerging from free-market think tanks which received funding from the fossil fuel industry, and by her paranoid Cold War reflexes.
Environmentalism has uneasy aspects to it for anyone firmly on either side of the political spectrum. For leftists, it can run counter to the strong spirit of Promethean humanism in Marxism.9 Conservation is too… conservative for many radical leftists. And there are significant overlaps with far-right politics in environmentalist history.10
It’s ironic, then, that for the right, as Thatcher’s climate U-turn shows, the all-powerful argument against environmentalism is its tight association with leftism. After the end of the Cold War, capitalist individualism ploughed ahead uncontested, enthusiastically championed by the right and the centre. It was left to the left to be associated with ecological issues — through awakening to the situation, through common cause in opposing unrestrained market forces, or simply by default. Perhaps the left’s internationalist tendencies helped it grasp the international nature of many ecological issues. For centrists, their allegiance to capitalist individualism hobbled their well-meaning attempts to address sustainability; and right-wing twitches of old-fashioned conservative conservationism never seem to amount to much. As the evidence regarding climate change became clearer in popular consciousness, and as it sank in that anything but concerted international action and pulling back from unrestrained free markets would be pissing in the wind, overlaps with the spectre of internationalist leftism put the fear into the individualist status quo.
Is Peterson’s anti-environmentalism rooted in his allegiance to this status quo, sharing its fear of collectivist environmental necessities acting as Trojan horses for collectivist leftist ideals? I’ve not found any direct statements in the vein of Thatcher’s which would testify to this. But it seems like a plausible dynamic to explore as we consider the cultural currents which Peterson and Thatcher represent. And this dynamic becomes ever more prominent, the deeper we dig into Peterson’s stated formative archetypal experiences.
Before we get to the archetypal roots of this fear, it should be clearly acknowledged that Peterson’s individualism isn’t simplistic. For instance, he thoroughly accepts the priority of our evolved nature as social animals. Co-operation is ‘the predicate for a productive society’, and ‘saves us from death’.11 ‘You can think of yourself as a personality inside your head, but you’re nested in systems that transcend you, and they’re just as real as whatever’s in your head.’12 He thinks there’s ‘an oppressive element’ to any co-operative society, but ‘generally it’s better’ than being ‘naked in chaos’.13
Things get even more tangled when he discusses depression due to losing your job.14 Contrary to the usual Thatcherite ‘personal responsibility’ spiel, he suggests ‘situational analysis first, personal analysis second’, i.e. first consider the fact that what’s happened may be due to forces beyond your control, before you blame yourself. He slips back to conservative ideology, though, when he conflates social forces beyond immediate personal control with the ‘blind, random forces of nature’ — deflecting any analysis of those social forces.
In the end, there are no real human individualists. Maybe a few monks in caves, the odd runaway from modern life in a remote forest. Like Thatcher, Peterson is more a familialist than an individualist — and a nuclear familialist at that. Even then, does he advise families to go off and live by themselves in the woods? No. Families depend utterly on society. Like most humans, Peterson is a collectivist first, and his individualism is a relationship to that collectivism.
Even Peterson’s conception of the ‘Divine Individual’ is, in a sense, only tactical rather than strategic individualism. The idea is that the bold individual (the heroic Son), through descending into the chaotic unknown (the appallingly stereotyped Mother) and extracting fresh knowledge and power, revivifies the staid social order (the cultural Father). We prioritise the individual because that’s the best way of prioritising the collective. In this, Peterson’s schema echoes Adam Smith’s concept of the divine ‘Invisible Hand’ allegedly at work when we allow individuals to openly compete against each other in serving their selfish best interests. Whether you’re a liberal True Believer, or one of the wealthy elite looking for a palatable political story to keep the pyramidal economic structure in place, the theory is that selfish competition ultimately results in the greatest good for the greatest number.
In any case, what I want to focus on now are the archetypal undercurrents of the tide of individualism which Peterson is surfing, and of the fear of collectivism which possesses ideological individualists, even to the point of distorting their perceptions of greater real-world threats. In this, I’m less interested in Peterson the person, and more interested in how his story and his ideas have found such resonance in popular culture. His story can act as a medium in which to scry for significant images of our psychic collectivity.
Peterson’s story finds me asking: beyond the productive success of capitalism, what psychological energies are invested in the recent elevation of economic individualism to the status of dogma? What about the deep anxieties involved in that now ancient-seeming Cold War? What do they reveal about the mythic substructures of civilisation, and the ecopsychological predicament it finds itself in?
