Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Psychology of Sustainability

This past weekend I attended an inspiring three-day conference in San Rafael, California, called Bioneers. Bioneers is an annual gathering of people with a shared passion for environmental and social justice issues. The meeting highlights truly remarkable individuals and groups doing great things for humanity and the planet. To give just an example from this year’s program, one of the plenary speakers was renowned primatologist Jane Goodall. “Dr. Jane,” as she is known by millions of youth around the world, is arguably the most famous living scientist; these days, however, her efforts are concentrated on Roots and Shoots, a worldwide program that engages youth in community service.

In addition to the many wonderful speakers, Bioneers features afternoon panel sessions on a spectrum of topics, from permaculture and gender equity to environmental education and protecting wildlands. One session that particularly caught my eye this past weekend was titled “Ecopsychology Emerging.”

My father was a psychologist and university professor whose primary passions were family and teaching. Perhaps because of this early connection, I have always had a strong interest in matters of the mind. Nevertheless, from childhood I felt drawn even more to nonhuman nature, which took me down a wholly different path, one that wound up in the Age of Dinosaurs. Today, that same path has meandered back to the present day, and, perhaps surprisingly, to psychology.

As the name suggests, ecopsychology sits at the juxtaposition of ecology and psychology. It is a relatively new field of inquiry, tracing its origins back less than two decades [1, 2]. Although psychology has traditionally concerned itself solely with the human realm, ecopsychologists seek to explore the relationship between humans and nonhuman nature. (It is worth noting that, strictly speaking, the notion of a “relationship” between humans and nonhuman nature is nonsensical, equivalent to speaking of a person’s relationship with humanity. However, this terminology is effective in underlining the perceived disjunction between humanity and the “more-than-human,” and thus I perpetuate it here.) One of the discipline’s central ideas is “biophilia,” E. O. Wilson’s notion that humankind possesses an innate affinity with the living world, honed over many thousands of years of existing in intimate contact with other life forms [3].

In my view, and that of growing numbers of people from a variety of fields, the roots of our present sustainability crisis lie in a dysfunctional relationship between humanity and nonhuman nature. So repairing that relationship with a transformed worldview, one that reinserts humans inside nature, may just be the central challenge of our time. If so, ecopsychology—the field designated to explore the human-nature relationship—is poised to become one of the most critical and pressing areas of inquiry in this century. It was with great interest, then, that I attended the Bioneers session, which featured five prominent ecopsychologists. And, I’m sorry to say, it was with a strong sense of disappointment that I departed that same session 90 minutes later.

One by one the speakers discussed their perspectives and practices. The bulk of the discussion focused on eco-therapy, underlining the healing power of nature for individuals and small groups. The audience heard about the health benefits of outdoor therapy sessions and wilderness immersion programs. I became more hopeful when the discussion turned to the cognitive dissonance surrounding global warming, but here the consensus among the panel members seemed anything but hopeful, let alone proactive. One speaker concluded that it would take a very long time indeed to convince most people of the risks posed by climate change.

Don’t get me wrong. I fully applaud the gains made by eco-therapy, and agree wholeheartedly that we need to devote attention to such programs. But these efforts simply are not enough—not even close. We have perhaps a generation to turn things around and establish a sustainable course, not only technologically but cognitively. To be fair, the panelists did outline key elements of our disillusionment with the living world. Yet they proposed few, if any, meaningful solutions.

We need ecopsychology to do much more. Our dire situation demands bold vision and creative “backcasting,” in which we determine a set of goals and then figure out how to achieve them. With regard to remedying the human-nature divide, we must transform our perception of the natural world from “a collection of objects to a communion of subjects,” to use Thomas Berry’s poignant phrase [4].

This gargantuan revolution in thinking, almost certainly the greatest challenge our species has faced, is well beyond the transformative capacities of adults. Albert Einstein famously noted that, “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.” How are we to shift to a wholly new way of thinking, a new worldview, if we remain stuck in an out-dated worldview? More specifically, by what means do we get a significant chunk of humanity to adopt a perspective that regards other life forms as relatives rather than resources? The answer to this paradox, I am convinced, lies in children and education.

As I’ve written elsewhere in this blog, one of the key elements in the needed education transformation (as opposed to mere “reform”) will be revamping the curriculum core to insert place and story. By place I refer to local bioregions, with much learning occurring outdoors. The kind knowledge gained by such learning has been called “ecoliteracy” [5]. By story I mean the Epic of Evolution, the grand saga of Big Bang to present day that encompasses cosmos, life, and culture. Here we can speak of “evoliteracy” [6]. With place and story as the intimate and grand contexts for education, respectively, we can begin to shift our perspective, transforming nature from exploited resources to mentor and partner.

What is ecopsychology’s role? In the 21st Century, this nascent field must undergo radical expansion to become more theoretical and analytical, including an abundance of hypothesis testing, experimentation, and data analysis. The challenge of transforming education is daunting. With school boards largely under local control, formal schooling is one of the most entrenched systems within modern culture. Before we can make the kinds of sweeping changes in education necessary to shift perspectives, it must first be demonstrated that any proposed alternatives in curriculum and pedagogy perform better than existing models. Much more than a form of therapy, then, ecopsychology must emerge as a major analytical field, testing key concepts and answering root questions. Most fundamentally, how do children form lasting bonds with nonhuman nature? Here we will benefit from studies of child development in indigenous cultures, the only societies today that possess worldviews embedding humanity within nature. My strong hunch is that developing a sense of place and cosmos will turn out to be pivotal elements, along with such practices as ritual and ceremony.

