What is EcoPsychology?
by Robert Greenway

My 95-year-old father asked me the other day what I was working on. As a tough old military man and dairy manager he is usually impatient with my esoteric university topics. I decided to tell him the truth anyway. "Ecopsychology", I said. He looked at me blankly, didn't say another word while he finished his lunch, then pushed his plate away, looked me straight in the eye, and said, "hmm, eco-psychology you say?" "Yes", I said, "Ecopsychology". "Ecopsychology", he said . . . "that covers everything doesn't it?"

"Well, yes," I admitted. And I felt the frustration I feel when noticing the myriad ways people use the term. Something that means 'everything' usually means, more or less, nothing, in my experience.

Ecopsychology is a context for healing the much-vaunted human-nature split. It is an environmental/philosophic movement without a Jung, Wilber, or Arne Naess (founder-philosopher of 'Deep Ecology', which overlaps considerably with ecopsychology). It is a collection of friends talking about their urgent concerns about disappearing species and other human-caused environmental catastrophes taking place on our planet. It is, here and there, almost an academic discipline; and it is, so far, an unsuccessful attempt to 'merge' the fields of psychology and ecology, where 'psychology' means any one or more of a dozen or so fields (from Freud to Maslow to Skinner to Gestalt to Clinical to Wilber) and where 'ecology' means anything from 'nature' (loving it, in particular) to 'hard' scientific ecology (where energy- all biological processes- is measured flowing through various systems). In fact, most ecopsychologies are either very vague, or simplistic, using a generalized form of pop-psychology summarized as people's 'behavior', and a generalized form of pop-ecology summarized as 'nature', or 'good nature'.

I find this sad, because I think that the human-caused degradation of our environment requires extreme and wise and widespread solutions, and for this we need a strong, coherent, accurate language so we can at least communicate with each other in search of strategies and solutions (more on this below).

Meanwhile, here in more detail are some of the groupings in which you'll find people using the term ecopsychology:

Six Faces of Ecopsychology
(or 'Six Directions in Search of a Center')

I. Ecopsychology as Umbrella/Container for Discussions About Nature

This is the most common use of the term, and its meanings are diverse, to say the least. Somehow, the term 'ecopsychology' frees people to talk very personally about their concerns over environmental issues, or their angers or fears or grief over specific human-caused problems, or just about anything even remotely connected to natural processes (examples recently gleaned from an Internet ecopsychology group: discussions of recycling, burial practices, education, politics, economics, corporate responsibility, endangered species, ebonics, and so on). There are no boundaries in this realm, although it is commonly assumed, more or less, that any human activity means 'psychology', and anything having to do with 'nature' is ecology, which, together, cover just about everything. Most discussions in this realm are covered more rigorously in other fields. Thus, this category has all the characteristics of a popular fad, a bandwagon, although obviously a need is being fulfilled; perhaps a 'mythic container' is being created, a stimulus for much-needed development of personal and social narrative recasting the human nature relationship.

II. Ecopsychology as Basis for Healing, for a 'New' Therapy

This is also a common (and one of the most coherent) uses of the term.

There are at least two (overlapping) camps within this category:

(A) The psychological problems resulting from Western-Industrial Culture's alleged increasing distance from Nature (or 'natural processes'). Paul Shepherd's work (Nature and Madness) is paradigmatic.

(B) The use of nature (some kind of immersion in nature) for healing what is believed to be 'the human-nature disjunction' (the idea that re-immersion in nature will somehow offset the pathogenic effects of a culture increasingly isolated from- or dominant over- natural processes).

The many forms of wild-erness healing are paradigmatic, although psychotherapists discuss the movement of a therapeutic session from inside the office to out on the patio or a walk in the garden or park as 'ecopsychology'.

III. Calls for an Ecopsychology

For many, expressions of the need for an ecopsychology are synonymous with ecopsychology-as-field. Although as pointed out above, ideas about the human-nature relationship have been around for decades, or centuries (whether couched in philosophical speculations or pragmatic need), the 1990's call for an ecopsychology is at once a call for a container, for a field, for a discipline, for principles, most of all, for something to do to 'save the earth' from human-caused destruction to the very processes upon which humans and all life depends. Theodore Roszak's The Voice of the Earth is paradigmatic; some of James Hillman's writings are calling for a revision of psychology that would acknowledge the existence of a natural context for all psychological processes, all life!; and, as mentioned above, Paul Shepherd's Nature and Madness (and all his other writings) have for a long time been calling for psychology to become aware of the disjunctive effects of our culture's accelerating distancing with natural processes.

