This is a collaborative blog written by ICE members. The views represented here are diverse, and entirely those of the authors who share them. We hope you enjoy these Seeds for Thought!
This is a collaborative blog written by ICE members. The views represented here are diverse, and entirely those of the authors who share them. We hope you enjoy these Seeds for Thought!
This is an article I wrote back in 1999, so the references are a bit dated. I feel it is still a useful review of the literature up until then.
To most ecopsychologists, the existence of a human-nature disconnection in most modern individuals and in modern culture as a whole may be self-evident: In industrial societies, most people live indoors and most interactions take place either with other people or with huma n-made artifacts. Most people spend more time watching television than being outdoors. More people go to theme parks than go to national parks. Many ecopsychologists claim that this physical separation from the natural world leads to a psychological disconnection, that the physical separation arises from the psychological alienation, or both.
For ecopsychologists, the psychological or spiritual disconnection from more-than-human nature can lead to:
There is an alternative view within ecopsychology: Environmental damage and human suffering may result less from a disconnection from nature than from more proximate causes acting on social institutions or on individuals in their roles of investor, producer, or consumer. Many economists and behavioural psychologists have argued that environmental degradation has resulted from the incentives built into the economic or social system (Scitovsky, 1992). The voluntary simplicity movement (Dominguez & Robin, 1992; Elgin, 1993) is based on the premise that consumerism is the result of a dysfunctional relationship to money or the artifacts of civilization along with a lack of relationship with nature. Thus, the psychological separation from nature may be seen as a consequence, as well as a cause, of consumerism (Durning, 1995; Kanner & Gomes, 1995).
There have been a number of conceptualizations of the separation between humans and nature. This post reviews some of these concepts. This is a review of some of the different viewpoints in ecopsychology; little attempt has been made to present the richness of these various proposals or to evaluate them.
In the literature, two different but related questions have been addressed about the separation from more-than-human nature: How could the separation have originated? How is the separation best conceptualized?
Possible origins of the separation
Paul Shepard (1982) created a tradition in ecopsychological discourse of trying to trace the disconnection from nature to its earliest beginnings. He saw the separation from nature as resulting from the domestication of plants and animals by early pastoralists and agriculturists. Quinn (1992) placed the separation (the forgetting) a bit later, at the beginning of what he described as “totalitarian agriculture.” Others have seen the separation as arising later in prehistory with the appearance of the first cities. These views see the hunter-gatherer economy as the basis of a spiritual connection to nature and the agricultural lifestyle as the foundation of the separation from nature.
Some writers have placed the separation from nature much earlier in human prehistory. Bookchin (1991) saw the separation as perhaps beginning with the first tools or with the beginnings of language. Other ecopsychologists have been attracted to the narratives of sociobiology or evolutionary psychology (Allman, 1994, Wilson, 1975), which explore the evolutionary roots of contemporary human behaviour. The separation from more-than-human nature is seen as rooted in the very nature of humans.
Others have suggested that the separation has historical, rather than prehistoric, roots. The Judeo-Christian tradition has been seen as central to the separation from nature (White, 1967). For others, Greek rationalism has been the source of the separation. Abram (1996) saw the separation from nature as resulting from the development of alphabetic writing, with Plato being the first major post-literacy philosopher. Cohen (1997) has made a similar suggestion, seeing the separation (new-brain stories) as a consequence of literacy. For both these writers, a distinction can be drawn between nature-connected, animistic language and disconnected, literacy-based language.
Others have seen the separation from nature as arising with the enlightenment, rationalism, the industrial revolution, or other changes in European culture in the 15th to 18th centuries. For example, Marshall (1994) has traced the evolution of the idea of nature in Western civilization with an emphasis on colonialism, capitalism, and the industrial revolution. Winter (1996) saw the separation as occurring with the rise of rationalism in Europe in the eighteenth century.
All these historical and prehistoric accounts share the belief that contemporary agricultural and urban human communities were at one time connected with nature but have now lost that connection. Implicit in some of these views is the possibility that there are contemporary human cultures which have not become separated from more-than-human nature. If this is the case, then ecological wisdom can be obtained from these groups who may be less separated from nature than mainstream industrial society. Depending on which theory of the origin of the separation is adopted, it has been suggested that ecopsychology could look to non-Western cultures, non-Judeo-Christian cultures, non-literate cultures, non-urban cultures, hunter-gatherer cultures, or to cultures that practice Shamanism, ancestor worship, or Animism for connection and ecological wisdom.
