In the opening years of the 21st century, we face enormous challenges. We can no longer afford the luxury of pursuing various intellectual and vocational disciplines apart from environmental and social realities. We must reform our economy and way of life towards a life sustaining society. To do this, we need a “ecoliterate” citizenry, aware of our interconnectedness with all living beings, and willing to act on that awareness. Now all education must include ecological education, and all psychology, ecopsychology.
Ecological literacy might be called “ecowisdom” because it encompasses such a broad array of understandings, knowledge, attitudes, and experience. I began using the term “ecoliteracy” to indicate the learning we need to seek in all dimensions of human life: intellectual, psychological, somatic, social, and spiritual. As someone developing ecoliteracy, I aspire to the following capacities:
  • awareness of our interconnectedness and kinship with all life
  • a sense of wonder and gratitude for the world
  • a strong sense of physical and spiritual connection to land and place
  • a widening of identification beyond the individual ego to the “ecological self”
  • an understanding of basic concepts of ecology and systems thinking, and perceiving relationships among humans and all living systems through these lenses
  • comprehension of the major ecological and social crises we face and their interrelationships
  • the willingness to experience both the pain and joy of the world
  • lived values of cultural diversity, equality, justice, and inclusiveness
  • critical examination of prevailing paradigms, assumptions, and institutions
  • collaboration for social transformation and non-hierarchical governance
  • conservation of resources and energy; recycling, reusing, sharing, etc.
  • consideration of environmental and social implications in all consumer choices
  • attentiveness to wild nature for renewal and guidance
These two movements seem very closely related to me; in fact, I have trouble distinguishing between them. I decided to use excepts from Coming Back to Life (by Joanna Macy and Molly Young Brown) to describe these two movements; as you read, you will no doubt see a great deal of overlap yourself (for example, the concept of the “Ecological Self”).
Ecopsychology Western psychology has virtually ignored our relationship to the natural world. In its definition of mental health, our connection to the source of life does not figure, nor is our destruction of our life support system included in its list of pathologies. It has failed to ask Paul Shepard’s rather obvious and haunting question: “Why does society persist in destroying its habitat?” Now the new discipline of ecopsychology addresses this failure and studies the human psyche within the larger systems of which it is a part. It explores how our cultural alienation from nature engenders not only careless and destructive behavior toward our environment, but also many common disorders such as depression and addiction. Psychotherapists within the movement recognize how their profession   has blinded itself to the larger context of their clients’ lives and pathologized their pain for the world. These pioneers break new ground as they help clients find strength and meaning through experiencing their interconnectedness with all life, and acting on its behalf.

Ecopsychology invites psychotherapy practice to expand its focus beyond the inner landscape, to explore and foster the development of community, contact with land and place, and ecological identity…  It invites us to hear the Earth speaking through our pain and distress, and listen to ourselves as if we were listening to a message from the universe. – Sarah Conn

Deep Ecology Our interdependence with all life of Earth has profound implications for our attitudes and actions. To clarify these implications, and free us from behaviors based on outmoded notions of our separateness from nature, deep ecology arose, both as a philosophy and a movement. The term was coined in the 1970’s by Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess, a mountain climber and scholar of Gandhi.
In contrast to reform environmentalism, which treats the symptoms of ecological degradation – clean up a river here or a dump there for human well-being – deep ecology questions fundamental premises of the Industrial Growth Society. It challenges the assumptions, embedded in much Judeo-Christian and Marxist thought, that humans are the crown of creation and the ultimate measure of value. It offers us a broader and more sustainable sense of our own worth, as viable members of the great, evolving community of Earth. It holds that we can break free from the species arrogance that threatens not only ourselves but all complex life forms within reach.
Beyond Anthropocentrism We cannot genuinely experience our interrelatedness with all life if we are blind to our own human-centeredness, and how deeply embedded it is in our culture and consciousness. Deep ecologist John Seed, an Australian rainforest activist, describes both the ways it constricts us, and the rewards we find in moving beyond it.

Anthropocentrism means human chauvinism. Similar to sexism, but substitute “human race” for man and “all other species” for woman…

When humans investigate and see through their layers of anthropocentric self-cherishing, a most profound change in consciousness begins to take place.  Alienation subsides. The human is no longer a stranger, apart. Your humanness is then recognized as merely the most recent stage of your existence, and as you stop identifying exclusively with this chapter, you start to get in touch with yourself as mammal, as vertebrate, as a species only recently emerged from the rainforest. As the fog of amnesia disperses, there is a transformation in your relationship to other species, and in your commitment to them.

John Seed points out that this liberation is more than an intellectual process. For him, as for many other people, it has been engendered and deepened by taking part in actions on behalf of Earth.

“I am protecting the rainforest” develops to “I am part of the rainforest protecting myself. I am that part of the rainforest recently emerged into thinking.” What a relief then! The thousands of years of imagined separation are over and we begin to recall our true nature.This is, the change is a spiritual one, sometimes referred to as deep ecology. (Seed, Macy, Naess, Fleming. 1988).

