Mind and Environment:
A Psychological Survey of Perspectives Literal, Wide, and Deep
Expanded from a presentation to students of
John F. Kennedy University Graduate School of Psychology,
(See also the Glossary of Ecological
I had intended to begin this presentation with a parody of how thoroughly
psychotherapy previously neglected our relationship with the environment,
but when I tried to write an ironic scenario, it kept turning into a real
Picture (I was going to suggest) a city block which the client must negotiate
in order to reach the therapy office. After going by a lawn reeking with pesticides,
blankets of smoggy air, honking car horns, people shouting at each other,
screeching tires, yelling cops, and a car crash, the client makes it to the
therapist’s office and relates a brief account of this mini-odyssey,
whereupon the therapist asks, “So how are things going with your mother?”
I wish this were a parody, this lapsing of the entire world into a giant
Rorschach blot of psychological family values, but it isn’t. It’s
how therapists the world over reasoned until rather recently, when it began
to dawn on thoughtful practitioners that clients had feelings about the actual,
tangible world humming along outside the self.
It’s difficult to say when this awakening began; difficult enough that
it’s easier to pin down when it temporarily vanished. Early practitioners
of psychotherapy had not worried unduly about the environment, but at least
they recognized its psychological impact. Things changed with Freud. To be
more specific, they changed when Freud decided that supposing one
had been traumatized was more important psychologically than being
a genuine victim. From there it was a short step to reinterpreting everything
that interested or provoked the therapy patient solely in terms of the inner
life, the transference, or the troubled family. Freud’s colleague Karl
Abraham largely ignored the combat stress of the soldiers he worked with,
attributing their symptoms instead to early problems with oral gratification
or toilet training.
A hundred years later, therapists still practice who believe that pressing,
urgent facts like global warming have little or no impact on the supposedly
inner life. Today, although Earth’s temperature rises dangerously, 50%
of species are at risk of extinction within 50 years, 27% of ocean reefs are
gone, 84% of the planet surface has been interfered with, 100% of large rivers
in the U.S. are polluted, entire governments are in the hands of ruthless
oil barons practicing what Karl Wittfogel termed “hydraulic despotism,”
and mass advertising which supports a planet-wasting economy remains the largest
psychological project ever undertaken, not enough therapists pause to wonder
what these dismal facts mean to a client, let alone ask about them.
It would certainly be unfair to assign Freud all the blame for this. The
assumed split between self and environment runs back through Western history
to before the Idealist and postmodern philosophies put everything back into
the signifier-generating brain; before the monotheistic preoccupation with
another, better world; before Descartes, father of the mind-body problem child;
before Plato, who kept both eyes on a realm of Ideas open only to mathematicians
and philosopher kings; all the way back, in fact, eleven thousand concept-laden,
gadget-busy years to the Fertile Crescent, where a band of people caught in
a drought began plowing the ground systematically, thereby separating enough
from it psychologically to use it as a resource.
This fed them and gave them new tools and us Western civilization, but at
a price: a sense of separation from Home that over time has overdeveloped
into pathological estrangement–pathological for us as well as for the planet.
Psychology is both a symptom of and a response to this estrangement. With
the disappearance of the nature spirits under the wheels of conquest and industry,
people turned away in fear from what they were told was a fallen and evil
world of nature to the only sources of intelligent aliveness left: inside
the human skull.
As C. G. Jung put it, “The gods have become diseases.” The nature
gods in particular. What were previously regarded as relational imbalances
between self and world, imbalances to be healed through ritual and reconnection
with earthly forces, were now diagnosed and treated as problems seething only
within the person. It is no accident that the term “animism” came
into use as a disparagement of the indigenous experience of the world’s
aliveness just a few years before the first psychological laboratories were
established. Where there was ceremony, now would psychology be.
Of course, not everyone involved in psychology believed the split between
mind and environment to be so absolute. Jung would not be the last to argue
nearly a century ago for a more realistic and dialogical model. The evolution
of family therapy out of group therapy pushed the zone of interest outward
into intergenerational territory, and social work made interface with the
community one of its best specialties. Even so, the psychological presence
of the physical environment has remained more or less in the shadows of therapeutic
consciousness until fairly recently as evolving projects in the age-old campaign
to protect the ecosphere have brought our connections to the nonhuman world
into the foreground at last.
The remainder of this presentation will offer brief examples of what some
of these environmental projects and perspectives have to say about human psychology,
sanity, and well-being. As we survey them we will gradually move our field
of attention from literal interactions between self and world into more symbolically
rich levels of mutuality whose depths embrace and move below the surface.
This should help us begin to see how intimately the terrain around us reaches
into the life within us.
Environmental and Ecological Psychology
Environmental psychology is not one field, but an umbrella term for many.
Within it, history, urban planning and design, cognitive science, geography,
cultural anthropology, political science, architecture, sociology, economy,
and yes, psychology clash or work harmoniously together, depending.
In general, this perspective studies how we perceive the environment, including
our innate and acquired sensitivities and cognitive maps for understanding
it; how the environment impacts us, from natural disasters to crowded sidewalks;
and how we impact the environment through overconsumption, waste, overpopulation,
German social psychologist Kurt Lewin (pronounced “luh-VEEN”)
did not set out to found an environmental science, but at a time when psychology
was preoccupied with taking mental life apart into aggregates of sensation,
he was part of the famous group of researchers affiliated with the University
of Berlin who studied consciousness as a field entity after WW I. Out of this
collaboration, which included research by Max Wertheimer, Kurt Koffka, and
Wolfgang Köhler, emerged Gestalt (“Form” or “Pattern”)
psychology, an anti-reductionist perspective that compared consciousness to
music and its components to notes which cannot be meaningfully appreciated
in isolation from one another. Gestalt research on patterns of perception
effectively destroyed the reduction of perception to individual associations
or sensations that had dominated psychology from Edward Titchener onward.
The path lay open to the view of human beings as natural makers and organizers
It did not take Lewin very long to begin applying this field orientation
to human relationships. His work with group interactions began a legacy that
flowered later into group dynamics and Family Systems psychotherapy. In 1936
he published Principles of Topological Psychology to demonstrate
how aspects of the immediate surround possess psychologically potent effects
in constant interaction with a person’s “life space” consisting
of the self, the geographical locale, and the relations between the two. Lewin’s
insistence on importing mathematical terms like “valence” into
his model obscured for decades its importance as a field approach to human
Having lain fallow for a decade or so, environmental psychology reappeared
in 1947 with Roger Barker’s work at the research station he founded
in Oskaloosa, Kansas. “The Midwest Psychological Field Station,”
he explained, “was established to facilitate the study of human behavior
and its environment in situ by bringing to psychological science
the kind of opportunity long available to biologists: easy access to phenomena
of the science unaltered by the selection and preparation that occur in laboratories.”
His focus on the 750 residents of Oskaloosa included interactions among children
and how the unfinished and uncertain nature of the frontier shaped the character
of those who lived upon it. His conclusion was that human behavior and mental
life are so radically, profoundly situated that they cannot be understood
apart from their environmental context. Social workers benefit from this fact
when they see clients at home. Therapists forced to work around it by seeing
clients in an office or at a clinic can expand their assessments to include
questions about the client’s home and work life, neighborhood, areas
of recreation, and favorite locales. Friends and family can be asked how the
client acts in various settings.
Eventually Barker called his brand of research ecological psychology.
So, alas, did perceptual scientist James Gibson. (Don’t confuse either
approach with ecopsychology, to be discussed later.) Gibson’s interest
began with visual capability and direct perception and ended in the conviction
that all human learning relies on the environment in which it occurs. In other
words, it is an ongoing process of mutuality between people and things, selves
and surroundings, rather than governed entirely by internal maps, memory banks,
or other cognitive schema. “It’s not what is inside the head that’s
important,” he liked to say, “but what the head is inside of.”