According to some writers humans are indeed separated from nature, but this may not be solely the result of having lost an earlier state of connectedness. Some humanistic and transpersonal psychologists see human life as a process of growth and development rather than as an overcoming of past trauma. Thus, Wilber (1996) and others have suggested that human consciousness is evolving and expanding from unconsciousness to an individual self to an ecological self and eventually to a self that includes the entire universe (Hillman, 1995). The connection with nature, in addition to being something we may once have had but have now lost, is seen as a higher level towards which we can move.
Models of the separation
Different writers have conceptualized the separation from nature differently. Several writers have used mental illness metaphors: Shepard (1982) saw the separation from nature resulting in arrested development, with people in modern culture never maturing completely. Roszak (1992) suggested the existence of an ecological unconscious. He seemed to suggest that Freud’s id, the natural part of the personality, should be valued instead of repressed. Metzner (1995), also from a psychoanalytic perspective, has suggested that the disconnection is analogous to the dissociation sometimes seen in abuse victims; a similar position has been presented by Glendinning (1994).
Some Jungian and transpersonal theorists have suggested that contemporary society has a concept of self that is too limited to incorporate the more-than-human world. Hillman (Hillman, 1995; Hillman and Ventura, 1992) has written about the concept of an enlarged, ecological self. Wilber (1996) has suggested something very similar, as have deep ecologists (Bragg, 1996). Aizenstat (1995) provided a perspective from depth psychology that we can uncover a world unconscious of which we are normally only faintly aware.
Another view of the separation is based on cognition and language as well as on psychodynamic or transpersonal processes. Greenway (1995) has suggested that dualistic language separates us from nature, while non-dualistic language can be used to express connection. Cohen (1997) has identified new-brain, nature-disconnected language as the barrier to connecting with nature. According to Cohen, our socialization provides us with “wranglers” that actively prevent our using nature-connected language, much as Freud’s superego represses impulses from the id.
It may be that our separation is a matter of perception or consciousness. Sewall (1995) has suggested that modern people have learned not to perceive certain phenomena in nature; Cohen (1997) has made a similar suggestion. Most ecopsychologists would agree that the disconnection from nature or its opposite, connection, may be seen as altered states of consciousness.
Ecopsychological writing has been dominated by a family of proposals based on the notion that technological, economic, or social change (e.g., agriculture, printing, cities, rationalism) has led to a psychological and cultural separation from nature and that most contemporary cultures teach this separation to each new generation. In many ways, this view is analogous to the Judeo-Christian view of a fall from grace into sin, which is sometimes conceptualized as a disconnection (Baima, 1995), or to the psychodynamic view that mental illness and dissociation are the result of earlier trauma.
Three alternative views have also appeared in the ecopsychology literature:
Does it matter?
Clearly, all these stories about the origins of the separation and all these metaphors for the disconnection from nature are just what they seem — metaphors and stories. No doubt some of them are more plausible or compelling than others, and if the truth were known, some of them would be closer to it than others. These investigations and speculations are interesting and important, but when we ask practical questions about the consequences of the separation or about ways to reconnect people to nature, the differences among these various myths and metaphors may or may not be important. From the pragmatic perspective of doing either psychotherapy or environmental activism, we need to concern ourselves with theoretical differences that might inform different courses of action. In the search for truth it matters which story is more accurate and this search will continue; in the search for solutions, the differences between the stories only matter if they have consequences for our lives.
Abram, D. (1996). The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and language in a more-than-human world. New York: Vintage Books.
Aizenstat, S. (1995). Jungian psychology and the world unconscious. In T. Roszak, M. E. Gomes, and A. D. Kanner (eds.) Ecopsychology: Restoring the earth healing the mind. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.
Allman, W.F. (1994). The Stone Age Present: How evolution has shaped modern life — from sex, violence, and language to emotions, morals, and communities. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Baima, T. A. (1995). Christianity: Origins and beliefs. In J. D. Beversluis (ed.) A Source Book for Earth’s Community of Religions. New York: CoNexus Press & Global Education Associates.
Bookchin, M. (1991). The Ecology of Freedom: The emergence and dissolution of hierarchy, revised edition. Montreal: Black Rose Books.
Bragg, E. A. (1996). Towards ecological self: Deep ecology meets constructionist self-theory. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 16, 93-108.