The Ecological Self Arne Naess has a term for the wider sense of identity that John Seed describes. He calls it the ecological self, and presents it as the fruit of a natural maturation process. We underestimate ourselves, he says, when we identify self with the narrow, competitive ego. “With sufficient all-sided maturity” we not only move on from ego to a social self and a metaphysical self, but an ecological self as well. Through widening circles of identification, we vastly extend the boundaries of our self-interest, and enhance our joy and meaning in life.
A welcome and significant feature of this concept is the way it transcends the need to sermonize about our moral responsibilities to other beings. When we assumed that we were essentially separate, we preached altruism – the Latin term alter   being the opposite of ego. This is not only philosophically unsound, from the perspective of deep ecology and other nondualistic teachings, but also ineffective.

What humankind is capable of loving from mere duty or moral exhortation is, unfortunately, very limited…   The extensive moralizing within the ecological movement has given the public the false impression that they are primarily asked to sacrifice, to show more responsibility, more concern, and better morals…   [But] the requisite care flows naturally if the self is widened and deepened so that protection of free nature is felt and conceived of as protection of our very selves.   (Seed, Macy, Naess, Fleming. 1988).

Asking deeper questions Naess and his activist colleagues called for a “deep, long-range ecology movement.” Whether or not it is yet discernible as a movement, certainly its ideas have circulated widely, providing a powerful impetus both to green activists and to academic debates.
While these ideas have evolved into a deep ecology platform – including such principles as the recognition that life forms have an intrinsic right to exist, and that human population is excessive in relation to the carrying capacity of Earth – deep ecology is neither an ideology nor a dogma. Of an essentially exploratory character, it seeks to motivate people to ask, as Naess puts it, “deeper questions” about their real wants and needs, about their relation to life on Earth and their vision for the future. As parts of a larger living whole – be it a society, an ecosystem, or a planet – our comprehension of it is necessarily partial; we cannot stand aloof, blueprints in hand, and deliver final answers. But the questions we ask of ourselves and each other act as a solvent, loosen up encrusted mental structures, free us to think and see in fresh ways.
Related movements: Ecofeminism and Ecojustice
This kind of basic inquiry has fostered movements and modes of thought that do not necessarily link themselves with deep ecology, though they share many of its philosophical premises as well as much of its critique of the Industrial Growth Society. Many activists and thinkers, including the authors, identify themselves with more than one of these overlapping movements, each of which brings distinctive concerns and perspectives.
Obvious parallels exist between the ways that entrenched power structures treat nature and the ways they treat women. Ecofeminism emerged in the 1970’s, as scholars, writers, and organizers illumined these parallels and explored their common cultural roots. Many incisive voices argue that the war against nature waged by the Industrial Growth Society arises from more ancient patterns of domination. They question deep ecologists’ focus on anthropocentrism as the source of our pathology, and challenge them to discern the androcentricism (patriarchy) that underlies it. Their insights help us recognize the mindset bred by centuries of male rule– the dualism and objectification, the divorce of mind from body, of logic from experience; and they offer more holistic ways of knowing.Defender of the redwoods, the late Judy Bari was an ecofeminist who personified the deepest values of the movement. Despite assaults that eventually cost her life, she persisted in her commitment to non-violence, and her compassionate concern for the loggers’ future, and her penetrating analysis of the corporate forces destroying their livelihood and the land itself.
As ecofeminism brings the issue of gender to our understanding of the environmental crisis, the ecojustice movement brings issues of race, class, and poverty. The old divide between activists in defense of social and economic rights and those in defense of nature no longer holds. It is increasingly evident that their goals are inseparably linked and mutually reinforcing. The wreckage and contamination caused by the Industrial Growth Society degrade humans and habitats alike: polluting industries are located and toxic wastes are dumped where poor people and people of color live. The farms workers sprayed by pesticides, the miners poisoned by uranium, the tribes whose forest homes are clear-cut, are largely people of color. Given persistent prejudice, their race and poverty make them easier to dismiss. The ecojustice movement has effectively challenged environmentalists to broaden their awareness to the suffering of humans as well as trees and dolphins. Through its outreach to larger sections of society, it holds promise for a vastly wider participation in the work of the Great Turning toward a Life Sustaining Culture.
Click here for Molly’s article on “Ecopsychosynthesis” that appeared in the first edition of Conversations in Psychosynthesis, the journal of the Association for the Advancement of Psychosynthesis (AAP). You can contact the AAP at:

Books on Ecopsychology and the Great Turning

Baker, Carolyn. Sacred Demise: Walking the Spiritual Path of Industrial Civilization’s Collapse. iUniverse, 2009. [Link to book review]

Hawkin, Paul. Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement In the World Came Into Being and Why No One Saw it Coming. New York: Viking, 2007.

Herman, Louis G. Future Primal- How Our Wilderness Origins Show Us the Way Forward.  New World Library, 2013.

Keogh, Martin, ed.  Hope Beneath Our Feet: Restoring Our Place in the Natural World.  North Atlantic Books, 2010.

Lipton, Bruce & Bhaerman, Steve. Spontaneous Evolution: Our Positive Future (And A Way To Get There From Here). Hay House, 2009.  [Link to book review]

LeConte, Ellen.  Life Rules: Why so much is going wrong everywhere at once and how Life teaches us to fix it. New Society Publishers, 2012.  [Link to book review]

Plotkin, Bill. Nature and the Human Soul Cultivating Wholeness and Community in a Fragmented World. New World Library, 2008. [Link to book review]

Plotkin, Bill.  Wild Mind: A Field Guide to the Human Psyche. New World Library, 2013.