There is now burgeoning psychological research on the importance of nature to human health and functioning and a new movement called ‘ecopsychology’ has developed. Theodore Roszak, (author of The Voice of the Earth and one of the movement's founder) explains why it has taken so long for nature to be given its rightful place:
Western psychology has limited the definition of mental health to the interpersonal context of an urban industrial society: marriage, family, work, school, community. All that lies beyond the citified psyche has seemed of no human relevance – or perhaps too frightening to think about. “Nature,” Freud dismally concluded is “eternally remote. She destroys us – coldly, cruelly, relentlessly.” Whatever else has been revised and rejected in Freud’s theories, this tragic sense of estrangement from nature continues to haunt psychology, making the natural world remote and hostile. (1)
Traditionally psychology has looked at individuals as subjects divorced from their environment and from the natural world. It models itself on the ‘hard sciences’ of Freud’s day. It employs a methodology which fails to address the natural ecology of the universe - the fact that everything is connected.
Psychology has thus denied the importance of the world to mental health, focusing instead on the individual’s subjective state. If the individual is mentally unhealthy then this is seen as the result of the individual’s thoughts and emotions which must be ‘cured’ through various therapeutic means. But as James Hillman points out:
The “bad” place I am “in” may refer not only to a depressed mood or an anxious state of mind; it may refer to a sealed-up office tower where I work, a set-apart suburban subdivision where I sleep, or the jammed freeway on which I commute between the two.’ (2)
Ecopsychology is an attempt to address this fundamental weakness in psychology. It ‘proceeds from the assumption that at its deepest level the psyche remains sympathetically bonded to the Earth that mothered us into existence … .’ (3) They also argue that people experience pain and a sense of loss when they witness the destruction of the environment. Ecopsychology does not have firm ‘orthodoxies’ but sees itself as ‘an open and developing field of inquiry where many ideas and techniques can flourish’. (4)
One of the main aims of the movement is to change psychology itself. To these critics, ignoring nature and splitting the human psyche from its natural surroundings, has encouraged psychology to become ‘ego-centric, self-referential and narcissistic’. Thus psychologists study and treat people in the closed world of the lab or clinic, analysing individuals as if they are isolated from their real world context and encouraging an introspective self-focus. Even the humanistic wing of psychology has been only interested in heightened personal awareness - self-actualization - ignoring our connection with the natural world.
In place of this traditional focus ecopsychologists promote the idea that ‘there is a greater ecological intelligence as deeply rooted in the foundations of the psyche as the sexual and aggressive instincts that Freud found there.’ (5) They accept that this is speculative and unproven but no more so than many of the assumptions which have traditionally underpinned psychology. The growing number of research studies which show the therapeutic effects of contact with the green environment or the wilderness undoubtedly suggest that ecopsychology is an important development in the discipline.
Psychology’s traditional unwillingness to link the human psyche with the natural world is not unique but, according to the ecopsychologists, part of a widespread human endeavour of see human beings as separate and superior to Nature. They argue that many tribal people see themselves not as ‘masters’ but ‘guests’ of the natural world. In other words, they feel connected to Nature and duty bound to respect and cherish their environment as it this which has created and sustains them. This often leads to a spirituality based on the natural world and living things. Indeed for primitive people the natural and the spiritual are synonymous. This viewpoint was replaced with settled agriculture and human beings’ attempt to control the natural world. Thus we have the great scientist Francis Bacon injunction that nature should serve man. A significant strand of Enlightenment thought concerns man’s conquest and control of Nature.
John E. Mack, a professor psychiatry, and an important thinker in the movement until his death in 2004, was aware of the challenge ecopsychology presents to psychology, given this scientific heritage:
By and large, we in the West have rejected the language and experience of the sacred, the divine, and the animation of nature. Our psychology is predominantly one of mechanisms, parts and linear relationships. We have grown suspicious of experiences, no matter how powerful, that cannot be quantified, and we distrust the language of reverence, spirit, and mystical connection, recalling perhaps with fear the superstitions and holy wars of earlier periods. Academic psychology, embodying now a reverence of numbers, tight reasoning, and linear thinking as opposed to intuition, direct knowing, and subjective experience, is likely to look askance at efforts to reinfuse its body with the imprecise notions of spirituality and philosophy from which it has so vigorously and proudly struggled, to free itself in an effort to be granted scientific status in our universities, laboratories and consulting rooms.
But this cannot be helped. (6)
Ecopsychologists believe that ‘the greening of psychology’ is not only important for psychology and for new types of ‘green therapy’ but can also play an important part in the environmental movement. They claim that it is the research and theoretical perspectives, under the banner of ecopsychology, that can help us understand why modern society is so plagued with addictions, particularly consumer spending, and our behaviour based on dissociation; the role of women; and the best ways to create the conditions so that people will genuinely embrace the environmental concerns which will help us to save the planet for future generations. Below we set out some of their thinking on these issues.
