"We are part of the earth and it is part of us" Chief Seattle, 1854.
Born out of the environmental movement of the 1960s (Hibbard, 2003), ecopsychology is a relatively new discipline that seeks to bridge the gulf between the psychological and ecological (Roszak, 2001). Ecopsychology recognizes that our perceived separation from the natural world is at the root of many social and environmental issues that we face today. It also recognizes that humans are not separate from nature and our health and wellbeing are deeply intertwined with that of the planet. Over-consumption of resources, compulsive shopping, and materialistic disorder are only some human behaviors resulting in environmental degradation, and as Roszak (2001) notes, “in our hearts we know there is something maniacal about the way we are abusing the planetary environment.”
Ecopsychology “sees the needs of the planet and the person as a continuum and that can help us reconnect with the truth that lies in our communion with the rest of creation" (Roszak, 2001). Ecological identity, or how people view themselves in relation to the Earth and where nature becomes an object of identification (Thomashow, 1996), is at the heart of ecopsychology.
Ecopsychologists need to “ask deep questions about the human-nature interrelationship relative to the ecological crisis” (Hibbard, 2003).
Though our actions towards the Earth are often harmful, most of us enjoy a glorious moment watching seabirds flying over the ocean against the backdrop of a setting sun, or find beauty and delight in a flower unfolding in the morning light. This “love of life” or biophilia, a term coined by Wilson (1984) is something that may be inherent in our species (and perhaps others as well). There is no scientific consensus that biophilia exists but there is solid evidence that it does (NOVA, 2008). Biophilia could explain the despair, grief, and hopelessness many of us feel towards the state of our planet. These feelings have often been perpetuated by the environmental movement, which has not been able to successfully create change on the scale that is necessary to protect our planet from further harm.
While environmental groups and individuals have taken on a monumental task and have achieved much success in creating policies, increasing awareness, and advancing conservation and sustainability efforts, the traditional approach has been to motivate change by instilling guilt towards our actions and citing scary statistics and warnings. The environmental movement has also had to operate within the paradigm of the Western culture of domination and seeing the Earth and its resources as something that is there for us (e.g., for recreation, science, as a sanctuary, economy, etc.). There is less recognition of the intrinsic value of nature for itself.
While love of the Earth and sacred places may be the basis for some environmental action, in many cases it is not the primary motivator. And in my own experience and observations of others, many habits and actions of environmentalists demonstrate a disconnect with nature to varying degrees. Ecopsychology seeks to reconnect and find ways to cultivate love for the Earth in order to motivate from a place of caring rather than fear and despair, and moves from a place of nature as danger and something to exploit to nature as family and even a part of self.
As an academic discipline, ecopsychology began with “rather loose coalition of people, mostly academics" (Hibbard, 2003). Ecopsychology was first formally named and defined by Roszak in 1992 through his Eight Principles of Ecopsychology (Roszak, 2001). However, the recognition that we are a part of the web and the need to care for the Earth is not new and stems from the ancestral traditions and indigenous cultures of all peoples. “The oldest healers in the world…knew no other way to heal than to work within the context of environmental reciprocity (Roszak, Gomes, & Kanner, 1995)."
Ecopsychology is evolving and emerging and is not always easy to define. Hibbard (2003) states that “ecopsychologists need to be very clear about what ecopsychology is and is not; that is, ecopsychology needs to be defined and delimited clearly.” As a discipline, I agree with Hibbard. However, I think there is a need for ecopsychology to permeate many levels of our society in order for the current anthropocentric paradigms to shift towards a more inclusive worldview that recognizes the intrinsic value of all forms. I see ecopsychology as a holistic approach to environmental activism, conservation, and sustainability education. This approach includes all aspects of our lives, from knowing where the food we eat comes from, to what we put on our bodies, to living a more simplistic life, as well as protecting habitat and restoration work, to name a few.
There is a spiritual, transpersonal component to ecopsychology, which can viewed as a form of transpersonal psychology. Davis (1998) writes that the nondual dimensions of ecopsychology and transpersonal psychology integrate the two fields and is at the core of each. Ecotherapy, another aspect of ecopychology, recognizes the healing effects of nature which can be as varied as improving healing in hospital patients by incorporating plants and garden settings in their environment, to wilderness rites of passage that offer empowering, life-changing experiences providing individuals a chance to deeply connect with nature/self and to support life transitions. Ecopsychology also recognizes the necessity for diversity.
“Why is it so easy for people to think like a mountain and not be able to think like people of color?” (Anthony, 1995)
Diversity in ecology often means a healthy and stable system, allowing for greater adaptability. Similarly, diversity of experiences can lead to more balanced psyches and adaptable individuals. Ecopsychology embraces diversity in that it encompasses a broad and diverse blend of wisdom from many traditions, cultures, ways of learning, and values, and it can permeate many aspects of our society. Nature is diversely defined in ecopsychology and is not limited to wild places, but also includes urban and developed landscapes, as well as self.
As described above, the definition of ecopsychology is quite diverse. While this could lead to ecopsychology becoming diluted as discipline, perhaps that diversity is necessary to change paradigms, something ecopsychology sets out to do. Ecopsychology is rooted in Deep Ecology which emphasizes the intrinsic value of all forms, the ecological and cultural value of diversity in natural systems, and it subscribes to the Gaia Hypothesis that the Earth itself is a living system and that all forms are parts of that whole.
