Ecopsychology is a relatively new term, made popular by Theodore Roszak in his influential book The Voice of the Earth (2002). Roszak wanted to ‘…bridge our culture’s long-standing, historical gulf between the psychological and the ecological, to see the needs of the planet and the person as a continuum’. Ecopsychology is therefore usually seen as being the study of the interactive relationships between humans and the environment – a combination of the approaches of psychology and ecology. Put more simply, it looks at the many, complex connections between people and the world they live in, especially in terms of mental and physical well-being.
Ecopsychologists think that the connections we have with the rest of the natural world are a fundamental part of who we are, and that we need exposure to natural environments in some form or another to remain healthy. And the research supports this idea: simply looking at images of nature is enough to make your body relax and improve your ability to concentrate (even if you think you’re not a nature lover!), while actually being in a natural setting boosts your body’s natural immunity, lowers stress and appears to be a useful antidepressant!
How does this work? In part, it may be due to our having evolved in a natural environment. Over millions of years, our senses developed to help us find food and good places to live, to recognise the types of plants and landscapes that would keep us healthy and comfortable. Our bodies are adapted to be in such settings, and natural shapes, patterns, sounds and smells are the ones that we still find it easiest to have around us (unlike modern day urban environments, which tend to mostly artificial straight lines, disconnected sounds and strong smells).
The researcher E.O. Wilson thinks that humans, along with other animals, are born with a ‘biophilia’: a tendency to focus on things that are, or appear to be, alive. Think of how we feel and behave when we allow ourselves to come into contact with the unspoilt natural world: we’re entranced, fascinated and sometimes filled with awe. You only have to watch young children splash in puddles, follow insects around the garden or be irresistibly compelled to see what that really squishy mud feels like to know that this isn’t something we have to learn but something that comes from inside.
‘The repression of the ecological unconscious is the deepest root of the madness inherent in western industrial society…..we need to heal the fundamental alienation between humanity and the earth’ Theodore Roszak
‘This we know: the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. This we know. All things are connected like the blood which unites one family. Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the earth, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.’ Chief Seattle
For further reading:
Buzzell, L. & Chalquist, C. (eds.) (2009). Ecotherapy: healing with nature in mind.
Roszak, T. (new edition 2002). The voice of the Earth: an exploration of ecopsychology. USA (1st published 1992).
Roszak, T., Gomes, M. & Kanner, A. (eds.) (1995). Ecopsychology: restoring the Earth, healing the mind.