Dilemmas, Controversies and Theory Diversity in the Field of Eco-Psychology

By Nick Totton

Appropriately enough, ecopsychology has grown like a forest, with few dogmas, rules, and institutions, and with no fence defining what is inside and what is outside. Or in a different metaphor, it resembles a complex river delta with many water courses flowing side by side, branching and braiding until it is impossible to identify which is which. Although the version of ecopsychology associated with Theodore Roszak (1993, 1995) is a crucial component, many enter the forest by other paths: adventure and outdoor therapy and bushcraft, art and art therapy, spirituality, horticulture, permaculture, ecology, environmental activism, and of course counselling and psychotherapy (including animal-assisted therapy), have all led people to ecopsychology. Because of these factors, ecopsychology/ecotherapy contains an extremely wide range of diverse practices; and an equally wide range of theories to go with them.

Naturally enough, people tend to bring with them to ecopsychology the theories and approaches that have been meaningful to them in their previous work, and to find ways of applying them to the new field. It is particularly noticeable how a number of pre-existing models have been taken over from psychotherapy and used to help make sense of our difficult relationship with the rest of the living world in terms of various kinds of psychopathology. These include among others attachment theory (Jordan, 2009), addiction(Glendinning, 1995, Maiteny, 2012), eating disorder (Rust, 2008), dissociation (Totton, 2012) and autism(Chatalos, 2012). However these connections sometimes function as productive analogies as much as direct models. A more central concept is ecosystemic thinking (Bateson, 1980; Totton, 2011), discussed elsewhere in these papers.

A matrix for ecopsychological theories

The diverse range of ecopsychological theories can be at least partially analysed through two polarities on two axes, with each specific approach placing itself in relation to these. One axis is between ‘other-than-human-centred’ and ‘human-centred’; the other, between ‘scientific’ and ‘poetic’ – what many people now call ‘left brain’ and ‘right brain’ (McGilchrist, 2012).

Human-centred theories focus on the value to human beings of contact with ‘nature’ (the reason for the quote marks will become apparent), and on the ways in which human beings can make use of the natural world to cure ‘nature-deficit disorder’ (Louv, 2010), increase our psychological well being (Mind, 2013), heal trauma (Linden & Grut, 2002) and develop spiritually (Wilber, 2001). Some of these theories see it as the job of human beings to manage the other-than-human world as efficiently as possible (for an excellent discussion of the difference between what he sees as the two false extremes of ‘planet managers’ and ‘planet fetishizers’, see Eisenberg, 1998).

Other-than-human centred theories focus on the intrinsic value of the world beyond humanity; they emphasise that humans, like everything else, are a part of nature, and argue that othering the ‘natural’ is a symptom of the alienation from the web of existence which is our fundamental problem (Winter, 1996), and that using ‘nature’ for our psychological benefit is just another of the many ways in which humans are exploiting the world around us. They therefore propose a task of reconnection (Macy & Brown, 2014), of learning to ‘think like a mountain’ (Seed et al., 1988). They tend to see the task for human beings as to ‘re-wild’, to leave the other-than-human alone so that ecological processes can restore balance (Monbiot, 2014; Totton, 2012).

Scientific theories find their locus of evaluation in the scientific world view, utilising one or another specific area of scientific research or often a combination. They are concerned to show the value of connection with the other-than-human and more-than-human in the terms which they assume to be most evidential, drawing on neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, ecology, biology and many other disciplines, sometimes including ‘soft sciences’ like sociology and anthropology. These approaches implicitly privilege reason over emotion, intuition and sensation. Poetic theories do the exact opposite: they privilege the intuitive, emotional and sensate. Although they will often incorporate material from the sciences, they use it primarily to provide metaphors and images, alongside and on an equal footing with mythology, literature, art, dreams, and unique individual narratives, sometimes described as ‘anecdotal evidence’.

This will become clearer with some examples of how different ecopsychological theories can be placed on the matrix, in relation to each of its two axes. Given the limited space I will just indicate one or two key representatives of each quadrant, starting in the top right – other-than-human centred/poetic – with David Abram (1997, 2010), who asserts that:

Reality shapeshifts. Underneath our definitions, prior to all our reality explanations, the world disclosed by our bodily senses is a breathing cosmos – tranced, animate and trickster-struck. – (Abram, 2010, p.298)

and holds a vision of ‘a clarified encounter between the human animal and its habitat’ (ibid, P.299).

In the top left – other-than-human/scientific — we find, for example, someone like James Lovelock (2000), who draws on robust scientific understandings to demonstrate the interdependence of all beings, to argue that the planet itself, Gaia, is a meta-being, ‘an entity that is alive … a control system for the earth’ (2000, p. 11), and to portray human life as a ‘people plague’ (ibid, Ch 8) which endangers the whole of Gaia.

