A SUSTAINABLE PSYCHE -
A PSYCHOTHERAPIST INTRODUCES ECOPSYCHOLOGY

Keynote speech for Community Psychology/Race and Culture Group Annual Conference June 2001

(Start by inviting people just to take a moments silence, relax a bit, settle into chairs, become aware of where they are on the surface of the earth, and what beings, human and otherwise, they are amidst. The urban environment, people, sky, sun/rain cloud, trees, birds, the rock/earth beneath us; smells, fresh air, pollution.)

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I should like to start with a story from Okinagan writer Jeanette Armstrong (which you will find in the book of essays ‘Ecopsychology; Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind’). She writes;

‘As a child of ten I once sat on a hillside on the reservation with my father and his mother as they looked down into the town in the valley floor. It was blackcap berry season and the sun was very warm, but there in the high country a cool breeze moved through the overshading pines. Bluebirds and canaries darted and chirped in nearby bushes while a meadowlark sang for rain from the hillside above. Sage and wild roses sent their messages out to the humming bees and pale yellow butterflies.
Down in the valley the heatwaves danced, and dry dust rose in clouds from the dirt roads near the town. Shafts of searing glitter reflected off hundreds of windows, while smoke and greyish haze hung over the town itself. The angry sounds of cars honking in a slow crawl along the shimmering black highway and the grind of large machinery from the sawmill next to the town rose in a steady buzzing overtone to the quiet of our hillside.
My grandmother said (translated from Okinagan)’The people down there are dangerous, they are all insane’. My father agreed, commenting ‘It is because they are wild and scatter anywhere’
I remember looking down into the town and being afraid.’

She tells us that she would hear the words ‘insane’ and ‘wild’ many times to describe the ‘deeds of the newcomers that make no sense to us’.

She goes on ‘I have always felt that my Okanagan view is perhaps closer in experience to that of an eyewitness and refugee surrounded by holocaust... As a native American I have felt that struggle as an utterly pervasive phenomenon. My conflict has been to unremittingly resist its entrapment, while knowing that it affects every breath I draw. Through the lens of that perspective, I view the disorder that is displayed in our city streets, felt in our communities, endured in our homes, and carried inside as personal pain. I have come to the same conclusion as my grandmother and father that day long ago when we watched the newcomers enter the valley:' The people down there are dangerous, they are all insane'.

Jeanette goes on to explain much more about the language and ways of constructing the world, and of life, of her people, and so translates her grandmothers’ and fathers’ words more fully – as follows;

‘The ones below who are not of us (as place) may be a chaotic threat in action; they are all self absorbed (arguing) inside each of their heads’ And ‘their actions have a source, they have a displacement panic, they have been pulled apart from themselves as family (generational sense) and place (as land/us/survival)’.

To an Okinagan it is self-evident that our bodies, our physical selves on which all other aspects of our being depend, are themselves entirely dependant on everything outside of them that sustains them and keeps them alive. We survive by how our bodies interact with everything around us continuously. Our bodies – our flesh blood and bones - are literally made up of the elements of the earth – the earth and all that surrounds us being our ‘greater self’. She writes; ‘If we cannot maintain and stay in balance with the outer self, then we cannot continue as an individual life form, and we dissipate back into the larger self’. If we move too far out of balance with what in our dualistic western language we call the ‘environment’ – the language here immediately demonstrating the split between ‘human’ and everything else, the split which is at the heart of the problem – we will not survive.

It is the same with our human community – not to be deeply bonded with family and community, forwards and backwards in time, is to be ‘scattered’ or ‘falling apart’. And again, the sense of ‘us’ is the same thing as ‘our place on the land’ – the word for ‘our place on the land’ is the same as the word for ‘our language’;

‘The land has taught us our language. The way we survived is to learn the language the land offered us as its teachings……The soil, the water, the air and all other life forms contributed parts to our flesh. WE ARE OUR LAND/PLACE. Not to know and to celebrate this is to be without language and without land. It is to be DISPLACED.'(you’ll remember that this was her fathers diagnosis of the cause of the insanity of the incomers) And finally she writes;

‘The thing Okanagans fear worst of all is to be removed from the land that is their life and their spirit’.

These insights or perspectives about the dangers of the disconnected and unsustainable society and political economy within which we here all live, are very similar to the kinds of insights that are arising from within the ‘belly of the monster’ – from, amongst others, the field of what has come to be called ‘ecopsychology’ or ‘ecotherapy’. In this sense Ecopsychology is not at all new.

