What is Eco-psychology?

In 2018 I wrote and delivered a 6-day elective entitled “An introduction to eco-psychotherapy” to university students in Victoria and Queensland. In this series of articles I hope to outline a basic introduction to the field of eco-psychotherapy and explore some of the opportunities and challenges it presents to both therapists and clients.

Beginning in 2019 I will also be offering eco-psychotherapy as a part of my private practice in Melbourne, Australia. These articles may help prospective clients understand some of the theory and practice that informs eco-psychotherapy as a psychologically beneficial modality.


What is eco-psychology?

Eco-psychology is a relatively new and exciting field.  The word eco-psychology is made up of two parts eco and psychology, and understanding each of these words will help us get a handle on what is meant by eco-psychology.  

Eco

The prefix “eco” derives from the Greek oikos which is usually translated as “house” or “home”, though in a sense that incorporates notions of family, possessions, property etc.  In this context the prefix “eco” implies “ecological”.  In contemporary usage we might say that the prefix “eco” speaks to the relation of living things to their environments. More broadly, the ecological perspective is one which recognises that human beings are embedded within a larger ecological system. In colloquial terms we refer to that system as “the natural world” or more simply “nature”. 

Psychology

The word psychology derives from the word psyche originally meaning “soul”, with -ology denoting a field of interest.  Etymologically speaking then, “psychology” translates as the study of the soul, though most psychologists would be more comfortable with a something like the study of the mind. 

Eco-psychology

Bringing these two parts together we could say that that eco-psychology is the study of the mind in relation to the natural world.  

That’s a good start, however in most contexts eco-psychology comes with a more explicit - perhaps urgent - imperative.  The last few decades have seen just about every field of human inquiry begin to reckon with the fact that human beings are intimately embedded in the natural world.  The ecological perspective has spawned sub-fields in areas as diverse as law, architecture, education, philosophy, politics, ethics, art, and even spirituality.  

These days we see the prefix “eco” affixed to many words.  Ecopolitics, ecophilosophy, ecofeminism, ecoconsumerism, even ecoterrorism…The result is not always graceful, but the gesture is nonetheless significant as a sign of the times.  This tiny neologistic flag flies above our language like a storm-warning meant to signal our belated concern for the fate of the planet.
— Theodore Roszak in "The Voice of the Earth"

In one way, eco-psychology is the result of psychology trying to grapple with this “belated concern for the fate of the planet”.  As we shall see, until recently, Western psychology has been strangely silent about the natural world that gave rise to it.

So what is eco-psychology?  We might say that it is an ecologically informed psychology. As a field, it asks the question, “What would psychology look like if it were grounded in an ecological perspective?”

A cursory review of the field of eco-psychology reveals that there are many and varied answers to this question.  Some have argued that western psychology as we know it could not survive a genuine reckoning with the ecological perspective.  Whatever the case may be, the question is a powerful one, and those of us in the field might do well to not rush for answers so much as wrestle deeply with the question.

The fundamental challenge that presents itself to ecopsychology is to locate the human ‘mind’ in some form of relationship with the natural world and to understand this relationship as reciprocal.
— Martin Jordan in "Nature and Therapy"

Eco-psychology as a philosophy 

So far I have presented eco-psychology as posing a question that goes something like: what does psychology look like when it adopts a truly ecological perspective?  

The fact is, however, that most eco-psychologists do not come at this question blindly.  Instead, they come to the field because their work is informed by certain basic beliefs.  In this way, eco-psychology can appear to be both a field of study and a philosophical position.  The three tenets I identify as key to eco-psychology are as follows:

  1. Human beings and nature are in an intimate reciprocal relationship, and the recognition of this fact has implications for psychology and psychotherapy.  

  2. Our culture has in some sense “lost” its connection to the natural world, and this has had negative consequences for both humankind and the planet

  3. It is possible to ‘reconnect’ with/to the natural world, and doing so has positive consequences for both humankind and the planet.

From eco-psychology to eco-psychotherapy

Eco-psychology seeks to understand and explore the ways in which mind and nature are related, and perhaps to offer humanity a new vision of itself - one that locates the human individual and mind within the natural world.  Informed by these three tenets, it is also not difficult to see how the field of eco-psychology gives rise to a very specific project, namely, “How can we address this disconnection from the natural world?”  

It seems that the barriers to this run deep.  In many ways, our sense of nature as something other and out there, is embedded in our perception, culture, language, thinking and ways of being.  And given this, it may be all but impossible to simply think our way through to a new way of being in relationship with the natural world.  What other means are available to us? 

It is this question that lies at the heart of what is sometimes called applied eco-psychology, encompassing a great variety of practices that focus on healing the human/nature divide. My next article will focus on applied eco-psychology, and in particular on the field of eco-psychotherapy, addressing the question, “What is eco-psychotherapy?” 


If you have any comments or questions, or would like to explore this topic further, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.