Ecopsychology arose from the inherent connections humans have with the Earth and practices and rituals from ancient traditions are clearly acknowledged. However, as an academic discipline, much of ecopsychology stems from a predominantly Western worldview of writers and thinkers. There isn’t very much in the literature about ecopsychology and cultural diversity. Scull (n.d.) points out that Roszak’s Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, healing the mind, a leading collection of introductory writings on ecopsychology, does not include a cultural and geographical diversity of writers.
That does not mean that ecopsychology is not sensitive to the issues of diversity and the value of multiculturalism. However, it would benefit by seeking out ways to promote more cultural and ethnic diversity in the field. Anthony and Soule (1998) discuss the need for a multicultural approach to ecopsychology and point out that that “lessons of social justice and ecopsychology are simple and the same”. According to Anthony (1995), the most urgent need for ecopsychologists is to “build a multicultural self that is in harmony with an ecological self” and to “respect human diversity and social justice so they can be incorporated into doing what we have to” (Anthony, 1995). Building that multicultural self could lead to a less dualistic society. But ecopsychologists should also take note that, as Davis (2003) cautions, the “we are all one” mentality of ecopsychology can marginalize those who are disempowered.
Ecopsychologists should be aware of cultural misappropriation and use care when incorporating practices and traditions of other cultures and be respectful and mindful of the intentions behind using them. But it is important to recognize that there are many Earth based practices that are universal and do not belong to any one cultural group. And as Fisher (Fisher, 2002) notes, we should not blindly assume all aspects of indigenous societies unquestionably good.
My own study and practice of ecopsychology “Each person’s path to ecological identity reflects his or her cognitive, intuitive, and affective perceptions of ecological relationships (Thomashow, 1996)."
Since childhood, I have been drawn to animals and the outdoors. A move to the Hawaiian Islands exposed me to Hawaiian culture at a young age and it was then that I became aware of viewing the world in a way that was very different from my Western upbringing. It was not until I began studying ecopsychology that I began to fully understand my love of the Hawaiian culture and that many of the reasons why I am drawn to it are due to the beliefs that spiritual connections are everywhere and in many forms from the land to sea. In my early teens I began developing deep and personal relationships with places in nature, and I also began to view the Earth as a living system.
As an adult, my work provided opportunities to live for many months immersed in remote wild places in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Though I didn’t have a name for it at the time, this was the beginning of my awareness of my ecological self. I started to become more aware of my footprint on the Earth and I became deeply connected to the natural cycles of life all around me. Those experiences were also very similar to wilderness rites of passage separating from all that was familiar, the threshold where I became fully immersed in nature with long periods of solitude, and integrating back home and into society. During my time on those islands, I observed my awareness, perceptions, and intuitive senses develop without the distractions of civilization. I also connected on a deeper level with myself and the world around me. At the same time, my spiritual practice also began to grow and I began exploring contemplative practices. I also experienced first hand the healing powers of nature when I went through a few personal crises and began taking regular walks in some beautiful valleys near my home. I began to recognize the shifts in my emotional state that occurred when I walked the valleys or took long walks on the beach near my home. Thus, my first experiences with ecopsychology as a field of study resulted from my own experiences through the healing and transformative powers of nature and how we need to heal ourselves just as we need to heal the Earth. Before I began studying ecopsychology as a discipline, I felt a calling to share my own growth and healing process through nature with others, and wanted to find a way to take it out into the world. I did not know the term “ecological identity” but I now recognize that what I had set out to do is to find ways to help others develop their own ecological self. I am called to do what I can to start changing the paradigms we are currently living under. Having worked in conservation for many years for a governmental agency, I am in the process of reexamining my beliefs and understanding of new ways to approach conservation issues. While I hope to inspire and educate others as many have done for me, I am beginning to realize that the best actions I can take are to continue to become more conscious and aware, and to live my life as an example. I am less attached to outcomes, less inclined to be judgmental towards others’ actions, and less fearful and angry about the state of our world. I am working on approaching life from a place of love, compassion, and acceptance. That, I believe, is the best way I can truly make the world a better place. References
Anthony, C. (1995). Ecopsychology and the deconstruction of whiteness. In T. Roszak, M.G. Gomes, & A.D. Kanner (Eds.) Ecopsychology : restoring the earth, healing the mind. San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books.
Davis, J. (1998). Transpersonal Dimensions of Ecopsychology. The Humanistic Psychologist, Humanistic Psychology and Ecopsychology, 26, 60-100.
Fisher, A. (2002). Radical Ecopsychology: Psychology in the Service of Life. Suny Series in Radical Social and Political Theory. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press . Hibbard, W. (2003). Ecopsychology: A Review. Trumpeter, 19(2), 23-58.
NOVA. (2008, April 1). NOVA | A Conversation With E.O. Wilson. Retrieved July 11, 2011, from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/nature/conversation-eo-wilson.html
Roszak, T. (2001). The Voice of the Earth (2nd ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Phanes Press.
Roszak, T., Gomes, M. E., & Kanner, A. D. (1995). Ecopsychology : restoring the earth, healing the mind. San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books.
Thomashow, M. (1996). Ecological identity: becoming a reflective environmentalist. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. Wilson, E. O. (1984). Biophilia. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.