Ecopsychology's Contribution to Peace

The human psyche has become a mighty force of nature. Our attitudes, everyday behaviors, passions, and ambivalences shape life on our planet. Inexorable pressures of technology and globalization are causing more and more people to live in urban settings where water comes from pipes, food magically appears in bins, and cash materializes with the push of a few buttons. Modern consumers in the developed world live viscerally and mentally separated from sources of life that sustain physical existence. Due to our lifestyles and ignorance, ecosystems are in radical decline. Ecopsychology arises in response to this precarious situation by expanding the scope and focus of psychology to include the encompassing world of plants, animals, oceans, and land. An open and mutual relationship with the natural world, like our relationships with family, friends, and society, is vital to our physical and emotional well-being, as well as the lives of countless living things. We all matter to each other.

Ecopsychology is by no means a “new” psychology, for ancient healing arts have always included the more-than-human world. In earlier times, nature was by far the more powerful player to whom we submitted. The rapidly decreasing vitality of ancient ecosystems indicates that we are now the dominant players and nature often the victim. Modern ecopsychology seeks to reestablish human-nature connections. It posits that a personal relationship with nature is not only essential to psychological health, but also counters this dangerous anthropocentric trend where a sense of human superiority fosters an emotional disconnection with non-human beings. As ever, we are still dependent on nature for survival.

Ecopsychology and the modern peace movement share synchronistic and synergistic connections. Neither is new and both aim unerringly at bending the course of human history by changing human nature. Peace efforts arise in response to a danger parallel to ecological collapse, where all-out human conflict would result in mutually assured, planetary destruction. Extinction of all species is at stake. Exceedingly profitable ancient survival strategies, like war and heedless environmental exploitation, are now, due to our technological prowess, death warrants. Where the modern peace movement focuses on relationships between humans, ecopsychology concentrates on relationships between humans and other species. 


Emotional Responses to Ecological Destruction

Unlike other environmental scientists, ecopsychologists do not exclude human emotions from their work. Indeed, the capacity to feel and be affected is the foundation for all conscious and mutual relationships. Possibly the greatest danger to life on earth is apathy. People don’t take action or change their behavior unless they care. Caring arises from the capacity to be affected by what is happening in our world, to feel awe, joy, and love as well as sorrow, fear, anger, or shame. Ecopsychologists believe that sluggish responses to glaring environmental crises are less an expression of not caring than an inability to weather challenging emotions. Denial and avoidance are symptoms of emotional limitations, not heartlessness.

In reality, many people do care about the environment and the fate of future generations. When we learn that comfortable lifestyles irreparably damage biological life and discover how our everyday actions are incongruent with the care and concern we genuinely feel, an inborn response is to experience shame and guilt. Close on their heels often follow fear, anger, and despair. People quite naturally steer clear of extremely uncomfortable emotions like these and attempt to maintain equilibrium, ease, and peace of mind.

Avoiding feelings is not real peace, but numbness. Shutting down emotional reactions is actually a disaster for living systems because feelings of pain indicate an need for attention and action, that—ouch!—it’s time to pull one’s hand out of the fire. Besides stultifying responsiveness, avoiding feelings leads to a swampy quality of being and dampened vitality. Life loses depth and inspiration. Being with what is true in an emotional way, even if challenging and painful, is energizing and enlivening.

Oftentimes zealous environmental sentiments promote violent reactions, but ecopsychology councils against thoughtless emotional reactivity. For example, “spiking logs,” a practice used to protect old growth trees that injure or kill loggers if their chainsaws hit the hidden metal spikes, is not an ecopsychologically grounded practice. The loggers, economic markets, and trees are all part of modern ecology and caring about the needs and concerns all parties is foundational to ecopsychology. To counter emotional reactivity, ecopsychology works to develop an overarching consciousness that is inclusive of all parties and their needs, one that renders violence unnecessary. Feelings of frustration and anger are perfectly appropriate when people witness ecological destruction, but violent reactions are different than taking firm and thoughtful, even outrageous, actions.


Fostering Ecological Identity

Human beings need to develop a new identity that integrates the effects of globalization and technology and combines them with love and respect for ancient ecological systems and other creatures. An expanded and inclusive emotional identity with the natural world, each other, and our “stuff” (cars, computers, garbage), is what ecopsychologists call the “ecological-self.”

