Click one of the links below or scroll down the page to see:
- Reciprocity In Human-Earth Wellbeing
- Biophilia Hypothesis
- Sense Of Place
- Wilderness As Home
- Conspicuous Consumption Vs. Sustainable Living
- Phenomenology And Empiricism In Ecopsychology
- Increasing Perceptual Awareness
- The Council Of All Beings
- Practicing Earth-Living Skills
- Adopting An Empirical Approach To Ecopsychology
- Writing on Restorative Enviroments
- Guided Mindful Walk
- Website: International Community For Ecopsychology
- Websites: Ecovillages
- Online Publication: Gatherings
- Website: ReWild University
- Film: Earth Seasoned
- Film: Consumed: Identity and Anxiety in an Age of Plenty
- Film: Biophilic Design
- Film: Coming Home
- Film: Ecopsychology: Restoring The Earth, Healing The Mind
- Film: A Sense Of Place
- Popular Films With Ecopsychological Themes
Suggested Readings for Students
References Cited in this Section
A fundamental ecopsychological premise is that it is psychologically damaging for humans to live disconnected from their ecological context, as most of us do in contemporary urban industrial cultures. Beginning in the early 1990s, ecopsychologists emphasized healing that disconnect through therapeutic techniques that encourage mindfulness, daily ritual, heightened awareness, wilderness experience, the development of a sense of place, and other practices that help people experience their ecological embeddedness, thereby relieving them of the depression, stress, anxiety, longing, and grief that are characteristic of the disconnected state (e.g., Fisher, 2002; Roszak, Gomes, & Kanner, 1995; Schroll, 2003). An academic journal, Ecopsychology was launched in 2010, and the practice of Ecotherapy has seen an impressive growth spurt since the early discussions of ecologically based therapy by Clinebell (1996) and Buzzell and Chalquist (2009) (e.g., Brazier, 2017; Jordan & Hinds, 2016).
Ecopsychology is relevant for sustainability because the reconnecting of humans and nonhuman nature is viewed by ecopsychologists not merely as an end in itself, but as a step toward healing the planet. In the words of Sylvie Shaw and Peter Cock,
The need for reciprocal relationship is intrinsic to ecopsychology, so nature is not some kind of backdrop to human wellbeing. [We must avoid replicating] the anthropocentric stance that corrals nature for human needs. Giving back to nature for the lessons/healing/wellbeing we receive from nature is a vital aspect of ecopsychological practice. (personal communication, 2005)
And, in the words of Chellis Glendinning, author of “My name is Chellis and I’m in recovery from Western civilization” (1994),
From both ends of this dynamic, our dysfunctional practices are calling out to us to awaken to the parallels between the numbing and abuse we express in our individual lives and that of our collective relationship to the life of our planet. But let us be alert as we explore such a perception: in the midst of this mass technological society we inhabit, making declarations about returning to the Earth to address our human pathologies can never succeed so long as they remain mere pleas to step outside and smell the grass. Our declarations must constitute radical acts with far-flung implications for the ways we live and how we perceive ourselves as human beings. (p. xii)
According to evolutionary biologist E. O. Wilson (1984), humans have an innate affinity for nature, which he termed “biophilia.” In various writings on biophilia by Wilson and others (e.g., Kellert, 1997; Kellert & Wilson, 1993), this affinity is described as a love of nature, an attraction to nature, and a feeling of connection to nature. More recently, Arvay (2018) reviewed the healing powers of The Biophilia Effect, ranging from a calming influence to immune system bolstering and disease prevention. Wilson theorized that human’s connection with nature stems directly from our ancestral past, a past in which humans evolved as part of the natural landscape, not separated from it. Many ecopsychologists find the concept of biophilia a useful one in support of the idea that lifestyles disconnected from nonhuman nature are psychologically unfulfilling and even harmful (see above topic, Reciprocity in Human-Earth Wellbeing). Students find the topic of biophilia interesting and a lively discussion likely will ensue when the instructor asks students to generate anecdotal evidence that both supports and refutes the biophilia hypothesis.
Students are also intrigued by the converse concept of “biophobia.” Several common phobias likely stem from our evolutionary past (e.g., fear of spiders, snakes, falling), but could an extreme fear–or distaste– for the natural environment be built-in? Most students will know someone who professes an aversion to nonhuman nature and a preference for the built, technologically-enhanced environment (e.g., Woody Allen supposedly announced “I am at two with Nature” and Jean Paul Sartre claimed he was “allergic to chlorophyll”). Ask students how they interpret these claims. Our students have pointed out that aversion to nonhuman nature is a privileged attitude (i.e., one couldn’t afford to feel this way without the life support afforded by industrial infrastructure), and a self-contradictory one (i.e., even when supported by industrial infrastructure, individuals are still clearly dependent on nature). Students who have had wilderness experience often suggest that a biophobic attitude is borne of ignorance, that biophobic individuals would feel differently if they had a nature-immersion experience. See Mayer and Frantz (2004) for an operationalization of nature-connectedness, partly inspired by the concept of biophilia.