What this means is that learning and doing are guided primarily by perception,
with the human participant active not as a computer but as a response tool
like a thermostat or a radio tuner. Instead of seeing action as an intake,
processing, storage, and dispensing of information, ecological psychology
assumes ongoing perceiving-acting cycles linking self to the world in which
we evolved: a world replete with affordances, or opportunities for
certain learnings and activities geared to specific intentions and goals that
in turn effect change in the environment. Learning and doing arise together
and depend on each other, as when the member of a gym runs a treadmill without
thinking, with body and mind in motion automatically.
In theory this makes the environment a partner in learning; but automatic
behavior is an instructive metaphor. You might recall the quaint notion that
science is value-free and objective, a notion that merely hands science over
to those who bid the highest from outside the sterilized laboratory. In psychology
this was a favorite maxim of Francis Galton, founder of eugenics and mental
tests, and Edward Titchener, founder of Structuralism, whose vision of pure
research included requiring graduate students keep down a plastic tube that
made them vomit and referring to experimental subjects as “reagents.”
(Henry Goddard’s term was “human material.”) A class Titchener
taught almost nauseated Abraham Maslow out of becoming a psychologist. James
Cattell, the first psychologist to analyze psychological findings statistically,
was not a structuralist, but he was an advocate of sterilizing the inferior
and paying bright people to have offspring. John Watson most successfully
translated the value-free idea into hard cash by selling behavioral science
techniques to the advertising industry after being relieved of his professorship
at Johns Hopkins.
Now more aware of the power of the environment, psychology took on the American
pragmatic habit known in psychology as “functionalism” to produce
proxemics, or the study of how we unconsciously organize personal
space around each other, in homes, in workplaces, cities, and other inhabited
zones laid out in culturally shaped patterns. Anthropologist E.T. Hall introduced
proxemics in his book The Hidden Dimension (1966). Another pragmatic
study, ergonomics, came out of the work of David Canter and the Performance
Research Unit at the University of Strathclyde in Scotland. From 1966 on,
this research guided how to design various kinds of equipment to maximize
productivity while minimizing human fatigue.
A weakness inherent in this empirical-quantitative approach is the psychological
distance between who is doing the research and what is being researched. This
distance seduces the scientist into forgetting unconscious motivations and
the fantasies that guide the search for objectivity: an objectivity that turns
people and landscapes into objects–in this case, of consumption. Combined
with the stimulus-response emphasis of behaviorism, mass marketing and advertising
firms employ specialists to measure how much air a bag of chips can contain
before sales fall off, or at what shelf height a priced-up item should be
to catch a consumer’s eye. Colors and sounds and even smells in retail
stores influence the moods and perceptions of shoppers.
Here is an excerpt from “Globalization and the Commercialization of
Childhood” by child psychologist Allen Kanner:
The Girls Intelligence Agency (GIA) is a relatively new American company
that offers the services of its 40,000 “agents”—girls
aged six to eighteen—to corporate customers that want to create a
buzz for their products. GIA recruits these girls from around the country
by inviting them to become an “official GIA agent” of a “very
elite group.” The girls are given exclusive offers for products, events,
and free online fashion consultation with Agent Kiki, a supposed “big
sis” who in fact is the GIA staff providing answers to the girls’
email questions. The hallmark of GIA is its “Slumber Party in a Box,”
in which a GIA girl invites up to eleven friends for an overnight party
at which she passes out free products—toys, cosmetics, films, and
the like—while taking notes for GIA on her friends’ reactions.
She does not tell them that the event is sponsored. In fact, GIA instructs
the girls to “be slick and find out some sly scoop on your friends,”
such as what they think is currently fashionable.
There’s so much wrong with this picture that it’s hard to
know where to start: large corporations teaching girls to manipulate their
friends for profit, parents going along with it, the girls being used as
consultants for a pittance (they get to keep product samples but don’t
get paid), GIA lying to its young agents about Agent Kiki, the company recruiting
girls by playing to their need to be recognized as special when in fact
the girls are being used and deceived.
How does this level of socially sanctioned mass manipulation show up in the
consulting room? Shoppaholism, television used to numb unpleasant feelings,
automaton conformity, pathetically superficial chatter, hatred of routinized
work resurfacing as physical symptoms, nightmares about robots, vampires,
terrorists, or manikins, and a growing inability to go outside of increasingly
smart houses built so people can live inside their own computers. Formerly,
presenting issues looked like hysteria, conversion disorder, phobic avoidance,
or repressed passions. Today they look like anomie, passionlessness, dissociation,
and self-alienation. In the culture of palliatives and instant distractions,
it can take several sessions to find out what the client even wants from life,
from relationships, from anything.
As Erich Fromm pointed out in an introduction to Orwell’s book 1984,
the issue is not so much that the barrage of images, slogans, and opinions
are lies as that they come after a while to feel like they emanate from within
rather than from without. Educator Paulo Freire designed a dialogical technique
called problematizing to encourage people to tell the difference
by inquiring into the sources of their attitudes and values, convinctions
and beliefs. People who can sort genuine ideas, needs, and emotions from those
implanted by conditioning do not make devoted shoppers or followers, but they
tend to understand what they want from life and to make plans for realizing
some of their dreams.
Notice the narrowly artificial conception of “environment” so
far, with bits and pieces mined from the actual world to establish one bounded
by surfaces, containers, and stimuli. With our next perspective we begin to
get the feeling that we’re not in Kansas anymore.
is the project to “green” psychology by explicitly designing
social science research to promote sustainable societies. The word “sustainable”
having become trendy, a quick definition might be of use here: sustainability
refers to practices and styles of working and living that 1. do not exceed
local carrying capacity and 2. do not use up resources which our children
and their children will need. In simple language, a sustainable society is
one that does not take from the land, sea, or air more than they can replenish.
Conservation psychology refers to a network or conglomeration of
collaborative efforts toward ecologically relevant research leading to practical
outreach. Carol Saunders defines this field as follows: “Conservation
psychology is the scientific study of the reciprocal relations between humans
and the rest of nature, with a particular focus on how to encourage conservation
of the natural world.” It is both an applied field and a gathering of
Their primary goal: finding and sharing compelling empirical evidence that
demonstrates connections between nature and mind. An example of this would
be recent research on empathy, a quality human beings share with other primates.
Think about dolphins who push drowning humans to the ocean surface so we can
breathe, or dogs who whimper when their human friends are in pain, or friendly
cats who curl up in the laps of people who are crying. Jeffrey Mogil just
finished a study at McGill University which suggests the activity of empathy
even in mice. When able to see each other suffering, the animals were more
sensitive to pain inflicted on them as well.
In the view of conservation psychology, making a scientific case for our
psychological partnership with the natural world will encourage more of us
to preserve that world, for we destroy it at the cost of our own psychological
The research done is therefore normative, in Maslow’s sense of embracing
values stated up front, rather than hiding behind a cloak of objectivity.
In addition to sustainability, the values include a focus on solving problems,
a tying of the academic to the practical, a stronger dialog between social
science and natural science, a moving beyond studying how things already are
(as traditional psychology does) into examining how to empower people to make
sustainable choices, a willingness to draw on other social sciences (for instance,
Human Ecology and Environmental Sociology) in the service of fostering conservation,
a widening of concern beyond human environments to the human-nature relationship
as a whole, and a constant focus on doing research that improves that relationship.
A criterion of success will be whether that research leads to programs and
projects that promote conservation.
So far the focus has remained quantitative rather than qualitative. This
is not surprising given the policymaking emphasis on graphs and numbers. As
the psychotherapist sees every day, however, attitudes held for emotionally
immature reasons are seldom amenable to challenge by research. Global warming
from fossil fuel combustion was predicted as early as 1859, and evidence for
it has been around since 1908. There’s been little serious scientific
doubt about it since 1988, and yet the global temperature continues to rise
as misinformed sectors of the American public remain in firm denial.
Although conservation psychology has emphasized empirical research, it will
have to confront the therapeutic implications of its mission to motivate people
to care more about the natural world. What sorts of insights or learnings
lead to more sustainable behavior? Is it possible for therapists to work from
an ecologically normative framework without imposing it on their clients or
trying to turn them into environmental activists? Yes, assuming the therapist
keeps a steady eye on their own agenda. The greater danger has proved to be
misinterpreting the client’s ecological grief or anxiety as purely personal
rather than taking them at face value. I believe a time is close at hand where
more and more therapists will spend session time helping clients problem-solve
alternatives to lapsing into despair over increasingly obvious catastrophes
like global warming or the mass extinction of plant and animal life now underway.