The lower left quadrant – scientific/human-centred – is massively populated, by a large number of research papers exploring the effect of exposure to ‘nature’ on various mental health problems, and also by research meta-studies (Annerstedt and Wahrborg, 2011Chalquist, 2009). While some of this work comes from people who are themselves committed to a deep relationship with the other-than-human, it represents a deference to the cultural hegemony of reason. I would also place in this quadrant much of the discipline of conservation psychology (Clayton & Myers, 2015), together with others who believe that it is the task of human beings to take control of the other-than-human in order to preserve it (see Monbiot, 2014, Ch. 12).

Representatives of the lower right quadrant – poetic/human-centred – are extremely varied, but would include all sorts of work which to varying degrees focuses on ‘nature’ as a source of spiritual or psychological development for humans, rather than for its intrinsic value. Examples include Imagining Animals (Case, 2005)To the River (Laing, 2011)Edge of the Sacred (Tacey, 2009), and the books of Robert Macfarlane.

Below is a diagram of the two axes with one example in each quadrant. We can imagine a much, much larger array, with a large number of theoretical approaches included, each in its own precise relationship with the polarities – for example one somewhat less scientific but somewhat more human-centred than its neighbour, and so on. It is clear that a system like this is inherently subjective, in that there is no objective way to assess how each approach relates to the two axes; however it perhaps offers a helpful way to hold different approaches within an overall context.

It should be emphasised that these different polarities do not necessarily contradict each other. Science and poetry, the human and the other-than-human, are themselves held together in an ecosystemic web which transcends these dichotomies. Left brain and right brain together make up a whole brain; and nothing that harms the planetary network can truly benefit humanity – as Wendell Berry writes:

It is not possible … for humans to intend their own good specifically or exclusively. We cannot intend our good, in the long run, without intending the good of our place – which means, ultimately, the good of the world.

(Berry, 1991, p.213)

Other important polarities

The field of ecopsychological theory of course cannot be fully encompassed by two simple axes; and some other polarities we may notice are perhaps more inherently conflictual. (Conflict and competition are inherent to any functioning ecosystem.) For example, many ecopsychologists believe that there is an inherent political dimension to ecopsychology — that the reasons for our disconnect from the other-than-human are wholly entangled with the reasons for the lack of global social justice, and the struggle for one has to be linked to the struggle for the other (Fisher, 2013Bookchin, 2005Totton, 2011Chaplin, 2008). One important branch of this ‘radical ecopsychology’ is the powerful tradition of ecofeminism, pioneered by Vandana Shiva (Mies and Shiva, 1993) and many others (Hogan, Metzger & Peterson, 1998Hawthorne, 2002), which sees patriarchy as the root of both environmental and social exploitation:

This capitalist-patriarchal perspective interprets difference as hierarchical and uniformity as a prerequisite for equality. Our aim is to go beyond this narrow perspective and to express our diversity and, in different ways, address the inherent inequalities in world structures which permit the North to dominate the South, men to dominate women, and the frenetic plunder of ever more resources for ever more unequally distributed economic gain to dominate nature.

(Mies and Shiva, 1993, p. 2)

Both radical psychology and ecofeminism can appear in any of the four quadrants discussed above, although they are perhaps more likely to occupy some rather than others. A number of other ecopsychologists do not have a political bent, and do not see their work as part of a project of general political change. (Any assumption that the current organisation of society is ‘normal’ is politically conservative, but this is often not acknowledged.) Their focus may be on environmental destruction as a specific issue, without exploring its embedding in the more general structure of society; or perhaps they use a spiritual/transpersonal perspective to understand our disconnection from the other-than-human (Maiteny, 2012). Of course spirituality and politics can go hand in hand, strengthening both, but this is perhaps less common than their separation.

Conflict and cooperation

Many of these differences of viewpoint and approach can be – and generally are – accepted as aspects of healthy diversity, enriching the field as a whole. However there are some areas where divergence can lead to conflict. This is not necessarily negative: as has already been suggested, conflict and competition are part of all functioning ecosystems. It may well be that current conflicts within the field are a natural stage in the development of a wider synthesis. Perhaps the biggest conflict is between those who place humans at the centre of the picture – continuing, critics argue, the old Judaeo-Christian notion of humanity as stewards of the earth; and those who see humans as one, highly disruptive, element in a rich and complex planetary ecosystem – downplaying, critics argue, the unique nature of human consciousness, and/or the need to raise human living standards globally. Political radicals and political conservatives can be found on both sides of this argument.

It is striking, though, that ecopsychology has not (so far) really split into separate factions each with their own organisations and events. Perhaps people who are drawn to this field are sufficiently aware of the complexity of life not to be drawn to either/or simplicities. Ecopsychology events often demonstrate difficulties of understanding and tolerance between those with different backgrounds, styles of interaction, and theoretical positions. But no one wants to fence up the forest, or dam the river delta; so ecopsychologists persist in keeping lines of communication open, in the hope that a new synthesis will emerge, and in the clear knowledge that diversity is central to life.


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