Cohen, M. (1997). Reconnecting with Nature: Finding wellness through restoring your bond with the earth. Corvallis, OR: Ecopress.
Dominguez, J., & Robin, V. Your Money or Your Life: Transforming your relationship with money and achieving financial independence. New York: Penguin Books.
Durning, A. T. (1995). Are we happy yet? In T. Roszak, M. E. Gomes, and A. D. Kanner (eds.) Ecopsychology: Restoring the earth healing the mind. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.
Elgin, D. (1993). Voluntary Simplicity. New York: William Morrow.
Glendinning, C. (1994). My Name is Chellis & I’m in Recovery from Western Civilization. Boston: Shambhala.
Greenway, R. (1995). The wilderness effect and ecopsychology. In T. Roszak, M. E. Gomes, and A. D. Kanner (eds.) Ecopsychology: Restoring the earth healing the mind. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.
Hillman, J. (1995). A psyche the size of the earth: A psychological forward. In T. Roszak, M. E. Gomes, and A. D. Kanner (eds.) Ecopsychology: Restoring the earth healing the mind. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.
Hillman, J., & Ventura, M. (1992). We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy — And the World’s Getting Worse. San Francisco: Harper Collins Publishers.
Kanner, A. D., & Gomes, M. E. (1995). The all-consuming self. In T. Roszak, M. E. Gomes, and A. D. Kanner (eds.) Ecopsychology: Restoring the earth healing the mind. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.
Marshall, P. (1994) Nature’s Web: Rethinking our place on Earth. New York: Paragon House.
Metzner, R. (1995). The psychopathology of the human-nature relationship. In T. Roszak, M. E. Gomes, and A. D. Kanner (eds.) Ecopsychology: Restoring the earth healing the mind. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.
Quinn, D. (1992). Ishmael. New York: Bantam/Turner Books.
Roszak (1992). The Voice of the Earth. New York: Simon & Shuster.
Scitovsky, T. (1992). The Joyless Economy: The psychology of human satisfaction. New York: Oxford University Press.
Sewall, L. (1995). The skill of ecological perception. In T. Roszak, M. E. Gomes, and A. D. Kanner (eds.) Ecopsychology: Restoring the earth healing the mind. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.
Shepard, P. (1982). Nature and Madness. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.
White, L. (1967). The historical roots of our ecological crisis. Science, 155, 1203-1207.
Wilber, K. (1996) A Brief History of Everything. Boston: Shambhala.
Wilson, E. O. (1975). Sociobiology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Winter, D. D. (1996). Ecological Psychology: Healing the split between planet and self. New York: Harper Collins.
According to media reports, 2016 was the 25th anniversary of the birth of the Internet, although a case can be made for birthdates as early as 1989. Email discussion lists were one of the early uses of the Internet, and the second half of the 1990s saw the creation of a large ecopsychology group moderated by the late Claudia Robinson. A number of participants discovered that her moderation was somewhat immoderate and left her list to create a new, smaller, but more inclusive ecopsychology discussion list. Several members of the list attended the “For the Love of Nature” conference in Scotland, co-organized by a member of that small list, Brendan Hill of the Centre for Human Ecology.
The list had a diverse membership from around the (mostly English-speaking) world with members in the US, Canada, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Belgium, and France. There was a consensus on the list that there was a need for enhanced communication beyond our small email list and occasional conferences. We had an extended discussion of our next step: Should we create an academic association with a peer-reviewed journal or should we have a very loose organization with a website and a more open magazine format? Informality and the magazine carried the day.
We called ourselves the International Community for Ecopsychology (ICE) and created the first versions of this website www.ecopsychology.org and our internet magazine Gatherings. All the work was performed by volunteers and all expenses (registration and hosting fees) were covered by donations from the members of ICE. By consensus we agreed not to carry commercial advertisements, charge for directory listings, or sell anything.
The first edition of Gatherings appeared in late 1999. The internet was still in its childhood and information was difficult to find. Google had only been online for a year and Wikipedia was still two years in the future. The response to our effort was large and positive and there was no question that we were filling an important need: Our directory soon had more than 100 listings from 25 different countries and our articles were being widely cited.
But as the Internet reaches 25 and ICE approaches 17, times are changing. The field of ecopsychology now has academic journals, there are several national and international organizations, numerous web sites, and active discussions on Facebook and probably elsewhere. As the ecopsychology community has changed, so has our ecology: Climate change and other global issues have made environmentalism and environmental issues much more prominent and critical than they were, while ecotherapy and nature healing have become almost mainstream.