“Ecology” derives from the Greek words oikos (household)
and logos (study) and constitutes the examination of interrelationships
between organisms and their environment. The word was coined in 1866 by German
biologist-philosopher Ernest Haeckel. Because the word has grown soft over
the years from “eco-” being applied to everything from crackers
to condoms, some have made the mistaken assumption that ecology is some sort
of spiritual revival. In fact, ecology is an empirical, research-oriented,
multidisciplinary science that draws on biology, geology, geography, mathematics,
chemistry, meteorology, cybernetics, and systems theory. Its basic unit of
study is the ecosystem: an assembly of living things that interacts
as a unit or system.
Ecosystems are flows and configurations of biological energy that balance
themselves through various kinds of interactions: parasitism, where
one species benefits at the expense of another; mutualism, where
species help each other flourish; commensalism, a more neutral interaction;
an unwitting restriction of one species by another—think of tree secretions
killing a ground plant—called amensalism; and of course predation,
which keeps the prey in check.
Ecologists also study the following roles that keep an ecosystem going: producers
(often plants) that make food and therefore energy; consumers that
eat it (primary consumers are usually herbivores, secondary consumers carnivors,
etc.), and decomposers that return organic remains back to their
Ecosystems themselves can play various roles, particularly in terms of how
old and how healthy they are. Succession species populate relatively
barren areas with pioneer plants to make way for more complex arrangements
of living things. An ecosystem at the height of stability and maturity is
said to reach climax, like a stand of old growth forest. If the system
gets out of balance, however, whether from environmental catastrophe or too
many members of one species dominating all the others, it can go into drawdown,
where resources are consumed faster than they can be replenished by the land’s
carrying capacity. If this continues it leads to a system crash
resulting in dieback, or the extinction of important keystone species.
I mention ecology, first, because it concerns itself with the terrestrial
stage upon which we live. As one species among many, we are subject to the
laws of ecology, including those governing the balance of life on Earth. Like
other species, we have the capacity to sense when drawdown of resources is
leading, as it now is all over the world, toward ecological crash as the top
predators continue to ignore the basic facts of ecological reality. So pervasive
is what’s being called eco-anxiety that “20/20”
and other programs are interviewing counselors, environmentalists, and other
specialists to learn more about it. A task for the therapist will be to recognize
and validate the client’s feelings of ecological angst and suggest ways
to work with them consciously, including expressing them dramatically, artistically,
or politically. Getting involved with an activity directed at environmental
preservation can offer sense of being part of the healing rather than watching
helplessly as the polar ice caps weep, the atmosphere runs a temperature,
and the ecosphere suffers a nervous breakdown.
Second, ecology invites the idea that the human mind works more like a self-balancing
ecosystem or ecocommunity than like a programmed machine. In Freud’s
day, images of self were hydraulic; for the behaviorists, chains of stimulus
and response; for evolutionary psychologists, preprinted circuits and operating
systems: a computer’s vision of human psychology. No one has explained
how a machine run by automatic modules can successfully interface with the
aliveness going on around it. On the contrary, even cybernetic hardwiring
is starting to use circular pathways, systemic properties, and chaos systems
similar to those of organic interactivity: a reproduction and externalization
of the dissociated, nervous flesh. After centuries of reductionism, we are
finally beginning to recognize our deterministic descriptions of ourselves,
whether in therapy or outside of it, as projections trying to revive some
inner deadness by reconnecting it to a still-vital world.
Human ecology is a hybrid of ecology and sociology. Its focus is
on the human component of the world’s natural and artificial ecocommunities.
One of its early sources was the Chicago School, a center for urban sociology
active during the 1920s. Their focus was empirically done fieldwork.
Over time human ecology evolved to view human culture as ecologically situated
rather than as a system of ideas or artifacts erected somewhere above the
world and its other inhabitants. From this perspective, human disciplines
like psychology and sociology are subfields of ecology rather than the reverse.
In practice, human ecology tends to focus on human dysfunction in the vicinity
of urban areas. Examples of research topics include how natural disasters
destabilize the victims, how people react to overpopulation, how climate or
meteorology influences a local economy, and how human attitudes impact environmental
policies. The field is ecological in scope, but the focus remains primarily
on the human component, particularly in terms of building design, health,
Human ecology complements the social worker’s understanding of the
powerful interplay between how people function and the local resources made
available to them, then takes the additional step of placing social and psychological
life back into their environmental context. In assessing how someone is doing,
exploratory questions from this standpoint would be: Exactly how are this
person’s perceptions, attitudes, or behaviors impacted by, or even expressions
of, some current combination of ecological pressures? What is going on around,
below, or above? How can we measure it? What can be done about it?
A recent example of a human ecology problem centers on New Orleans, where
the mental health system is itself in a state of breakdown and has been since
Hurricane Katrina. Half the people still there afterwards indicated some need
for counseling, but only 2% are getting it. “Katrina Brain” is
rampant: difficulty focusing, depression, mood swings, and the like. The post-traumatic
stress of the storm never gets to be “post-” because there isn’t
enough being done to aid in recovery. The suicide rate has tripled. Charity
Hospital is working out of a former department store. “People will learn
from us,” says psychiatrist Mark Townsend. “Because a disaster
like this will occur again.”
Even so, the methods used to research it retain the quantification, objectification,
emotional distancing, and literal-minded concretism of the physical sciences
and techniques that fed internal combustion to start with. What about other
ways of knowing, intuiting, and experiencing? What about sensings and promptings
regularly reported by the indigenous dweller, the activist, the artist, the
student, and the therapy client but culturally demonized as unscientific?
Those were the questions for thinkers, scholars, and activists who began to
ask whether the objectification of human beings paralleled the objectification
of the natural world.
Having survived psychoanalysis by a student of Freud, activist and philosopher
Arne Naess remained intellectually indebted to Spinoza, Gandhi, Husserl, Marx,
and the Buddha and experientially married to the forests of Norway. An avid
mountaineer, he was the youngest faculty to work as a full professor at the
University of Oslo. He had fought in the resistance against the Nazi occupation
and been arrested by Norwegian police for turning out to fight for the rights
of the indigenous Sami community.
Naess coined the term “deep ecology” in his 1973 article, “The
Shallow and the Deep, Long-Range Ecology Movements.” In it he confronted
the question of our supposed primacy in the natural world and argued that
this humanocentric narcissism rendered much environmental “reform”
superficial. What good were a few bandaid solutions while the psychological
and philosophical assumptions on which a dysfunctional relation to the world
depended went entirely unquestioned? Too often mere reformism sold quick fixes,
some technological, without promoting fundamental change in the destructive,
expansionist, consumption-fixated values of an overindustrialized civilization.
(We saw above where that has lead.)
After working out a philosophical platform with George Sessions while they
camped in Death Valley in 1984, Naess later defined “deep” in
terms of a persistent Socratic questioning of culture-bound attitudes about
nature opening up into lasting changes in how we perceive ourselves in the
world. The platform, geared for change, was:
1) The well-being and flourishing of human and nonhuman life on Earth have
intrinsic values (inherent worth) in and of themselves independent of their
usefulness for human purposes.
2) Richness and diversity of life forms contribute to the realization of
these values and are also values in themselves.
3) Humans have no right to reduce this richness and diversity except to
satisfy vital needs.
4) Present human interference with the nonhuman world is excessive, and
the situation is rapidly worsening.
5) The flourishing of human life and cultures is compatible with a substantial
decrease of the human population. The flourishing of nonhuman life requires
such a decrease.
6) Policies must therefore be changed to affect basic economic and technological
structures. The resulting state of affairs will be deeply different from the
7) The ideological change is mainly that of appreciating life quality (through
appreciating situations of inherent worth) rather than adhering to an increasingly
higher standard of living. There will be a profound awareness of the difference
between big and great.
8) Those who subscribe to the foregoing points have an obligation to directly
or indirectly participate in the attempt to implement the necessary changes.
