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Expired · 2nd March 2010
Ray Grigg
Psychology has recently turned its attention to our relationship with nature. Deep within this complex subject lie hidden insights about ourselves that may help to explain our treatment of nature, reveal our innate dependence on nature, and provide us with the self-awareness we will need to exist harmoniously with nature. Indeed, this inward search may so important that the continued existence of civilization as we know it could depend as much on our understanding of the inner workings of our selves as the outer workings of our physical environment. This new frontier of study is called "ecopsychology". And a useful place to define it is with the history of psychology itself.

Psychology began as "intrapersonal", the study of what happens within any individual. It slowly expanded to examine "interpersonal" forces, the relationship between individuals. The expansion continued, examining the dynamics of individuals within families and groups, and then with the larger societal interactions that shape who we are and how we behave. As the next step in this expansion process, we are now considering our relationship with the planet itself and the natural systems that sustain its complex web of life. At this point, because we are an inseparable part of this web, psychology becomes ecopsychology (Daniel B. Smith, "Is There an Ecological Unconscious", New York Times, Jan. 31/10).

The emergence of ecopsychology seems to have had its recent roots in the 1960s with the "counterculture" that was seeking an alternative to the "isolation and malaise infecting modern life" (Ibid.). This search for new meaning reacted against mindless materialism, seeking substance in human relationships and a return to nature – think "hippies", "flower power", communes and a "back-to-the-land" impulse.

In psychology, new "alternative" therapies were being tried. And an American professor of history, Theodore Roszak, published The Voice of Earth, an intellectual work that became a virtual "manifesto" for ecopsychology (Ibid.). "He criticized modern psychology for neglecting the primal bond between man and nature," writes Daniel Smith in his New York Times piece. "Mainstream Western psychology," notes Roszak, "has limited the definition of mental health to the interpersonal context of an urban industrial society. All that lies beyond the citified psyche has seemed of no human relevance – or perhaps too frightening to think about." Ecopsychology is searching in this unexplored territory.

But why should it be "frightening"? Because ecopsychology links us to the biology of the planet as never before, undermining the theology of most traditional religions and philosophies. Science has mostly convinced us to accept our bodies as being "natural". But our minds are another matter. Morals, ethics, aesthetics and ideas are generally thought to come from some other place, from a detached and higher realm of absolutes disconnected from a merely earthly origin. Most people, even in modern materialistic societies, still think we were "created" by some non-worldly power. And our entire technological, industrial and economic system aspires to move us beyond natural limits. Ecopsychology invites us, against cultural inculcation, to define ourselves as creatures of nature.

The case for this profoundly existential relationship with nature is growing. Trips by astronauts into space suggest that we belong to Earth ‹ their poetic and sometimes mystical descriptions of a bonded connection to its beauty give credibility to ecopsychology. The eminent Harvard biologist, E. O. Wilson, coined the word "biophilia" to label a postulated "innate love" we have for nature. Parks, quite paradoxically, are crucial to "civilizing" cities. Solastalgia, the anxiety, disorientation and depression that comes from losing a familiar and loved natural place, gives further argument to a biological bonding essential to our health and well-being. We now know that we heal better in the company of nature, and that nature decreases stress, aids learning, helps concentration and reduces aggression. "Nature deficit disorder" is an actual medical term describing a syndrome of symptoms that arise from being disconnected from the soothing effects of natural surroundings.

"Ecotherapy" has also entered the lexicon of psychology. So, too, have "ecoanxiety", "ecoparalysis" and an entire class of "psycho terratic syndromes", writes Smith in describing "mental health issues attributable to the degraded state of one's physical surroundings" (Ibid.). Accordingly, the first edition of a new scientific journal, Ecopsychology, examines "the relationship between environmental issues and mental health and well-being." The evidence is building that we are more intimately connected to our natural surroundings than we care to admit.

This intimate connection suggests an "ecological unconscious", a deep current of powerful psychological forces operating beneath the surface of our immediate awareness, a fundamental and profound bonding with nature that developed over our evolutionary history. When this bond is threatened or damaged by the environmental deterioration surrounding us, we undergo a psychological wounding that we experience as some form of mental illness – as a "dis-ease" or pathology.

In Smith's essay, he cites the case of "a climate-change activist and outdoorsman" who had become so "despairing and overwrought" about the world's environmental problems that it was harming his own health and family life. This is precisely what we would expect from anyone with a modicum of awareness about the deep bonding of the inner self to its outer surroundings. Worry, anxiety and wounding express themselves in many ways, some useful and healthy, others debilitating and unhealthy.

Regardless of our individual position in this spectrum of responses to the environmental transformation sweeping our planet, we could all use a little ecopsychology to help us understand and cope. And insight might even be inspirational.