What Is Ecopsychology?

September 21, 2016

This is a question I continually aim to answer in my writings, which are full of statements along the lines of “to me, ecopsychology is…,” each one summing up a different view of the thing. (I even do this in the About section of this website—I am rather compulsive about it.) So, what follows is one more broad attempt at characterizing the field in a way that I think gives it some authentic wings.

For me, ecopsychology is a very different kind of animal than psychology as we have come to know it. There is nothing else like it. It is the psychology we have needed for the last 50 years: a psychology that adopts a truly ecological view of reality and pursues all the radical transformations in the psychological enterprise that such a view implies. This means that ecopsychology goes against the stream of much of our conventional wisdom and practice. But of course many of our conventions and taken-for-granted ideas are precisely what have got us into such a mess. And once you realize how freeing and enlivening it is to step out of the confinements of our age, there is no going back.

In my work, I talk about two main senses of ecopsychology: recollective and critical. Ecopsychology in the recollective sense is about remembering how we belong to the earth, how everything about us came out of the land and our interrelationships with countless other-than-human beings. Thus, the human psyche cannot be separated from the psyche of the earth. Following this idea, ecopsychology is often defined by the claim that human well-being is synergistically linked to the well-being of the planet. Great piles of research and evocative literature now support the contention that nature is “good for your mental health” and that to be fully alive we need to be in touch with a living world.

But this only gets us so far. Ecopsychologists argue that to care for the human mind we must care for the earth, as these cannot be divided. Or as Theodore Roszak put it in one of the early formulations of ecopsychology: the needs of the person are the needs of the planet. For me, this is where the lesser-known, critical sense of ecopsychology comes in. We have a political and economic system that does not serve life but rather the accumulation of money—at the expense of life. Under this system, human needs and planetary needs simply cannot be reconciled or integrated. Doing that would require a whole different society, an ecological society. My argument, then, is that the field of ecopsychology will only really make sense if it is committed to building such a society. And for us ecopsychologists this would involve the political work of revealing the many deep and complex interrelationships that exist among the terrains of psyche, society, and nature. Not many people in the field are doing this—and we need to ask why.

The answer I give is itself a psychological one. In our crazed late modern times, we are so “alienated from nature,” so cut-off from the depths of our own human nature, so traumatized by everyday life, that most of us are starved for what the recollective side of ecopsychology has to offer. As we often say, people feel “disconnected;” they hunger for re-connection. An ecopsychology that gets us back in sensory touch with wild things, that invites us into the dreaming of the earth, that develops our sense of ecological selfhood is, not surprisingly, very attractive. It is to me. I have been to nature-connection events where it is hard to get people out of the woods. Something at their core starts to get fed or healed, and they don’t want to leave. This is one of the main reasons why ecopsychology has to date inclined in the recollective direction: the pull is so strong.

The critical side of ecopsychology, on the other hand, asks why we are starved in the first place. What are the historical forces, the structures of social relations, that deaden and disconnect the person while also wasting the planet? Hmm, this doesn’t sound quite as attractive. Indeed, most people are averse to such a question—which is the second main reason why ecopsychology has been more recollective than critical: the critical direction is so unsettling.

But consider what gets missed when we avoid the critical questions. The environmental historian Jason Moore writes that a defining feature of the capitalist system is its “cheap nature strategy.” This system relentlessly searches for new frontiers of nature that it can get on the cheap—cheap energy, cheap raw materials, cheap food, and cheap labour. The cheap nature system is inherently anti-ecological, it “cheapens” nature, leaving the earth (including human beings) progressively in ruins as capital restlessly moves on to new frontiers to appropriate and exploit. It is precisely from such ruination, for example, that the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and their allies are currently protecting the land and water in North Dakota against pipeline development.

