Reflections on Ecopsychology
by Dr. Renée G. Soule
Ecopsychology squeezes through sidewalk cracks in response to a particular psychological problem: our unwillingness to adapt to new earthly realities. Resisting reality is a capacity. Idealism reaches beyond limits. Pollyannaish thinking distorts facts. Navigating turbulent relationships between civilization and wild nature has always required honest psychological reflection, immense creativity, and potent transformative practices. This is truer today than ever. Ecopsychology arises in response to these needs.
An ecological orientation makes practitioners ecopsychologists, not a practitioner’s particular psychological tools or favored approaches. As an orientation within psychology, ecopsychologists draw psychological insights and practices from all approaches. For example, ecopsychology is a family psychology—where family includes our entire Earth family. As earthlings, we are all related. To this end, ecopsychologists challenge anthropocentricism, the felt-sense of human superiority (akin to racism and sexism) over other life-forms.
Questioning human supremacism is a tough. Privilege is lucrative—at the expense of others. Challenging privilege, and carefully tending its inherent vulnerabilities, are practices of liberation psychology. Are there other options besides zero sum games of absolute winners and losers? Yes! Ecopsychology offers a fresh perspective. All participants matter, contribute to, and benefit one another in vital living systems. Mutual generosity gives rise to complexity, beauty, and astounding creativity.
Ecopsychology teaches people to trust in the generative power of Nature, the proof of which is our very existence. Ecopsychologists are deep ecologists. Our understanding of ecology is mystical and practical. At one time our field was called psychoecology, meaning it was more aligned with ecology than psychology.
Aligning with ecological wisdom requires a particular kind of healing. Anthropocentricism is a compensatory behavior caused by ecological-dissociation and the corrosive helplessness it spawns. Where does my food come from? Where is my home? Who are my people? Who are not my people? My middle-class lifestyle destabilizes the climate? Are you kidding? Ecopsychology addresses ecological exile and all forms of broken belonging. Does that make ecopsychology a trauma psychology? Perhaps, yes. Or it should be, for several reasons:
- Trauma is the underbelly of ecological degradation.
- Unresolved trauma rattles when people face change and become afraid.
- Exploitation is traumatizing for victims and perpetrators alike.
- Given our environmental circumstances, massive trauma is also on our horizon.
If not properly addressed, trauma distorts one’s ability to relate to each other and nature, creates loops of addiction, and squashes creativity. If tended and integrated, trauma is part of initiation leading higher orders of belonging and coherent responsiveness. Either trauma blocks our way or becomes a path of healing and redemption. Tending personal, intergenerational, and collective trauma is a growing edge for ecopsychology.
On a lighter note, ecopsychology supports a more inclusive thinking and acting. As Einstein said, we cannot resolve the problems we face with the same level of thinking that created them. Maturing one’s thinking and behavior makes ecopsychology a cognitive behavioral psychology. I don’t know many cognitive therapists who consider themselves ecopsychologists (or visa versa). Perhaps because the changes ecopsychologists encourage are less about adjusting to society and more about questioning one’s identity at fundamental level. Our context is a living world, not one’s immediate society. Shifting to an inclusive level of thinking might, for a time, lead to maladjustment, which is not a traditional goal of cognitive therapy. Ecopsychologists take the chaos of deep transformation in stride. We welcome this disorientation.
Ecopsychology promotes radical evolutionary development of what Arne Naess calls the “Ecological Self.” An old way of life must die to be reborn into something new. This is a transformative pattern in nature we know in our bones. The soul has a penchant for death-rebirth drama—listen to the lyrics of songs, watch movies, study mythology. Recall that psyche, in ancient Greek, means butterfly. Our innermost essence is named after a creature whose hallmark feature is its initiatory journey from caterpillar, to pupae, to butterfly.
Traditional people developed dramatic rituals of “initiation” to support tumultuous shifts in identity. Engaging the archetype of initiation is a practice on found in depth psychology. The archetype of initiation supports trust in enduring cycles of death and rebirth embodied by wild nature and the soul.
For better or worse, trusting the cycles of nature is no longer a prerequisite for initiatory human development. Some initiations are unwilling and unplanned. It appears we are facing one of those tough, messy, and dangerous initiations. Anthropocentricism and its associated lifestyles are under siege by reality. Living systems are tapped out, climate change is here, and cheap energy is no longer cheap. Humanity faces the end of an exuberant era, which means collective initiation is upon us. The changes we face are as momentous as the changes that brought us here. Supporting the evolutionary potential of crises makes ecopsychology an engaged evolutionary psychology.
What are environmental crises inviting us to become? We don’t know, but the pace of awakening that is occurring in our time is unprecedented. Mutual support and a dose of humor are needed for this tenor of change and development. By providing companionship and can-do energy, ecopsychology is a community psychology. We are not meant to transform alone. Initiations and shifts in identity benefit from shared understanding, companionship, and structure. Facing evolutionary challenges in our world also require interpersonal skills, which take practice, willingness to make mistakes, and an ability to laugh. We need each other to grow up.
Ecopsycholgy differs from other psychologies in one odd way: for us, getting upset, depressed, afraid, and ashamed can be good news. Ecopsychologists honor the good reasons people stay numb and indifferent, but we are thrilled when the smiley face crumbles to reveal what is authentic. To be affected by environmental realities is an initial step in transformation. Confusion and breakdown are signs of identity expansion and doorways to creative action. We are curious about the darker sides of human nature. What inspires crimes against nature? Is it murderous to stockpile nuclear weapons, hoard vast quantities of wealth, or use plastic? Perhaps this makes ecopsychology a forensic psychology. Yes, especially if natural systems and “Mother Earth” are granted legal rights.
Every kind of psychology can play a role in healing the human-nature relationship. Ours is a BIG tent. Whether somatic, behavioral, transpersonal, depth, or whatever—each approach is essential to addressing human health and wholeness within a planetary context. Even more, every profession can contribute. Imagine teachers, business leaders, artists, engineers, and businesses considering a living planet a primary concern. Anyone who contributes to the problem can be part of the solution. Someday, tacking the word “eco” in front of psychology (or any ethical human endeavor) will not be necessary!
In the meantime, however, we are in big trouble. All hands on deck! Being in trouble is tough way to grow up, but that is usually how nature works. If wildflowers spring from dirt, we can leverage problems to mature into generative members of our wildly diverse Earth community. This is our big YES, our birthright, and our responsibility.