Naess’s motto is, “Simple in means, rich in ends.”
The two fundamental norms, irreducible to any others, are: Self-realization
(as opposed to ego-realization) of all things, and biocentric equality,
which opposes the anthropocentrism at the heart of our problem with nature.
Warwick Fox believes that unlike other ecological perspectives, deep ecology
moves the source of our war against nature from intraspecies (human) to interspecies,
a move that transcends blaming politicians or industrialists by focusing on
the widespread anthropocentric depreciation of the world as a mere thing for
Also, deep ecologists see identification–with plants and animals,
places, the world– from the human end as the basis of interspecies empathy
and relationship. (David Kidner prefers to talk about a “resonance”
between self and other rather than “identification.”) People will
not protect what they do not identify with or regard as an aspect of themselves.
As a pluralist, Naess believes that everyone should develop a unique ecophilosophy,
or “ecosophy.” He calls his Ecosophy T. The “T” recalls
his hut Tvergastein, named after quartz crystals found nearby. (One of Naess’s
models, Spinoza, was a lens-grinder.)
Not everyone likes the priority given to identification. Clinicians working
with clients who already come in with fuzzy ego boundaries might well feel
concerned at encouraging any greater permeability. On the other hand, building
a sense of kinship with the features, details, and living things all around
might work to strengthen and expand a normally fragile sense of self by making
it more at home in its habitat.
Deep ecologists sometimes talk about anthropocentrism as a kind of narcissism.
Seen through Karen Horney’s emphasis on the cultural roots of mental
disorders, narcissism shares with anthropocentrism an unwillingness to grant
other things or people any reality outside of their utility to oneself. In
other words, narcissism (named after Narcissus, who saw his face in a pool
of water and fell in love with it) mirrors the elitist psychology
so blatantly displayed at the socioeconomic peak of industrialized societies.
It can be useful to probe beyond the façade of narcissistic personality
to look for a disregard not only of human beings, but of the world at large,
and to work with a deep fear of the world in parallel with a deep fear of
Green Activism: Social Ecology and Ecofeminism
Social activist Murray Bookchin was among the first to praise deep ecology’s
willingness to probe into the human-centered assumptions that bolster our
sense of superiority over the natural world—and among the first to criticize
deep ecology’s unwillingness to take power hierarchies fully into account.
Bookchin’s field, social ecology, explicitly links ecological
problems and social inequality by explaining the first as an inevitable result
of the second: “…The hierarchical mentality and class relationships
that so thoroughly permeate society give rise to the very idea of dominating
the natural world.” His best-known book, The Ecology of Freedom,
argued this in 1982, although he had argued similarly in print even before
Rachel Carson published Silent Spring.
Some key emphases of social ecology:
• The domination-of-nature paradigm followed historically from domination
of society by the state and, before that, of women by men. The key issue environmentally
is therefore not identification or lack thereof, but the problems that radiate
from centralized power.
• This hierarchical paradigm simultaneously wounds the ecosphere and
subjects humans to widespread social injustices. It should be retired in favor
of practices that encourage thinking and acting on behalf of complementarity
between selves and between self and planet. Part of education’s job
should be to show people from early on how to get along with each other through
negotiation, dialog, and other complementarity-enhancing skills.
• Capitalism based on perpetual expansion is not only wasteful and
outmoded, it’s now as much of a threat to the natural world as it has
been to alienated, subjugated human beings (workers, the poor) since at least
the Industrial Revolution.
• Unchecked capitalism drives a crisis of our time: not the emergence
of cities, but parasitic urbanization that ruins cities and rural areas alike.
• The artificial bifurcation of the world into “natural”
and “unnatural” (human) cannot stand. Our “first nature”
remains part of the natural world we damage through the misuse of our “second
nature” symbol-juggling capacities.
• Bookchin criticizes what he saw as deep ecology’s blindness
to the emergence of hierarchy: “As long as hierarchy persists, as long
as domination organizes humanity around a system of elites, the project of
dominating nature will remain a predominant ideology and inevitably lead our
planet to the brink, if not into the abyss, of ecological extinction.”
When criticized himself for making rich capitalists and other social elites
into scapegoats for what is really a systemic lack of balance between humans
and environment, Bookchin replied that such a criticism ignores the fact that,
from the standpoint of social and ecological destructiveness, a black kid
languishing in the ghetto could hardly be compared to the head of a multinational
waster and polluter.
Originally, social ecology had focused primarily on class inequality. An
ongoing conversation with ecofeminists modified this position.
Ecofeminism, from a term (“ecofeminisme”) introduced
by French feminist philosopher Francois d’Eaubonne in the 1974 text
Le Feminisme ou la Mort, is a movement of liberation directed against
the interlinked oppressions of sex, race, class, and environment. Names connected
with this effort toward sustainable egalitarianism include Susan Griffin,
Ynestra King, Karen Warding, Val Plumwood, and Carolyn Merchant. Like the
social ecologists, they critique ecophilosophies that underestimate the power
of hierarchical authority; but they examine a particularly persistent set
of parallels too: those between the patriarchal disempowerment of women and
the destruction of the natural world.
In both cases a relationship of domination and control emanates from a deep,
unacknowledged fear of the unknown. An example is the traditionalist attitude
that women are closer to nature and therefore fallen, evil, childish, or otherwise
sullied, a bias reflected in early psychological theories. The Freud who asked,
“What does a woman want?” is the Freud who dreamed of finding
a dried specimen of his wife’s favorite flower smashed in a weighty
monograph. Although ecofeminists have criticized deep ecology’s emphasis on
unity (seen as a deemphasis of diversity and particularity), such as Plumwood,
for whom “identifying” with nature is an extended egotism that
replaces relationship with states of psychological fusion, the underlying
problem remains the Western exaltation of “reason” as a suicidal
display of ecological contempt. Susan Harding’s analysis is provocative:
Science affirms the unique contributions to culture to be made by transhistorical
egos that reflect a reality only of abstract entities; by the administrative
mode of interacting with nature and other inquirers; by impersonal and universal
forms of communication; and by an ethic of elaborating rules for absolute
adjudications of competing rights between socially autonomous—that
is, value-free—pieces of evidence. These are exactly the social characteristics
necessary to become gendered as a man in our society.
And required as well by a high-octane consumerist complex built with the
tools of “objective” science. Carolyn Merchant carries her critique
Living animate nature died, while dead inanimate money was endowed with
life. Increasingly capital and the market would assume the organic attributes
of growth, strength, activity, pregnancy, weakness, decay, and collapse
obscuring and mystifying the new underlying social relations of production
and reproduction that make economic growth and progress possible. Nature,
women, blacks, and wage laborers were set on a path toward a new status
as “natural” and human resources for the modern world system.
Perhaps the ultimate irony in these transformations was the new name given
The question is not whether such procedures rack up results–obviously they
do–but of the price paid for their built-in distortions, particularly splits
between mind and heart, objectivity and subjectivity, culture and nature,
and facts and feelings that privilege the first of each pair while silencing
The woman = matter equation plays out with increasing visibility, from automobiles
sold as “sexy” to romantic partners “traded in” for
newer and shiner models. In fact, an online community is burgeoning of lovers
who cannot feel sexually excited without the noisome presence of car exhaust.
Virtual relationships are replacing and ruining real ones; reports of environmental
illness—a severe, allergic physical intolerance of synthetic products—rises
as the ecosphere declines. With sexuality becoming mechanically supplemented
and imaged, machinery takes on erotic attributes, from Microsoft to hard drives.
In the mind of the voyeur, even surveillance has become sexy. As maintenance
cycles, traffic lights, and schedules draw their enchantment from the displaced
rhythms of nature and the body (“metropolis” comes from a word
that means “mother”), computer viruses and genetic engineering
mimic the forces of reproduction. In the Age of Information, when breast implants
cast an illusion of maternal enhancement, agoraphobia begins to look like
a fear of leaving the electronic womb.
Is staging a return to nature the therapy needed to heal the damage done
by our psychological separation from the rest of the world? And if so, should
it be done individually or by entire communities?
