Conservation, Development & The ‘Psycho-Spiritual

 Malcolm Mitchell


 "Kindred forces to those which, in some period inconceivably remote, gave birth to that primal bit of protoplasm tossing on the ancient seas continue their mighty and incomprehensible work."


                                                                                      Rachel Carson

It’s widely accepted today that conservation depends on appropriate levels of development. The world’s most biologically rich countries are amongst its economically poorest, and long-term conservation in them is generally seen as impossible without socio-economic progress. It is less recognised, though, how such work depends critically on psychological and ‘spiritual’ factors. Physical conservation and development alone are insufficient to assure the success of either. Looking at basic human traits, our history and current world affairs can help us identify key dynamics in subtler realms, in light of which urgent global issues might be approached more holistically and effectively. 

Egoism, for example, whether group egoism or that of key individuals, can scotch an organisation’s best efforts. Groups working to compatible ends are often competing for recognition or resources, and the potential for cooperation between them may be undermined by those more interested in self-protection or self-promotion. Charismatic founders and heads of organisations may find it difficult sharing limelight, and lack passion for ‘babies’ other then their own. Slow to learn and dimly self-reflective as today’s industrial and institutional dinosaurs might be, their critics can certainly have their hypocrisies. All human traits are somehow at play within different groupings, with variable degrees of awareness of their dynamics and ramifications.

To work for causes such as poverty alleviation and environmental protection is to work against the grain – and to endeavour to clear up some of the messes – of industrial-consumerist ‘progress.’ Typically operating under great strains, with little thanks and little or no pay, one may be sustained by the gratification of doing something that feels right – feels just, sane or urgently necessary. This reinforced through social feedback, the self-righteousness that can be fostered might make one actually less amenable to coordination with others, perhaps more inclined to act and less to learn. In most human societies, particular kinds of action, knowledge and expertise are regarded as more important than others, and besides missing benefits of networking with others in our field, we may also pay scant attention to learnings in different areas which could have crucial applicability.

For those focused on indigenous people’s rights or biodiversity preservation, the areas of psychology and spirituality may seem the domains of the more academic or airy-fairy. Yet there is a wealth of useful operational principles to be gleaned, directly or indirectly, from these areas, with models on inter-relationships, ideas for strategy, parallels of dangers, and hints on what means might serve healthy or creative activity in any arena, as with the development of more informed self-awareness. More than a shadow-puppetry of ideas about oneself, there may be an organic ‘inner body’ of consciousness, supple and sensitive, variously tunable. Though in the psycho-spiritual field there might be many professionals offering products and services of questionable worth, as Rumi highlighted, “Counterfeiters exist because there is real gold.”

Quoting ‘authorities’ can itself prove a glittering art of deception. Take Lao Tzu’s suggestion: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” A handy quote to illustrate a key principle in development. The shining wisdom in one sphere, though, may eclipse issues such as gender bias, animal rights and dangers of over-fishing, issues perhaps more apparent in an era other than that in which Lao Tzu made his point. Today we might hear his words trumpeted by the likes of the World Bank. IMF policies, as geared to develop fishing activities along industrial lines, have brought ruin to local ecosystems and livelihoods in many poor countries. And as the WTO ensures a hill-slope playing field in international terms of trade, the rich countries get richer, the poor more impoverished and falsely ‘indebted.’ Colonialism diversely persists.

The British Isles has lost some 95% of its original forest cover but enjoys much in the way of good housing, health infrastructure and recreational luxuries. By comparison, Madagascar has lost around 90% of its original forest cover but has little to physically show for it. Associated with this glaring distinction are two major differences. Firstly, biology. As a long-isolated tropical island, Madagascar supports orders of magnitude more biodiversity than Britain, and most of its animals and plants are unique to it. A hectare of natural habitat lost in Madagascar has a vastly greater negative impact on global biodiversity than the loss of a hectare virtually anywhere in England’s green and pleasant lands. The second major difference is colonialism. Madagascar was a French colony between 1896 and 1960. During this period much primary rainforest fell to timber extraction and cash cropping, though the chief pressure on the forests was and still is slash-and-burn clearance for subsistence crops. Madagascar’s species-rich forests have already afforded the West’s effective cures for two of its deadliest cancers, childhood leukaemia and Hodgkin’s disease. Chemicals in Madagascar’s Rosy Periwinkle are the source of drugs from which Western pharmaceutical giants gain some $250 million in profits every year. The Malagasy people are left short, meanwhile, of even safe drinking water or basic healthcare, and mortality rates are horrific. Such biopiracy is obscene and, for humans as a species, suicidally pathological.

The ‘greatness’ of Britain and other European countries has been in many respects built on the exploitation of countries like Madagascar which, with other African nations and countries in Asia and Latin America, mostly remain impoverished today. The development of the rich countries has depended fundamentally on underdevelopment elsewhere. Whether brutally and directly or cunningly and otherwise, Britain et al have stolen and ‘requisitioned’ the resources of other people’s homelands, including humans themselves. Among England’s slave ships were those transporting Malagasy children, women and men as ‘cargo’ to Barbados. The British, for one, still like to scapegoat Nazi Germany despite all the atrocities in Britain’s history, not to mention those of the Roman Empire and other regimes. Many of us in ‘civilised societies’ live in the wake of attempts, whether military or economic, at imperialistic domination. Endeavours to control world food supplies and fuel supplies, if not the world’s general ideology, assuredly put the US Administration at the head of such a beast of Progress today.