What is the continuing role for www.ecopsychology.org? Where do we go from here? It would be great to read comments from our readers, supporters, current and former members, and maybe even future members of ICE.
We are in Wells Gray Park, a huge protected natural area in the Caribou Mountains of British Columbia, Canada. It is a land of mountains, lakes, rivers, and forests with a diversity of wildlife, notably bears, moose, birds, fish, and more than 30 species of mosquito.
More than anything else, though, Wells Gray is a land of waterfalls. Due to its unique geological history, there are about 39 named major waterfalls and uncounted smaller cascades in the park. Helmcken Falls is the 4th largest waterfall in Canada, about three times the height of Niagara Falls.
Much can be learned in the company of waterfalls. Watching a river’s wild cascade, breathing the mist, and experiencing the roar, it is clear that a waterfall is a living being. The word “waterfall” tells of relationships. A waterfall is the event when a particular river arrives in a particular location. It is the immensely powerful and beautiful shape water takes for a moment in its journey down a stream.
If we stretch the time scale, we realize that everything (and everybody) is a temporary event like a waterfall. Just as a waterfall is a momentary shape of water, a tree is the shape takon by sunlight, water, and certain chemicals for a few centuries. Animals, including humans like myself, are the shape food, water, and air takes for less than a century. The waterfall is the story of life written in an instant.
A striking feature of many waterfalls is that the water above the cascade is deceptively smooth, quiet, and calm, giving little warning about the confusion and danger ahead. From the quiet of a lake the current accelerates imperceptibly until suddenly the water rushes over the fall in a paroxysm of energy, chaos, violence, and beauty.
The same may be true of human affairs. As we age, life can go smoothly until we become ill or reach old age and our systems begin to fail at an increasing rate. For society, it seems the pace of technological and social change is gradually and smoothly accelerating, like the river above the falls.. Suddenly, a threshold may be reached and chaos ensue. The swimmers ahead of us may already be in the maelstrom while for those of us farther behind, everything may still seem safe and calm. Listening with an alert mind, we may hear the sound as we approach a fall before it is too late to swim to the safety of the bank.
There are always lessons in nature.
Two media communications coming out of the first part of 2016 are making my heart sing!
The most recent was Leonardo DiCaprio’s Oscars “Best Actor” acceptance speech for his role in The Revenant. In it he spoke out forcefully about the critical threat of Climate Change, giving specifics about the collective response he sees needed to address it and a special shout out for First Nations peoples whose “voices have been drown out by the politics of greed”. It brought a smile to this man’s face as well:
The other was Al Gore’s latest TED Talk on the Case for Optimism on Climate Change, where he talks first about the continuing seriousness and ongoing effects of climate change, and then moves on to share some of the changes we ARE making and how those changes are impacting what is now possible, and what our future can hold. A hugely inspiring talk from this courageous and visionary Nobel Laureate:
One woman’s opinion, by Amy Lenzo
On reading an article by George Monbiot in the UK Guardian called If Children Lose Contact With Nature They Won’t Fight For It … I agree wholeheartedly with Monbiot’s title, but my hackles rise at the (to me) lazy & inaccurate argument that follows, “blaming” the entire problem at the door of youth’s on-screen engagement.
The truth is that while large-scale social conditions have indeed changed our children’s freedoms and access to the natural world (there’s a lot more happening here than the rise of the internet, folks), I believe that those little screens also hold some part of the way back for many of us (and our children).
I grew up as an introvert in the Arizona desert, where nature was a bit prickly to say the least, and my own passion for the natural world was born in books. Today’s “books” have multi-media to draw children in to the mystery and magic of the natural world, and are even more effective.
Of course we want to encourage children to get out on the land and have direct engagement with the natural world.
Of course a personal relationship with nature is a hugely powerful motivational source for conservation and environmental activism (we protect what we know and love), and a source of balance and wholeness for all of us.
We are all of the land, and belong to it, whether we know it or not. From my perspective, it’s far more effective to convey this message creatively in the many ways we now have to connect and communicate with each other – and imbue our own online engagement with nature-connection (e.g. don’t disconnect from our bodies when we’re online, remember we are talking with actual human beings with their feet on the ground within a specific environment, use sense-based language and photography to stay connected to the natural world, etc.) – than it is to bemoan reality.