Skip to content
Skip to main content

About this free course


Download this course

Share this free course

Introducing Climate Psychology: facing the climate crisis
Introducing Climate Psychology: facing the climate crisis

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

3.1 Ecopsychology

Ecopsychology is ‘an inquiry into our human relationship with the rest of nature’ (Rust, 2020, p. 51). It is not a unified discipline, however. It is a complex web of several different disciplines and areas of study such as deep ecology, transpersonal psychology, indigenous traditions, wilderness studies and philosophy, to name some. A central tenet of ecopsychology is the exploration of the reciprocal human–nature relationship and in particular the human mind as it relates to nature. Rust (2020) describes it as ‘the study (logos) of the soul (psyche) in its natural home (ecos)’ (p. 51).

Ecopsychologists claim that ecological and psychological health are mutually dependent (Roszak, Gomes and Kanner, 1995); the psychological wellbeing of humans and the ecological health of the planet are dependent on an intimate human-nature relationship. In other words, the more disconnected we become from nature, the more our psychological health suffers and the more planetary destruction ensues. The practice of ecopsychology seeks to heal this disconnection and restore the earth. Roszak (1995) proposes that life on Earth and the human mind have evolved together within physical, biological, mental and cultural systems and that our ecological unconscious has been repressed through industrialisation. The role of ecopsychology then is to ‘awaken the inherent sense of environmental reciprocity that lies within the ecological unconscious’ (Roszak, 1992 p. 320).

The idea that we have an ‘ecological self’ was first proposed by the Norwegian environmental philosopher and founder of the deep ecology movement, Arne Naess. He used it to refer to an experience of self which is expansive, relational, wider and deeper than the ego and identifies with all of life not just other humans. He says, ‘One experiences oneself to be a genuine part of all life’ (Naess, 1989, p. 174) and ‘We may be said to be in, of, and for Nature from our very beginning’ (Naess, 1995, p. 14). The ecological self is not a fixed thing to be discovered or a static idea but an opening up to experiencing oneself authentically in relationship and embedded within our environmental context, specifically the natural and non-human world.

Activity 3 Relationship to your chosen familiar outdoor space

Timing: Allow about 15 minutes

This activity borrows from a published article by Susan Bodnar and colleagues in the USA, entitled ‘The environment as an object relationship’ (Bodnar et al., 2023). Participants in the research were asked to do the following task, which you should also try out.

Take five minutes to ‘free-write’ on the subject of your relationship to a familiar place (make it an outdoor place, from the past or present). A free-write means writing spontaneously with minimum hesitation or revision.

Now reflect on the following three questions:

  1. Describe your relationship to this ecosystem or place.
  2. What other relationship in your life is most similar to the one you have to the ecosystem you described?
  3. How would you feel if this place no longer existed?
To use this interactive functionality a free OU account is required. Sign in or register.
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).


In summary, the research concluded that relationships to the physical environment share important features with human relationships with people who are significant in our psychological development – family and close friends.

Their conclusion makes us re-think human psychology along eco-psychological lines: ‘No matter where we are from, a private ecosystem lives within us much like a family’ (Bodnar et al., 2023 p. 117).

Humans can live in a sustainable relationship with the natural earth; some still do.

Robin Wall Kimmerer, an ethno-botanist of American-Indian descent, explains how it works in her culture in her widely-read book Braiding Sweetgrass:

In the indigenous worldview, a landscape is understood to be whole and generous enough to be able to sustain its partners. It engages land not as a machine but as a community of respected non-human persons to whom we humans have a responsibility. […] Restoring land without restoring relationship is an empty exercise. It is relationship that will endure and relationship that will sustain the restored land.

(Wall Kimmerer, 2020, p. 338)
A photograph of Robin Wall Kimmerer.
Figure 5 Robin Wall Kimmerer.

During the Modern period of history (which began in Europe about 500 years ago), technological innovation, urbanisation, science and globalisation were the hallmarks of modernity in a period that is characterised as ‘enlightenment’, as the growth of rationality and – above all – as ‘progress’. However, in recognising climate and ecological collapse, people are beginning to realise what was lost during this momentous period of human history. Modern humans’ relation to nature changed dramatically; we lost our sense of belonging to nature.

The worldview described in the quote from Robin Wall Kimmerer, above, is preserved among indigenous peoples but widely lost among those living a Modern lifestyle in the global north. Modern people learned to see nature as separate and humanity as superior. The Christian bible taught this:

And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.

(Genesis 1:26)

‘Man’ was to have dominion and that has indeed come to pass, especially with the help of science and technology. The mechanistic, reductionist and rationalist thinking during the Enlightenment in Europe further contributed to the hyper-separation between humans and the natural world.

René Descartes (1596–1650), an influential early figure in modern philosophy and science, split mind from matter and saw animals as ‘mere mechanical automata’ lacking the ability to reason and respond in complex ways. Key thinkers of the time such as Newton, Bacon and Galileo all held to the view that reason and rationality were the key to understanding the world and ourselves, developing a scientific method based on principles of observation, induction, cause and effect. Nature became an object to be studied in a detached manner. Rather than an holistic way of approaching nature, traditional scientific thinking breaks it down to constituent parts, each studied separately and independent from the whole. As scientific specialisms have developed, our current understanding has become increasingly reductionist; experts treat nature as abstracted data and aim for a relationship of objectivity, detachment and neutrality.

Rather than feeling a part of a living world of plants, rocks, animals and water, Modern humans turned them into resources, there for human exploitation. Gradually, human relations to the natural world have been monetised; that is, treated in terms of their financial value. You shall see, later this week, an example of how indigenous people’s experience is now powering young climate activists’ demands (Ayisha Saddiqa, who you will meet later, has a powerful line: ‘colonisers go to war with nature and call it a business opportunity’).

Ecopsychology rejects the hyper-separation of humans as exceptional and the value of nature being based on its usefulness to humans. Instead, it sees humans as embedded within, and dependent upon, our natural world.