Ecopsychologists suggest that people living a modern urban industrial lifestyle lack a “sense of place.” Environmental psychologists, geographers, urban planners, artists, and others have addressed this concept, but not always in the same way. A sense of place can mean a feeling of inclusion in a community, a feeling of moral obligation to care for a specific tract of land, an identity that is tied to a particular region, or a consciousness of one’s embedded-ness in an ecological context. Among ecopsychologists, sense of place has generally referred to a bond with one’s bioregion that provides an inner sense of belonging and motivates earth-friendly behavior. Several researchers have attempted to clarify and operationally define the “sense of place” construct (e.g., Kyle, Graefe, & Manning, 2005; Stedman, 2002), so as to test the idea that sense of place is a positive predictor of environmental concern and environmentally responsible behavior (Carrus, Bonaiuto, & Bonnes, 2005; Kyle, Graefe, & Manning, 2004; Rogers & Bragg, 2013; Vaske & Kobrin, 2001).
The practice of mindfulness is receiving considerable attention by Western psychotherapists for treating a wide spectrum of psychological distress and disorders (e.g., Germer, Siegel, & Fulton, 2016). “Mindfulness” is a term used to describe an awareness of where one’s mind is in the moment. Meditative mindfulness, which is common in Buddhist tradition, contrasts sharply with the fast-paced, preoccupied state of mind that is rampant among people in Western industrial cultures. Nonmeditative mindfulness is also an atypical, but beneficial cognitive orientation in modern culture (Langer & Moldoveanu, 2000). Ecopsychologists have identified mindfulness as an important part of feeling ecologically connected and behaving in more sustainable ways (e.g., Amel, Manning & Scott, 2009).
John Davis (1998) put it simply, “Mindful awareness is an important foundation for ecopsychology. The transpersonal disciplines have developed an extensive literature on meditation and other awareness practices…Mindfulness in itself develops awareness of nonduality” (p. 2). The topics of mindfulness and mindlessness can be introduced to students within a familiar context by using anecdotes from Ellen Langer’s (1989) book Mindfulness. Students will recognize themselves in Langer’s numerous stories of individuals’ perception and awareness being limited by habitual routines and automaton-like behavior. Instructors can then contrast Langer’s conceptualization of mindfulness with the Eastern philosophical perspective (that is more common in ecopsychological treatments of the topic).
Students can also consider how both nonmeditative and meditative mindfulness may have relevance for sustainability. Ericson, Kjønstad, & Barstad (2014) reviewed the growing literature on the relationships between mindfulness practices, subjective well-being, and sustainable lifestyles. Instructors could lecture on the article, or assign it as a supplemental reading (recommended).
- Being “here and now” enables greater intentional deliberation and evaluation of the consequences of one’s actions, including environmental impact (vs. unconscious, habitual and unsustainable behaviors);
- Mindfulness can help avoid the “hedonic treadmill” of prioritizing materialistic consumption and financial wealth;
- Mindfully clarifying and acting in accordance with core values is intrinsically reinforcing, and can promote sustainable behavior;
- Mindfulness can stimulate empathy and compassion, including for non-human nature.