Bioregions are geographic areas that share common types of soil, climate,
flora, and fauna. Think of a forest, a desert, a coastal region, or a watershed,
which is the drainage area for a river or other large body of water. The edges
of a bioregion normally aren’t distinct; only the people who live locally
can tell you where they are: the same people who know how it feels
to live there, what they need from the land, and what the land needs from
In 1974 activist Peter Berg and wildlife ecologist Raymond Dasmann gave
a name to this style of life and to its philosophy: bioregionalism,
which is based on the premise that political jurisdictions based on power
hierarchies exhibit an arbitrary competitiveness not seen when they are based
instead on natural divisions and features of the terrain. These, not top-down
regulatory authorities, should be the basis of local planning and resource
management. In this way ecosystem, culture, and politics remain interrelated,
as they were before the rise of national boundaries and barricades, and ecology
meets anthropology through geography and naturalistic awareness.
The resulting psychology looks like one of settled, rooted, appreciative
emplacement. As Peter Berg and Raymond Dasmann suggest:
Living in place means following the necessities and pleasures of life
as they are uniquely presented by a particular site, and evolving ways to
endure long-term occupancy of that site. A society which practices living-in-place
keeps a balance with its region of support through links with human lives,
other living creatures, and the processes of the planet–seasons, weather,
water cycles, as revealed by the place itself. It is the opposite of a society
which makes a living through short-term destructive exploitation of land
Kirkpatrick Sale expresses it this way:
To become “dwellers in the land,” to regain the spirit of the
Greeks, to fully and honestly come to know the earth, the crucial and perhaps
only and all-encompassing task is to understand the place, the immediate,
specific place, where we live. Schumacher says, “In the question of
how we treat the land, our entire way of life is involved.” We must
somehow live as close to it as possible, be in touch with its particular
soils, its waters, its winds. We must learn its ways, its capacities, its
limits. We must make its rhythms our patterns, its laws our guide, its fruits
How to do this? The first task is reinhabitation: “becoming
native to a place” that’s been injured by human exploitation.
Reinhabiting it includes getting to know its ecological cycles, weather, native
plants and animals, infrastructure demands, history, indigenous lore, and
carrying capacity. Questions to research include: What watershed do I live
in? What is the population of my town? Where does my food come from? Water?
Electricity? Where does my trash go? What time does the sun rise and set?
What phase is the moon in? What is the average rainfall? Who lived here before
I did? What’s my relationship to all these things? What impact is my
style of life having on the environment?
Bioregionalists point out that not knowing the answers to such questions
reinforces the psychological distance between self and world created by dependency
on far-off sources of food, power, and commodities whose human and environmental
price tags we never see. As part of this, far-off corporate power structures
collect local money every time a development scheme goes through or a department
store opens while displacing local businesses, local exchanges, local relationships,
and the local soil and water. This dependency fosters a deep sense of insecurity
unknown to premodern inhabitants who knew how to grow their own food, clothe
themselves, entertain themselves and each other, and provide themselves with
housing and transportation without having to rely on the distant empire.
Bioregional practices include the following:
• Human beings evolved in settings where relatively small groups of
people worked together as kindred and intimately understood the ground they
walked and lived on. Living like this once again can eliminate much of the
alienation, uprootedness, self-numbing, mind-body splitting, and antisocial
aggression endemic to highly industrialized societies.
• Food is best grown and bought locally to support local farmers and
reduce dependency on pesticide-laden products gathered and processed by invisible
low-wage labor and shipped in from great distances spanned by the burning
of fossil fuels.
• As many commodities as possible are produced, bought, and sold locally
to prevent organizations with no emotional investment in the bioregion from
exploiting it and dominating the local economy.
• Those who actually live in a bioregion know best how to manage it.
Top-down solutions from far away are to be suspected.
• Local democracy is based on direct participation, genuine consensus,
and small-group discussion. (As Leopold Kohr put it, “If something is
wrong, then something is too big.”)
• Bioregional economics aim for a steady state rather than unlimited,
wasteful expansion. Taking a cue from the natural world, they put conservation
ahead of profit.
• As a result, resource use and waste are minimized and recycling
and replenishment of natural systems maximized.
• The real experts of an area are the indigenous people who have lived
there and gathered information about the locale over many generations.
As utopian as all this might sound to industrialized ears, experimentation
with it goes on around the world. One example is Salmon Nation, a loose organization
of citizens living in the coastal regions of California, Oregon, Washington,
British Columbia, and Alaska—“wherever the salmon run,”
as they put it. This alliance of villagers, urbanites, farmers, loggers, fishers,
and bioregional theorists is consciously managing a sustainable network. Salmon
Nation is organized by Ecotrust (1991), a nonprofit put together by environmental
consultant Jeanette Armstrong to promote a spirit of at-home-ness and ecological
responsibility attuned to the rhythms of the land and sea. Salmon Nation sponsors
its own local festivals and celebrations, its own local currency and trade,
its own arts and crafts, various community building projects, plays and poetry,
a plan to see everyone housed and fed, and even a local charge card, the Salmon
It would be interesting to assess Salmon Nation and other bioregional experiments
to find out their impact on local mental health. So far we have only word-of-mouth
reports to go on, but for now they seem very favorable in terms of happiness,
groundedness, and a sense of belonging. They also call into question our tendency
to see mental health so individualistically. People with deep psychological
troubles are seldom members of a supportive community.
Bioregionalism’s call to tend the land more intelligently raises the
question of how this might be done. It also raises the question of how to
live in a place without retreating into mud huts or caves. In 1978, two men
set about designing a set of techniques for this, some inspired by the land-tending
practices of the aboriginal people of Australia, the oldest surviving indigenous
society on Earth.
Australian ecologist Bill Mollison and his student David Holmgren coined
the word “permaculture” from the terms “permanent agriculture”
and “permanent culture.” Permaculture involves integrating living
spaces and food production into the landscape. This is done by designing human
and nonhuman communities that support each other: the land gives a maximum
yield for human needs, and the inhabitants make use of sustainable land management
techniques that mimic the patterns and operations of natural systems. For
example, a small, well-placed pool of water will attract birds and insects
that eat harmful bugs, making certain plant sprays unnecessary. Heaps of stones
provide habitats for snakes that eat destructive gophers. Multi-use plants,
composting, mulching, trellising, swaling, wind-breaking, and companion planting
work together with energy-saving structures, waste water management, and soil
replenishment methods to keep the human-nonhuman community in balance.
In a typical permaculture plan (“typical” is not really the correct
word because each plan conforms to the needs of particular people and places),
a plot of ground is divided into zones: residence as Zone 0, the space around
it as Zone 1, and so forth. As in the natural world, elements or components
of each zone are arranged to work together. Gray water from the sinks runs
out of the house into an adjacent garden; leaves falling from nearby trees
provide natural mulch and frost cover to an adjacent crop. Zones are concentric
circles for element placement; sectors are pathways by which natural forces
like wind and sunlight flow from outside toward Zone 0. A multiuse windbreak
that softens frosty breezes while providing shade and a home for birds is
an example of imitating nature’s many-dimensional wisdom by arranging
elements in zones to manage sector energies.
Arranging human habitations like this evokes certain ethical principles:
namely, conscious care for people and planet, limits set to population and
consumption, generous redistribution of surpluses. In David Holmgren’s
vision of permaculture, design principles ramify outward into at least seven
dimensions: land and nature stewardship, built environment, tools and technologies,
culture and education, health and spiritual well-being, finance and economics,
and land tenure and community governance, all integrated into carefully planned
arrangements that sustain the natural world while supporting human life. Many
permaculturalists also share the bioregional vision of self-determination—Bill
Mollison, for instance:
We know how to solve every food, clean energy, and sensible shelter problem
in every climate; we have already invented and tested every necessary technique
and technical device, and have access to all the biological material that
we could ever use….The tragic reality is that very few sustainable systems
are designed or applied by those who hold power, and the reason for this
is obvious and simple: to let people arrange their own food, energy, and
shelter is to lose economic and political control over them. We should cease
to look to power structures, hierarchical systems, or governments to help
us, and devise ways to help ourselves.