IV. Ecopsychology as Experiential

For a variety of reasons (such as recent generations' mistrust of philosophy; of 'words that dominate'; of rationality, objectivity, logic; the relief of physical activity as opposed to thinking; the obvious needs for- and benefits of- 'actions'; the increasingly obvious contradictions between what environmental theorists do and what they say ; the conviction that 'experience' (usually meaning experience prior to cultural mediation) is more 'correct' or 'spiritual' or should have primacy over all subsequent psychological processes) - all this and more brings into the burgeoning ecopsychology 'field' calls for 'less talk and more walk'. Thus, for many, 'ecopsychology' means the vision quest, the wilderness excursion, the full-moon ritual, the blockade of a logging road, yoga, or the meditation practice. At a more linguistic level, such actions - and particularly those that involve 'bridges' between culture and nature (such as, say, gardening, sexuality, child-raising, food finding and preparation, shelter, etc.) - are seen not so much as synonymous with ecopsychology, but an essential experiential source of psychological language (i.e., from experience-to-language rather than from philosophy-to-language).

V. Spiritual Practice as Ecopsycyology

This of course overlaps with category IV, above, but warrants separate attention, for the reason that, though 'spiritual' here means primarily experiential, it also includes the theoretical, as for example, Ken Wilber's massive intellectual work (in particular the first book in his huge trilogy: Sex, Evolution, and Spirit). The underlying assumption here, crucial to many in the environmental movement, is that nature is spirit (i.e. 'Source', where a return to 'right relationship' with nature implies a right relationship with Spirit, and that without this depth (or height!) all efforts at healing the human-nature relationship will fall short. Of course the debate rages whether Spirit has fully descended into earth, or whether earth-consciousness is evolving towards a higher 'spirit' (or whether both are true). Whatever, many now working within an ecopsychology umbrella strive for that feeling or 'groove' of oneness with nature, and assume this to be an essential spiritual approach to healing the human-nature relationship. Many others are turning to the works of Ken Wilber as a trans-personal psychology base for the 'psychology' part of ecopsychology; or to Buddhist psychology (or other religions) as a way of including spirit or 'mystery' in the attempts to overcome the dualism currently inherent in western cultural views of the human-nature relationship.

VI. 'Core' Ecopsychology as Language

Without discounting any of the above categories of emergent ecopsychology, this category -- very sparse, and without much attention indeed – attempts to 'ground' an ecopsychology in language (the 'logos' of both psychology and ecology) that is philosophically coherent and consistent. The assumption here is, like other disciplines, without a core language, or at least a core set of questions, something as vast as 'ecopsychology' will fly off in all directions and will become, essentially, meaningless, however stimulating or productive of an occasional insight it may be.

Assumptions tend to be that the human-nature relationship is psychologically based, that psychology (as emergent in culture) is capable of being skewed (and that this is the case in Western culture), that no existing psychology has a complete handle on the situation (and thus a 'new' psychology must emerge), that the human cognitive penchant for extreme dualism is as close as we can presently come to an expression of the cause of the human-nature disjunction; that language needn't be dualistic (though it often engenders dualism), and that, perhaps, 'the question of consciousness' is at the heart of all these core questions. The work of Warwick Fox (Transpersonal Ecology) is an attempt at a core language, using an analysis of 'deep ecology' and 'transpersonal psychology' to formulate a model of a healthy human-nature relationship. Ken Wilber's work attempts the same, although his rather vicious attacks on deep ecology and earlier forms of ecopsychology for not being transpersonal enough (or rather, for not being couched explicitly in Wilber's latest transpersonal models) makes his work somewhat problematical. At present, the only true ecopsychology text is by Deborah Winter (Ecological Psychology: Healing the Split Between Planet and Self), which is an excellent basic text that combs through a variety of psychologies and philosophies in search of an ecopsychological language that would be practical and stimulating for changing behaviors re the human-nature relationship. There are of course many shorter papers coming out dealing with definitions and ecopsychological ideas, and a number of books in the works that will, hopefully, help to focus this 'field' in a coherent language.

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