Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom:
A History of Ecopsychology

by John Scull

Social historian Theodore Roszak gave the first public definition of the field of ecopsychology in his book Voice of the Earth (Roszak, 1992). Many of the central ideas of ecopsychology can also be found in his earlier work (Roszak, 1979). Further elaboration of the field took place with the publication in 1995 of Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth Healing the Mind. This impressive collection of papers edited by Roszak, Mary Gomes, and Allen Kanner is highly recommended to anyone looking for an introductory overview of the field of ecopsychology.

The apparent richness and variety of the contributions to Ecopsychology are somewhat deceptive, however. Of the 26 papers in Ecopsychology, only one seems to have been written by an academic psychologist and only one by a scientific ecologist. With a few exceptions, the rest emphasize only two views of psychology- psychodynamic and transpersonal. Roszak’s version of ecopsychology and the representation in the collection could perhaps better be described as "ecopsychiatry" than ecopsychology. Roszak adopted the medical metaphor of psychoanalysis in his conceptualization of the field and nearly half the papers in the collection are from various perspectives of neo-analytic dynamic clinical psychology. Reser (1995) has characterized ecopsychology as a variant of transpersonal psychology.

Besides representing a somewhat narrow view of the new field, the collection in Ecopsychology lacks geographical and cultural diversity: All the writers are North American and more than 60% live in California. Without minimizing the valuable contribution made by Roszak, Gomes, and Kanner, I would like to suggest that we seek a more diverse ecopsychology by looking at some of the writers and perspectives they did not include.

Ecopsychology has many roots: Buddhist philosophy, various mystical traditions within most religions, the romantic movement in Europe, and the transcendentalist movement in the United States (Reser, 1995). James, Freud, Jung, Skinner, and many other psychologists along with Muir, Leopold, and other ecologists have considered various aspects of the human-nature relationship. The work of philosopher Paul Shephard (1982) and ecologist Aldo Leopold (1949) are probably the most direct intellectual ancestors of ecopsychology. Beginning in the 1960s, Michael Cohen, Robert Greenway, Art Warmoth, and perhaps others began using wilderness settings for psychotherapy or education.

An ecopsychology which attempts to heal the relationship between humans and nature needs to begin by being inclusive and highly tolerant of diversity. All movements must begin somewhere, and California has been the birthplace of many. According to Greenway (1999), the foundations of ecopsychology were laid in a series of meetings in San Francisco that included Robert Greenway, Elan Shapiro, Allen Kanner, Mary Gomes, and later Theodore Roszak. Many ecopsychologists believe we are strongly influenced by our physical environment—having the field dominated by people from only one biogeoclimatic region and culture can only limit our vision at this point in the development of a new field. With this in mind, we should pay special attention to writers from Europe, Asia, South America, Africa, Australasia, and Oceania.

Within clinical psychology, in addition to the insight- and growth-oriented therapies already included, we should examine the questions of ecopsychology from other perspectives of clinical psychology such as cognitive (rational-emotive, reality, multi-modal, social learning theory) therapies, behaviour therapy, systems therapy, radical therapy, stress management, narrative therapy, and somatic therapy perspectives. Clinebell (1996) presents a good overview of many of these traditions and how they might apply to ecopsychology.

Skinner, the leading figure in behavioural psychology, was one of the first psychologists to recognize the environmental crisis (Skinner, 1971) and the role psychology (behaviour analysis) might have in dealing with it. Pioneering work on ecopsychological questions has been done by behaviour analysts (some of this work is reviewed by Dwyer, Leeming, Cobern, Porter, & Jackson, 1993). Social psychology has been applied with some success to environmental problems (Stern, 1992). Winter (1997) has provided an overview of ways in which many diverse fields of psychology might be relevant to ecological questions and Gardner and Stern (1996) have written a textbook covering some of the relationships between scientific ecology and behavioural science.

Ecopsychology includes work that grew from traditions other than psychotherapy or cultural history. From environmental education has come the pioneering work of Cohen (1997) who may be able to claim the first developed system for applied ecopsychology. One variant of deep ecology has included work in community activation (Macy & Brown, 1998) and transformational learning (Clover, Follen, & Hall, 1998), clearly within the purview of ecopsychology. Many spiritual traditions, including Buddhism, Taoism, Shamanism, and Creation Spirituality have important things to say about the questions of ecopsychology.

Ecology, and particularly systems theory (Laszlo, 1996), along with other aspects of biological science may have a great deal to contribute to our view of the human-nature relationship. Ecopsychology can be informed by sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, chaos theory, evolutionary biology, and other areas of modern biological science. The human-nature connection is also powerfully influenced by the human systems studied by political science, economics, sociology, and anthropology.

The list could go on. My hope is that we can all view ecopsychology as a set of questions to which we can seek answers from many diverse sources. Hopefully, by valuing openness, tolerance, and diversity, ecopsychology can avoid the sectarian disputes that have afflicted the study of psychology and spirituality in the past. The work of ecopsychology has begun, but it is important for us to not be limited by the specifics of that beginning.

"Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.
Your may give them your love but not your thoughts."

~ Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet, 1923


Clinebell, H. (1996). Ecotherapy: Healing ourselves, healing the earth. New York: Haworth Press.

Cohen, M.J. (1997). Reconnecting with Nature: Finding wellness through restoring your bond with the Earth. Corvallis, OR: Ecopress.

Dwyer, W. O., Leeming, F. C., Cobern, M. K., Porter, B. E., & Jackson, J. M. (1993). Critical review of behavioral interventions to preserve the environment: Research since 1980. Environment and Behavior, 25, 275-321.

Gardner, G.T., & Stern, P.T. (1996). Environmental Problems and Human Behavior. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Greenway, R. (1999). personal communication.

Laszlo, E. (1996). The Systems View of the World: A holistic vision for our time. New York: Hampton Press.

Leopold, A. (1949). A Sand County Almanac. New York: Ballantine.

Macy, J., and Brown, M.Y. (1998) Coming Back to Life: Practices to reconnect our lives, our world. Gabriola Island, B.C.: New Society Publishers.

Reser, J.P. (1995) Whither environmental psychology? The transpersonal ecopsychology crossroads. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 15, 235-257.

Roszak, T. (1979) Person/Planet. New York: Doubleday

Roszak, T. (1992). The Voice of the Earth. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Roszak, T., Gomes, M.E., and Kanner, A.D. (1995) Ecopsychology: Restoring the earth healing the mind. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.

Shepard, P. (1982). Nature and Madness. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.

Skinner, B. F. (1971). Beyond Freedom and Dignity. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

Stern, P. C. (1992). Psychological dimensions of global environmental change. Annual Review of Psychology, 43, 269-302.

Winter, D. D. (1996). Ecological Psychology: Healing the split between planet and self. New York: Harper Collins.

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