N.Y. Times Article on Ecotherapy

Image of Ecological HandThe Ecological Unconscious

by Daniel B. Smith


In 2004, the Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht described a hitherto unrecognized psychological condition, for which he coined the new term solastalgia (Latin solacium for comfort; Greek –algia for pain). It describes a form of “pain experienced when there is a recognition that the place where one resides and that one loves is under immediate assault – a form of homesickness, while one is still at home.” It has been used to describe the experiences of Canadian Inuit communities coping with the effects of rising temperatures, Ghanaian subsistence farmers faced with changes in rainfall patterns and refugees returning to New Orleans after Katrina. In all these cases, the pain of people exposed to environmental change was exacerbated by a sense of powerlessness.

Albrecht is now Dean of the School of Sustainability at Murdoch University in Western Australia. “Take a look out there,” he says, gesturing to a line of coal ships. “What you’re looking at is climate change queued up. You can’t get away from it anywhere. And that’s exactly the point.” Solastalgia is a global condition, felt to a greater or lesser degree by different people in different locations but felt increasingly, given the ongoing degradation of the environment. As our environment continues to change around us, the question is, how deeply are our minds suffering in return?


In 2009, the American Psychological Association released a 230-page report titled Interface Between Psychology and Global Climate Change. Seven out of eight task-force members were scientists who specialize in decision research and environmental-risk management, and media coverage of the report focussed on the habits of human behaviour and thought that contribute to global warming. Janet Swim, a Penn State psychologist and the chairwoman of the task force states that we must look at the reasons people are not acting in order to understand how to get them to act. But the document also addresses the emotional costs of ecological decline: anxiety, despair, numbness, grief and “a sense of being overwhelmed or powerless”. The eighth member of the task force, clinical psychologist Thomas Doherty, is the most prominent American advocate of the growing discipline of ecopsychology.

“If you look at the beginnings of clinical psychology, the focus was on intrapsychic forces. Then the field broadened to take into account interpersonal forces such as relationships and interactions between people. Then it took a huge leap to look at whole families and systems of people. Then it broadened even further to take into account social systems and social identities like race, gender and class. Ecopsychology seeks to broaden the field again to look at ecological systems…to take the entire planet into account.”
– Patricia Hasbach

Ecopsychology emerged in the 1960s in response to the isolation and malaise infecting modern life. It was taken up by practitioners of alternative therapies in the 1990s, and strongly influenced by Theodore Roszak’s book The Voice of the Earth – in which he criticized modern psychology for neglecting the primal bond between man and nature:

Mainstream Western psychology has limited the definition of mental health to the interpersonal context of an urban-industrial society…All that lies beyond the citified psyche has seemed of no human relevance — or perhaps too frightening to think about.

Ecopsychology’s eclectic following includes therapists, researchers, ecologists and activists. Its practitioners are as apt to cite Native American folk tales as they are empirical data to make their points. Doherty now publishes Ecopsychology, the first peer-reviewed journal dedicated to “the relationship between environmental issues and mental health and well-being.” Next year, M.I.T. Press will publish a book of the same name, bringing together scholars from a wide range of disciplines, among them award-winning biologist Lynn Margulis and anthropologist Wade Davis, as it delves into such areas as “technological nature” and how the environment affects human perception. The subject is now taught at Oberlin College, Lewis & Clark College, the University of Wisconsin and other institutions.

The Ecological Unconscious

Ecopsychologists are not the first to embrace a vital link between mind and nature, and they acknowledge their field’s roots in traditions like Buddhism, Romanticism and Transcendentalism. They also point to affinities with evolutionary psychology — which provides evidence that our responses to the environment are hard-wired because of how we evolved as a species. They embrace the concept of biophilia, a hypothesis put forward by the eminent Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson in 1984, that human beings have an “innate tendency to focus on life and lifelike processes”. His proposal that evolution endowed humans with a craving for nature struck a lasting chord in many sectors of the scientific community. Over the past quarter-century, Wilson’s work has inspired a steady flow of articles, books and conferences.

Ecopsychologists tend to focus on the pathological aspect of the mind-nature relationship: its brokenness. The project finds echoes in the culture at large. A number of psychiatrically-inflected coinages have sprung up to represent people’s growing unease over the state of the planet — “nature-deficit disorder,” “ecoanxiety,” “ecoparalysis.”— mental-health issues attributable to the degraded state of one’s physical surroundings. Ecopsychologists propose a new clinical approach based on the idea that treating patients in an age of ecological crisis requires more than current therapeutic approaches offer. It requires tapping into what Roszak called our ecological unconscious.

Doherty sees patients and discusses routine concerns like sex and family dynamics, but unlike most therapists, he also enquires about their relationships with the natural world — how often they get outdoors and their anxieties about the state of the environment. He recently developed a “sustainability inventory,” a questionnaire that measures, among typical therapeutic concerns like mood, attitudes and the health of intimate relationships, “comfort with your level of consumption and ecological footprint.” He says clients don’t generally come to him with symptoms or complaints directly attributable to environmental concerns, but every so often he has to engage in what he calls “grief and despair work.” A climate-change activist and avid outdoorsman came because he was so despondent about the state of the planet and so dedicated to doing something to help that it was damaging his relationship with his family. This client praises his therapist for helping him face the magnitude of the problem without becoming despairing or overwrought.