Ecopsychologists advocate wilderness experience as a means to an ecologically connected end (e.g., Greenway, 1995; Harper, 1995). Much of the research on the psychological effects of wilderness experience has been published in journals on leisure studies, outdoor recreation, and experiential and environmental education, rather than in psychology journals (e.g., Borrie & Roggenbuck, 2001). Within the psychological literature, most research in this area has been conducted by environmental psychologists (e.g.,Kaplan, 1984; Kaplan & Talbot, 1983; Talbot & Kaplan, 1986) or by practitioners focused on clinical populations such as at-risk adolescents (e.g.,Romi & Kohan, 2004; Wilson & Lipsey, 2000). Most of these studies have focused on outcomes related to personal well-being such as stress relief, increased self-efficacy, and social skills (e.g., Angell, 1994) rather than environmental attitudes and behaviors. Although few studies have addressed the question of how wilderness experience may affect environmental concern, ecopsychologists suggest that wilderness experiences can foster at least a temporary heightened sense of ecological awareness and environmental concern. Importantly, the “wilderness experiences” that have been studied vary substantially and the duration of the “wilderness effect” on self-concept, environmental attitudes, and behavior is unclear. In many cases, wilderness experience is confounded with an adventure challenge model so, for example, boosts to self-esteem may stem from the sense of connection with the natural setting, the sense of accomplishment associated with overcoming fears and physical challenges, or both. Wilderness experiences also vary in terms of how mediated they are by modern conveniences. Researchers have not systematically investigated the potential differences between wilderness excursions supported by Gore-Tex® and camp stoves and those that rely on basic survival skills. Theoretically, the more immersed one becomes in a wilderness setting (i.e., the farther the departure from daily existence in the high-tech, modern, urban world), the greater the potential for the dissolution of boundaries between the self and nonhuman nature– but to what extent is the wilderness overly romanticized for individuals who ultimately (in a few days or in a few weeks) will return to their urban lifestyles? A common finding in studies on people’s reactions to wilderness experiences is that they experience culture shock and depressed mood upon their return. More systematic psychological research is needed in this area, not only in terms of basic research on how humans are impacted by wilderness experience, but also for the purpose of application in the realm of environmental policy formation (Mace, Bell, & Loomis, 2004). One type of wilderness experience that students may find especially interesting is the emergency survival situation. Journalist Laurence Gonzales’s (2003) riveting and accessible book Deep survival: Who lives, who dies, and why includes a wealth of psychological content presented in a non-academic manner. For example, Gonzales describes how the fatal mistake of many individuals who perish when they became stranded in the wilderness is not staying put. He attributes the compulsion to keep wandering to a mental set in which the person thinks of him or herself as “lost” versus “here.” According to Gonzales, those individuals who are able to reframe their circumstances and evaluate where they are, instead of focusing on how to get out of where they are, are more successful at recognizing necessary steps for survival and identifying elements in their immediate environment that will assist them in taking those steps. To the extent that we feel alienated from wilderness, we are more likely to feel panicked and lost instead of accepting the wilderness setting as a temporary home and adapting to it accordingly.
Ours is a consumer culture. Psychologists who have studied consumerism and materialism have generally found that a materialistic values orientation is negatively correlated with subjective well-being (Kasser, 2002; Kasser & Kanner, 2003). Individuals who focus on image, status, money, and possessions tend to report lower self esteem, poorer quality relationships, and less life satisfaction overall. One explanation for the negative correlation may be that materialism and consumerism are associated with an individual orientation that is antithetical to collectivist values (e.g., family and religious values; Burroughs & Rindfleisch, 2002). As Kasser (2002) suggests, a materialistic values orientation may motivate individuals to pursue experiences and engage in behaviors that do not fulfill the basic needs associated with happiness: security, competence, relatedness, and autonomy. Students are intrigued to learn about intenational communities that aim to create a social and physical context that facilitates meeting these needs in an ecologically sustainable fashion. For example, the goal of the ecovillage at Ithaca, New York, is to create a “socially harmonious, economically viable and ecologically sustainable settlement that will demonstrate that human beings can live cooperatively with each other and with the natural environment” (Kirby, 2003). A directory of ecovillages all over the world can be found on the Global Ecovillage Network. Many ecovillages are founded on the “permaculture” principles first introduced by Australian ecologist Bill Mollison and his student David Holmgren, authors of several books on the subject (e.g., Holmgren, 2002; Mollison, 1990). In general, the permaculture (meaning “permanent culture”) approach emphasizes care of the earth, care of the people, limits on human consumption and reproduction, connectedness of living systems, and ecologically sustainable building design, food production, and land use. Importantly, ecovillages– whether or not they claim to be following permaculture principles– recognize that sustainable living requires revision to social relationships as well as relationships between humans and nonhuman nature. Click on the links below to see pictures from Britain Scott’s 2005 visit to Earthaven Ecovillage in North Carolina. Students’ ideas about material needs are challenged when they see alternatives to modern conveniences (such as the bike-powered washing machine and the composting outhouse) and alternative housing (such as passive solar design in structures made of biodegradable materials). In these photos, they will also see evidence of the fanciful artistic creativity that is unleashed when people surround themselves with a community of their own invention, rather than a mass-produced one.