The dream at the end of the world
Peterson opens his magnum opus, Maps of Meaning, with an autobiographical preface. In it he reveals how he was wracked as a young man with anxiety about the geopolitical stand-off between NATO and the Soviet Union. This extended to intense recurring dreams of nuclear holocaust, ‘two or three times a week for a year or more’.15
He sought understanding first from Freud, but, given the religious overtones to some of the imagery assailing him, more productively from Jung. He delved into comparative mythology, and claimed to discover there ‘universal moral absolutes’, which, if ignored, condemn you to ‘misery and eventual dissolution’.16 He proceeded to root these mythical absolutes in his study of child development and neurophysiology, and decided that the triumph of the West in the Cold War wasn’t just an arbitrary triumph of power. It reflected the fact that Western capitalism was right, and Soviet communism was wrong.
For all his devotion to archetypal analysis, he spends little if any time scrutinising the imaginal — as opposed to sociopolitical — roots of the tremendous anxiety which put him on the path to righteousness. But there’s a study which sheds fascinating light on nuclear holocaust dreams, a book which I think is the most important mythical analysis of the Bomb, published five years before Maps of Meaning: Michael Ortiz Hill’s Dreaming the End of the World.17
Like Peterson, Hill was tormented by visionary dreams of nuclear apocalypse. For Hill, as for Peterson, these dreams were a pivotal rite of passage. But rather than restricting himself to personal reflection, Hill reached out and began to collect similar dreams from others. His book is a sensitive and insightful attempt to divine the ‘Country of Apocalypse’ — the region of the collective unconscious where all these personal dreams seem to overlap and bleed into each other.
The central mythical insight which arose from this process was a vision of the Bomb as ‘a terrible koan‘,18 a ‘complex and contradictory image’19 formed through the convergence of the conflicting binary archetypes which make up the foundation of civilisation itself: the Messiah and the Beast.
On the one hand, the light-bearing heroic Messiah (from Marduk to Christ) is found in how the Bomb represents the pinnacle of human power over nature, a devastating Promethean display of technological might. This was compounded in the Bomb’s gestation by the fact that the race to build it was entirely motivated by the fear that the Nazis may build one first. The Manhattan Project was a messianic effort to save us from utter disaster. When the Nazis were defeated before the Bomb was ready, the momentum was still — with characteristic archetypal force — unstoppable.20
On the other hand, the proliferating destructiveness of the Bomb’s power (seen in the famed uncertainty about whether it would trigger a chain reaction and ignite Earth’s atmosphere), the insidious nature of fallout’s poisoning, and the demonic way in which the Bomb’s creators felt compelled to press on even when the ostensible motivation for it disappeared; all these factors constellate the chaotic, evil Beast (from Tiamat to the Antichrist).
For Hill, this ‘dream at the end of the world’ is a new archetypal juncture. On the one hand, it threatens madness, arising as it does out of a devastating war which materialised what Jungian analyst John Weir Perry describes as the core of the psychotic process: ‘a world conflict of cosmic import between the forces of good and evil, or light and darkness, or order and chaos (surprisingly often expressed nowadays as democracy and communism)…’21 This kind of psychotic fracture, speaking in the language of absolutes, is inscribed into the mythical substructures of civilisation itself. The Messiah / Beast complex has roots in the very earliest civilised myths, in the brutally violent triumph of Babylonian patron Marduk over the primordial goddess-monster of creative chaos, Tiamat. The real-world grounding for this conflict is the civilised sense of separation from and controlling victory over the realm which civilisation’s genesis itself had created: nature as ‘wilderness’, personified as the voracious Beast.
The dream at the end of the world hearkens back to a mythical landscape where the realm of wilderness, wildness, maternal darkness, underworld and death was defeated so that the logos of the new urban order could reign supreme.22
On the other hand, for Hill this terrible dream offers an initiatory opportunity. The Bomb threatens the end of civilisation in a literal, devastating way. But also, through bringing together the Messiah and the Beast in a single image, an alchemical coniunctio of this psychotic split between culture and nature, it offers a portal into potentials beyond what we understand civilisation to be, a re-weaving of the dualism at its roots.
Central to this initiatory opportunity are two things. First, the willingness to descend, into the dark underworld, ‘into the Beast’s lair’; not with the adversarial bravado of the Messiah, but ‘with tenderness of heart, surrendering our inflated conceptions of ourselves …’23
Second, the realisation that this Beast, this chaotic underworld, is nature itself. Or rather — and this is crucial — it is what civilisation, this Holocene blip in the evolutionary timeline, has made of nature in trying to apprehend itself in contrast.