My point is that if ecopsychology chooses not to incorporate this kind of critical thinking and practice into the field then the transition to an ecological society is a process external to ecopsychology. In this case, it is hard to envision ecopsychology having much social relevance, so knife-edged is this historical moment; it simply won’t be strong enough to bear the weight of our times. I get a regular reminder of this because I teach in an Environmental Studies program, not a Psychology program. If I were to present ecopsychology in a narrowly psychological or apolitical way to environmental studies students looking the ecological crisis in the eye then many of them would frankly eat me alive.

Ecopsychology only makes sense as a field, then, when it unites or integrates its recollective and critical dimensions. The challenge is to make the whole project attractive, not just the recollective side of it. The critical side usually turns people off because it is so discomforting. To take an honest look at all the historical currents that have been involved in creating the global ecopsychological crisis—including the 500 years of exploitative capitalist relations, the settler colonialism that Indigenous resurgence movements seek to reverse, the bloody history of racism and slavery, the oppression of women and the female body, and so on—is for most people to step into highly unsettling or anxiety-producing territory. I think ecopsychology has struggled to come to a mature understanding of itself precisely because of the barrier posed by this discomfort. A more realized ecopsychology lies on the other side of that barrier. How to get there?

The advantage that ecopsychology has is that it is a kind of psychology. If any field can mobilize to convert anxiety about its own critical implications into excitement about a deep, history-making adventure, it ought to be this one. At present, ecopsychology as an overall field contains a major contradiction: it links human health to the health of the earth but doesn’t convincingly tie its theory and practice into countering those systems that both destroy the earth and produce the nature-estranged mind. It is an “ecological” field that doesn’t sufficiently illuminate the inter-relationships that compose its subject matter, including those involving violent social histories of human-land relations. In short, it is a holistic field that generally doesn’t look at the whole picture. Resolving this contradiction will mean shaping ecopsychology so that it can act more as what we psychotherapists call a “container” or supportive context that helps people tolerate their anxieties, mend their inner conflicts, and get to a place of fuller living. For it is one thing to unsettle people; it is another to help them contain their distress.

To conclude, then, a few thoughts about the challenge ecopsychology faces in providing the containment for political anxiety needed in order for it to become more truly itself as a field.

First of all, the need for containment is not a new idea. Joanna Macy has long argued that if we are not grounded in a strong spiritual practice then it is virtually impossible to contain our “pain for the world” and discover the power to transform the world hidden inside it. We remain numb and invested in business-as-usual. Along these lines, Allen Kanner asks:

How do we cope as we pass tipping points, system collapse, resource depletions, extinctions, and other major junctures from which there is no turning back? […] Does ecopsychology pretend that these developments are not on the near horizon, requiring that we prepare for them now?

Current events in North Dakota (and British Columbia, and…) make it hard to pretend that any of us can remain deaf to the unfinished business of history, which is only going to get louder as intertwined ecological and social contradictions come to a head. We are going to get unsettled whether we like it or not. Any crisis, including this one, is an invitation to grow beyond our current state in order to skillfully meet or transcend the crisis. By embracing rather than bypassing its critical side, I believe ecopsychology can grow beyond the model of business-as-usual psychology and get on with the task of creating ways to hold our collective anxieties and make an open-hearted voyage toward the inescapable political realities at the centre of our field.

As I have noted, a truly holistic ecopsychology has significant advantages here. I often hear my work characterized as only political or critical, but this is not the case. I don’t suggest that ecopsychology become political in any old way but rather in a specifically ecopsychological way, with all the recollective depth and psychological know-how we can muster. It is precisely by uniting the recollective and critical sides of ecopsychology that we can develop a kind of politics that is attractive, one that makes the turn toward discomfort an act that people consciously choose to make. This is because these two sides of the field are not ultimately in conflict but actually strengthen one another when they are deliberately brought together.