We must be careful, though, not to mistake symptoms for causes. The need is to see problems both in their manifestations and essence, identifying the psycho-spiritual underpinnings and pivots for the social, economic and political shape of things. Gross inequalities continue to be exacerbated. As the greed of the West and poverty of the rest propel environmental plunder, we are seeing a planetwide cascade of species extinctions. For all the blatant imbalances and abuses, we may also see many complexities, levels and potential conflicts of interest in issues. Fighting a battle simply as ‘us versus them’, meanwhile, may help us avoid facing the worst things within ourselves.

Colonialism commonly has its ideological counterparts, whether as whitewash for economic interests or as genuine ideological imperialism. Christian missionaries have had a major impact around the world. While the best of their impact is often seen in terms of bringing education, this ‘education’ has been typically insensitive to local realities, and less than holistic in the skills and sensibilities it nurtures. Worldwide there are traditions which embrace an ecological ethic, typically among indigenous peoples. Most cultures, however, can hardly be said to do so; other species and the environment tend to be seen at best as a respected resource, essentially separate rather than interrelated and interdependent. The anthropocentric leverage of Christianity and other major religions diversely raise and push Homo sapiens further out of ecological balance.

It’s clear that conservation and development initiatives need to work with respect for and the support of local people; yet from an ecological or animal welfare perspective, it could seem vital to work against some traditions. The demands of traditional Chinese medicine have driven many species to the brink of extinction, not to mention wreaked untold suffering on tigers, rhinos and bears, to name just a few. In Madagascar, meanwhile, there are localities where the aye-aye is regarded as a manifestation of the Devil and killed on sight. There are around 70 lemur species and subspecies in Madagascar, in five families. The aye-aye is the only surviving representative of one of those five, and it is one of the island’s most extremely endangered species. Among the Malagasy there also exist local beliefs that the aye-aye is a good omen and must be treated with special respect. The dichotomy here is essentially no more gratuitous or absurd than those elsewhere – in Britain, say, where we might give a poodle a coiffure, yet condemn a pig (well arguably a more sensitive and intelligent species) to exist in appalling conditions and be slaughtered for human consumption.  Madagascar’s ombiasy, diviners/healers, hold considerable sway over local opinions and convictions, and hence over actions and environmental impacts. Collective agreement between ombiasy and community patriarchs could have dramatic consequences. Could the aye-aye be safeguarded? Could the use of condoms be recommended to slow human population growth? In poverty people breed for insurance, for the support of offspring in later life, while – as in any culture – challenging taboos and changing customs is a serious and complex business. Conservation and development projects will not ‘take’ among people long-term without somehow tapping into their deeper energies and evolving ideas; these are otherwise effectively locked in engagement with the traditional ie. habitual patterns and mainstream persuasions.

Stories are very much at the bedrock of culture, their models reflecting and informing a society’s belief systems and moral values, forming feedback loops with everyday action. Supporting bases of more sustainable livelihoods in a given culture is bound at some point to include the telling of new stories; tales with all due turns to take the listener to fuller appreciation of different realities’ relationships. Much as in a therapeutic context where a healing process may be stalled until we can engage with a new plot in our lives, our world history forms a story in which we might see ourselves as urgently needing to change gear. Physical poverty drives deforestation and other forms of environmental destruction much as inner poverty, emotional-spiritual dearth, drives rampant consumer activity. Both slash-and-burn agriculture and industrially-fuelled consumerism can be seen as unsustainable cultures, poles of a ‘cult’ of obdurate human dominion. At one pole you might see the likes of an impoverished villager peddling one of Madagascar’s critically endangered tortoises for a matter of cents; at the other pole you might see the creature sold in the USA for thousands of dollars. The human story across the planet today sees a rising tide of trade in species approaching extinction.

The Malagasy villager is apt to see real needs for change more than the multinational director. While pervading beliefs that the forest is unending do not encourage conservation, local awareness that one must walk further to find a given tree species (as for some particular need) can bring realities sharply home. Links such as those between deforestation, erosion and flooding can be more clearly grasped and acted around in the proximity of local disaster. Cyclones have been observed as becoming more regular and severe in countries like Madagascar in recent years, though any link between these and the West’s industrial emissions may be blissfully denied by the fatter cats of Western industry.

Learning a lesson is usually close to some sharing of it with others. If at best this is natural and healthy, it is but a mental glitch from presumptuous impositions of one’s ‘better’ values, notions and modes of activity. Preaching and do-gooding readily ‘develop’ as false superiority and varieties of domination. In the face of the ugliest forms of division and mastery, Stephen Biko identified the subtlest of power dynamics:

“The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.”

We may see our own lives, our own being, as streams within other streams, personal interpenetrating with transpersonal, as navigated in a flux of living and conscious energies. What today is regarded as in the areas of conservation, development, psychology or spirituality may increasingly be realised as interpenetrative. Acting inwardly, practically, and politically, weaving together different lines of learning and implementation, effective solutions may emerge not so much as religiously prescribable remedies, more as matters of unique response and synergy.  

Malcolm Mitchell works with Azafady and is author of The Hog’s Wholey Wash (Ashgrove, 2002).

Email: mal at

This article was printed in New Renaissance, Vol. 12, No. 2  Posted on the web on November 10, 2006