Let’s deal with the descent, and its relationship to nature and ecology, in turn.
‘It matters very much the way we descend…’
Everything that touches human life is surrounded by a penumbra of associations, memories, echoes and correspondences that extend far into the unknown. In this way of seeing things, the world is full of tenuous filaments of meaning, and the very worst way of trying to see these shadowy existences is to shine a light on them.
Peterson’s prefatory personal narrative in Maps of Meaning, where he relates his Bomb dreams, is titled ‘Descensus ad Inferos’. This reference sets the tone for the crucial place which descent has in Peterson’s schema, but it’s left untranslated and isn’t discussed. This is significant. At the roots of this schema is an unexamined image.
‘Descensus ad Inferos’ is a Christian theological term for Christ’s post-crucifixion descent into Hades, his ‘Harrowing of Hell’, to save the righteous who had already died (prior to the event which could save them — the Crucifixion). After this he defeats Satan, then ascends in triumph to Heaven.
Christ is Peterson’s main man, his apex Hero who tops the summit of the set of all dominance hierarchies. The dream which seems to form some kind of resolution of his nightmares involved identification with an elevated, crucified Christ, suspended in the dome of a vast cathedral.25 It’s strange to contemplate Jesus ‘blessed are the meek’ Christ in the context of dominance hierarchies, as Peterson does. But while the oddness of this conjunction is softened somewhat by Peterson’s occasional reminder that he thinks in terms of hierarchies for everything — telling the truth, doing good deeds, cleaning your room, etc., as well as raw dominance by force — it’s certainly a red flag that we’re in particular mythical territory here. The mythic Christ who extends past the Bible into Christian traditions such as the Harrowing of Hell embodies precisely the kind of heroism which Peterson’s ideology prioritises. This reactionary Christ sheds the revolutionary New Testament intimations of a kind of socialist counterbalance to the iniquities of mass civilisation, and harks back to brutally combative culture heroes such as Marduk.
Given that Peterson’s ‘Descensus ad Inferos’ pivots on intense dreams, it’s worth asking what relation the Christ who harrows Hell has to dream reality. Our most insightful guide here is James Hillman. A key figure in the Jungian tradition, Hillman produced an important book in 1979 called The Dream and the Underworld, which is a radical revisioning of psychology’s relationship to the dream (it’s also the main influence on Hill’s analysis of dreams of nuclear holocaust). Working closely with classical sources, he identifies the underworld ruled by and named after Hades as the definitive mythical locus of dreaming.
For Hillman, the Christ typified by the Harrowing of Hell resonates with the Greco-Roman hero, Hercules. Both are archetypes of the ego, which Hillman takes as a psychic figure alongside all other archetypes, with the specific function of representing the literal view of things, oriented around everyday realities of confronting and manipulating the world.26 Hercules is a muscular, can-do type, which makes him especially unsuited to the airy, liminal realm of dark significance that is Hades. For Hillman, Hercules struggling in the underworld, confused about the reality of images there, dramatises the fumbling, sometimes disastrous clash of literal-mindedness with the subtle metaphorical realms in the depths of the psyche. Notably, unlike most other classical heroes, Hercules — like the Christ who harrows Hell — ‘is an enemy of death.’27
Contrary to Peterson’s one-size-fits-all model, there are different ways of descending into the underworld.28 And, as Hillman asserts, ‘it matters very much the way we descend. Ulysses and Aeaneas … go down to learn from the underworld which re-visions their life in the upperworld.’29 This is, of course, precisely Peterson’s model of the Divine Son’s trip into the unknown. However, it’s revealing that he frames his own personal origin myth with the image of the Herculean Christ. This forces us to look past the letter of Peterson’s mode of descent, to the spirit. And the spirit of the Christ who harrows Hell is actually less concerned with learning than Hercules. Both are enemies of death, and thus enemies of the Hadean world of dreams.30 But whereas Hercules ‘goes down to take‘,31 in a spirit of exploitation, Christ goes down to destroy, to conquer death itself. Between them, they have the colonial remit covered. This conception of conquering death, central to the transformation of Christ’s message of compassion into a wold-conquering ideology, arguably created a terrible fracture in Western consciousness, between our culture and the depths of the psyche. We Satanised and suppressed Hades, and hobbled our relationship to the kinds of dark, oblique complexity which dreams represent.32
It’s clear that Peterson aimed to learn from his descent, and learned much. However, in his choice of frame for it, and in the vivid resonance between the Herculean Christ and the spirit of the conquering, colonial Divine Son which he prioritises in his mythic schema, I feel there is a bias which teaches us much about the problems with our culture. Peterson’s schema has a tremendous amount going for it, when seen not as a universal description of human being, but as a symptomatic reflection of our particular dominant culture — just as the shortcomings of Freud’s models of sexuality can be seen as accurate insights, when we change the frame from ‘basic human realities’ to ‘models of bourgeois fin-de-siècle Vienna’.
