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Bill Plotkin writes Nature and the Human Soul against a somber and critical backdrop: "industrial civilization has been relentlessly undermining Earth's chemistry, water cycles, atmosphere, soils, oceans, and thermal balance" (Plotkin, p. 2). As the bionetworks of the planet systematically shut down, so too do human life systems: economies decay, states collide, cultures clash, societies fragment, and individuals sicken and turn against their neighbors and themselves. The future of annihilation seems all but certain for the planetary life cycle as much as for the human world--extinction is immanent.
However, Plotkin posits this grave setting, not simply to pontificate about our past sins, but to open to the reader's imagination the possibility of a new and brighter future. The crisis is a uniquely obligatory moment of opportunity: human beings must step up to the global plate, set aside our selfish egoisms, and pull together as a whole human world to change the direction of history or be reduced to a mere footnote in the devolution of a dying world. No less is required than "a collective human response to exigency, an immensely creative renewal, addressing all dimensions of human activity on Earth--from the ecological, political, and economic to the educational and spiritual" (p. 2).
For the success of this crucial and weighty task, what is needed, counsels Plotkin, is a complete reassessment of our current mode of being-in-the-world. Our current ways of life on the planet fall almost exclusively under the category of "egocentric" societies, which Plotkin characterizes as materialistic, anthropocentric, competition-based, class-stratified, violence-prone and unsustainable. In the place of this sickened consumer-industrial social model, Plotkin recommends the cultivation of "soulcentric" societies (resonating the title of his earlier book, Soulcraft, New World Library, 2003) founded upon the values of imagination, ecocentrism, cooperation, justice, compassion, and sustainability.
Plotkin is a developmental psychologist who has spent much of his career helping people to find their place in the great scheme of things and to nurture their "souls" to full human health, by immersing them in wilderness settings where they undergo "rites of passage" to help them to move past the arrested adolescence toward which consumer industrial society tends us. Through his "ecopsychology of human maturation," Plotkin experienced such success with individuals that he was motivated to record his theory in this book to offer his healing model to the world as a remedy for the current crisis.
His recipe for healing the human world and the planet is named the Wheel of Life. The Wheel describes an organic model of psychological growth for human beings, unfolding in eight cumulative stages, according to eight crucial tasks to be fulfilled, and eight skill sets to be developed. Each stage is named after an "heroic" figure linked to the natural world--from the innocent nestling, explorer, thespian, wanderer, and apprentice to the master of the grove to the sage of the mountain cave.
Plotkin's stratagem, evident in his citing of these captivating images, is to fire the human imaginary, infuse it with a love of the Earth and its creatures, and awaken a visceral sense of the wholeness of things and the unique human place in that whole. By naming the various stages of psychological development after heroic personages in various stages of evolutionary growth, Plotkin seeks to awaken in us a burning awareness of our special human destiny, our calling to a special responsibility. We discover our proper place in that developmental model by submitting ourselves to the Wheel, and undergoing transpersonal experiences through a series of rituals, rooted in the goal of bonding with the natural world. These incremental rituals are meant to lead us from innocent child through adolescence and into adulthood, crowning life's journey in wise and gracious elderhood.
Plotkin seeks, through the eightfold developmental model (whose resonance with the Eightfold Path toward Enlightenment will not be lost on his Buddhist readers), to reframe human life from its current degraded state as a hedonistic consumption of goods to a mystical journey where a sacred duty is to be performed--caring for the planet and our fellow (human and non-human) creatures. To accomplish the maturity to take on this task effectively, the human world needs to pull together from its current fragmented state.
Plotkin closes his meditation on nature's relation to flourishing human life with the fitting motto: it takes a village ((p. 443). The Wheel, he insists, will lead us through our organic evolution to becoming the kinds of creatures who deserve our special place and destiny. But the maturation project and the village can only work as a whole, where parents are well-prepared by the elders for carrying out the delicate and vital tasks that nurture the young of the nest. A life-enhancing interdependency model ("the village") draws upon all members of the community at all their varied levels of psychological and spiritual development--to inspire and celebrate the essential wonder and innocence of childhood, fire and nurture the artistic and passionate curiosity of adolescence, season and direct the cultural artistry and visionary leadership of authentically maturing adults, and ripen the wisdom, benevolence, and grace of the elderly that they may urge and guide the others along.
The dichotomy Plotkin draws between the consumer-industrial society and the holistic indigenous "village" is not new. The distinction is fundamental to the arguments of many social critics (Richard Stivers, The Illusion of Freedom and Equality, SUNY 2008) and grounds Conflict Theory (Bartos, Weir, Using Conflict theory, Cambridge 2002). The simple indigenous model (village) is heartily employed across the disciplines as a paradigm for mediation and conflict transformation and a remedy against the social sickness of warring peoples.
Many readers may have difficulty appreciating the language and imagery in which Plotkin couches his human developmental project. Some will have reservations about the glittery inspirational imagery of this book, and many may find in its heroic modeling a little troubling, as a reminder of the conquistador orientation of an imperialistic past. However, I found Plotkin's charming fairy-tale style of delivery refreshing. And I agree with Plotkin that, at this crucial juncture in the decay of planet life systems and the devolution of the human world to a battlefield of warring appetites, nothing less than this enchanted imagery is needed to speak to our slumbering (if not dead) social and ecological consciences, and awaken our sense of responsibility to the planet and the not-yet-born creatures whose very possibility we put at peril by every day of delay. This book is an excellent and timely work, an inspiration and a joy to read.
© 2009 Wendy C. Hamblet
Wendy C. Hamblet, Ph.D., SAC (Dip.), North Carolina A&T State University