Ecopsychology: The Study of Your Relationship to the Natural World
Forest EcoPsychologyPhoto Credit: Moyan Brenn

What is the ecological health of planet Earth? Does the world need to be saved from ecological destruction, and if so, can humankind save it? Are people a part of nature, or separate from it? How does psychological insight impact our relationship with the natural world?  How does nature impact our psychological health?

These questions are dynamic, debated, and without quick answers. Fortunately, there is a relatively new and much-needed branch of psychology that can help us think about and better understand our interactive role with the natural world: Ecopsychology.

Ecopsychology is what it sounds like: a hybridization between the field of psychology (the study of human behavior and the soul) and that of ecology (the relationship of organisms to one another and to their physical surroundings1). Ecopsychology is different from other psychological theories because it takes the individual’s natural environment into consideration, recognizing that people live in relation to the Earth, not separate from it.

Leslie Gray, who is both an ecopsychologist as well as a psychotherapist, captures the new field’s beautifully pragmatic approach with her words:

“Ecopsychology is an emerging field that recognizes that you cannot have sanity without sane relationships with your environment.”2

The Earth and humanity are inextricably entwined in relationship, and when the Earth suffers, animals who rely on the Earth (including humans) also suffer. Unfortunately, it’s easy to forget that we humans are part of the natural world, but one example of the million-plus types of flora and fauna found on Earth.  Many scholars, including the distinguished E.O. Wilson, believe that we’re biologically wired to connect with nature.  No wonder that so many of us suffer both physically and emotionally when disconnected from the natural environment, spending far too much time indoors, often choosing to interact with the digital world rather than directly with other life forms.  While we do need to embrace the realities of our modern world, this type of imbalance can lead to many problems, manifesting in what author Richard Louv describes as “Nature Deficit Disorder.”

In addition to not spending ample time in nature, we now have the serious concern of not having a “nature” with which to connect!

While all organisms modify their environment to some degree, humans are the single most impactful animal species and continue to consume great amounts of the Earth’s resources, destroying natural habitats, creating pollution in every medium of the biosphere (soil, air, and water), and changing the very composition of the atmosphere. For many of us, it’s difficult to accept that human activity is affecting the entire Earth’s ecosystems and biogeochemical cycles4, as this induces fear and guilt.

Our Earth faces a number of ecological challenges related to the population explosion, loss of biodiversity, pollution, and climate change. Looking just at climate change, the planet has warmed 0.8 degrees Celsius since 1880, and 2/3 of this warming has occurred since 1975.5 This may not sound like much at first, but when compared with the past several hundred years, the spike in average global atmospheric temperature is perhaps the single most dramatic scientific illustration that we are living in an era of anthropogenic (human-caused) global change.6

With these examples, I don’t intend to create unnecessary fear or guilt (for example, eco-guilt7). Unless you consciously choose to harm the environment, should you feel guilty in the first place? I find that guilt is not a healthy motivator, as it is difficult to make even one positive change when sidelined by guilt. I believe it is healthy, though, to acknowledge that our collective impact makes a difference, and that each of us share a common responsibility for stewardship of the ecosystems that surround us, and hence, the Earth.

Humankind’s psychology and behavior continues to hugely impact Earth’s ecological systems. As a broad example, greed and lack of planning for the future is destructive to our planet and our forthcoming generations. You’ve heard of animals that were once plentiful and then were hunted to extinction. We should remember these lessons, as they are important reminders of how human behavior has played out. More specifically, the consumer culture created by industrialization and fueled by insatiable appetites for material goods (at least in Westernized cultures8) creates a ravenous need for Earth’s resources (e.g. heavy metal mining is inherently destructive and polluting). The hope is that we can all increase our awareness to avoid participating in unnecessary exploitation of the Earth, by making ecologically-sensitive choices as a person and a consumer. It may not be easy to change these habits, but even very small changes can collectively make a difference.

A tenet of ecopsychology is that we came from the land originally and will never be separate from it. Yet, our modern industrialized lives are fragmented into disparate groups and communities that are pretty disconnected from our sources of food and resources. An example of fragmentation is living in one city and going by car to another city to work, never creating a deep or personal relationship with either place. An example of disconnection is taking the kids for a car ride and plugging in their favorite movie rather than allowing them to learn about the natural geography right out the window. I don’t intend to blame or shame, my intention is merely to point out the unforeseen effects of industrialization and modern living. Although few un-industrialized societies remain, an advantage of living close to the land is that you are constantly experiencing a connection to the land and the life it gives. Food is not experienced as arriving on store shelves: it must be hunted, grown, or gathered. Similarly, water does not just appear at the faucet, it must be sourced from streams, plants, or in other ways. Although fragmented industrialized life can make it difficult to do so, my dream is that if people build a relationship with the land from which they come, they will be more likely to want to care for it.