The colonial attitude to the underworld (‘chaos’ in Peterson’s schema) can be found all the way from Marduk’s rending and appropriation of the body of Tiamat, to Freud’s famous psychoanalytic dictum, ‘where id was, there shall ego be.’33 Peterson is certainly tapping into something foundational for our civilisation here. However, our civilisation represents a tiny fraction of our life as a species — perhaps as little as 3% — and it’s facing an existential crisis. Peterson’s prescription for this crisis is to re-entrench civilisation’s dominant modalities, including many of its blind spots and pitfalls — exactly the kind of bullish doubling down you would expect from the Herculean ego. Is this what we need to learn, transform, and move forward?
Reading Hill’s The Dream at the End of the World, one is struck by the tremendous effort to surrender the ego to a transformation it can’t comprehend. Many of the dreams narrate the forging of a deeply complex new relationship to the Bomb itself, to its terrifying power as a psychic reality. Hill says that ‘several of my informants noted that, over the years, their night image of the Bomb has shifted from an object of horror and panic to one they look upon tranquilly, albeit often with great gravity.’34 This is typified by the dreams of a woman, an anti-nuclear activist, who said:
It was weird, but in the dream the feeling was — well, this is it. It was not like we were freaking out. It was very ‘Zen.’ This is it. I feel like in my dreams, I’ve progressed from panic and denial to accepting that the Bomb is ‘in me.’ Out of that, I feel empowered to meet it.35
For me, the contrast with the Petersonian mode here is stark. His intense attachment to the real-world, oppositional Cold War aspect of the Bomb seems to have left him irrationally triumphal about the victor in the conflict (capitalist individualism, the contemporary political vehicle of the Herculean ego). Conversely, his antipathy to the legacy of the vanquished communist power frequently seems to unhinge his socio-political analysis. He re-entrenches the psychotic Messiah / Beast split at the roots of civilisation, softened a little by intellectual lip service to balance, but still energised by the psychotic battle of absolutes. His apparent subscription to the equation — liberal capitalism = order, communism = chaos — seems to have been seared into his unconscious by Cold War nightmares. The chaos of nuclear devastation in a particular historical context from the recent past underwrites his vision of left-wing politics as a recipe for disastrous disorder. The Bomb was created by liberal capitalism, and has only ever been used by such powers to annihilate en masse, but for Peterson the fearful Cold War imprint seems to tarnish the left.36
And yet here is an anti-nuclear activist, clearly with a great deal invested in her opposition to the Bomb, profoundly surrendering her egoic investment to the underworld order of dreams, and managing to psychically accommodate her terrifying enemy. She side-steps the obvious perils of psychotic collapse — indeed, she empowers her real-world efforts to fight nuclear proliferation, presumably cushioning any tendency towards fundamentalist rage in the process. Crucially, she forges what Hillman calls an ‘imaginal ego’ which ‘is at home in the dark, moving among images as one of them. Often there are inklings of this ego in those dreams where we a quite comfortable with absurdities and horrors that would shock the daylight out of waking consciousness.’37 Evidently there are other ways to personal empowerment than heroic struggle — ways which owe little to dayworld notions of power.
The simultaneous overlap and mismatch between ‘dayworld’ (literal) and ‘nightworld’ (metaphorical) realities is key to Hillman’s mode of descent.38 And critical to this is full immersion in and respect for the underworld, on its own terms, open to its own bizarre forms of order rather than condemning it as outright chaos — which it is only from the dayworld point of view.
One of Hill’s dreamers finds himself in the midst of a nuclear explosion, his subtle imaginal ego sensing patterns where the Herculean ego would find utter disarray:
I simply have a sense of certainty that I am in Chaos. Chaos is a turbulent flow causing incessant change, but also producing vortexes, networks of vortexes, which are forms with an impermanent type of order. I know this, I feel it.39
Here, a far better archetypal guide than Christ or Hercules, with their absolute order / chaos binary, is the classical trickster Hermes, who bears the gods’ messages and governs interpretation (hermeneutics), who travels between worlds with ease and conducts souls through the underworld — and whose twisted, ambivalent mode of being reminds us to leave our black-and-white attitudes at the door. ‘Hermetic ego’ may be a good variant of ‘imaginal ego’.