One of Mollison’s favorite activities is to turn ecologically devastated
sites into permaculturally productive ones, starting with using what’s
at hand to grow new soil. Other permaculture practices:
• Zones are laid out from the center (the dwelling) in terms of how
many daily visits we need to make or do something in each zone: the more visits
it needs, the closer in it should be. Sectors energies coming toward the house
can be shielded, deflected, or collected (ponds, banks, hedges, walls, screens,
• Just as landscape elements are placed to serve two or more functions
(a tree for shade and for erosion control) while managing sector energies
(blocking rough winds), every function (water collection, fire protection,
etc.) is served in two or more ways.
• Water–drainage, collection, availability–is the chief design consideration.
Storage sources can be placed on a slope above the site for gravity feeding
downward. Roofs can collect rainwater in covered drums. Wire fences drip dew
on the plants below.
• Everything is useful and has something to teach. Pests tell something
about soil and plant problems. Frogs are drawn to clean water. Predators manage
• Principle of Stability: it is not the number of diverse things in
a design that leads to stability, but the number of beneficial connections
between these components.
• Edge cropping: the skillful use of area margins, which tend to be
sites of diversity and productivity.
• Mollison’s Prime Directive of Permaculture: “The only ethical
decision is to take responsibility for our own existence and that of our children.
Make it now.”
To the image of self as ecosystem analog permacultural metaphors and methods
bring the dimension of “second nature” human cleverness by virtue
of which we make our surroundings more comfortable for ourselves. Margins
and edges where interesting things happen, as at the borders of conscious
and unconscious; weeds and varmints as the organic equivalents of complexes;
energies and forces channeled intelligently: such metaphors connect us more
imaginatively with the world from which mind springs than the assemblies of
circuits and drives we keep inflicting on ourselves.
Lest the therapeutic impact of permaculture seem obscure, think about how
much less stress you would feel if you knew that should your current means
of support disappear, you would still have the knowledge to provide your own
food, transportation, clothing, energy, and housing. You could live within
the system but without having to rely on it totally.
A permaculture maxim tells us that when we think there are too many pests,
there are actually not enough predators to eat them. Seeing it this way keeps
us from introducing interventions that could unbalance a self-regulating system
even further. A hint for the psychotherapist!
Before going on to the end, a brief recap:
Ecology, environmental and ecological psychology, and conservation psychology
all study the relationship of mind to environment, but remain embedded in
the objectivist-empirical view of how to do science. Deep ecology pushes over
the edge by questioning the paradigm itself, as do social ecology and ecofeminism
in more political terms. Bioregionalism and permaculture offer cultural and
techno-agrarian models, respectively, for rejoining human consciousness to
its places of origin. But does any perspective examine the relationship psychologically,
meaning: with psychological tools and ideas that work closely with actually
Psychologist Robert Greenway had been talking with a group of scholars about
something called “psychoecology” since 1963. While a graduate
student at Brandeis he had worked with psychologist Abraham Maslow and heard
Erik Erikson, Rollo May, Carl Rogers, and Aldous Huxley speak about their
work. With Art Warmouth and other scholars in the “psychoecology”
group, discussion wandered through Jung, Piaget’s developmental psychology,
Karen Horney’s brand of psychoanalysis, theories of the philosopher-educator
John Dewey, Paul Shepard, John Steinbeck’s California, the ego psychologist
Heinz Hartmann, the “I-Thou” of Martin Buber, Paul Goodman, who
had written about community and urban planning, and Gregory Bateson, who was
working on systems theory. (I would include shamanism, but I would then have
to explain how it looks in its cultures of origin, whereas in California,
half of us think banging drums and going to esoteric workshops makes us shamans.
Allan Watts started this unfortunate trend while drinking himself to death
on a houseboat in Sausalito.) By 1968, Greenway had relocated to the Bay Area
and was conducting wilderness excursions with his students at Sonoma State.
In 1990, Mary Gomes, an assistant professor of psychology at Holy Names College
in Oakland, convened a multidisciplinary study group in Berkeley to discuss
what would evolve into the psychological study of our relations with
our surroundings. Greenway was one of the participants, as was psychologist
Allen Kanner and environmental consultant and educator Elan Shapiro. Environmental
science, the deep and transpersonal psychologies, wilderness work, the role
of research: it was all on the table for rebuilding broken inner and outer
Theodore Roszak heard about this group while writing the seminal book The
Voice of the Earth (1992), which explained the need for what was eventually
called ecopsychology, a bridge spanning the psychological and the
ecological, person and place, environment and self, mental health and planetary
integrity. A barrier had finally gone down between the healer’s ear
and a wounded world.
Once upon a time, all psychologies were “ecopsychologies.”
Those who sought to heal the soul took it for granted that human nature
is densely embedded in the world we share with animal, vegetable, mineral,
and all the unseen powers of the cosmos….It is peculiarly the psychiatry
of modern Western society that has split the “inner” life from
the “outer” world—as if what was inside of us was not
also inside the universe, something real, consequential, and inseparable
from our study of the natural world.
To imagine a paradigm of inner healing that could explore the self in its
environmental context meant pushing beyond the boundaries of the narcissistic
introversion with which Freud had spellbound psychotherapy. Ecopsychology
aimed to serve the dual function of criticizing the cultural, social, and
historical arrangements that authorize and support injury to self and world
while taking us to the root of who we are as humans situated in a more-than-human
To this end a new collection of thoughtful papers, edited by Roszak, Gomes,
and Kanner, was published in 1995: Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth,
Healing the Mind. The book contains an impressive array of new ideas,
fertile thoughts, wilderness encounters, sorrowful reflections on the declining
health of the planet, and useful examples for reattaching affective ties to
the natural world.
In the book’s Environmental Foreword, agricultural economist Lester
R. Brown sketched in a goal pursued by the new/old field:
At its most ambitious, ecopsychology seeks to redefine sanity within an
environmental context. It contends that seeking to heal the soul without
reference to the ecological system of which we are an integral part is a
form of self-destructive blindness….In simple terms, we cannot restore
our own health, our sense of well-being, unless we restore the health of
The goal gains substance through practice: conducting rituals of mourning
for vanishing species, incorporating plants, animals, the landscape, and the
body into a counseling session (“ecotherapy”), leading vision
quests, tracking a landscape’s signature through literature, analyzing
nature-based philosophies, unearthing the emotional dynamics behind ecocidal
behavior, pointing out the pathologies and dangers in lifestyles of unchecked
consumption, correlating data on the disproportion of minority communities
exposed to toxic waste.
If you cage a species like ours in a world of artifacts in which it was never
designed to dwell, what happens? A techno-addiction that anesthetizes
the “original wound” of shock and emptiness, observed Chellis
Glendinning, while only making them worse. Greed, cites physicist and activist
Vandana Shiva, coiner of the term “maldevelopment,” from her knowledge
of the shadow of industry in India. Intense psychic isolation, adds activist
writer Jerry Mander, as we forget that by ringing ourselves in surfaces and
circuits, we live shut away inside our own externalized minds. Buddhist and
systems theorist Joanna Macy’s haunting term for this destructive loop of
alienation is environmental despair. To work with it, Macy and philosopher
John Seed designed a Council of All Beings to breach the denial numbing us
to the pain of the natural world. The Council also fosters revisualization
of our rootedness in that world and promotes “thinking like a mountain”
and rituals of reconnection to land, plants, and animals. Mary Gomes directed
an “Altars of Extinction” project at Sonoma State to move beyond
collective denial to mourn the animal and insect life that will never return.
For environmental education professor David Orr, teaching “ecological
literacy” could take another constructive step toward remembering our
place in a world under daily attack by the inadequately restrained capitalism
also attacked by Murray Bookchin.
A particularly urgent task for ecopsychology is to understand and address
the impulsivity, recklessness, denial, and spoiled-child irresponsibility
increasingly obvious in “First” World behavior toward the environment.
