Dear EarthTalk: I caught the tail end of a discussion about “ecopsychology” recently on the radio, something about the negative impacts of people not communing with nature enough, spending too much time watching TV, sitting at computers, etc. Can you enlighten?—Bridget W., Seattle, WA
EarthTalk: The term ecopsychology , first coined by writer and theorist Theodore Roszak in his 1992 book, Voice of the Earth, is loosely defined as the connection between ecology and human psychology. Roszak argues that humans can heal what he calls their “psychological alienation” from nature and build a more sustainable society if they recognize that we all have an innate emotional bond with the natural world.
The basic premise is that we operate under an illusion that people are separate from nature, and that humans are more apt to derive comfort and even inspiration from contact with the natural world—with which they evolved over the millennia—than with the relatively recent construct of modern urban society. Distancing ourselves from nature, Roszak maintains, has negative psychological consequences for people and also leads to ecological devastation at the hands of a society that, as a result, lacks empathy for nature.
In a more recent essay called Ecopsychology: Eight Principles , Roszak, who went on to start the non-profit Ecopsychology Institute, states that the core of the mind is the ecological unconscious, which, if repressed, can lead to an “insane” treatment of nature. “For ecopsychology, repression of the ecological unconscious is the deepest root of collusive madness in industrial society,” he writes, adding that “open access to the ecological unconscious is the path to sanity.”
While many psychotherapists have adopted aspects of ecopsychology in treating various mental illnesses and psychological disorders, the teachings of Roszak and other contributors to the still-evolving field can be helpful even for those not in need of a therapist’s care. John V. Davis, a Naropa University professor who teaches and writes about ecopsychology, for example, says that meditating in the outdoors, participating in wilderness retreats, involving oneself in nature-based festivals or celebrations of the seasons or other natural phenomena, joining in Earth-nurturing activities such as environmental restoration or advocacy work, and spending time around animals (including pets, which have been shown to have healing effects with the elderly and with people with psychological disabilities) are just a few ways in which the discipline can be used by everyday people to the benefit of their psychological health.
Getting kids involved with nature and the outdoors is viewed by ecopsychology fans as key to their development, especially in the technological age we occupy now. Richard Louv, author of the book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder , argues that kids are so plugged into television and video games that they’ve lost their connection to the natural world. This disconnect, Louv maintains, has led not only to poor physical fitness among our youth (including obesity), but also long-term mental and spiritual health problems. His work has sparked a worldwide movement to introduce more kids to the wonders of nature through various planned and spontaneous activities.