Hillman notes that Jung’s ‘vexation with the figure of Christ’ was due to the fact that he ‘sensed the inherent opposition between Christianism and the underworld and attempted to darken the figure of Christ with Hermes-Mercurius. … His choice of Hermes-Mercurius as the darkener, as the psychopomp to the underworld, echoes the Homeric hymn to Hermes, where this God is “the only recognized messenger to Hades,” as he is Bringer of Dreams.’40 Given that meaning is, in archetypal terms, Hermes’ speciality, it’s significant that in the 400 pages of Maps of Meaning he’s mentioned just three times,41 playing no real role in Peterson’s cartographic project.
For all his dabbling in nightworld traditions like alchemy, Peterson, as a former clinical psychologist, has always been in a sense duty-bound to the dayworld, through his work in getting clients back on track as functional members of society. The ego needs to be made heroic in its struggle to adjust to the social order, and no doubt Peterson’s forceful pragmatism has had some success here (echoed in his current self-help guru role). But this professional background also reinforces his allegiance to individualism, and to individualism’s ignorance of contextual complexities. David Kidner, a psychologist whose book Nature and Psyche is an important outline of modern psychology’s betrayal of the natural world, notes that in clinical psychology,
the mentally “healthy” individual is simply one who functions effectively within the modern industrial world. … Any possible connection between mental health and one’s relation to the natural world is obscured within clinical psychology by defining psychopathology as essentially individual in nature. Thus DSM IV identifies “mental disorder” as “a manifestation of a behavioral, psychological, or biological dysfunction within the individual“, so severing our understanding of problems such as depression from their natural and cultural contexts, despite research that clearly demonstrates the primacy of context in determining the onset and character of such disorders. But if the normality of our day-to-day lives depends on exploiting and degrading the natural order, then psychological “health” will embody an intrinsic ecological pathology.42
The heroic ego, while a vital component in any psyche, becomes a liability when we believe its boasts of singular authority, when we are captured by its monolithic framing of reality as competitive, goal-oriented struggle. It obscures our ecological and contextual entanglements in psychic, social, and environmental realities.
The complexity of the underworld, and of natural ecologies, is not merely a matter of a crowdedness of convolutions. It is the complexity of subtleties, the complexity of paradoxes, the complexity of weird loops43 which perpetually evade linguistic and diagrammatic capture. Peterson’s work brushes against and appropriates these complexities, but ultimately remains fixed in the mode of the dayworld heroic ego. It’s obsessed with reality as a function of correspondence with and alignment between ‘multiple levels of analysis’, i.e. nightworld realities only accepted as seen through the lens of the dayworld, pinned to empirical neurophysiology like dead butterflies. It misses much of the transformative secrets of the nightworld itself.
Mythical images are not firm evidence for anything positive. They cannot carry systematic structures on their backs. They don’t stand still long enough, and they are too shady…44
What does the forest think?
The Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh — at four thousand years old, possibly the earliest known work of literature — tells the story of Gilgamesh, king of Uruk. Gilgamesh goes off on a heroic adventure, Hercules-style, with his pal, the newly-domesticated wild man, Enkidu. They travel to the legendary Cedar Forest, domain of the gods, to kill its guardian, the monster Humbaba. They slay him, and proceed to fell cedars.
The motive for the killing is given as gaining fame. But it’s also mentioned that they take cedar wood to make an impressive gate, and build a raft to get home riding along the Euphrates. Fame, it turns out, is bolstered by access to natural resources. To the extent that the Herculean ego embodies the civilised drive to subdue and appropriate nature, the combined motivations here — glory and exploitation — neatly capture the heroic mindset. Further, the Epic dates from a time when the ancient cedar forests that used to spread across the Fertile Crescent were nearly completely depleted. Gilgamesh’s mythical quest encapsulates the very real process of deforestation which fuelled the construction boom in early Mesopotamian civilisation, and set this region on its path to desertification.
I’m prompted here, by the way that the heroically exploitative Christ / Hercules and Gilgamesh stand in relation to Hades and the Cedar Forest respectively, to wonder about the relationship between the underworld of dreams and the dynamics of natural ecologies. This ‘ecopsychological’ relationship may be difficult to grasp, because the primary commonality between these zones is how alien their forms of order are to the logocentric ego (which blithely dismisses them as ‘chaos’). But I think it’s worth wondering about this relationship, at least, because it may be here that we get close to the inner depths of our present predicament, manifested so vividly in Peterson’s partial, dayworld-minded descent into the underworld, and his dismissive attitude to environmentalism.
