Ecopsychology: Another Legal Tool?

essay by Valerie Harms

Ecopsychology, the field that unifies nature and psyche in the Grand Ecology, addresses the ways the Earth suffers as a result of people’s behavior, and people in turn suffer from a degraded Earth. Enough documentation on this phenomenon from doctors, therapists, and other professionals now exists to potentially allow its use in court as a cause for damages and/or injunctive relief. Activists may find ecopsychological studies an important tool in their educational and political campaigns. Social historian and novelist Ted Roszak coined the phrase “ecopsychology” in A Voice of the Earth: An Exploration of Ecopsychology. He was one of the founders of the Ecopsychology Institute and website: Some ecopscyhological studies delve into the human causes behind our environmental problems. For instance, much of the demand to extract and use our naturual resources comes from people’s consumption patterns. But, the compulsion to buy new things, even when not needed, is an addiction that when multiplied by our growing population, burdens our environment, as we well know. Businesses that deliberately plan for quick obsolesence and product turnover are equally addicted to consumption. Allen Ginsberg observed, “The addiction to all sorts of poisonous products, services and habits is so great that we need something like an international

Hazelden. But the United States is nowhere near bottoming out.” Denial is rampant. Another psychological factor is people’s fear of nature and the consequent need to dominate it. It can be cut down, moved around, and paved at will. Exploitation of the Earth’s resources and the habit of seeing nature solely in economic terms have been evident since the domestication of animals and the rise of industrialization. Ecopsychology teaches that it is more productive to focus on our common needs for the life support systems that the Earth provides, as well as species other than ourselves. Still as people carve up the landscape and endanger other species, we have already deprived ourselves (not to mention the holocaust of other species) of resources critical for our survival as well as nature’s beauty and recreational value. Many of us feel guilty about the state of the world, anxious about not knowing whether or not or just how badly our health is threatened, and even despairing about the prospects for future generations. Ecopsychology has gained momentum especially because more patients are bringing to therapists their deep grief about the loss of wilderness and the deterioration of the planet. Some therapists believe that a person’s emotional ties to the Earth are as important as their personal relationships, that, as a clinical psychologist said, “It’s time we redefined our notion of self to include what is going on around us.” She believes that bonding with nature can empower people to cope with the problems, and that in doing so the environment and the self are healed.


Environmentalists have long known that the health of people and habitats are threatened by pollution of air, water, and soil. We have known that people who live in poor neighborhoods - often black and Hispanic - bear the brunt of extreme degradation. But the mental disturbances are increasingly being written about and responded to by professionals in such organizations as the Association of Humanistic Psychology and Academy of American Psychiatrists. Treatments may include Outward Bound trips, wilderness sojourns, gardening, and planting trees. For instance, a Florida social worker, who works with orphaned teenage boys, took a group of angry, mentally scattered, alienated youths on a week’s trip in the Rockies. He said, “I was convinced these boys could not unleash themselves from their pasts until they escaped the city and discovered their own ties to the Earth...I believe that many social and psychological problems in our urban areas stem from a disassociation from the land. Remarkably, no one got sick. The boys did not complain, argue, or worry about life back home. Each day, I could see the pace slow, the facial muscles relax. I watched problems slide away.” Gary Ferguson in his new book, Shouting at the Sky, vividly documents the effect of being in wilderness on troubled teenagers. Environmental educational curriculums influenced by ecopsycology are springing up on campuses around the nation. Dr.Sarah Conn teaches a course called “The Self-World Connection: Toward an Ecologically Responsible Psychotherapy” at the Center for Psychology and Social


Change, an affiliate of Harvard Medical School at The Cambridge Hospital. Anthony D. Cortese outlined such a program at The President’s Symposium at Yale University in 1994 on “Environmental Literacy and Beyond.” Ted Roszak would like to see professionals trained half in the hard sciences and half in psychology, regretting that “there are no such people in the world today.” Ecologists need psychologists, and vice versa, in order to pin down the dysfunctional behavior that leads to environmental problems as well as to diagnose the impacts of destruction and loss of wildlife and habitat. Roszak says, “Sanity is a hard legal term. Ecopsychologists should be able to argue persuasively that any institution, practice, or policy that diminishes biodiversity is a direct assault upon the mental health of a neighborhood, community, bioregion, or the human species as a whole and must be stopped.” ********************** Valerie Harms is the author of 8 books in various genres: nature, psychology, biography, and juveniles. Among them are the National Audubon Society Almanac of the Environment / The Ecology of Everyday Life; The Inner Lover (a C.G. Jung book published by Shambhala) Unmasking: Ten Women in Metamorphosis; Celebration with Anais Nin. She is a veteran instructor of the Intensive Journal program and was honored by the United Nations for her work in depth psychologoy and journals. A graduate of Smith College, she has taught workshops for 2 decades on the


north and west coasts, Vancouver and Greece. The urge to study other cultures has taken her so far throughout the Caribbean, Europe, Mexico, Ecuador, and Bali. She is on the Board of Montana Friends of Jung. See website at