Earthaven Art 1
Earthaven Art 2
Earthaven Straw Building 1
Earthaven Straw Building 2
Earthaven Hydroelectric Plant 1
Earthaven Hydroelectric Plant 2
Earthaven Washing Machine
Earthaven Stuff Swap
Ecopsychologists respect experience, and so much ecopsychological practice is experiential. Without entirely rejecting scientific empiricism, ecopsychologists elevate phenomenology as a useful philosophical foundation for thinking about the connection or disconnect between humans and their ecological context. In The Spell of the Sensuous, David Abram (1997) describes Edmund Husserl’s “genius” in realizing that the sciences, in pursuit of “objectivity,” had become estranged from direct human experience. Abram offers the example of how we may know the scientific truth that the earth rotates around the sun, yet we still talk about the sun rising and setting– because this is what we perceptually experience. Phenomenology, according to Abram,
…[turns] toward the world as it is experienced in its felt immediacy…[seeking] not to explain the world, but to describe as closely as possible the way the world makes itself evident to awareness, the way things first arise in our direct, sensorial experience. (p. 35)
Abram goes on to discuss French existential philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s claim that the subjective self isn’t an ethereal something, but is the physical body itself in that without our physicality, we could not sense and perceive, and,
… The breathing, sensing body draws its sustenance and its very substance from the soils, plants, and elements that surround it; it continually contributes itself, in turn, to the air, to the composting earth, to the nourishment of insects and oak trees and squirrels, ceaselessly spreading out of itself as well as breathing the world into itself, so that it is very difficult to discern at any moment precisely where this living body ends and where it begins. (p. 46)
Abram suggests that phenomenology helps those of us with a scientific Western mindset better understand the experienced worlds of our ancestors and indigenous cultures today who live a more earth-connected existence. In Radical Ecopsychology, Andy Fisher (2002) also invoked Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology as a philosophical source for ecopsychology,
We have access to nature, said Merleau-Ponty, through that ‘vital relation’ we have ‘with a privileged part of nature: namely, our body.’ Our divorce from nature, whatever else it may involve, has surely been a progressive cutting off of this vital relation. Any hermeneutical effort to overcome our alienation must therefore also be a retrieval of our embodiment. (p. 58-59)
Students in a traditional psychology class may have some difficulty wrapping their minds around phenomenology, but the instructor can assure them that it is not a flat rejection of scientific positivism, but is, instead, a perspective that posits a different relationship between objectivity and subjectivity than the one to which they have grown accustomed. Students will have been trained to think of subjectivity as a layer of distortion over objective reality. Phenomenologists argue that because sensation and perception are humans’ only access to whatever reality is “out there,” subjectivity is primary and objectivity is a state we strive for within our subjectivity. Ask students to consider what the elevation of subjectivity does for understanding people’s gut feelings that life in contemporary urban industrial contexts is out of balance with nature.
In her book Sight and Sensibility: The Ecopsychology of Perception, Laura Sewall (1999) argued that,
…because we have turned our focus of attention toward material things, toward static objects and unrelated possessions, the world of relations has slipped from our view. As a consequence, we do not truly see either where we literally are or the truth of “where we’re at”…Cultivating our perceptual capacity is fundamentally related to both the quality of our personal lives and restoring the quality of life on the planet.
After reading Laura Sewell’s (1995; 1999) work on visual perception, we practice meditative awareness in a wilderness setting for several hours. Then we come back to the classroom and discuss how awareness shifts our thinking about environmental problems, and whether the claim that solutions to environmental problems requires this shift is viable. (contributed by Deborah DuNann Winter).
In addition to meditative awareness, instructors can borrow other perceptual awareness exercises from expert trackers who approach the problem of perceptual blindness from a less academic perspective. Tracker Paul Rezendes (1999) expressed a sentiment similar to Sewell’s in his book The Wild Within,
Thoreau called us sleepwalkers. Have you ever found yourself walking along a path in the woods and then suddenly realizing that the whole forest around you has changed? You start out among conifers but now you find yourself surrounded by deciduous trees. Or you realize that the birds are active and noisy, and you don’t know when the change took place. You have awakened. You let the smell of a fern leaf wash through you. You realize why you were asleep. You were talking to yourself, caught up in a familiar endless dialogue…”I have never met a man who was truly awake,” Thoreau said nearly 150 years ago…How much more applicable is this comment to people today. How much farther have we strayed from the wild within.
Fun and enlightening awareness activities described by tracker Tom Brown, Jr. (1988) include the following:
- SPLATTER VISION
Stand staring straight ahead and stretch your arms out to the sides at shoulder level. Wiggle your fingers. While staring straight ahead, notice the movement of your fingers in your peripheral vision. Work to maintain this simultaneous central and peripheral vision. Notice how much wider your perceptual field becomes, how any movement within this wider visual field is now in your awareness. Practice shifting focus from the center to the periphery as you walk through a natural setting (e.g., a wooded area).