In politics it remains disturbingly flagrant. Ecological philosopher Paul
Shepard believed that fully adult humanness depends on consistent contact
with the nonhuman world; he coined the term ontogenetic crippling
for the collective but individually expressed immaturity resulting from the
loss of Earth-based rites of passage used by primal cultures. Cut off from
extended exposure to the natural world that evolved us, raised without villages
of loving caregivers, and uninitiated into full psychological adulthood by
wise elders, the once-natural sense of secure attachment to people and place
gives way to a pervasive mood of emptiness and exile covered over by a macho
exterior, an envious fear of the undomesticated, and an obsession with control.
What were a minority of spoiled paranoiacs back in the Fertile Crescent have
become the majority members of entire cultures too distracted and reckless
to care about long-term impacts on personal and planetary health. For Gomes
and Kanner, this lingering immaturity often surfaces in the angry reactions
directed at concerns about the health of the ecosphere. “When environmentalists
suggest that humans respect the integrity of uninhabitable or unwelcoming
lands, they provoke outrage similar to that expressed by a domineering husband
whose wife decides, without his permission, to spend her Friday nights at,
say, a women’s ritual circle.” Bumper sticker appeals to “Love
Your Mother” (writes Catherine Roach) merely recall the boy too immature
to care about his mother’s needs or see past the childish illusion of her
Another task has to do with addressing the widespread dissociation that enables
the continued destruction of the natural world and the parallel disintegration
of human community. Depth psychologist Laura Mitchell observes that
These dominant mythologies of thinking—an anthropocentric world,
a secularized promised land, unlimited progress, a triumphalist futurity
of complete domination over the natural order and our natural instincts—prevent
us from facing suffering. They require denial, disavowal, repression, and
psychic numbing to keep their belief systems intact. The consequence to
us is the inability to experience the actual suffering these narratives
result in: the suffering of earth, the suffering of place, the suffering
of our human and nonhuman communities, and our own suffering.
I think about the way we are spiraling out of ecological control and the
concomitant disturbance in the way we are entwined in the imaginal fabric
of our home communities, an invisible renting of human-nature bindings.
I feel this rent reverberate in my own body like the sound of a deadening
rush of footsteps going nowhere or an oncoming army, a speeded sense of
urgency in a void. I began wondering how the landscape and habitat of a
home community inform the collective identity, and how this tear in ecological
viability affects us, and what new frameworks of thinking can bring such
events into our ken. As I move along the pathway, the storied existence
of this ridge comes into relief: the sensorial surround of smell, sound,
texture, sight, and rhythm open up the immediacy of the living landscape.
Yet it is my sense of intimacy and ‘attachment’ that makes me
part of, that weaves me into the landscape, particularizing and intensifying
these moments—an attachment that is continually relinquished and returned
back to the other, that cannot be possessed.
By converting discomforts resistant to therapy or medication into conscious
distress (or pockets of immaturity) to be understood and worked through, grounded,
reflective ecopsychologies have demonstrated how “personal” tribulations
and oases of “inner” health reflect those of the world reaching
around and below to within. This hardy, courageous, and often joyful knowing
could pass for a workable definition of wisdom, which perhaps is another word
for human maturity at its unenclosed ripest.
Speaking conceptually, it is important to understand that ecopsychology was
designed from the first as an integrative perspective large enough to include
both qualitative/inner and quantitative/outer forms of inquiry, such as environmental
psychology and ecology surface and deep, for use in the individual, collective,
and environmental spheres. It has not always performed so in practice, but
its sturdy and yet flexible framework-collage rose from serious, continual
reflection on many different disciplines, methods, viewpoints, ideas, and
sources of knowledge both contemporary and ancient. To do ecopsychology and
ecotherapy, one of its healing-directed applications, is to practice
art, lore, craft, ethics, philosophy, and science simultaneously, emphasizing
now one, now another, and often many together.
Nevertheless, a lingering disconnection between the unheard “sound”
or “sense” of place and the human researcher’s responses
to it continued to remain unaddressed. As creative as they often were, ecopsychological
responses to the world’s doings have tended to focus on the human side
of the self-world divide, thereby keeping us from enlisting the world as a
full research partner. Nor has ecopsychology offered a deeper way to understand
the psychic-collective undercurrents of how we came to be at such destructive
odds with the rest of the ecosphere.
We have now reached the last stage of our descent (or ascent, as the case
may be) into self/nature perspectives from the highly literal to the highly
symbolic. For our last perspective to make sense I need to touch briefly on
how symbolism shows up psychologically.
The heavy blend of mythological obscurity and psychoanalytic propaganda laid
over the origins of modern psychotherapy make it difficult to know exactly
who first realized that outer events can carry a high symbolic charge. It
may have been Pierre Janet, who traced the symptoms of “hysteria”
to life traumas and who developed what we now know was a truly dynamic system
of psychology. Or it may have been Andries Hoek and his patient Rika van B.,
who worked together in Holland on the hypnotic catharsis of emotional wounding
as early as 1851. In any case psychoanalytic investigations have amply confirmed
that at deep “primary process” levels of unconscious fantasy,
externals take on a symbolic sheen and become metaphors of relational dynamics.
What the symbols mean has been a matter of hot contention (does a snake represent
a phallus? a rebirth? a prod out of Edenic unconsciousness?); the existence
of the symbolizing function is not. Verification of it lies as near at hand
as a Freudian slip, an impressionistic work of art, a symptom, or a dream
It was the genius of Kurt Lewin to depict such symbolizations as operative
within a person’s life space: that geographical counterpart to philosopher
Edmund Husserl’s ideas about experiential “sedimentation”
in the intersubjective “life-world.” The things and spaces around
and below us form parts of the psychological field. Yet how deeply they reach
into us has remained curiously uninvestigated, no doubt due to our cultural
tendency to see the “inner” world as autonomous. To realize that
features of the “outer” world might operate at times with the
impact of unconscious forces moving in a transferential field might
wound some of our customary narcissism, disturb the sleep of Descartes, puncture
the psychic bubble we live in.
Several years ago I lived in a Southern Californian neighborhood through
which I liked to walk almost daily just before dusk. Upon adjusting my route
I began walking by an old red house standing in a barren field. It was dilapidated;
perhaps the residents had little money. A large black dog barked fiercely
every time I went by until the day the house stood deserted, with some of
its furniture and carpets removed and pushed into a pile nearby. The former
residents must have come back for something, because the next time I went
by I saw a large painting of Sesame Street’s Kermit the Frog propped
in front of the abandoned home. He held his head sadly in his hands. Quite
a final statement from whoever had lived there. It saddened me every time
I saw it.
I passed that place for about a year, so I had ample opportunity to watch
it change. The Kermit figure always triggered in my head the song phrase,
“It’s not easy being green” every time I went by until I
took conscious note of this, at which point the painting disappeared. A tractor
came and knocked down a tree. The house went next, leaving it a pile of rubble
on a concrete foundation. I didn’t realize this yet, but in addition
to possessing their own “beingness,” all these things simultaneously
symbolized a loss of structure, aspiration, and belonging waiting for me just
up ahead in the future. When that future came and went, leaving me feeling
displaced and solitary, the empty field, now cleared of rubble, began to show
signs of green here and there as the forces of ecological succession moved
in bit by bit until a day came when the field was awash in the waving stalks
and leaves of hardy pioneer plants. I realized then that it’s NOT easy
being green, either for an abandoned and desolate field or for a former psychotherapist
slowly moving into a new environmental realm of vocational interest. The last
time I saw the field it was being prepared for a new home. I left town to
move into my own new home.
You can see how I was drawn to a place that loaned outward form to urgent
inner transformations. It was as though what the place went through echoed
back to me what I was going through. This sort of mutuality seems to be much
more frequent than most of us realize. That being so, it would behoove therapists
to ask their clients about what in the immediate environment—at home,
at work, in the therapy office itself—catches their interest. If I were
still doing therapy I would ask clients to bring digital photographs of these
details so we could explore their symbolic meanings. What do the rooms and
regions of a house say? What aspirations, what images, what childhood dreams
and toys remain stuffed away in the attic out of immediate reach? What hides
downstairs, literally and psychically? What lives in the livingroom? What’s
cooking in the kitchen—or burning, or getting stale? What weeds are
busy in the gardens of a life? Where is the pavement too cracked to traverse?
