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Eco Psychology by Robert Greenway ~


by Robert G. Greenway, Olympic Ecopsychology Institute


"Ecopsychology" rushes ahead in many directions, like an amoeba on speed, an unfolding "metadiscipline” at the core of which are: (1) deep concern over a deteriorating environment; (2) deep conviction that humans are, somehow, the cause of the deterioration; (3) growing but very diverse and confused conviction that it is something about the "human-nature" relationship that is the source of the problem (i.e., "the wound"); and (4) a hope that, since "eco" to most people means, generally "nature" and "psychology" means, generally and variously "psyche", "mind", and behavior, a putting together of these fields into an "ecopsychology" might be helpful in healing the rocky relationship between humans and nature and thus reverse the trend towards human-caused planetary destruction. Just exactly how an eco-psychology might be useful is, of course, the smoke screen that masks just what ecopsychology "is", or "could be". In my opinion, ecopsychology ("EP") is still, mostly potential.

The ideas and debates swirling around about "what EP 'is'" are also rooted in a variety of historical currents, conflicts and issues that have been around since the dawn of civilization, and especially in the last century, as civilization has seemed to veer ever further from harmony with natural processes. These "roots of ecopsychological ideas" can be found in ancient Asian and Greek philosophies, in European jurisprudence from at least the Middle Ages onward, and more recently in the rise of 18th-19th century natural sciences in exquisite depictions of "nature" in the genre of "nature writing", in the political-conservation practices attempting to save what has been perceived as "civilization's advance against nature". And now, in our time, the rise of scientific and idealistic views of systemic ecology; in unconscious linkages between the human psyche and nature; in the workings of perception; in increasingly urgent attempts to "diagnose" the alleged split between humans and nature; in the increasing rise of "bridges" between humans and nature -- from gardening to tantric sex; in explicit philosophies of dualism as depictions of the alienation that depicts "modern times" ; in the rich and long-standing work of environmental education -- all this, and much more, provide a rich context for what is now being called "ecopsychology".

There is, as well, an increasingly coherent bibliography of books directly supporting this "meta-field" called "ecopsychology: "The Idea of Wilderness", by Max Oelschlaeger; "Wilderness and the American Mind", by Roderick Nash; "Woman and Nature", by Susan Griffin; "The Undivided Universe", by David Bohm and B.J. Hiley; "The Dream of the Earth", by Thomas Berry; "The Voice of the Earth", by Theodore Roszak; "Earth in Mind", by David Orr; "Mind and Nature", by Gregory Bateson; "Nature and Madness" and "The Others", by Paul Shepard; "Person/Planet" by Theodore Roszak: "Sense and Sensibility", by Laura Sewell; "Experience and Nature", Allen Kanner; "Towards a Transpersonal Ecology", by Warwick Fox; "Dreamtime - Concerning the Boundary Between Wilderness and Civilization", by Hans Peter Duerr; "The Way - An Ecological World View", by Edward Goldsmith; "Sacred Land, Sacred Sex, Rapture of the Deep", by Dolores LaChapelle; "World as Lover, World as Self", by Joanna Macy; "Ecological Psychology, by Deborah DuNann Winter; "Sex, Ecology, and Spirituality", by Ken Wilber; "The Spell of the Sensuous", by David Abram; "Green Psychology", by Ralph Metzner; "When Technology Wounds", by Chellis Glendinning; "Dwellers in the Land - the Bioregional Vision, by Kirkpatrick Sales; "The Hidden Wound", and "The Unsettling of America", by Wendell Berry; "The Thought of the Heart and the Soul of the World, by James Hillman; and many more recent publications. There are, as well, the list of deep ecology publications, many of which overlap extensively with "ecopsychology".

With this background in mind, the following uses of the category "ecopsychology" emerge. Many of the following "lines of development" overlap, many embrace specific "modes of knowing" or focus on various books and approaches, but not others. [caveat: my viewpoint tends to be rooted in the psychological approach known as "transpersonal" -- hence, the above background leans in that direction, and is weak in more "scientific" approaches to the field. I have attempted to rectify this bias in the following map, but I'm sure that psychologists and biologists from the various differing camps would see a different map. It is my hope that all "modes of knowing" can exist in creative dialogue within this meta-discipline being called "ecopsychology" as it develops.]


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" seems to allow 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 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 approach to EP, 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 sometimes seems "faddish", although obviously a need is being fulfilled; perhaps a cultural "mythic container" is being created.

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

This is also a common (and one of the most coherent) use of the term. There are at least two (overlapping) camps within this category:

(A) The psychological problems allegedly resulting from western-industrial culture's alleged increasing distance from nature (or "natural processes"). Paul Shepard's work ("Nature and Madness") is paradigmatic. Clinical therapists see such nature-alienation symptoms on the rise.

(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 "wilderness healing" are paradigmatic, although some "eco-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 of depth and effectiveness to do to "save the earth" from human-caused destruction. 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 psychological effects of our culture's disjunction 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 Ecopsychology

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 see "Sex, Evolution, and Spirit"). The underlying assumption here -- crucial to many in the environmental movement -- is that nature is spirit (i.e., "Source”), 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 philosophical coherent and consistent. The assumption here is, like other disciplines, without a "core" language – 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 an occasional insight may be.

Assumptions behind this approach to EP tend to be that the human-nature relationship is psychologically based, that the 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 the 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 very problematical. At present, the only true ecopsychology "text" is by Deborah Winter ("Ecological Psychology --"healing the Split Between Planet and Self") -- an excellent basic primer 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.

There are a number of other sub-categories that could be identified:

narrative-based ecopsychology ("a bunch of stories"!); fact-based ecopsychology -- subservient to the scientific "mode of knowing", but these and other ecopsychologies rooted in specific psychologies (i.e., "gestalt", "behaviorism", "transactional", "archetypal", etc.) can be, more or less, fitted into the above categories.

Again, to summarize, the bottom line, in my view, is that: the rich historical lines of human- environmental- relationship exploration; the professional "guilds" and university curricula splintered into "disciplines" and "fields"; and the sense of crisis with regard to the human-environment relationship has given us a cauldron of interactive stew, representing great diversity. While this is difficult in terms of coherence and "packaging", it can be the source of a new "depth of understanding" of just what we are facing as humans concerned about the future of the earth and our place in it. I advocate understanding as fully as possible our differences -- different sources of ideas, different practices and modes of knowing, different uses of terms and basic assumptions -- always with the idea of coming together into a whole that might eventually help found an earth-friendly cultural paradigm.

Robert Greenway, Corona Farm, Port Townsend, Washington
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