- SMALL WORLD
Using sticks or string, demarcate an area of ground about a foot square. First stare at it from a standing position, noting every detail you perceive. Then move to a kneeling position and notice new things that you perceive. Finally, lie on your belly and imagine yourself as an explorer about 2 inches tall. Students will see a Lilliputian jungle with animal signs (e.g., insect-chewed blades of grass, tracks of mice) and a buzz of activity. This experience should last a minimum of 15 minutes.
- FOCUSED HEARING
Close your eyes and focus on what you can hear without distraction of visual input. Try to identify the location of individual sounds in the background. Notice the variety, texture, and complexity of sounds. Then, cup your hands around your ears and use them to localize sounds (just as animals with large ears alter the shape and direction of their ears to locate sounds). Try cupping both hands around one ear and using your hands to focus the sounds. Next, move around in your environment and use solid objects as sound conductors (e.g., when you pass a big tree, put your head down next to it and notice what you can hear).
- BLINDFOLD WALK
For this exercise, the instructor must create an intricate string path through a natural area (densely wooded areas are good), winding the string around trees and rocks, crossing it back over itself. Some portions of the string path should be at waist level, others higher or lower. Students should be blindfolded (and preferably barefoot) as they are started on the path with about 45 seconds between each person. Students use one hand to lightly follow the string. The goal of the activity is not to complete the path quickly, but to experience as much as possible along the way. Students will report novel sensory experiences (e.g., that they could “feel” trees before they reached them, or that they found themselves orienting according to the warmth and light of the sun). Note: Students will walk so gingerly and deliberately that injury is highly unlikely. This activity may be adjusted to accomodate students with mobility limitations– the main point is to restrict visual input so the person must rely on other senses.
Other recommended activities include the following:
- HUMAN CAMERA
This exercise is done in pairs. One student is the camera and the other is the photographer. The camera closes his or her eyes and is led around by the photographer. Every so often, the photographer should stop, point the camera at a scene, and then open the shutter (the camera’s eyes) by tapping the camera on the shoulder. The photographer should keep the shutter open only briefly (a few seconds) and then tap again to close it. The camera should try to take in as much detail of the visual scene as possible in those few seconds. The photographer should take 5 or 6 photographs and then ask the camera to verbally describe what was in the pictures– keeping the eyes closed the whole time. After the camera has recalled as much detail as possible, the photographer should lead the camera back to each spot and let the camera take a longer look. What does the camera notice/realize about his or her perceptual capacity?
- DRUM STALK
This activity is similar to Tom Brown’s Blindfold Walk, but instead of navigating with to a string path, students will find their way (blindfolded and barefoot) through a natural area toward a regular repetitive stationary sound (e.g., a drumbeat every 10 seconds). Students will experience similar novel sensations as they do during the string walk. With both activities, students should remove their blindfolds at the end and look at what they walked through. (When Britain Scott did this in a dense woods with her class, one student looked at where she had walked and exclaimed, “I wouldn’t even have walked through that with my shoes on!” She kept her shoes off– and stayed off the path– for the entire walk back to the classroom building.)
- SCENT TRAIL TRACKING/ONION HIKE
This activity is a favorite with Girl Scout camp counselors. Ahead of time, the instructor takes a cut raw onion and rubs it across surfaces (e.g., tree bark, rocks) along a predetermined path. Students must figure out the path by following their noses. The point of this activity is to make students more aware of their sense of smell. Encourage students to try smelling with a single inhalation vs. with a serious of short sniffs (like other animals do); they will find that sniffing is more effective than the single inhalation. In the process of trying to find the onion scent markings, students will be sniffing tree bark, rocks, etc. As they become aware of a variety of scents that they otherwise would not have noticed, the world around them will likely become more perceptually vivid.
It is important to have students reflect upon their experiences and, as Deborah Winter suggests, consider how elevated awareness might contribute to heightened ecological consciousness and more sustainable behavioral choices. Short papers or journal entries are a good format for these reflections. Students should connect their subjective experience of the activities to course readings and topics.
The Council of All Beings was designed by John Seed and Joanna Macy in the 1980’s as a “ re-earthing” workshop to help participants experience their connection to the natural world— emotionally and spiritually, instead of just intellectually. The two-day workshop, inspired by deep ecology philosophy, consists of a series of exercises and rituals that help participants recognize and reveal their grief about the environmental crisis, and feel an interconnectedness to, and empathy for, other people and nonhuman nature. The centerpiece of the workshop involves participants identifying a non-human “ally” in nature, making a mask that represents that ally, and wearing the mask when they attend the Council as that ally. Although this activity may seem more mystical and spiritual than rational and academic, it is an effective and challenging experiential exercise. One of the times that Britain Scott used this with her class, a student in the group was a novice in natural settings. The student had just been on her first camping trip in the Minnesota northwoods and had developed a strong aversion to ticks. It came as a poignant surprise, therefore, when she showed up at the Council as Tick. After they have participated, ask students to think about whether rituals like the Council of All Beings have therapeutic value. See Seed, Macy, Fleming, & Naess (1988) for a description of, and rationale for, the Council of All Beings. A Council facilitator’s guide can be found John Seed’s website at The Rainforest Information Centre.