It does, however, I believe, touch on something that is almost overwhelmingly significant and painful for all of us. It has to do with survival at the most basic level, with our deepest sense of who we are, where we are, what it is to be alive, and what it means for us and does to us to be torn or taken or driven from the land we or our ancestors are from.- and then to live the relatively disconnected life that allows us to become numb to the huge environmental catastrophe that the ‘industrial growth society’ is wreaking around the world.

The ‘industrial growth society’ is about ‘growth’. It is predicated on an ever increasing rate of economic growth – which means more ‘resources’ taken out of the living body of the earth – by the labour of some humans and for the consumption of other humans – and shortly dumped back as polluting ‘waste’ into the earth. Our earth, is been taken ever further beyond its capacity to sustain the plundering or to absorb the wastes. In terms of systems theory, it is on ‘runaway’.

I believe that we all know this, but that we tend to shut it out in different ways and in different degrees, depending on who we are and what our stories are – but always, substantially, because the awareness is so painful.

Central to this, I suspect, is the question of how long ago, and how and by whom, our peoples came to be ‘displaced’. Native American peoples were to suffer a near complete genocide, and were displaced from all but a tiny fraction of their land. They were displaced by the European incomers, who over a few centuries have travelled all over the world stealing peoples land, displacing them, taking them from their land as slaves to work other lands that they never could call their own – and moving them on again.

The` incomers were, as Jeanette’s father had said, themselves displaced, probably multiply – not just from Europe, but before that in processes of industrialisation, enclosures, pogroms, and earlier wars – and in taking part in a scientific and religious world view that separates humans from the rest of life and demands that we have dominion over it.

Meanwhile, the dominant North American culture and economy has become one of the biggest consumers and polluters, and is centrally involved in a world economic system of global corporations that escalates environmental destruction and social and economic injustice, and thus spawns ever more conflict situations wars and civil wars – whilst profiting from the arms it manufactures and sells. Dangerous. Insane.

So – whilst we are all living within a world economic system that is environmentally as well as socially disastrous, such that incipient ecological collapse is all around us – we experience this differently depending on how we are placed – or displaced - in relation to it.

I should like now to read you two poems, two different voices. The first is by West African poet Ellis Ayitey Komey, written some time before 1973. It is entitled

The Damage you have done ‘You’ in this poem clearly refers to the European invader.

When I see blood pouring down the valleys,
Mahoganies trembling with fear
And palms drooping with disease,
I know you cannot stay with me
Nor hold a light across the land,
The damage you have done.

And when I remember how you looked
The first day you entered my hut,
A candle in one hand and a book in the other,
I know that your days are now gone
With the locust across the farm,
The damage you have done.

And when the first drop of rain
Manures the soil, now almost grey,
A hoe in one hand, wheat in the other
And a curse on the lips, I’ll set to work
If the land is to recover
From the damage you have done.


The second is from American poet Anita Barrows, written in 1998, ‘You’ in this poem, is, I think, … any other human. The damage has been done by – ‘us’.

And I would travel with you
To the places of our shame

The hills stripped of trees, the marsh grasses
Oil-slicked, steeped in sewage;

The blackened shoreline, the chemical poisoned water;

I would stand with you in the desolate places, the charred places,
Soil where nothing will ever grow, pitted desert;

Fields that burn slowly for months;roots of cholla and chapparal
Writhing with underground explosions

I would put my hand
there with yours, I would take your hand, I would walk with you

through carefully planted fields, rows of leafy vegetables
drifting with radioactive dust;through the dark
of uranium mines hidden in the sacred gold-red mountains;

I would listen with you in drafty hospital corridors
As the miner cried out in the first language

Of pain; as he cried out
the forgotten names of his mother
I would stand
next to you in the forest’s

final hour, in the wind
of helicopter blades, police

sirens shrieking, the delicate tremor of light between

leaves for the last
time Oh I would touch with this love each

wounded place.

It seems to me that it is a crying shame that ‘environmentalism’ has come to be seen in some parts as a white people’s movement. Our deep need for connection to earth,to be in ‘right relation’ to it, and now to take part in its’ healing, is surely an indissoluble part of all our natures, all our birthrights. As a white English woman however, I can only begin to imagine what it must be like to have representatives of the people and culture who uprooted you, speaking out about the environmental destruction that they, first and foremost, have committed – and usually without owning the racism and genocide that has gone alongside the plundering of the earth. In fact there are, and always have been, non European people all over the world fighting deforestation, the building of dams,  the mining of sacred lands.

