“The economy is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the environment,” said Herman Daly in his 1977 treatise Steady State Economics, invoking the notion that global financial systems hang in careful balance dependent on the planet’s environmental health—a rare idea for the time. Economists, environmentalists, and social scientists alike have since carried variations of Daly’s logic to consumers and boardroom members, urging the public and private sectors to recognize that capital can only be as healthy as the resources on which it depends. Even these ambitious ideas, though, don’t question the underlying assumption that the whole wild world exists for man to mine and plunder, and that we humans are separate from the nature rather than a part of it.
The group of specialists now calling bluff on this disconnection is a surprising one, coming not from wildlife biology or atmospheric science but from mental health professions. Many suggest that it’s high time to reframe Daly’s adage to include the human psyche. An evolving field known as “ecopsychology” proposes that the pervasive but fictive gulf between man and nature not only drives ecological decline, but also contributes to modern afflictions such as depression, anxiety, obesity, and heart disease. From tenuous roots in Hippie-era urgings that we all be one with mother earth, ecopsychology has in recent years emerged as a legitimate approach to mental health, elaborating on research showing that people benefit from contact with nature—and suffer from its absence.
Oregon-based clinical psychologist Thomas Doherty has been at the forefront of efforts to usher the field into the realm of academic credibility. One of the directors of the American Psychological Association’s recently established Climate Change Task Force, Doherty is encouraging his mental health colleagues to address the psychic damage caused by ecological decline and the modern world’s insistent separateness from nature.
“Ecopsychology is not a discipline, so much as it is a social movement, a world view,” he says. Although practitioners have evolved a number of diverse treatment methods, from conducting therapy sessions out-of-doors to helping clients grieve toxic spills and species loss, Doherty says one of the unifying ideas in ecopsychology is its attempt to integrate a different set of questions into clinical practice. What, for example, does it mean to live as part of the web of life, but to behave as if we didn’t?
The seeming simplicity of this question obscures its underlying radicalism. “Psychology, as part of the Western tradition, is a Cartesian enterprise,” says Doherty. “It consciously tries to separate humans from the rest of nature.” The widely accepted rift between nature and humanity has supposed roots as broad and deep as the advent of language, of agriculture, the legacy of the Enlightenment. Ecopsychology endeavors to explode the nature-culture, mind-body binaries that for centuries have informed how we measure sanity and health. This bifurcating tendency doesn’t preserve civilization from savagery, but rather is at the murky core of modern pathologies, like anxiety, substance abuse, and compulsive shopping. In other words, it is only because we are at such a remove from nature that we can behave the way we do: using resources with no regard for consequence, consuming goods with no thought as to their production. Doherty asks “what if we were to reinvent psychology so that at its heart it was an ecological discipline?” Could changing our relationship to nature hold the key to mental health?
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Katherine Rowland is a journalist currently based in New York. Her work has appeared in Nature, the Financial Times, the Independent, OnEarth and other publications. Excerpted from Guernica (September 20, 2012), an award-winning online magazine of arts and politics.