Our contemporary lives have become so removed from hand-to-mouth survival that we sometimes delude ourselves into thinking our items of survival come from the store, rather than from nature. We think of ourselves as being somehow separate from nature. We think we can draw lines on the map and separate “wilderness” from “non-wilderness,” but really there is only one wilderness and one ecosystem and we are part of it….We are participants in the ecosystem and therefore we have no choice but to take from it, and we will inevitably alter it, but we must also maintain it….[Primitive living] reminds us that no matter what technologies we have, we are still an integral component of the ecosystem. Thomas J. Elpel (2004, p. 4-5)
One hands-on method for decreasing the distance between people and nonhuman nature is the practice of skills variously labeled “aboriginal,” “indigenous,” “ancestral,” “primitive,” and “stone-age.” Regardless of how they are labeled, these earth-living skills all involve meeting basic human needs without the assistance of modern technology. (Sometimes the line between old ways and “modern” ones is blurry. For example, does firemaking with flint and steel fit into the former category or the latter? It is certainly a more basic technique than using matches, but it is less basic than using a bow drill fashioned from local materials.) There are ample resources available for the instructor who would like to provide students with the opportunity to gain hands-on experience with the skills that are in all of our ancestral pasts and in many indigenous communities’ present. Web searches using the labels above will lead instructors to a plethora of organizations, books, and videos devoted to educating people about skills such as brain-tanning animal hides, gathering wild edibles, knapping rock, basket weaving, pit-firing clay, making plant fiber cordage, animal tracking and trapping. To get started, see the website for the Society for Primitive Technology. After students have successfully accomplished something basic, such as starting a fire without the aid of matches, ask them to reflect on the following questions:
- (How) does learning earth-living skills alter your feelings about yourself?
- (How) does learning earth-living skills alter your feelings about wilderness?
- (How) does learning earth-living skills alter your feelings about your needs and your lifestyle?
- Do you think that if more people living in contemporary urban environments had the opportunity to practice these skills that they would feel more connected to nonhuman nature?
Several of the earliest voices in ecopsychology were not psychologists (e.g., Rozsak, 1992; Shepard, 1982) and to the extent that their writing draws from psychology, it tends to focus on transpersonal psychology, humanistic psychology, and psychoanalytic concepts (e.g., Jung’s collective unconscious is the inspiration for Rozsak’s ecological unconscious). Much ecopsychological writing does not sound like psychology-the-science as we currently know it, because it is not empirically grounded. The general consensus among these early voices is that ecopsychology should not be a subdicipline alongside the traditional subdisciplines, but should be a reframing of psychology in general, taking into account humans’ ecological embeddedness (Metzner, 1999). Since the early 2000’s, many ecopsychological concepts are being incorporated into the empirical literature. Assign students to write a paper, for example:
For this 6-8 page paper, you will select a theoretical ecopsychology concept, describe your understanding of it, describe specifically how you would operationally define it, and explain how you would employ this operational definition to empirically test its hypothesized role in psychological well-being and its impact on environmental behavior. Address the limits you see in your operational definition, if any (e.g., consider aspects of human diversity such as culture, age, socioeconomic status, educational level, and gender). Then, go to the literature and find one or two empirical articles addressing the concept. Did the researchers operationalize it similarly? What did they find? Finally, comment on your reaction to the empirical approach to ecopsychology: do you think it is worthwhile, or not? necessary, or not? practical, or not? Support your opinions.
In a reaction paper or course journal, ask students to identify the features of environments or places that they personally find “restorative.” (Alternatively, the class could go on a guided nature walk). Encourage them to reflect on the involvement of all of their senses – what does a restorative scene look like? What are the sounds and scents? If they opened their mouths, what would they taste? What are their bodily sensations (is it warm or cold; do they feel raindrops or snowflakes on their cheeks; what does the ground feel like beneath their (bare) feet)?
Once they have described a clear and multi-sensory experience, ask them to delve into the empirical literature on restorative environments. Instructors could assign a classic article (e.g., Kaplan, 1995; Ulrich, 1993) or a more recent research study (e.g., Carrus, et al., 2014; Lee, et al., 2014).