Addictions and dissociation
Various ecopsychologists, notably Paul Shepherd (Nature and Madness) and Ralph Metzner (The Greening of Psychology) advance the idea that standard psychological ideas such as dissociation and addiction can be used to good effect to discuss human being’s relationship with their habitat. They argue, example, that there has been a ‘pathological alienation between human consciousness and the rest of the biosphere.’ (7) Part of the pathology created by the alienation between man and nature has been the rise of addictions to various substances – not just sugar, tobacco, alcohol and narcotics but also to money and possessions. The Ecopsychologist Chellis Glendinning has coined the term ‘techno addiction’ to refer to a world where we are completely dependent on machines and a ‘mechanical order’. She believes that the loss of control and the inherent values of this technological world are some of the reasons for the rise in addictions:
As human lives comes to be structures increasingly by mechanistic means, the psyche restructures itself to survive. The technological constructs erodes primary sources of satisfaction once found routinely in life in the wilds, such as physical nourishment, vital community, fresh food, continuity between work and meaning, unhindered participation in life experiences, personal choices, community decisions, and spiritual connection with the natural world. These are the needs we were born to have satisfied. In the absence of these we will not be healthy. In their absence, bereft and in shock, the psyche finds some temporary satisfaction in pursuing secondary sources like drugs, violence, sex, material possessions and machines. While these stimulants may satisfy in the moment, they can never truly fulfil primary needs. And so the addictive process is born. We become obsessed with secondary sources as if our lives depended on them. (8)
Ralph Metzner summarises the argument about dissociation, and its damaging effects, in the following terms:
It is not that our knowledge and understanding of the Earth’s complex and delicate web of interdependence is vaguely and inchoately lodged in some forgotten basement of our psyche. We have the knowledge of our impact on the environment, we can perceive the pollution and degradation of the land, the waters, the air-but we do not attend to it, we do not connect that knowledge with other aspects of our total experience. Perhaps it would be more accurate, and fair, to say that individuals feel unable to respond to the natural world appropriately, because the political, economic, and educational institutions in which we are involved all have this dissociation built into them. Dissociative alienation has been a feature of Western culture for centuries, or in some respects, millennia … . (9)
This disconnect with nature, and the spiritual, is then fertile territory for the appearance of the ‘all consuming self’.
Ecopsychologists have also added to the critique of consumerism. Much of the debate on this is about how pursuing a materialist agenda detracts from well-being by distracting us from relationships and more meaningful activities. Ecopsychologists share this view but add to it with concern on how this consumerism is undermining the planet and also may be an expression of an underlying malaise brought about through disconnection with Nature. They are also more critical of advertising and media and psychologists’ role in these industries than many mainstream psychologists.
The role of women
One of the key themes in ecopsychology is gender relations and the role of women. Many ecopsychologists accept that man’s conquest of nature extended to his oppression of women and the rise of patriarchy. Thus the dominance of land, property and women are all interconnected. Dominance is part of the psychology of modern men and is linked, feminist psychologists, argue to a fear of dependence on others which is seen as weakening. This means that man’s true relationship with nature, as one of dependence, has to be denied in the quest for dominion. Feminist theorists argue that if we can give up this quest for separation and control, and liberate the ‘dynamic feminine’ then ‘we become open to a world of increasing richness, complexity and beauty.’ (10) However, Betty Roszack, while agreeing with aspects of the feminist analysis, warns of the dangers of romanticising nature and women. In many cultures which venerate mothers, women are oppressed. She also warns of the dangers of ‘setting ourselves apart as women in some new version of the noble savage, who bears all wisdom and will redress the wrongs and injustices of the world.’ (11) Instead she offers the vision of ‘connection’: ‘the inner with the outer, the self with the Other, the ordinary with the sacred, the person with the planet.’ (12) This is a vision which can be brought about, she claims, from small shifts – listening more to our intuition, meditating, shifting our perceptions and behaviour.
1 ' The Nature of Sanity ' in Psychology Today, Theodore Roszak, Jan/Feb 1996.
2 ' Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind ', Kanner. A . D, Roszack, T & Gomes, M. E, 1995, Sierra Club Books.
3 As above, pg 5
4 As above, pg 20
5 As above,pg 16
6 As above, pg 284
7 As above, pg 56
8 As above, pg 53
9 As above, pg 64-65
10 As above, pg 119
11 As above, pg 298
12 As above, pg 300