Vital Signs: Psychological Responses to the Ecological Crisis

| 9th October 2012
Exploring the Global Self - Peter Reason considers the contribution of ecopyschology to the crisis of sustainability
What do we mean by human, by Nature, by wilderness?

Vital Signs brings together 20 writers to review the present state of ecopyschology. Contributors explore, in very different ways, the context of our times, what it means to be human, and a range of theoretical ideas drawing primarily on psychoanalytic and postmodern perspectives. The book addresses the challenges of practice informed by an ecopsychological perspective: the possible futures ecopyschology can envisage, how to influence attitudes toward the more-than-human-world, and the place of ecopyschology in clinical practice.

The challenge, from this perspective, is something like this: conscious, rational dialogue about the crisis of ecology and articulation of our interdependence with the planet and its creatures doesn’t have the impact we seek and require. Humanity persists in self-destructive behaviour. The roots of the crisis lie in a narcissistic conception of the human as separate from the more-than-human; in the dualistic ways of thinking, the abstraction and disassociation, we inherited from our Enlightenment forebears; in fragile, consumerist identities; and so on. If the challenge is somehow rooted in human psychology, the remedies must be similarly there, at least in part. We must seek to heal our alienated identities, get back into our animal bodies, and in particular reconnect with wilderness and the more-than-human-world.

The challenge of the ecopyschology approach is that a summary such as I have attempted in the previous paragraph is necessarily problematic. All the terms are contestable – what do we mean by human, by Nature, by wilderness? How do we think/speak/practise in non-dual ways when every thinking/feeling habit seems to suck us back, often unaware, into dualism? It is these issues that Vital Signs seeks to address in a variety of ways. 

The book starts with Viola Sampson’s ‘embodied’ exploration of a changing global climate. She writes as an ecopyschologist, and climate activist, but also as a therapist, listening from “a state of balanced awareness”. This listening, she suggests, offers a perceptual practice that “can nurture our sense of self that is of the world”. The writing is nicely balanced between the expressive and the conceptual.

Two chunky chapters in the middle of the book take a postmodern slant on ecopyschology, exploring the questionable ways in which we construct our idea of the world. Joseph Dodds accepts that the ecological crisis is not a text that can be deconstructed, but is ‘real’ beyond linguistic conventions. At the same time he challenges the notion that there is a homeostatic, harmonious Gaia, a perfect whole into which all parts fit as a human construction. Martin Jordan similarly argues that there is no singular unified ‘Nature’, suggesting that ecology is not just about ‘pure nature’ we may have lost touch with, but about radical co-existence with the hybrid and the unnatural. 

Both these chapters challenge taken-for-granted concepts in important ways. But both are also heavily theoretical, full of abbreviated references to academic sources, and written in a ‘postmodern’ style that makes them difficult to access. I was also concerned to read in Dodds’ chapter the unqualified statement, “Living things attempt to occupy the edge of chaos,” which I doubt if many chaos/complexity theorists would agree with.

Some of the later chapters effectively link theory with practice in the world. Hilary Prentice explores how Ecos and Psyche have been split apart and shows how the Transition movement may contribute to bringing them back together. Rosemary Randall shows how overconsumption is rooted in the fragile identities of postmodernity, and how this fragility challenges our ability to change. She offers the Carbon Conversations process as a way of changing people’s relationships to ‘stuff’. 

David Key and Margaret Kerr draw on Transactional Analysis to describe the Natural Change project, which offers wilderness experiences to people in leadership positions. I particularly enjoyed Nick Totton’s rethinking of psychotherapy in ecological terms, and Chris Robertson’s exploration of the limitations of conscious choice and the need to shift attention towards the rejected margins, the “whispered not-yet-felt/thought emerging”. 

There is much of value in this volume, and many of the contributions are to be welcomed. Yet at the end of reading and reviewing I feel more than a tinge of disappointment. The editors write in their introduction that they hope the book will facilitate debate and dialogue within the field. My view is that it would do this more effectively if chapters were linked together with a much stronger editorial line so that there was more debate and dialogue within the book itself. I would also like to have seen fewer, more thoroughly developed chapters, for on several occasions I was just settling into an interesting read when the chapter was cut short. 

As Viola Sampson writes, the ecological crisis is “calling us into relationship with a different sense of global self”, and clearly the ideas and practices of ecopyschology can make an important contribution.

Peter Reason is a writer exploring Nature and travel narrative for an ecology in crisis. He blogs at 

Vital Signs: Psychological Responses to the Ecological Crisis  is edited by Mary-Jayne Rust & Nick Totton and available from Karnac books


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