This activity could be done in a “natural setting” or if that’s not practical, anywhere on campus or even inside a building. It encourages being mindfully present while walking (adapted from Goldstein, 2014).
Appreciate. Take a moment to feel grateful for your body. It is a gift to be able to walk or otherwise move around in your environment. Recall that it took at least a year to learn to walk. Your legs and feet are “often the unsung heroes that take you to and fro, day in and day out. Thank your legs [and the rest of your body parts] for their efforts.”
Reflect on the various “ways we’re inherently interwoven with the living things around us – even when we’re glued to our computer screens. ‘Every time we breathe in, we’re breathing in other organisms… Our bodies are communities of bacteria’ (Knox (2014), quoting Haskell, The Forest Unseen).
Ground. “Bring your attention to the sensations of your feet and legs as your heel touches the ground, then the base of the foot, then the toes, and then they lift. You can repeat to yourself, ‘heel, foot, toes, lift’ to connect to the action of walking in the moment.”
Come to your senses. “Walk slightly slower and begin to open your awareness to all of your senses, one by one. See what is around you, listen to the sounds, taste the air or whatever is in your mouth, feel the warmth, coolness, or breeze on your cheeks, smell the air. Then pause for a moment and try to take in the information from all of your senses at once.” Try noticing how attuned other animals are to their environment – how the squirrel freezes when she hears you approach, twitching her ears and nose; how the small bird hops or flies away when the hawk draws near. Appreciate the evolutionary based “alarm systems” present in all animals, including us.
Say a calming phrase. Recite a phrase that accompanies the rhythm of your gait. For instance, “Breathe in, breathe out…” or “Loving kindness…” or “Be here, now…” or another phrase that is meaningful to you.
Encourage students to practice this exercise anytime that they’re walking (between classes, running errands, hiking, etc.). When they notice that they’re rushing or not “present” with the experience, they could just notice that and say to themselves, “rushing, rushing, rushing” and shift back to the calming phrase they identified.
Invite students to identify a quiet, restorative location on campus that they can commit to visiting for at least 20 minutes, 3 times per week or more, ideally over the course of the entire semester. They should record observations in their course journal, including changes in environmental conditions (e.g., weather, changing/falling leaves, student/faculty behaviors and facial expressions), as well as any personal thoughts, feelings, reflections that are inspired by their spot.
For a rich collection of links to ecopsychologists, ecopsychological academic programs, and other ecopsychology resources, visit www.ecopsychology.org.
Three very good ecovillage websites are available at the following sites:
- Earthaven Ecovillage (North Carolina)
- Ecovillage at Ithaca (New York)
- The Findhorn Ecovillage (Scotland)
Information about ecovillages all over the world can be found on the Global Ecovillage Network.
“Based near Cable, Wisconsin, USA, ReWild University is the home of the ‘Forest Monk’ programs — intensive training in ancestral skills, mental/emotional strength, primal fitness, tracking, and much more.”
Touching, inspiring, and sobering, Earth Seasoned beautifully illuminates what happens to our sense of self, our connection to non-human nature, and our relationship to other humans when we slow down, unplug, and use our brains and bodies in the ways we are built to do. Viewers witness how spending a “gap year” living semi-primitively in the Oregon Cascade Mountains transforms Tori from an academically struggling social outcast to a competent, self-assured, insightful, and peaceful human. The skills and wisdom shared by Tori, her peers, and her instructors hold lessons for all of us whose well-being and priorities are compromised by frenzied, technology-laden, materialistic lifestyles.
This documentary, available online and in DVD format, takes a close look at the effect of consumerism on our health and on the planet. Experts in marketing, psychology, and sustainable design give insight into the many problems of Western society’s obsession with material goods, and suggest several changes society can make to help ourselves and to benefit the environment.
Biophilic Design describes this recent trend in green architecture to incorporate “the architecture of life — buildings that connect people and nature.”
In this film from the Sacred Balance series, David Suzuki spends time with the Inuit on Baffin Island on their spring hunt. His adventure serves as the backdrop for a dicussion of biophilia. E.O. Wilson, Sarah Conn, and Wade Davis appear in the film.
This VHS film features Theodore Rozsak, Sarah Conn, and Carl Anthony. It provides a nice overview and introduction to ecopsychology for students. Although this film is difficult to locate for purchase, it is available through WorldCat from more than forty college and university libraries in the U.S.
This half-hour VHS film was created by bioregionalist Kirkpatrick Sale and others. Narrated by Susan Sarandon, it asks questions about the connection between humans and the natural world. It is available from the Foundation for Global Community.
