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Introduction to Ecopsychology


This introduction to ecopsychology explores how climate change affects how we feel about our world and our future. We will explore how strong feelings triggered by this crisis can send us into denial and despair, hindering our ability to act meaningfully. We will also come to understand more about our emotional responses and how they can empower us to learn to live with climate change.

Unit authored by Mary-Jayne Rust and David Key

Learning outcomes

By the end of this unit you should be able to:

  • name and describe your psychological responses to climate change;

  • understand how a range of feelings can block us from thinking effectively about how to take the necessary steps towards acting for life in the face of climate change;

  • understand and experience how emotional intelligence plays a part in empowering people to take effective action in our current ecological crisis;

  • appreciate why presenting people with facts alone is not enough to inspire action;

  • discover how to build psychological resilience, which can help individuals and communities endure crisis;

  • develop critical thinking into the psychological and cultural roots of climate change, and the larger ecological crisis of which climate change is a part;

  • understand what has brought about human destruction of the rest of nature, and how human-nature relationships can be revitalised.

1 Defining ecopsychology

1.1 The roots of ecopsychology

Ecopsychology as a subject has emerged over the past 20 years. It explores our human relationship with the rest of nature in psychological terms. This includes, for example, exploring why we are destroying the very habitat which supports us, and the healing power of spending time in green spaces and wild nature.

Ecopsychology is also about how climate change and other alarming symptoms of our global ecological crisis affect us on a deep psychological and emotional level. This emotional response can propel some people into action, but for many people it is overwhelming and can lead to a state of denial, despair and apathy. Knowing how to work with these psychological dynamics can be helpful in motivating ourselves and others to act meaningfully to the challenges of climate change.

An early root of ecopsychology comes from the tradition of spending time in wild places, where ecosystems are not dominated by human interventions. The US Wilderness Act (1948) created the concept of areas of land set aside from development for human recreation and education. While it could be argued that these are themselves ‘uses’ of ecosystems, this act has paved the way for the global national parks movement and has led to areas being preserved that offer humans an increasingly rare opportunity to meet nature on nature’s own terms. Ecopsychology has found a form of practice in wild places, casually referred to as ‘wilderness work’. The term has been widely and loosely applied. Some approaches seek to provide existing modalities of psychotherapy, for example, but done ‘outside’; while others are based on traditional indigenous processes like rites of passage and the popular native American ‘vision quest’.

Other forms of wilderness work are more recent in their inception; for example, wilderness therapy, wilderness adventure therapy, nature therapy and adventure therapy. These draw on some ancient practices, but tend more towards a form of cultural consumerism where different techniques are ‘borrowed’ from a diversity of cultures. In wilderness work, a fundamental distinction lies between approaches that seek to ‘use’ wilderness for the psychological benefit of humans alone and those that do this while also implying a reciprocal relationship between humans and the rest of nature that leads to living more sustainably. Approaches that include this reciprocity are sometimes called ecotherapy.

Another important and more physically accessible aspect of working outdoors is horticultural therapy: gardening and spending time in gardens, parks and other ‘green spaces’. Wilderness work, working with ecopsychology in green spaces and the healing benefits of direct experiences of more-than-human nature represent an important part of the field of ecopsychology.

Another early root of ecopsychology comes from ecology, and especially deep ecology and the work of Arne Naess (1995). Naess's conception of the ‘ecological Self’ (capital ‘S’ emphasised) is a seminal concept in many forms of ecopsychology. The ecological Self is a sense of our own identity that acknowledges our interdependence on the rest of nature. The concept provides an intersection of biology, ecology, philosophy and psychology and, therefore, provides a comprehensive platform for understanding and working with ecopsychology. (For further information read Naess, A. (1995) ‘Self-realization: an ecological approach to being in the world’ in Sessions, G. (ed.) Deep Ecology for the 21st Century, Boston, Shambala, pp. 225–39.)

1.2 Recent developments in ecopsychology

In the late 1970s, Joanna Macy made an important contribution to applied ecopsychology when she started facilitating programmes which first became known as ‘Despair and Empowerment’ work. As an anti-nuclear campaigner she noticed that many activists cannot recognise and include their emotional responses in campaign work. This often leads to, for example, ineffective ways of campaigning, such as endless delivery of facts or activist ‘burnout’. Joanna Macy writes:

This group work … brought together many antinuclear and environmental activists as well as psychologists, artists, and spiritual practitioners. Workshops, ranging in length from an evening to a week, in churches, classrooms and police armories, drew many thousands of people from within and beyond movements for peace, justice, and a safe environment.