Ideas for Positive Change

If you feel at all inspired to cultivate a healthier relationship to our planet, here are some ideas for positive change you may find helpful.  In addition to being good for the planet, any positive change is also good for your own, personal health.

1) Connect: Create connection to the people and land around you. Make an effort to meet a new neighbor. Get to know the cashier’s name at the local corner store. Thank the garbage man for taking away your trash. Educate yourself on where your water comes from and where your sewage goes.

2) Go Outside: If you have the luxury to do so, get into nature deep enough to experience tranquility. Perhaps you already have some favorite places to walk, hike, fish, run, or bike. Being deep in the outdoors is not a panacea, but can be quite awe-inspiring and therapeutic for most people.

3) Self-Care: Don’t intentionally harm or neglect your own body and health, as you too are a part of nature deserving of care. Seek help from family, friends, and healthcare practitioners if you don’t know how to stop hurting yourself.

4) Small, Green Changes: If you desire to help future generations (and/or lessen your eco-guilt), consider incorporating at least one new eco-friendly practice into your life. For example, take public transportation when you would normally drive. Turn off the shower while shaving to save water. Put on a sweater before turning up your thermostat to conserve money and fuel. Buy used items instead of new ones. Write a letter to your representative to fight ecologically disastrous projects.

It’s up to all of us to care for the Earth. We only have one planet to live on, so let’s consider our current and future generations by working together to make our relationship to Earth one that is healthy and sustainable.

Further Reading about Eco-Psychology:

The nature of sanity by Theodore Roszak

A sustainable future for humanity? How can psychology help?

How will global warming change Earth?, By NASA

What you can do to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, By the Environmental Protection Agency

An alternative to economics in measuring a country’s health, the Happy Planet Index

Nature Deficit Disorder

Want insight fast? Do nothing for two minutes

References

1 Dictionary, version 2.2.3. (as found on Apple MacBook Pro)

2 Roszak, T. et al. (1995) Ecopsychology: Restoring the earth, healing the mind.San Francisco: The Sierra Club.

3 Environmental Protection Agency. Retrieved from http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/images/science/GHGConc2000-large.jpg

4 Vitousek, P. M. et al. (July 1997) Human domination of Earth’s ecosystems. Retrieved from http://webspace.pugetsound.edu/facultypages/kburnett/readings/vitousek.pdf

5 Carlowicz, M. Global temperatures. Retrieved from http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/WorldOfChange/decadaltemp.php

6 Nasa Earth Observatory. Is current warming natural? Retrieved from http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/GlobalWarming/page4.php

7 “Picabomama” (screen name). (2008) Retrieved from http://www.verbotomy.com/verbottle.php?jargonism_id=13097

8 Menzel, P. & Mann, C.C. (1995) Material World: A global family portrait. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books Publication.

About this Contributor: Clark Rector, M.A., studied wildlife biology and psychology at the University of Montana, Missoula, before moving home to California where he received a B.A. in psychology from Sonoma State University. At Sonoma State he volunteered for the Outdoor Pursuits program as a trip leader. Sonoma State also offered the opportunity to learn about the mind-body connection in the biofeedback lab as a participant and technician. Clark has worked in various outdoor education, teambuilding, and summer camp venues in Northern and Southern California. He has also volunteered for Project Healing Waters, where he taught wounded veterans various skills in fly fishing at the Long Beach VA. He currently attends the Wright Institute in Berkeley, CA in pursuit of a clinical doctorate degree in psychology (PsyD). His future interests include play therapy and nature-based psychological treatments..


  1. I definitely agree that the natural world has a huge effect on our well-being… whenever I spend time in nature (whether it’s a quick trip to the park or a longer vacation), I definitely feel more relaxed. I really like your approach of encouraging people to connect to the environment more, since it makes it easier for us to remember why we’re engaging in green behaviors in the first place. I think that one of the reasons people don’t engage in green behaviors more often is because climate change can be such a large/abstract issue, so I feel like spending time to reflect on nature can help to make the issue more tangible.

  2. Yes, I agree Elizabeth – ecology is a large and abstract issue – that is my best guess at ecopsychology and ecological stewardship is still catching on (more slowly than the ecological state of the planet might suggest). Here’s an interview with Norweigan psychologist Per Espen Stoknes, who that takes a closer look at that:
    http://e360.yale.edu/feature/how_can_we_make_people_care_about_climate_change/2892/

    Also – another link I’d like to share – it was amazing to see all the rich information about ecology and our human impact on the planet in Pope Francis’ most recent encyclical:
    http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si.html

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