Nature’s attention-restoration capacity

Support for the idea that an imperiled environment creates an imperiled mind can be found in more established branches of psychology. Marc Berman, a researcher in cognitive psychology at the University of Michigan, assigned 38 students to take a three-mile walk — half in the Nichols Arboretum and half along a busy street. His purpose was to validate attention-restoration theory which posits a stark difference in the ability of natural and urban settings to improve cognition. A.R.T. holds that Nature increases focus and memory because it is filled with “soft fascinations” (rustling trees, bubbling water) that give those high-level functions the leisure to replenish, whereas urban life is filled with harsh stimuli (car horns, billboards) that can cause cognitive overload. In Berman’s study, the nature-walkers showed a dramatic improvement while the city-walkers did not, demonstrating nature’s restorative effects on cognition.

In an experiment reported in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, Dr Peter Kahn subjected 90 adults to mild stress and monitored their heart rates while they were exposed to one of three views: a glass window overlooking an expanse of grass and a stand of trees; a 50-inch plasma television screen showing the same scene in real time; and a blank wall. The heart rates of those exposed to the sight of real nature decreased more quickly than those of subjects looking at the TV image. Subjects exposed to a TV screen fared just the same as those facing drywall. The plasma-screen study speaks to two powerful historical trends: the degradation of large parts of the environment and the increasingly common use of technology (TV, video games, Internet, etc.) to experience nature secondhand. More and more, the human experience of nature is being mediated by technological systems. We can, as a matter of mere survival, adapt to these changes. The question is whether our nature-reduced lives will be impoverished from the standpoint of human functioning and flourishing.

A flaw at the core of modern human consciousness

The anthropologist Gregory Bateson conducted fieldwork in Bali with his wife Margaret Mead in the 1930s. In mid-career he moved away from conventional ethnology and conducted studies in areas like animal communication, social psychology, comparative anatomy, aesthetics and psychiatry. He was also a major influence on the development of neuro-linguistic programming. What most interested Bateson, as the title of his Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972) suggests, were complex systems. He considered that the tendency to think of mind and nature as separate indicated a flaw at the core of human consciousness.

Bateson argued that the essential environmental crisis of the modern age lay in the realm of ideas. Humankind suffered from an epistemological fallacy: we believed, wrongly, that mind and nature operated independently of each other. In fact, nature is a recursive, mindlike system. Its unit of exchange isn’t energy, as most ecologists argued, but information. The way we think about the world can change that world, and the world can in turn change us. He wrote:

When you narrow down your epistemology and act on the premise ‘what interests me is me or my organization or my species,’ you chop off consideration of other loops of the loop structure. You decide that you want to get rid of the by-products of human life and that Lake Erie will be a good place to put them. You forget that the ecomental system called Lake Erie is a part of your wider ecomental system — and that if Lake Erie is driven insane, its insanity is incorporated in the larger system of your thought and experience…There is an ecology of bad ideas, just as there is an ecology of weeds. And it is characteristic of the system that basic error propagates itself.

Our inability to see this truth, Bateson maintained, is now becoming monstrously apparent. Human consciousness evolved to privilege “purposiveness” — to get us what we want, whether what we want is a steak dinner or sex. Expand that tendency on a mass scale, and it is inevitable that we are going to see disturbing effects like red tides, vanishing forests, smog and now global warming.

How might we go about rebooting human consciousness? Bateson believed we need to correct our errors of thought by achieving clarity in ourselves and encouraging it in others — reinforcing “whatever is sane in them.” In other words, to be ecological, we needed to feel ecological. His emphasis on the interdependence of the mind and nature is the foundation of ecotherapy. It is also at the root of the notion that “re-wilding” the mind could have significant psychological benefits. But the seeming circularity of Bateson’s solution — in order to be more ecological, feel more ecological — has not yet been practically resolved.

Last year, Glenn Albrecht began an investigation into what psychological elements might protect a given environment from degradation. He based it on interviews with residents of the Cape region in Australia, a lush wine-producing area with sustainable industries from organic agriculture to ecotourism. Numerous factors — geographic, political, historical, economic — have allowed it to remain relatively unsullied. Yet Albrecht proposes the main factor is psychological. The people here display an unusually strong “sense of interconnectedness” — an awareness of the myriad interacting components that make up a healthy environment. This is, he states, an example of soliphilia: “the love of and responsibility for a place, bioregion, planet and the unity of interrelated interests within it.” While solastalgia described the emotional response to environmental degradation and feels universal in the age of global climate change (not to mention cultural touchstones like Avatar), soliphilia describes the psychological foundation for sustainability. But it seems to depend on already having the values that make sustainability possible. How might the rest of us gain, or regain, that sense?

In his categorization of responses to environmental problems, Thomas Doherty makes some controversial distinctions. At the pathological end of the spectrum, after psychotic delusions, he places “frank denial” of environmental issues. He finds that mental health is generally characterized by an impulse to “promote connection with nature”. Critics could argue that ecopsychologists are importing a worldview into what should be the value-neutral realm of therapy. Its proponents would reply that, like Gregory Bateson, ecopsychology is correcting a fundamental error in how we conceive of the mind. In order to understand what it is to be whole, we must first explain what is broken.

This is a edited synopsis of the original article in the New York Times magazine. Dr Smith holds the Critchelow Chair in English at the College of New Rochelle. The artwork is by Kate McDowell.