WHY ECOLOGY NEEDS PSYCHOLOGY, WHY PSYCHOLOGY NEEDS ECOLOGY
by Theodore Roszak, Director of the Ecopsychology Institute, California State University, Hayward, CA and Editor of Ecopsychology On-Line
We invite you to join us in one of the liveliest dialogues on the cultural landscape.
"We" are a new voice in the discussion of environmental policy and personal sanity. We began as a small group of environmental activists and psychologists in the San Francisco Bay Area and at the Cambridge-based Center for Psychology and Social Change. The subject of our dialogue is the emerging convergence of psychological insight and environmental urgency called (for lack of a better term) "ecopsychology."
Two questions arise at once. Why does the environmental crisis need a psychological dimension? Why does psychology need an environmental context?
The answer to both questions is the same. Understanding.
We are convinced that there is no way to understand environmental issues without asking why they are happening. It is not enough to go from emergency to emergency, issue to issue as the life-sustaining foundations of the planet disintegrate beneath us. At some point we have to go to the core of all the issues, all the emergencies. Asking why people do what they do -- or rather, why people really do what they do -- takes us into the realm of psychology. It requires us to probe the irrational forces that underlie self-deception and verbal evasion. The project becomes all the more urgent when those forces are well rationalized, as they are in the case of our bad environmental habits.
Our society has developed a wealth of brilliant rationalizations for destroying the biospheric fabric on which all life depends. We call what we do "progress," "development," "security," "prosperity," "efficiency," "growth." Above all, we call it "necessary." This repertory of economic shibboleths and political cover-stories has become so utterly "sensible," so densely self-justifying, that it largely passes as axiomatic. Our politics remains beholden to conceptions of progress and rationality that predate any clear assessment of the full environmental consequences of industrialism.
In psychotherapy, it is a rule of thumb: the more successfully rationalized irrationality becomes, the more dangerous the underlying neurosis. It is only by finding the true "why" that underlies all the false "whys," that we can understand our environmental misconduct and change what we do.
Our experience over the past four years leads us to believe there are several publics that will welcome the opportunity to build a national ecopsychological network. We have heard from environmental activists, ecologists, research psychologists, pastoral counselors, physical and biological scientists, students of and spokespeople for indigenous cultures, environmental designers, poets, artists, philosophers, and nature lovers in general. We hope to involve all these groups -- and, for that matter, people in all walks of life who have come to experience the plight of the living planet as an urgent claim upon their deepest loyalties.
We see ecopsychology as an effort to supplement our growing body of environmental science with an examination of the values, behavior, and motivation that guide our conduct. The study faces in two directions. On both sides, the parties have things to teach and things to learn.
On its ecological side, ecopsychology seeks to acquaint the environmental movement with a bigger, subtler, more sensitive psychological approach to the public discussion of politics and economic issues. This means asking searching questions about the sources of human behavior and how behavior can most effectively be changed. It also means listening to the answers people give when we raise questions about motivation -- listening with the sort of patience and respect that therapists bring to their troubled clients.
Why are so many of us such bad environmental citizens -- even when we "know better"? How do we change our wasteful and destructive behavior? Has the environmental movement gone as far it can with scare tactics and guilt trips? Does it risk a serious backlash if it continues to scare, shame, and blame a bewildered public?
We think the answers to questions like these are rooted in powerful, irrational forces; facts and figures alone may not be enough to reach the deep well-springs of our actions. Just as the Earth itself has been covered over by the asphalt and concrete of our culture, our ecological sensibility has been weighed down by irrational habits of consumption and an often uncritical fascination with technological power. It may well be that our industrial economy is not only physically, but also psychologically unsustainable. Some ecopsychologists believe there are elements of addiction and denial embedded in our bad environmental habits. There is also reason to believe that many people are secretly grieving for our endangered fellow creatures, but have found no effective way to express that grief and act upon it. We will be investigating the psychological damage that too often goes unassessed in our society's environmental impact statements.
As for the psychological side of ecopsychology: We believe psychotherapeutic professionals have a special responsibility in our time to shape new criteria of sanity and mental health. Psychologists carry a great deal of influence in our society; people look to them for insights into human nature and for guidance in everything from diapering babies to counseling the dying. If psychology is going to address the major issue of our time -- the environmental crisis that now besets all industrial societies -- it will need to find a far larger context for its theory and practice. The biosphere as a whole will have to be included in the therapeutic project. Therapists know a great deal about the private anguish that divides the psyche and breaks the heart. But they have so far not applied their knowledge and their skill to our dysfunctional environmental relations. They rarely look beyond the personal and social dimensions of the human personality. Ecopsychology seeks to broaden therapeutic work and psychological research into environmentally-relevant areas.
In short, we believe ecology needs psychology, psychology needs ecology.
Finally, we assume that anybody even superficially familiar with environmental issues will recognize the far-reaching political and legal implications that may follow from an environmentally-based definition of mental health. Ecopsychology reaches out to environmental lawyers and policy-makers who are seeking new ways to defend the environment by building a consensus among all people that is based on reason and compassion, love and loyalty.
Theodore Roszak is Professor of History and Director of the Ecopsychology Institute at California State University, Hayward. His most recent books are The Voice of the Earth and the novel The Memoirs of Elizabeth Frankenstein (an ecological parable published in 1995 by Random House and as a Bantam Books paperback in 1996). With Mary Gomes and Allen Kanner, he is the editor of Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind, (Sierra Club Books).
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