Several films highlight the psychological and ecological contrast between humans living connected vs. disconnected from nonhuman nature. Some examples include the following:
Grizzly Man (2005)
This documentary by Werner Herzog profiles Timothy Treadwell, an aspiring actor with an alcohol problem who found relief from the stresses of contemporary life during thirteen summers spent living among grizzlies in Alaska. This film is fascinating in that Treadwell is far more integrated into a wild setting than most Americans ever could be, while at the same time, he seems completely disconnected from the setting. Most of the film consists of Treadwell’s own footage of himself and the bears in which he narrates and talks to them in a voice reminiscent of a children’s t.v. show host, “Hello, Mr. Chocolate Bear. How are you today?…” Treadwell expresses deep concern about the bears’ well-being at the same time that he seems not to understand the ecological systems and food chain around him. Treadwell met his end when he and his woman traveling companion were consumed by a grizzly. The film is thought-provoking and challenges a romanticized view of “getting back to nature.”
The Snow Walker (2003)
Directed by Charles Martin Smith (who starred in Never Cry Wolf), and based on a short story by Farley Mowat, The Snow Walker is about a pilot stranded in the Canadian arctic whose survival is assisted by an Inuit woman with indigenous knowledge of the natural environment. Some of the most powerful scenes involve his reluctance– and even inability– to abandon nonfunctioning modern technology in favor of ecologically-embedded solutions.
Koyaanisqatsi- Life Out of Balance (1983) and Baraka (1992)
These nonverbal films are very similar in some respects. They consist of stunning visual images of nonhuman nature, the intersection between humans and nature, and human civilization devoid of nonhuman nature. Time lapse photography, camera position and movement, and atmospheric music are used to wonderful effect. Unlike Koyaanisqatsi, Baraka has an international scope and is shot in 70mm film, which makes it more of a sweeping treatment of their common themes. Koyaanisqatsi focuses more on the impact of technology on humans and nonhuman nature while Baraka also addresses topics such as spirituality and genocide. These are profound films that defy description in words and will inspire ecopsychological thinking in students.
The Last of His Tribe (1992)
This film is based on the true story of Ishi, the sole surviving member of a group of Yahi Indians living in northern California, and reputed to be the last “wild” Native American to make contact with the modern world. In 1911, Ishi wandered out of the hills and into the lives of Alfred Kroeber and Thomas Waterman, anthropologists at the University of California. For four and half years, Ishi educated the anthropologists about his culture while they studied him at the Hearst Museum of Anthropology. Today’s aboriginal skills enthusiasts credit Ishi with opening the door to our stone age past. The film stars Graham Greene as Ishi and Jon Voigt as Kroeber. (For more information on Ishi, see the Hearst Museum’s Ishi page.
Never Cry Wolf (1983)
Based on an autobiographical account from Farley Mowat, this film portrays a biologist sent by the government to the Canadian Arctic to document the killing of caribou by wolves. The beginning of the film vividly and humorously highlights the disconnect between the industrial world and wilderness (e.g., via the stark mismatch between the government-issued supplies and the biologist’s survival needs). As the film progresses, the biologist develops a profound understanding and appreciation for the wolves, while at the same time facing the harsh reality that some Inuit people in the region hunt the wolves for their lucrative pelts so as to acquire money for modern conveniences (e.g., dentures, cameras). One particularly powerful scene involves the biologist roused from his sleepy sunbathing by a herd of caribou; as the caribou thunderously stampede around him, pursued by wolves, he runs among them wearing nothing but his hiking boots.
Dersu Uzula (1977)
This film was directed by Akira Kurosawa and won the 1976 Academy Award for “Best Foreign Language Film.” Based on the memoir of a Russian explorer, the story takes place in Siberia in the first years of the twentieth century. A Russian officer leading a mapping expedition meets a woodsman (Dersu Uzala) who lives an ecologically imbedded existence, displays amazing tracking and survival skills, and possesses deep empathy and respect for other people and nonhuman animals. When the Russian officer ultimately brings Dersu to the city, Dersu suffers and fades–physically and emotionally– without his natural life-support.
This visually beautiful film tells the story of two British children, abandoned in the Australian outback by a suicidal father. The children’s survival is unlikely until they meet a young Aboriginal man on a walkabout, a period of wandering away from the tribe that ritualizes the transition into manhood. With his assistance, the children adapt to the environment. Ultimately, the Aboriginal man is unable to join “civilized” society and the girl from the pair of children grows into a woman who spends the rest of her life in Sydney longing for the life she knew in the wild outback.
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