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