Many other questions face ecopsychologists. Exactly how effective, relative to traditional approaches, are new methods in promoting the formation of bonds with the nonhuman world? Equally important, how do these methods, including the insertion of place and story as core elements, perform relative to existing reductionist models when it comes to communicating other skills and knowledge (e.g., reading, math, writing, science)? This investigative work will need to be undertaken in partnership with progressive institutions willing to undertake such curricular experimentation, including independent and charter schools. Institutions of informal learning, particularly natural history museums, will also have a pivotal place in this process, since they possess expertise and resources unavailable to teachers. Another key prerequisite to any form of transformation will be educating the general public about the perils of our current worldview, together with the need to foster healthier alternatives through new forms of education. Here, too, ecopsychologists can help in ringing the alarm bell and getting the message out.

In the so-called “Great Turning,” moving from an “industrial growth society to a life-sustaining society” [7], ecopsychology must emerge as an intellectual powerhouse, working in partnership with educators and with Mother Nature herself to help bring about the needed transformation in worldview.

1. Roszak, T. 1993. The Voice of the Earth: An Exploration of Ecopsychology. Touchstone, New York.
2. Roszak, T., Gomes, M.E. Kanner, A.D. 1995. (eds.). Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind. Sierra Club Books, San Francisco
3. Wilson, E. O. 1986. Biophilia: The Human Bond with other Species. Harvard University Press, Boston.
4. Berry, T. 1999. The Great Work: Our Way into the Future. Bell Tower, New York.
5. Stone, M. K. and Z. Barlow (eds.). 2005. Ecological Literacy: Educating our Children for a Sustainable World. University of California Press, Berkeley.
6. Sampson, S. D. 2009. Dinosaur Odyssey: Fossil Threads in the Web of Life. University of California Press, Berkeley.
7. Macy, J. 2007. World as Lover, World as Self: Courage for Global Justice and Ecological Renewal. Parallax Press, Berkeley.

Photo Credits
All images courtesy of National Geographic: http://photography.nationalgeographic.com/photography/


  1. This "Bioneers" thing really caught my interest. I will have to keep my eye on the movement. Or maybe it's less a movement than a rallying call within a movement?

    Anyway, I've been reading Garret Hardin's "Tragedy of the Commons" and accompanying works and it really gave me insight into many things, but most notably the "ethics" of what I might call "ecosystem rights". Does an ecosystem have a right to exisit? To not be used, abused, tampered with, forced into a shape it doesn't want. And is it meaningful to say an ecosystem "wants"? Like human rights, these "rights" haven't been recognized throughout most of human history, and mostly still aren't. Maybe I don't explain it too well.
    But the book brings up a good point. The abuse and execution of human slaves was at one time considered completely a matter of private property, to be disposed of at whim.

  2. Hi Rich, Thanks for the comment. We do indeed have a tragedy of the commons and ethical crisis, as Hardin documents. However, you may be interested to learn that there is much discussion these days about giving rights to nature, particularly since the Ecuadorian government was the first to legislate such rights a couple of years ago. This year the Bioneers meeting had a whole session devoted to the topic. Like the abolishment of slavery (legal abolishment, that is; there is still far too much slavery in the world), my sincere hope is that it is just a matter of time before a cascade of governments follow this same course.

  3. That *is* very cool to know! I am just starting to learn more about all this, so it's very interesting to me. Do you mind if I blog on this subject and quote you?

  4. Scott-
    Thanks for your perspective and thoughtfulness. As usual, you combine emotional wisdom with rigorous analysis, which is a rare pleasure. I'll share this with my ecopsychologist friend.

  5. I agree with Zach above.

    Also: I recently saw this Tedx talk by Zoe Weil titled "The world becomes what you teach." http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t5HEV96dIuY

    It follows along the lines of your point starting in paragraph 9 above.

  6. P.S.: How does a non-educator, non-scientist get involved?

  7. I'm looking to further my education in Psychology, and in doing so I'm exploring and revisiting what sparked this direction. Looking back to my undergraduate experience in Psychology and Environmental Studies, there was no doubt in my mind then nor today that this relationship between humans and nature is profound. I could devote my life exploring the biophilia hypothesis. I too agree with the therapeutic benefits of the outdoors, but it is only one facet of this potentially transformative field. One conclusion I've drawn thus far is the idea that we have to completely redefine, redesign, transform the way we think. This is the fundamental key of sustainability, in almost all regards, industry, education, world ecology, economy, medicine, technology, etc. I just needed to comment and express my excitement and encouragement on your standpoint. Ecospychology deserves attention! Other than the books referenced, any other important materials you suggest? How do I get more involved in this emerging study? Pacifica is one of a few schools offering an emphasis in Ecopsychology. Thank you for posting, wow, a year ago.