In an interview discussing Ecopsychology, Carl Anthony, African-american environmental activist, said;

But that’s what ecology is all about; the real complexity….. In contrast, the whole idea of  ‘perfection’ leads to monoculture; flatten the land, have only one crop, come along with an airplane and spray….. That’s one of the reasons why racism is so hard to deal with. It brings up a much richer tapestry of human emotions, a much greater sense of either humour or tragedy……This is where the ecology of the matter has to come in. We are coming to the end of the monoculture….. now we start seeing the diversity. ….

He concludes; ‘An Ecopsychology that has no place for people of color, that doesn’t deliberately set out to correct the distortions of racism, is an oxymoron’. A contradiction in terms.

So that’s exactly what I am trying to do here; to introduce Ecopsychology in a way that deliberately sets out to correct the distortions of racism. It’s a first attempt, a work in progress.

I should now like to describe directly to some of the main areas, principles and practices of the emerging field of Ecopsychology. Because it has arisen in the mainstream dominant global culture, that is primarily what it addresses, so I will, for shorthand say ‘we’ ‘our’, ‘the species’ etc, rather than ‘mainstream dominant judaeo Christian global culture’ etc each time, if you will forgive me.!

1. Ecopsychology extends all teaching and theorising about the context of psychology, psychotherapy or counselling, to its natural conclusion, to include all elements of the greater than human world; the plant and animal kingdoms, the oceans, atmosphere, rock and earth.

2. As with the earlier moves to bring ‘context’ into these disciplines – for example to locate the dramas of the individual psyche back into the network of family relationships in which it is embedded, or the families’ life in turn back into the social relationships of the wider human society,-  we find that the ‘context’ is anything but an innocuous backdrop to the ‘real’ action. Rather, we find that the stuff of the individual psyche is in some senses almost ‘made up of’ the interactive experiences, the quality of the relatedness within the immediate circle of intimacy – and again, that what goes on in these relationships has everything to do with what is going on in the wider society. In a kind of ‘figure/ ground’ shift, ‘Context’ disappears as innocuous backdrop, and re-appears as ‘the action’.

This shift parallels the change in thinking in many areas of human endeavour at this time, from an analytic ‘cutting it up to understand it’ approach, to the view that more can be understood by looking at the relationships between – you cannot understand a cell fully until located within the organism of which it is part.

In this case – the ‘rest of life’ – the plant and animal kingdoms, the oceans and atmosphere and rock and mineral kingdoms - ceases to appear as backdrop, and re-appears as something that humans are always and inevitably in relationship with, and the nature of that relationship turns out to be hugely significant.

3. An insight from the psychodynamic tradition is that that which we ignore, disown, deny, or otherwise refuse to be aware of, can often paradoxically be that which is exerting most control over us, that which reappears, out of our awareness, in unexpected and often destructive ways. And it seems that our relationship with the ‘greater than human world’ is in general something which we just don’t notice, which is out of awareness, and that this is indeed paralleled by an extraordinary degree of disturbance in the relationship.

4. The ‘psychopathology’ of our relationship with the rest of life, is alarming. Last year I wrote a piece for the journal ‘Self and Society’, in which I experimentally attempted a basic psychological assessment of the ‘species’.

I began with ‘issues of risk’. Is the human species suicidal? – apparently so, engaging in behaviour that is destructive to everything on which it depends, but apparently in serious denial about this. Destructive or abusive to others (in this case, other species)? Extremely; we are causing other species to become extinct very fast and with little apparent remorse. We talk about the ‘others’ as though they have no or very little value compared to us, and see no problem in such language as ‘wanting to exploit maximally’, every other element and being we share the planet with.

Unresolved dependency needs? – Absolutely! We act as though we are not totally dependent on, and interdependent with, these others. We overfish and poison the oceans, we destroy the atmosphere and cut down the forests which allow the planet to breath. We extract everything that can be sold for profit from every part of the earth, including destroying ecosystems that have taken millions of years to build and cannot be recreated.

We seem in fact to have an overweaning narcissism, such that all other species and elements of the world appear to be there to please and gratify our every whim, to help us to feel good or of value, but to be discarded callously as soon as any apparent use to our secretly feeble self esteem, has been extracted. And like all narcissism, this kind of relating blocks real connection, real intimacy with the ‘other’ – the rest of life.