Historically people had a vital connection with all aspects of their world, including one’s community of people, critters, creeks, forests and future generations. In many cultures, this connection is lost, forgotten, and damaged. Taking time to simply be outdoors in wild beautiful places is a first step in restoring this eroded connection. “Re-creation” in nature rejuvenates body, mind, and soul. However, simply loving the outdoors does not unerringly develop vital, emotional connectivity with one’s world. Deeper psychological intention, inquiry, and presence are necessary to recover an emotional bond with nature. Ecopsychologists favor methods that combine intimate contact with the natural world with self-inquiry. Nature herself is a great healer and teacher, providing metaphors for ones personal journey, a space for self-reflection, and fresh perspectives. Nature-based healing modalities that develop the ecological-self and promote personal healing include wilderness work with youth, vision quests, cooperative gardens, community-based environmental restoration projects, conscious activism, intentional ecological travel adventures, and simply doing therapeutic work in outdoor settings.

Efforts to bridge humans and nature are happening in many settings, often by people who do not even know the term “ecopsychology.” The popularity of marine worlds, wildlife sanctuaries, and zoos illustrates the myriad ways people seek out and enjoy connection with animals and the wild, nonhuman world. Even in highly “unnatural” settings, people learn about the profound impacts human behaviors have upon distant habitats and animals. People are increasingly seeking to become ecologically educated and emotionally connected to nature. Perhaps we are slowly shifting from believing the ancient biblical claim that humans have “dominion” over nature towards becoming conscious participants in evolution and stewards of life.

 Another perhaps surprising benefit of developing an ecological identity is self-esteem. Though our lives are relatively short, life itself—in the form of fishes, forests, and our own future children—is long and abiding. Their lives and destinies are intertwined with ours. Because of this, we matter. Our actions really matter. We, each of us in our own ways, are relevant to all with whom we are connected, now and in the future. Thus an expanded identity can foster a sense of self-esteem more abiding and less personal than how we look in a pair of jeans, the size of our bank account, or what kind car we drive.

Finally, and perhaps most relevant to peace, linking our actions with the fate of others is an expression of empathy. At a recent amphibian exhibit in Vancouver, crowds of viewers were exhorted to buy organic, fair trade chocolate for the sake of tropical frogs. Making meaningful connections between seemingly disparate facts (chocolate and frogs) involves forging paths of intelligence and imagination needed to maintain compassionate relationships with all beings. The capacity for empathy is like a muscle. Flexing it ecologically builds our capacity to care for others, however different and distant from us they may be. Fostering empathic “I-Thou” relationships also erodes our tendency to objectify others. Objectification, like dehumanization, is a root cause of violence in all its forms.


Inspiring Creative Action

Plumes of smoke in the forest or the cries of a child trigger instinctive responses in human beings to take immediate action, but more gradual ecological disasters do no such thing. The most egregious environmental crises are often abstract and incomprehensible (e.g. global warming). Responding effectively requires that expanded identity and imagination be matched by grounded, non-abstract, sovereignty. Collective change is necessary, but collective change still involves thousands of personal, quirky, passionate responses. Powerful corporate and governmental forces usually defend the status quo and short-term gains take precedence over long-term interests. This is why ecopsychology believes that serious change begins at the personal level.

Regaining the right to love and take care of our world requires personal effort. Corporations or governments stand in our way. Very few of us have been to a slaughter-house, a forest clear-cut, or active recycling plant because ugly, smelly, cruel places are blocked from us by distance or our own squeamishness. Efforts to regain our right to love and take care of our world involve transgressing taboos that hide ugly truths and block authentic expression in whatever ways we each devise. We can rise to the challenge in each our unique way, or not. Either way, we each affect the course of evolution. The prospect is staggering and intoxicating, terrifying and invigorating, humbling and empowering.  Ecopsychology reminds us that the mysterious and creative powers of life course through us. We are each expressions of nature, as beautiful, unpredictably creative, and determined as any natural phenomena.


Conclusion: A Healthy Environment is the Foundation for Peace

“Peace on Earth depends on our ability to secure our living environment.” So spoke the Norwegian Nobel Committee in 2004 when explaining to a surprised world why, for the first time, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to an environmentalist, Wangari Maathia. There was no need to explain the connection between peace and ecology when, three years later, the prize was awarded to Al Gore and the IPCC for their work with climate change.

Harmony with nature and harmony with each other are not mutual guarantees, but a degraded environment clearly instigates social disharmony, and even total disintegration. We witness this in current food riots around the world, the tragic failed state of Haiti, and the collapse of the Mayan, Anasazi, and Easter Island civilizations. A healthy relationship with the environment will always remain the foundation for lasting peace and the flowering of culture. Ecopsychological theory and practices dovetail naturally with efforts to sustain peace. Ecopsychologists will continue to help people do the inner and outer work of making peace with our living environment so we can all continue to do the perhaps more difficult work of getting along with each other.


                                                By Renée G. Soule

                                                The Oxford International Encyclopedia of Peace

                                                Editor: Nigel J. Young