It should be noted first that Hillman issues important warnings about relating dreams to natural realities — about confusing the cold airiness of the Hadean underworld with the warm earthiness of ‘underground’,45 and about committing ‘naturalistic fallacies’ which misleadingly compare psychic and actual realities.46 But, as we’ll see, there are ways in which ecological systems, when apprehended on their own terms rather that from the human standpoint, appear to bear important aspects of imaginal reality — as Hillman indicates when he explores the goat-god Pan as ‘an empty countryside which speaks in sounds not words’,47 or the Neoplatonic concept of the anima mundi, the soul of the world.
For David Kidner, whose Nature and Psyche we’ve already encountered, the root of our present crisis is civilisation’s absolute opposition between nature and culture. Indigenous people frequently recognise no such opposition, or relate to it in a radically different way. Culture is seen as a way of articulating nature rather than conquering and taming it. Central to civilisation’s — especially industrial civilisation’s — colonisation of ‘wilderness’, whether in the human unconscious or in non-human nature, is the way it images it as chaotic and meaningless.
[I]n the case of both the individual and the landscape, an alleged lack of natural structure justifies the imposition of an industrial structure, the myth of the chaotic unconscious playing a similar role within the psyche to that played by the myth of the savage wilderness in the conquest of “outer” nature.48
It follows that if we are to recognize the intelligence of the natural world — as opposed to imposing a conscious rationality on it — then we have to become familiar with the subversive languages of the unconscious, and the subjective states which this requires.49
Kidner furthers his intuition that ‘[n]ature’s structure is … that of the unconscious, invoking multiple meanings, ambiguity, and symbolism’50 with reference to the unparalleled work of Gregory Bateson. Bateson sought to extend the domain of thought past the merely human into an ‘ecology of mind’, arguing that ‘biological communication concerns pattern and relationship,’ and that metaphor is ‘the logic upon which the biological world has been built.’51
The kind of ‘thinking’ here is clearly not the kind we prioritise as civilised humans — the logos which is all-important for Peterson. It is the pre-verbal52 ‘primary process’ of the unconscious: associative, iconic, timeless, and, as Freud noted, lacking in negatives.53 Since nature largely communicates thus, without negatives, Bateson notes that ‘it often forces organisms into saying the opposite of what they mean in order to get across the proposition that they mean the opposite of what they say.’ For example:
Two dogs approach each other and need to exchange the message: ‘We are not going to fight.’ But the only way in which fight can be mentioned in iconic communication is by the showing of fangs. It is then necessary for the dogs to discover that this mention of fight was, in fact, only exploratory. They must, therefore, explore what the showing of fangs means. They therefore engage in a brawl; discover that neither ultimately intends to kill the other; and, after that, they can be friends.54
This mode of non-human communication in nature, and its intersections with human dreamworlds, is the subject of an important recent anthropological work, Eduardo Kohn’s How Forests Think. Based on his ethnographic fieldwork among the Runa in Ecuador, the book describes how living nature functions through a constant process of communication and meaning-creation — a process made vivid through the density of the Amazonian ecosystem, and through the closeness of indigenous life to this system.
(It’s interesting to note, in relation to Peterson’s disdain for social constructionist perspectives, that Kohn believes that ‘social science’s greatest contribution — the recognition and delimitation of a separate domain of socially constructed reality — is also its greatest curse.’55 Without losing sight of this ‘separate domain’, Kohn seeks to anchor specifically human symbolic realities in the networks of non-human semiotics. He traces the continuities between non-human and human meaning, while also recognising the emergence of uniquely human meaning from the web of life. In this, his work is a prime example of the kind of scholarship that Peterson, in his dismissal of ‘postmodernism’, seems ignorant of — work which simultaneously builds on, critiques, and intelligently develops the achievements of late 20th century social sciences. Peterson’s retreat from relativism to old binaries such as culture / nature, order / chaos is revealed, I think, as inadequate and short-sighted.)