There’s clearly something pretty wrong – are there addictions involved? Well yes! The industrial growth society seems to be entrancing the whole world into believing that we need ever more consumer goods – more than whatever level we happen to have – and into believing that this will make us happier. When it doesn’t (because beyond the most simple level, what makes us happier is found repeatedly to be things like loving relationships, creativity, meaningful work etc,) – or only does very briefly -  we believe we need more, that we need to climb higher within a perpetually unequal system that leaves everyone in it caught in a psychology of guilt, envy, resentment and greed. And thus our addictive consumption of what-we-don’t-actually-need and is in the end going to destroy us – escalates, whilst we vigorously defend against any challenges to this way of life, and/or believe it is simply not possible to change.

Clearly I could go on, and I think everyone here could continue, using the concepts of their favoured psychological approach.

5. Ecopsychology, then, has to do with the psychology of the human relationshipwith the rest of life, including the attempt to understand what is going wrong and what needs to happen for us to move towards a life enhancing and mutually sustainable way of life.

Another relevant concept here comes from the observation that there is, broadly conceived of, an unequal power relationship between humans and the rest of life. This power relationship has been variously termed ‘human chauvinism’, ‘speciesism’, ‘anthropocentrism’ (from anthropos, human – compare eurocentrism) ‘human-centredness’ and ‘species arrogance’.

John Seed, the Australian rainforest activist and deep ecologist, writes; ’anthropocentrism means…..human chauvinism. Similar to sexism, but substitute ‘human race’ for ‘man’, and ‘all other species’ for ‘woman’. Human chauvinism, the idea that humans are the crown of creation, the source of all value, the measure of all things, is deeply embedded in our culture and consciousness’.

I find the broad parallels between anthropocentrism and other human-to-human relationships of dominance to be shocking but enlightening. As indicated in the last section, in which I looked through the frame of psychopathology, it involves the devaluing of the other, and unawareness of what is going on with the other, violence towards the other, abuse and exploitation of the other, unawareness of dependence and interdependence on and with the other, a language that devalues and leaves out the other all the time, an unawareness of the deep disconnection from the other and of the huge loss thus involved, and a brutalisation of the dominator.

6. This power relationship is mediated by and intersects with, the other relationships of dominance between humans. One aspect of this is that many dominated groups have been identified as ‘closer to nature’, more ‘instinctual’, and therefore having a ‘lower’, more ‘animal’ nature – which in each case is an apparent justification for their domination and abuse. These include women (hence the rise of ecofeminism), native and black peoples, and peasants.

In fact I think there is a split in the dominant patriarchal view. Just as women may be whores but also be idealised as madonnas, so is the ‘natural world’ on the one hand the raw material for domination, appropriate because its savageness must be civilised – and on the other hand the idealised locus of beauty and goodness. And of course it is beautiful and nice to be in, and richer and more powerful people seem to end up with access to the most beautiful and comfortable places to be, and poorer people with the worst of the urban squalor. So, as Carl Anthony points out, black Americans may have spent their life energies working on plantations, but now they are more likely to be living in the inner city, or where the toxic dumps are to be found – just as toxic wastes and unsafe technologies get exported to poorer countries with less legal regulation. He calls it ‘environmental racism’.

7. Disconnection. In psychology we know that where there is a disconnection – part of someone’s story or experience or feeling or knowing – that they are disconnected from or don’t have access to – then there can be a weakening of that persons life capacity. That which is disconnected cannot be integrated, cannot be processed, the ‘feedback’ is lost, and the many and various defensive accommodations that may arise all also tend to have their costs.

Much of what is going on in the environmental, ecopsychology and deep ecology movements can be understood as various ways of attempting to heal the disconnections between humans and ‘nature’ (as though we are not part of ‘nature’), and to redress the unequal power relationship.

I shall now give some examples of Ecopsychology in practice, divided loosely into three groupings;

Many people have noticed that ‘nature’ heals us when we allow it to – when we allow the reconnection. Hence the old tradition of horticultural therapy. Current work in this field includes various forms of ‘wilderness work’ particularly in the U.S. and including in gender specific groups, for example work with women survivors of abuse in particular landscapes. Research shows that patients in hospitals with ‘green’ views from their windows recover more quickly from surgery than those by a window with a view of a wall. Animals – mammals such as dogs and dolphins are known to be able to make a connection with very ill, or inaccessible or for example autistic humans, where other humans have entirely failed. I think it is a direct result of the ‘anthropocentrism’, the unaware arrogance of human-centredness, that such things do get observed, but simply tend not to be taken seriously. They tend to be seen as quirky but insignificant observations, rather than as pointing towards something large and profoundly significant.