The recollective dimension, first of all, makes for a politics that is soulful and spiritually alive. All those recollective practices—the wilderness rites, eco-dream work, poetics and storytelling, bonding to earthly places, village-building, and so on—can be deliberately cultivated as a container or ground for political work. As we develop our ecological maturity while also incorporating a dimension of political literacy, we will naturally incline our energies toward actions for a more ecological and just inhabitation of the land. A politics such as this, with a rich foundation of recollective-therapeutic activity, will be one in which ecopsychology enters the historical fray in its own unique manner—as the psychological wing of the ecology movement. A specifically ecopsychological politics, in other words, could be one that is sufficiently nourishing and enlivening for people to help them over the hump of their fears and skillfully into the arena of ecological social change. It could even be a way to practice that undefended, edgy, and surrendered way of being that will increasingly be needed in the turbulent days ahead.

Looked at from the reverse angle, the critical dimension of ecopsychology can be seen as having its own therapeutic potential, actually deepening the recollective process. As we recall the various political histories our society represses we become less deluded about who we really are, more awake to our true story. As I myself learn more about the history of Indigenous-Settler relations in my neck of the woods, for example, I feel not only discomforted but very moved and motivated. Similarly, Carl Anthony has since the mid-1990s been a voice in ecopsychology for the power of listening to stories of people of colour, including ones that involve histories of being alienated from the land due to direct political or economic force. Hearing these stories and learning to identify with cultures other that our own enlarges us as we develop what Anthony calls a self that is not only ecological but also multicultural. I have called ecopsychology a psychological politics to foster a new kind of subject, one with psychological, ecological, and political literacy (although it’s all really ecological literacy in the end). As I am suggesting here, this is an exciting process of personal growth or human development, much like any other, and can be developed and presented by the field as such.

Finally, integrating the recollective and critical senses of ecopsychology is also an exciting intellectual adventure. This is one of the things that I suggest distinguishes ecopsychology from environmental and conservation psychology, which are more conventional fields. Indeed, the first wave of ecopsychology has been criticized for being too soft or unscientific on the recollective side and too disruptive or divisive on the critical side. But I think this is simply the voice of mainstream psychology that has not accepted the inherently radical nature of ecopsychology.

By the term “radical,” by the way, I do not mean extremism. I refer, rather, to a recognition that “the problem” is more thoroughgoing or deeply rooted than the mainstream view is willing or able to admit. Being radical means being willing to view our historical situation in a more awake or honest way in order to gain a more realistic and satisfying understanding of the nature of our crisis. Rather than sideline the original spirit of ecopsychology, then, I think we need to build a scholarly environment that acts as a kind of intellectual container for responding to mainstream critics and for thinking this radical project through more completely. In this way we can demonstrate as well the reasonableness of the radical view, finding terms that appeal not to a sense of militancy but to our most noble longings and aspirations.

The perspective of ecology changes everything. Seeing reality in terms of wholes and interrelationships goes very much against the grain of our current society, which views things in terms of disconnected or individualized objects. As a product of this society, our academic disciplines typically have deeply rooted conceptual and political commitments that are themselves anti-ecological. So a truly ecological psychology will by its very nature be frustrated by conventional intellectual traditions and inevitably subjected to the kind of academic politics that have troubled so many novel scholarly developments. Consider the fact that “ecologizing” the psyche means seeing it not as an isolated object inside the head but rather as a phenomenon emerging from all our relationships, visible and invisible, including those we live out within the more-than-human natural world, as well as within our socio-cultural and political-economic worlds. No academic field to date has had to do the philosophical, interdisciplinary, and methodological reconstruction that such a reimagining of the psyche demands. This is why I say that ecopsychology stands for a bold ecological transformation of the whole psychological enterprise. As a creative exercise, there is nothing that compares. And for me that makes radical ecopsychology a wonderfully attractive venture.

In sum, ecopsychology is not something that just is, something we can point to as a relatively well-established field or discipline. Its meaning is still being decided. There has in recent years been a movement toward a more mainstream development of ecopsychology but as I have argued in a number of my writings this effectively erases the field, turning it into environmental or conservation psychology. Rather than abandon a truly ecological image of the field, I therefore say we need to do the difficult but rewarding work of making a truly ecological psychology real.