Discussing his model of meaning and communicative order extending throughout the living world, Kohn writes:
This way of understanding semiosis can help us move beyond a dualistic approach to anthropology, in which humans are portrayed as separate from the worlds they represent, towards a monistic one, in which how humans represent jaguars and how jaguars represent humans can be understood as integral, though not interchangeable, parts of a single, open-ended story. Given the challenges posed by learning to live with the proliferating array of other kind of life-forms that increasingly surround us — be they pets, weeds, pests, commensals, new pathogens, ‘wild’ animals, or technoscientific ‘mutants’ — developing a precise way to analyze how the human is both distinct from and continuous with that which lies beyond it is both crucial and timely.56
It seems that the complexity of the contemporary hypertechnical world has ironically made relevant again the pre-civilised tendency to not draw absolute distinctions between culture and nature. As Donna Haraway says, ‘Materialist, experimental animism is not a New Age wish nor a neocolonial fantasy, but a powerful proposition for rethinking relationality, perspective, process, and reality without the dubious comforts of the oppositional categories of modern / traditional or religious / secular.’57
Such insights and approaches don’t reveal the Right Way for us to tackle our ecopsychological crisis. There is still plenty of call for rationality and dayworld heroics. The important thing here is to rework these heroics — which are arguably the prime drivers of our crisis — by embedding them within the wider darkness of ecological complexity, defusing our alienation from this darkness, and allowing it to transform our ways of relating.
To the extent that civilisation seems imperilled by archetypal patterns imprinted in it at birth, it seems natural that insights to rework these patterns might be found in pre-civilised levels of culture.
Perhaps Peterson’s efforts to revive the past aren’t digging deep enough.
Which journey for the Hero?
Peterson’s primary model for his mission is the Divine Son’s heroic descent into the underworld, in order to rescue the cultural Father. The model has, no doubt, its own efficacy in certain situations. Many of Peterson’s fans testify to how it’s helped them sort their lives out. What I’m interested in here, as I round off this exploration of his relationship to environmentalism, is the places where this model seems to be ‘off’, misrepresenting our cultural situation, disfiguring our grasp of things with its claim to universality.58
For a start, consider the fact that for Peterson, postmodernism (among other things) loosely embodies ‘chaos’. If so, what about the heroic imperative to go deep down and salvage something useful from it? After all, the idea is that Father culture is staid, moribund, and is to be revivified by the Son attaining ‘the dragon’s treasure’, riches wrested from the murky depths. Here, the exploitative attitude to ‘chaos’ which Peterson advocates seems to be not only dubious in ecopsychological terms; it also fails on its own terms. His approach to postmodernism seems to have been the equivalent of Hercules getting halfway across the Styx then turning back, running away shouting, ‘It’s dark in there!’
Where’s his hard-won treasure from the depths of postmodern theory?
His insights seem to be heavily polished throwbacks, not dazzling new theoretical gold. Even his admirers agree that his grasp of the relevant literature is far too shallow for his critique of postmodernism to carry significant weight.
Thinking, in turn, of ecological crisis, it’s curious that one of the most prominent ‘postmodern’ critics of scientific knowledge, Bruno Latour, has become an outspoken critic of climate change denial. Seeing how his undermining of the concept of scientific objectivity is now being misunderstood and wielded for dubious purposes, he explicitly advocates paying attention to environmental science, and acting on its findings. Ironically, it turns out that Peterson’s scepticism about environmentalism is in a sense a kind of postmodernist leftover, rejected as stale and unsavoury even by the postmodernists themselves. If you look past the easy-to-dismiss postmodernism soundbites which are the targets of Peterson’s attacks, you will find that this scholarly tradition is diverse and ever-evolving. And it’s usually there that you’ll find its best critics, such as Eduardo Kohn and Donna Haraway — best because thoroughly immersed in the tradition, and sensitive, knowledgeable, and constructive in their critiques, instead of ignorant and bitterly dismissive.
We’ve seen that the application of the Christic-Herculean exploitative attitude to psychic depths and ecological complexity may be culturally disastrous. But here we see that in some way, even this Hero’s journey of Peterson’s is abortive, treating challenging new domains as deserving suppression, not exploitation — let alone true exploration or integration.
But what if, on top of that, there’s an even deeper abortive aspect to Peterson’s heroic journey? What if setting out to rescue the Father is a cop-out mission? He’s only been gone a few centuries, tops.59 What about the Mother?
Well, she’s associated with the chaos of the unknown; so in this model, can she really be lost? Perhaps, if we lose touch with our ability to properly delve into the unknown — which seems like a major risk in the world of conservative backlash. She just has to be repeatedly corralled and exploited.
But what if we’re a bit less misogynist for a moment, maybe casting her as an archetype embodying Kidner’s concept of culture articulating nature rather than conquering it? And what if — without getting into simplistic ideas of Stone Age ‘goddess’ cultures — we consider the idea that we lost this Mother many, many millennia ago, as agriculture and then civilisation tore us apart from nature and entrenched a Herculean, colonial relationship to both psychic depths and ecosystems? Losing our Father a few centuries ago suddenly seems like a minor episode. Wouldn’t it be ultimately more ‘heroic’ to rescue this long-lost Mother first? We would certainly need a Hermetic rather than a Herculean ego for this profound quest — a far greater challenge than clinging to the brash imbalance which has painted us into our ecological corner.