How firm are the foundations?
In terms of how mainstream psychology would see these interactions, the explanation
would be borrowed from Newtonian physics and linear causality, to wit: I projected
my “issues” onto the place in question, where they remained until
I “owned” them—buying them back like second-hand real estate,
one might say. This rather old-fashioned paradigm would not ask whether it
worked the other way around: whether what I experienced symbolized something
for, in, or about the place as well. The closest we could come without losing
the facade of clinical objectivity might be to suggest that certain things
in the world—places, details, objects, and so on—serve not only
as transitional objects (substitutes for the childhood mother), but as selfobjects,
Heinz Kohut’s term for those aspects of people we need all our lives
for our support and mirroring.
Even this begins to seem an insufficient conceptualization as the interactions
grow more complex and the environment more animated. In May of 2003, I woke
feverish and sweating from a nightmare in which towers of flame were roaring
skyward. The blaze looked something like the firestorm following a nuclear
attack. In October another, similar nightmare recurred after a few days spent
in a persistent mood of free-floating dread. One week later flames rose in
San Diego County, and the largest brush fire in recorded California history
was on from the international border to above Santa Barbara. Only when I saw
the towers of fire on television did I make the connection with my two fiery
nightmares. In this case assuming a certain unconscious sensitivity to the
consequences of dry weather made more sense than hypothesizing some sort of
projection onto the landscape.
It goes still deeper, this eerily unacknowledged interconnectedness between
people and places. One of my students found herself caught in a replay straight
out of Sonoma County history, even down to the institution she worked for
being named after one of the historical figures caught up in the original
event. Another student camped out not far from a bombing range in New Mexico
discovered petroglyphs of what looked to him like jets, bombs, and explosions;
locals told him ancient stories of how the Thunderbird likes to fly overhead.
In my dreams places routinely show up as personified figures who tell me things
about themselves. Can causal explanations be found for all this? Perhaps.
That’s what ecology and the environmental psychologies are for. What
interests us more is the level of interactivity, as though aspects of the
surroundings were addressing us continually, especially those we do not wish
to hear. I understand now why all pre-industrial peoples everywhere believed
that the natural world was alive.
Terrapsychology is the name I have given to the study of these deep
symbolic ties between people and places and things, which we trace while keeping
an eye on the literal connections too. Its working premises include these:
• Under certain circumstances, features of the environment behave in
the transferential field like metaphorical aspects of self.
• These aspects in turn reflect happenings in the environment, particularly
recurring themes (“placefield motifs”) endemic to a given locale.
• Seeing this as a field effect is more congruent with experience
than linear explanations that downplay the startling interactivity of inner
• Repressing these connections sets up “returns of the ecohistorically
repressed” in which local ecological wounds and personal ones resonate
jarringly together: apartment complexes and personal complexes, congested
freeways and congested interactions, emotional ups and downs in hilly San
Francisco, suicidal depressions near Monterey Bay and its underwater canyons,
polluted rivers and polluted moods.
• Tending these symbolic resonances consciously turns them into felt
bonds with the locale, its details, its creatures, and ultimately the world.
In practical terms terrapsychology suggests that the logic of self projected
onto world can be reversed to good effect, offering a tool for understanding
the world more deeply via our ecological transference reactions to
it. When I can trace the currents of an unnatural-feeling defensiveness and
guardedness from my San Diegan relationships back to the city, with its centuries-long
history of borders, fences, guards, and outposts, this tells me something
about myself, but it also tells me something about San Diego. What the inner
and outer manifestations of this motif all have in common is, of course, the
defended place itself.
From the terrapsychological perspective, features of the land (and air, and
water) can be reflected upon psychologically insofar as they carry a symbolic/psychic
charge. California’s San Andreas Fault was named after a small lake
named in turn after St. Andrew, who legend says was crucified by being stretched
with ropes. Apparently he had protested the conquest of a woman by her husband.
In conquered California, named after conquered bride-to-be Queen Calafia,
it’s as though the fault line runs not only down the coast, but metaphorically
quakes its path through the peculiar, statewide division of cities and counties
into conservative (east) and liberal (west). The state as a whole is generally
“blue” along the coast and “red” in the Central Valley,
but the division holds even for counties like Marin. This is one of countless
examples of how a geological fact can double as a social and psychological
The cultural ancestry of our perspective is quite long, reaching all the
way back to when human beings took Earth’s animated aliveness as established.
Some form of what anthropologists call “animism” probably preceded
every other variety of religious experience. Many mountains, valleys, and
rivers still bear the names of gods or nature spirits. Terrapsychology’s
more recent forbears include the Greek image of the genius loci or
spirit of place; the Neoplatonic image of the anima mundi or World
Soul; panpsychist philosophy (which assumes psyche to be a dimension of being
or subjectivity found everywhere, not just in people’s heads); German
Romantic and nature philosophy; Goethe’s attempts at a natural phenomenology;
the alchemical theory of matter’s animation and perfectibility; Shinto’s
description of local beings such as kami; Teilard de Chardin’s
“within” of things; and the animistic thinking of Jung in his
Terrapsychology also examines how certain mythological stories and images
seem to favor certain landscapes. La Llorona, the Weeping Woman of Mexican
folklore, often shows up—in art, in dreams, in local repeats of her
tragic tale, in reports of ghostly sightings—in conquered territories,
as though the land itself were weeping imaginally as well as suffering ecologically.
The titanic figure of innovative Prometheus, mythic bringer of fire and creator
of the human form, has long occupied Switzerland, site of the modern CERN
particle laboratory rearranging matter within eyeshot of where Mary Shelley
wrote Frankenstein and her husband composed Prometheus Unbound.
Locally, the Garden of Eden myth has surfaced in the crossroads town of Sebastopol,
with its abundant apples, Eves in sandals and colorful wrap skirts, bearded
Adams, and cherubim sculptures, one of which wears wings and bears a plaque
to announce, “I am the Guardian of the Gate.”
Whatever the ultimate nature of such symbolic connections, stories, histories,
motifs, moods, and memories once held together by their landscapes no longer
enjoy the seamless continuity they did in times gone by. Where bioregionalism
speaks of reinhabitation, deep ecology of identification, and permaculture
of integrated design systems, terrapsychology suggests a deep practice for
people unable or unwilling to stay in one place as well as for those who can
and do: heartsteading, or getting to know a place both outwardly
(its history, terrain, climate, and so on) and inwardly by staying in interpretive
dialog with its “voice” or spirit as manifested in local stories
and folklore, dreams, ecological transference, repeats of past events, and
the like. Heartsteaders dwell among the contours, creatures, and creases of
a place as though among semi-autonomous facets of the personality: geographies
become imaginal without ceasing to be geographies. Terrapsychological Inquiry,
a prototype research method for doing this more systematically, debuts in
my book Terrapsychology: Reengaging the Soul of Place, to be published
this January by Spring Journal Books.
As we have considered various environmental perspectives in relation to how
they touch on human psychology, we have straddled a San Andreas fault line
of our own between inner and outer, person and place, subjective and objective,
quantitative and qualitative. The deeper we go, the more difficult it becomes
to pry these poles of experience apart. As a kind of mental shorthand, I sometimes
think of them as expressions of the Valhallic and Nirvanic tendencies in the
collective psyche, with the first favoring an individualized, technique-driven
approach of the kind that stormed out of the Fertile Crescent and sped around
the globe, and the second emphasizing story, community, and complex inner
development. Neither of these trends has stood still over the past eleven
thousand years, but neither have they been successfully rejoined except here
and there. Perhaps that is the task of our historical period. Certainly it
is our opportunity, and perhaps a necessity for our survival.
This split runs through psychology too, of course, with its psychiatric research
arm counting up numbers, pills, and facts and its psychotherapeutic arm accumulating
the experiential wisdom of who knows how many client-therapist encounters.
Whether the field of psychology will one day work as an integrated field I
could not venture to guess, but my intuition tells me that it cannot until
it confronts the split running below all the others: the arbitrary and increasingly
destructive separation of human consciousness from its ground and source.