Now, Joanna Macy calls this work ‘The work that reconnects’. Some useful practices for helping people to explore their feelings in relation to environmental issues, such as climate change, are described in her book Coming Back to Life. I will return to this later.

A further root of ecopsychology stems from psychologists and psychotherapists who recognise that global ecological issues are one of the causes of individual anxiety, beyond and besides personal experiences in the past and family disturbance. Therapists know a great deal about the ways in which deep personal change takes place, and how we resist doing the things which we know are good for us, often replacing them with things that are self-destructive or socially harmful. Some psychologists and psychotherapists are attempting to apply this wisdom to climate change and the ecological crisis.

In 1996 Theodore Roszak, Mary Gomes and Alan Kanner edited a seminal book Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind. This book contains chapters from diverse authors from the many different roots of ecopsychology, and it still remains the best introduction to this field of inquiry.

The following links take you to web-based resources that further introduce ecopsychology:

Mary-Jayne Rust’s article ‘Climate on the couch’.

John Seed’s article ‘Ecopsychology’.

Robert Greenway’s article ‘The multiple approaches to ecopsychology: one view’.

Activity 1

Give an overview of ecopsychology to a friend in 10 minutes. Describe one aspect of the field that particularly inspires you. Ask your friend about their responses to what you have said. Listen carefully, without interrupting. Notice what each of you are feeling as you are having this conversation.

Spend some time reflecting on your relationship to place.

  • What kind of environment were you born into?

  • What place or places feel most like home to you?

  • Have these places changed over the time you have lived there?

  • Are these changes for the better or for the worse?

  • Do you have a special place(s) that you go to when you need restoration?

2 Impacts of climate change on our psychology

2.1 Understanding our emotional responses to climate change: denial

Our emotional responses to climate change are often ignored. However, recent research suggests that understanding our psychological response to climate change might help us to respond more effectively.

Since the publication of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson in 1962, environmental campaigners have urged people to wake up to the dangers that lie ahead of us from climate change and other impacts caused by humans. Understandably, activists have tried to inform people through giving them the alarming facts of the situation, believing that this will urge them to act.

What we now realise is that when a crisis is on a global scale, requiring massive and complex change to our lifestyles and thinking, it is very easy for people to feel overwhelmed and disempowered. A typical response is to feel paralysed like a rabbit in headlights, unable to act. When the problems that face us are overwhelming we tend to develop ways to drown out the sound of the alarm bells. This in turn allows us to continue with our daily way of life – which in many cases is at the root of the problem in the first place. We can enter a dynamic downward spiral. The danger is obvious: when we disconnect from the emergency at hand, we do not prepare for what is coming. This is called denial.

Sometimes we turn to drugs or alcohol, or to distracting ourselves though things like celebrity culture and the mass media. Our dependence on these distractions can become quite addictive and can leave us very vulnerable because they divert our attention away from important personal, social and ecological tasks.

The Transition Movement suggests that we urgently need to develop local resilience, to withstand the coming shock waves of global systemic collapse, which we are beginning to experience in our financial markets, and within numerous social and ecological systems. The resilience needed is not only about physical structures, but also about psychological ones. The first step towards developing psychological resilience is becoming aware of our emotional responses to climate change.

Activity 2

Find a friend or colleague with whom you can talk openly about your feelings. Spend an hour together and take it in turns to complete the following open sentences:

  • When I think about what is happening to our world I feel …

  • The feelings I find difficult to tolerate are (e.g. anger, fear, powerlessness, hopelessness, grief, etc.) …

  • The way I deal with these feelings is …

  • What inspires me about living at this time of crisis is …

  • My gift that I have to contribute to this time of crisis is …

(More ‘open sentences’ can be found in Chapter 7: ‘Despair work: owning and honoring our pain for the world’ in Macy, J. and Young Brown, M. (1998) Coming Back to Life: Practices to Reconnect Our Lives, Our World, New Society Publishers. For a summary of this book, see Joanna Macy's website.)

