This is a response to Will Falk’s article, The Destruction of Experience: How Ecopsychology Has Failed, written on Jan. 10, 2017.
By Thomas J. Doherty
The term “ecopsychology” is used in various ways by thinkers who are seeking to understand aspects of human psychology – mind, emotions, motivations, self-image, behavior — in the context of humans’ relationship with the natural world. This relationship includes our actual interplay with nature and how we symbolize this in our cultures.
Would-be ecopsychologists also mine the therapeutic and moral implications: What are the psychological impacts of environmental issues; how do nature contacts improve people’s mental health; and how can we make the mental health benefits of healthy natural contacts more equitable?
As with any psychology or therapy enterprise, there are many ways to envision ecopsychology based on one’s favored theory, culture, and values. Environmental advocacy as well comes in many different shades of green, based on one’s background, their priorities, and their methods (e.g., science or policy-based, grassroots, morally and spiritually motivated, etc.).
I feel for the author of The Destruction of Experience: How Ecopsychology Has Failed, who sounds as if he is truly suffering over the state of their world as he sees it. As a parent, I can identify with his profound feelings of attachment and protectiveness for his nephew. I also appreciate his recognition of some well-known ecopsychology thinkers, such as those represented in the 1995 Sierra Club Ecopsychology anthology. Books like this sit on my shelf as I write, and have been a central influence on my adult life and profession.
But, I fear that the author has drawn too narrow circle around one snapshot of ecopsychology thinking, indeed mainly one book, and one variation on psychologically informed environmentalism, to make such broad and sweeping conclusions as he does.
The idea of an “ecopsychology” is a perennial. Certainly, native peoples, if they chose to take up the western concept “psychology” to describe their cultures, could claim to embody ecopsychology. And, earlier generations of environmental wisdom seekers, poets like William Wordsworth or Emily Dickinson, proto-environmentalists like Henry David Thoreau, or modern environmentalists like Rachel Carson, would likely identify with ecopsychology.
The writers in the 1995 Sierra Club Ecopsychology anthology popularized a confessional, psychotherapeutic approach to ecopsychology. They offered the fact of personal and planetary interbeing as a powerful rationale for advancing environmental politics.
But, it’s important to remember that the 1995 effort is not the whole of ecopsychology, but rather an environmental education initiative sponsored by the Sierra Club using one variation of ecopsychology as its premise. No environmental education initiative is perfect; they work as they can. In hindsight, that group of thinkers and their style was destined to appeal to a certain group of like-minded individuals (this includes myself). It would be over reaching to expect one message would appeal everyone in the environmental community. There is no reason to consider ecopsychology a failure.
At the risk of simplification, there are two broad ways that people deal with the emotional impacts of environmental issues. They either focus on creating a compelling vision and building motivation and positive feelings about that vision, a “broaden and build” approach to use the language of positive psychology. Or, they move deeply into the feelings of concern and despair that accompany environmental issues to seek authentic expression and empowerment, a “despair and empowerment” approach, as popularized by advocates such as Joanna Macy.
Both strategies are useful and reflect reality. I find people tend to gravitate toward one or the other. Either approach taken to an extreme becomes problematic. Superficially positive approaches minimize the harsh realities of environmental degradation and environmental injustices. Completely negative approaches disregard the evidence of positive changes in global society regarding understanding and stewardship of natural world.
Where I live, thousands of people go to work every day to protect nature, other species, human health, and equity. I know they do in San Diego as well. Both emotional extremes also shortchange future generations, creating unrealistic utopias, or unrealistic dystopias.
Following an ecopsychology path is not easy. Our responsibility for diversity and multicultural awareness requires that we realize not everyone, even other ecopsychologists, thinks the way we do. And, we need to be able to step away from our own ways of thinking to understand this important point, and to come together as a shared movement.
The author alludes to dark days in their past, struggles with depression and suicide. These are serious issues, as anyone who has experienced them can attest. This also points to another important point about ecopsychology: one’s personal ecopsychology is always colored by their own background, their temperament and way of coping.
One of the gifts of ecopsychology is to ensure that concern about environmental problems is not “just in someone’s head.” They are not simply technical, political or logistical problems. They go to the very heart of our being and identity, our morality and existence. A twin responsibility is to remember that we can have both “environmental issues” and “personal issues.” One of the complexities of doing eco-therapy work, either with one’s self or with others, is knowing the difference between the emotional lens that someone brings to an environmental situation, and the situation itself. The perception of living in a hell might as much be determined by an individual’s psychology as the state of the world.
Another responsibility when doing ecopsychology work is thinking about where our message is going and how it will affect people. I heard about this essay when someone tagged it for me, an example of how like-minded people forward ideas within the echo-chamber of social media. I tend to minimize social media in my life but did follow up on the provocative title.
I support the author’s right to self-expression. But, I recommend that the best of view of ecopsychology we can give our children is based in our joy, our hope (hope defined as our highest vision of the possible), our creativity, and our poise and good humor when conditions get rough. We can also give them the gift of honoring the personal and planetary aspects of their existence, along with the wisdom to know the difference.
Thomas Doherty is a psychologist and psychotherapist based in Portland, Oregon. He was the founding editor of the Ecopsychology journal and founding director of the Ecopsychology Certificate Program at Lewis & Clark Graduate School. He is a past president of the Society for Environmental, Population and Conservation Psychology and a member of the American Psychological Association Task Force on Global Climate Change.