What if our predicament is that we’ve been stuck in an abusive single-parent family, called monotheism, for a few millennia? What if science, for all its deep problems and risks, at least granted us the power to fight back and conquer our Nobodaddy? What if the urge to resurrect him is a regressive panic response, the last thing we need?60
And what if we go further, and find that the revival of the idea of culture articulating nature involves not just the resurrection of our other parent, but a rediscovery of the archetypal roots of the old cliché from the human homeland: ‘it takes a village to raise a child’? A guiding principle in James Hillman’s work was always the recovery of polytheism as a fundamental psychological truth. The monotheism of our religion, he contended, has left us with a monotheistic psychology — and, as Jung noted, our possession by this monotheism of consciousness betrays and distorts the inherently multifarious nature of the psyche.61 As I’ve noted elsewhere, we might see the polytheist pantheons — many gods, none appearing alone, always related and entangled — as a kind of mythic enshrinement of our social state of nature: living in small bands, fundamentally social, our parents important, but also just two of many.62
Jordan Peterson’s heroic individualism goes hand-in-hand with his support for business-as-usual capitalism and his sidelining of environmentalism. Equally, the Hillmanian critique of the heroic ego, putting it in its place as one of many archetypal modes of being, can be seen to go hand-in-hand with the essential political task of our time: to deflate our notion of the economy to see it not as a system embracing all others, but as itself embedded within society, and within a living world.63
It seems likely that our last chance for actually averting the multiple ecological challenges we face was lost in the triumph of capitalist individualism represented by the Reagan-Thatcher years and the collapse of the Soviet Union. The appeal of voices like Peterson’s shows how far we’re unhelpfully locked into the legacy of the Cold War, our ability to respond collectively to obviously collective issues such as climate change being perilously cramped by our fearful clinging to ideological individualism.
And, among the piles of irony that surround the space Peterson has carved out, lies the fact that so many of the issues he focuses on are contributed to significantly by the capitalist individualism he champions. Postmodernism was a consequence of Enlightenment principles which also underpin this individualism. The atomising effects of capitalism are arguably more responsible for the breakdown of traditions, communities, and family structures than anything else. Even the dwindling of masculinity he laments may owe as much to the dominance of industrial capitalism as to bloody liberal feminism.
Again and again, it looks like the targets of Peterson’s frustration are convenient displacements of his unwillingness, our unwillingness, to truly face the clash between capitalist individualism and ecological crisis. And his success is a sign of the desperate need for denial in ever-more sophisticated forms.
No doubt, there’ll be plenty of call for heroism in the ecological struggles which capitalism has now locked us into. The courage involved will be much greater than that needed to stand up to marginalised activists and put your foot down about political correctness. But it seems crucial, on a psychological level, to pay close attention to the kind of heroism we’re tapping into. Doubling down on the Herculean ego, which lies at the roots of our inattention to natural and psychic complexity, seems short-sighted at best.
And while we always need to be wary of simple stories, if we need an image of a Hero’s journey as a vessel for those simplistic psychic needs, how about a much grander one than the effort to resurrect nineteenth-century economic liberalism and gender roles? What if agricultural civilisation itself has been a journey into the unknown? Away from the community of a continuum between human society and nature, into the strange alienation of endless work, increasing atomisation, and war against the ecologies which support us. We’ve gained many treasures in this strange, light-filled Hades; but perhaps our journey is nearly over.
We face multiple possible futures, and perhaps the one where we cling to what we’ve known civilisation to be so far is the one where we go down in flames with that civilisation. Alternatives include scaling down and re-weaving humanity into the fabric of the dark forest of nature; abandoning our preconceptions of the human individual as we merge with technological artefacts which approach the complexity of nature itself; or perhaps following civilisation to its logical conclusion and actually separating from nature, venturing into space, and then re-weaving entirely new natural contexts for ourselves.
As ever, the future likely holds an unpredictable mixture, fraught with many tragic consequences of our heroic yet myopic civilisation. In any case, we’re now being confronted with exactly the kinds of dark complexity which agricultural civilisation ploughed over and sought to eradicate — the return of the repressed. The era of simplistic binaries of order and chaos is drawing to an end. We need to stop anxiously fixating on its last gasps, and enter the darkness. With courage and — as Michael Ortiz Hill says of immersion in dream apocalypse — ‘with tenderness of heart, surrendering our inflated conceptions of ourselves.’