What is ecopsychology?

Sunrise over the mountainsWhat is Ecopsychology and Why is it Important?

Ecopsychology is a relatively young field of study that examines how human mental and physical health is connected to the health of the natural environment. It examines how humans have disconnected from nature and how and why it’s important to reconnect to nature. Ecopsychology also attempts to explain why some people persist in destroying their environment—whether consciously or not—and the best way to motivate and inspire humanity to live sustainably and in harmony with the Earth.

Ecopsychology assumes several fundamental concepts. First, that human are a part of nature, not apart from nature. It assumes that the health of the environment is directly linked to our health, because we are a part of, and live on, the earth. The deteriorating health of the planet cannot be ignored or compartmentalized without dire consequences to the survival of humans.

Finally, ecopsychology assumes that mental health cannot be compartmentalized solely as ego- or self-oriented. Our connectedness to nature is intricately tied to our mental well-being. Our surroundings have a direct effect on our state of mind, as evidenced by several recent studies. One such study, performed in the U.K. by Mind (Ecotherapy: The Green Agenda for Mental Health), reports that “going for a green walk in a park or countryside where one is surrounded by nature reduces depression whereas walking in a shopping centre or urban setting increases depression.”

Our Relationship to Nature

Human beings are indeed animals and a part of nature just as a chipmunk, a blade of grass and a mountain is a part of nature. Humans are not greater than, more important than, or apart from their natural surroundings.

Ecophilosopher and writer Paul Shepard hypothesizes that there was a shift and disconnection in thought about how human related to nature at the rise of agriculture about 10,000 years ago. He states in his article Nature and Madness, “It fostered a new sense of human mastery and the extirpation of non-human life.” (From the book, Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind, p. 24)

After the invention of agriculture, humans began to think of themselves as controllers of plants, and ultimately of animals when animal husbandry developed as well. Perhaps the true break with our natural surroundings didn’t fully happen until the industrial and scientific revolution of the 16th-19th centuries, when nature was seen as dangerous and something to be tamed or exploited. But the seed was planted, according to Shepard, early in our species’ history.

How Connectedness to Nature Relates to Our Attitude About Conservation

Many individuals and organizations recognize the dire environmental consequences of a controlling or use-oriented attitude toward our environment. But many more do not.  It is a type of insanity — the inability to see or care about the fact that misuse of our surroundings is a kind of species suicide. What other animal would deliberately harm the place where they live so much that their very health and species survival was affected? Yeasts or viruses come to mind, as do parasites. Does that mean that humans have become parasitic and toxic to the Earth?

Ecopsychology is a field of study made necessary because of the disconnectedness we feel with each other and nature, and because of the dire situation of the health of our home. We no longer can continue to go on with business as usual, raking our machines and tools across the face of our planet, sucking it dry of life and spewing our garbage into the air and sea. We no longer can afford to think that the Earth will be there for us indefinitely, shiny and new, constantly giving as we forever plunder.

Studies have shown that persons who can relate to nature, or spend a lot of time in nature, may realize the connection to their environment better than those who do not, and consequently are more apt to give more attention and credence to issues such as the need for conservation and sustainability.

“…people high in environmental identity accord more weight than people low in environmental identity to those principles that endow environmental entities with moral standing. That EID score was also related to an increased rating for a fourth principle, ‘managing natural resources for the public good’…” (Susan Clayton, Environmental Identity, pg 57)

James Hillman may have said it best: “Psychology, so dedicated to awakening human consciousness, needs to wake itself up to one of the most ancient human truths: we cannot be studied or cured apart from the planet.”

Re-Connecting to Our Soul Through Nature-Based Practices

Since we are nature, we have an ancient wisdom and wildness in us that we can tap into—if only we slow down and are mindful enough to do so. Tapping into our soul—the core of each of us that is both inside and outside us and that holds our ancient animal wisdom—is done through various means of internalizing nature. This is done by ritual and nature-based practices.

When you’re feeling scattered, stressed, or depressed because you’re spending too much time “in your head” or sitting in a room with electronics all day, you can begin to feel more grounded and calm by simply connecting to a wild place you enjoy, sitting in your backyard, or spending time with a pet. It doesn’t cost money and it doesn’t require that you travel long distances.

Nature is accessible to everyone, regardless of income level or location. Nature can take the form of a tree, a pet, the sky, or a river. One does not need to travel far or have special equipment (other than protective clothing and a comfortable pair of shoes) to enjoy and reconnect to the world around us.