In this country examples include; Kay Richards in Liverpool developing ‘adventure therapy’ working with women with eating disorders. The Medical Foundation for Victims of torture have a project run by Jenny Grut, who does psychotherapy on allotments. Each person she works with has an allotment,which they work, and can use to literally start to put down roots in their new country. This often connects people back to a time before the trauma, and many of the refugees lived in cultures where they did grow food and flowers as a normal 1part of life. In sessions together they eventually address the trauma, at their own pace, as they dig together, weed, plant, water, eat the food they grow, and watch. This project has inspired another in Oxford, with refugees. There is a project in central London near the new Tait gallery, working with local people and local land, that has involved the parks being gardened by the homeless people that use them, and practical support for pensioners in flats to grow things in window boxes.

2. A second major theme in the ‘work that reconnects’ stems from the observation that there is pain, and denial, involved in our disconnection. Firstly in response to the apparent apathy and psychic numbing associated with the existence of nuclear weapons, and later in response to the broader environmental crisis, Joanna Macey and other ‘deep ecologists’ have developed ways of developing supportive settings in which this pain can be safely addressed. When there is opportunity and support to tell our truth as we experience it, without the normal social injunction against the expression of strong feelings, she has consistently found great grief about what we are losing and have lost, rage at what is happening, fear for the future, and the painful experiencing of feeling powerless, hopeless, and of ‘not knowing’. And once our fear of letting ourselves experience such feelings is challenged, and we experience together our shared pain and understanding, - quite naturally the commitment to change things, and creativity and community between humans, tends to arise.

From the perspective of deep ecology, this is also viewed as a healing of the delusion of a ‘shrunken sense of self’ of our massively individualising society; we regain our much broader sense of self which is enabled again to be experienced as totally interconnected with all of life, and as having evolved over a huge expanse of time and a myriad ways of being. John Seed writes; ‘For some people this change of perspective follows from actions on behalf of the earth. “I am protecting the rainforest” becomes “I am part of the rainforest protecting myself. I am that part of the rainforest recently emerged into thinking”. What a relief then! The thousands of years of imagined separation are over and we begin to recall our true nature’.

This ‘ecological self’, is also thought to be a much healthier place from which environmental action may spring. Arne Naess, the Norwegian philosopher, writes; ‘Unhappily, the extensive moralising within the ecological movement has given the public the false impression they are primarily asked to sacrifice, to show more responsibility, more concern, better morals. As I see it, we need the immense variety of sources of joy opened through increased sensitivity toward the richness and diversity of life, through the profound cherishing of free natural landscapes…..Part of the joy stems from the consciousness of our intimate relation to something bigger than our own ego, something which has endured for millions of years and is worth continued life for millions of years. The requisite care flows naturally if the self is widened and deepened so that protection of free nature is felt and conceived of as protection of our very selves’.

3. Finally, I should like to mention briefly some of the myriad of other ways that ecopsychologists are trying to bring the ‘rest of life’ back into what they do. Examples; developing early object relations theory to look at early experiences of ‘nature’ as a more – or less – facilitating environment – hence developing concepts of ‘ecoalienation’ and ‘ecobonding’. Generally bringing relations with nonhumans into psychological assessments. Exploring and improving this relatedness as a legitimate goal of therapy/counselling. Noticing and working with ‘environmental trauma’ in a person’s life. Developing gestalt theory to include resensitising to our experiencing of our greater self, via exploring the blocks to full embodied experiencing, whilst doing therapy out-of-doors. Exploring the psychology of our perceptions and lack of perception of what is around us. Developing the concept of the ‘collective unconscious’ to that of a ‘world unconscious’. Developing methods of group-work in which our ecological life stories get told, and a process called the ‘ecological circle’ takes place. Doing community work with the focus on restoring the local habitat, and discovering this to be also both a hugely potent builder of community, and also simultaneously a powerful healer of souls. Developing our understanding of the links between the emergence of eating disorders and other addictions, and the psychology of consumerism. Taking seriously the loss of place as well as of people, in the life stories of immigrants and displaced people we work with. There are, no doubt, many other examples in the world of community psychology.

To conclude – my hope is that the area of Ecopsychology has come alive for those of you for whom it is new. I would also hope that some of the ideas may inspire you, such that you would want to develop further ways to incorporate them into your practice.. It seems to me that this is a field which though in one way old, is in another still very young. I anticipate that it will play an important part amidst the diversity of movements for change that are needed, if we are collectively to move from an unsustainable to a sustainable human culture, with all that that really means.