That millions of people share in the same forms of mental pathology does not make those people sane ~ Erich Fromm
In the first post of this series, I suggested that two primary assumptions underlie the concept of ecopsychology: psychology needs ecology and ecology needs psychology.
The focus of this post is on the ‘second’ aspect of ecopsychology: ecology needs psychology. While the idea that ecology might need psychology may a first seem counter-intuitive, I hope that the following two points illustrate why ecology and environmentalism would benefit from dialoging deeply with psychological principles.
- Addiction and the Environmental Crisis. Most environmentalists would agree that one major driver of the environmental crisis is our over-consumption of natural resources in the more-developed world. In the West, we seem to have an insatiable appetite for stuff–ironically, perhaps, often for things that add very little to our overall quality of life (and may actually decrease it!). Several thinkers have suggested that this irrational drive to consume is a form of addiction; for example, in his influential book, Earth in the Balance, Al Gore argued that Western culture in its entirety is addicted to the consumption of the earth itself.
Psychologist and environmental activist Chellis Glendinning has clearly illustrated how Western society’s consumptive habits can linked to the psychological process of addiction. She notes that core elements of addiction (being: denial, dishonesty, control, thinking disorders, grandiosity, and disconnection from one’s feelings) are all socially accepted hallmarks of our consumptive culture.
- Changing Behaviours, Changing Hearts. Environmentalists often work long and hard trying to raise people’s awareness of the environmental crisis. This is often accomplished by warning individuals about all the consequences that we will be (and are) facing: climate change, environmental disasters, food shortages, destroyed landscapes, new diseases. The list goes on and on…
The problem with this approach is that it is very often, ineffective. Most people choose to ignore and avoid the doom and gloom messages from environmentalists because the problems are just too scary and too painful to consciously acknowledge.
This is where ecopsychological ideas again become helpful. First, as noted previously, ecopsychology reminds us that most people’s poor treatment of the environment is not done consciously or maliciously–to some extent, all of us are addicted to consumption and do not know any better way to behave. For this reason, guilting and blaming people for their behaviour is actually unfair, and counter-productive. Second, ecopsychology reminds us that at our core–however unconscious the desire may appear to be–each one of us is deeply connected to the planet and wants to care for it.
With this in mind, a more psychologically effective (and sustainable) approach to environmental education would be to re-kindle people’s relationship with the nature world, help them address their deep-seated sorrow about the state of our planet, and watch as people slowly change their habits–becoming more fully human along the way.