2.2 Understanding our emotional responses to climate change: disconnection, projection and repression

Becoming more aware of our emotional responses to the world can raise our anxiety levels. It is then tempting to return to the comfort apparently offered by modern industrial society, which can disconnect us from the alarm signals of a world in distress.

As well as disconnecting from feelings, we might also ‘project’ feelings out onto other people. This means we attribute our own difficult feelings to someone else. For example, if we feel angry with somebody, rather than ‘owning’ that difficult feeling – which could be painful – we might instead accuse them of being angry with us. This can actually deepen our own anger and so the dynamic can continue and cause considerable pain for both parties.

It is interesting to explore which feelings might be difficult to tolerate, and why. British people are famous for their ‘stiff upper lips’. This means that there is a culture in Britain of not wanting to express strong emotions. This can also be referred to as ‘repression’, where painful emotions are held inside. This tendency will be moderated by the particular family we are brought up in, as well as our personality.

Disconnection, projection and repression are all emotional responses that help us cope, but often in a way that is personally, socially and ecologically damaging. Ultimately these responses make our situation worse. We find such psychological processes at work in social oppression. For example, during the time of colonial slavery in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, white people were taught that black people were less than human. This enabled them to treat black people as objects that did not have feelings. Similar processes were at play in the Nazi holocaust. The process of dealing personally with such projections is painful, because it forces the perpetrators to come to terms with their own destructive tendencies.

In a similar way, it is the norm in industrial cultures to view the ‘natural’ world as a collection of resources, a set of unfeeling objects, for our exclusive use. Wild nature is often feared as dark and dangerous or, conversely, romanticised and idealised. Exploring our projections onto the natural world, and finding a way of respecting all life, is a difficult process because it challenges deep-seated notions about modern human identity, which is, in part, created by seeing ourselves as separate from, and superior to, the rest of nature.

3 Developing resilience

A key concept in responding to challenges in ways that are positive and healthy – so that we can make better decisions and take action – is that of ‘resilience’. Resilience is derived from ecology (although it is a widely used term) and refers to the ability of a system (personal, social, ecological, political, cultural) to transform itself in order to adapt and survive.

As was mentioned above, the Transition Movement suggests that we need to create local community resilience to withstand the shocks of global social and ecological threats, as old institutional structures fail. This involves strengthening local resources so that we can rely, once again, on local food, energy supply, waste management, healthcare, recreation and livelihoods, for example. This transition process makes human communities more resilient and strengthens our relationship to ourselves, between each other – and to the rest of nature.

In psychology, becoming more resilient means we are equipped to act meaningfully when challenged by changes around us. From this healthy ability to ‘cope’ we find a solid psychological foundation from which to act. Finding resilience can be likened to finding the eye of the storm, the calm place inside ourselves that helps us think carefully when all around is chaotic.

Psychology and psychotherapy offer strategies, techniques and practices for building resilience.

This type of resilience is often also derived from many forms of spiritual practice, both within and beyond organised religion.

Chapter 8: ‘Bouncing back from failure and crisis’ in Chris Johnstone's book Find Your Power explores how challenges and failures can strengthen us and build resilience. You can find out more about Chris Johnstone on his website and on YouTube.

Chapter 2 of Joanna Macy and Molly Young Brown's book Coming Back to Life: Practices to Reconnect Our Lives, Our World entitled ‘The greatest danger: apatheia, the deadening of mind and heart’ explores the psychological causes of inaction in response to current global realities.

For a more in-depth discussion of these issues, you can find Philip Cushman's paper entitled ‘Why the self is empty: toward a historically situated psychology’ on the University of Texas at Austin's website. The paper was published in 1990 in the American Psychologist (vol.45, no.5, pp.599–611).

Activity 3

Think about a time when you felt anxious about climate change or another ecological issue. For example, when you see flooding or environmental refugees on the news, when you hear predictions about the effects of sea level rise on coastal communities, or when you see evidence of the impacts of climate change in the area where you live. Bearing this in mind, explore these questions.

  • How did you cope with this anxiety?

  • Did you cope well or could you have coped better?

  • What made the anxiety subside in the end? Did the cause of the anxiety really subside?

  • Can you identify times when you have denied, projected or repressed difficult emotions about ecological issues?

  • Can you identify times when you have been resilient?


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Unit authored by Mary-Jayne Rust and David Key

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All links accessed 27 November 2009.