The Environmental Connection | Psychology & Sustainability

image credit: Juan Arreo

Our impact on the earth, and on one another, has long been acknowledged. The fairly young field of ecopsychology looks at how our minds are connected to the “mind” of the earth and how our behavior and how we feel about ourselves (and one another) reflects that. From that state of mind climate change, pollution and other damaging effects follow. Thomas Joseph Doherty suggests that cultivating our own personal sustainability could have profound impact on cultivating earth’s sustainability. 

While acknowledging the diversity and complexity of individuals’ world views, psychologist Thomas Joseph Doherty, Editor of the journal Ecopsychology, asserted that “Everyone has an environmental identity.” In his presentation, Doherty observed that those identities are shaped by many things, including our experiences of natural settings and of environmental degradation. Doherty revisited the “Global Warming’s Six Americas” study, saying that the challenge is to reach people in each of those groups.

Environmental problems like climate change provoke complex emotional responses, said Doherty. Such problems can trigger psychological defense mechanisms that are mature and adaptive—such as altruism and affiliation—or less so—such as rationalization, apathetic withdrawal or emotional acting out. Suppression, or the conscious setting aside of distress, can be adaptive if it enables an individual to do productive work, such as intervening in a disaster situation. Polarized, partisan thinking can be a maladaptive response to stress, and it can also prove addictive.

In seeking to change environmental behaviors, said Doherty, it is important to understand the stages of behavior change. Those stages range from disinterest, to thinking, planning and ultimately making the change. We need to “meet people where they’re at,” and find points of leverage to overcome barriers to change.

Doherty observed that, in the modern world, people have many responsibilities: career, self- improvement, parenting, relationships. Green living can seem like yet another responsibility for those who already feel overburdened. “Personal sustain-ability,” in contrast, is a way of cultivating sustain-ability in all of the roles in one’s life. Activists, for example, may ask themselves whether they are living and working in a way that can be maintained for the long haul—or if they are headed for burnout.

There are many steps to personal sustainability, said Doherty. The first is to recognize and validate one’s emotions. Then, in the spirit of mindfulness, one moves to centering and acceptance. A much-neglected step of the process is nurturing and celebration: it is important to cultivate positive emotions, which widen our focus and fuel creativity, while negative emotions narrow our sense of what’s possible. The ultimate goal is “grounded action”— what Doherty calls “self-transcendent acceptance and engagement.”

Finally, Doherty turned his attention to the particular needs of change agents, the heroic folks who are working to protect the environment. As Doherty noted, the final stage of the archetypal hero’s journey is to be a “master of two worlds.” In the case of those of us aspiring to be change agents, this entails balancing the idealized “ecotopia” we hope to construct, and the real world in which we live. Too much focus on either world can distort an activist’s vision and diminish his/her effectiveness. Being a master of two worlds requires:

•  Pluralism: an ability to work across visions;

•  Insight: awareness of how personal and cultural psychology informs your vision;

•  Resilience: maintaining personal and organizational health; and

•  (Re)Visioning: Cultivating a developmentally appropriate and life-transcendent vision.

After a self-reflection exercise in which participants considered their progress on each of those fronts, the group broke into small-group discussions. Issues raised in those discussions included:

• The pervasive problem of burnout, and the related issue of rapid turnover in environmental organizations. Several causes were identified: despair; intergenerational power struggles within organizations; extrinsic values; and the loss of restorative rituals. Some remedies were also considered, including reclaiming rituals and incorporating personal sustainability into individual workplans.

• Frustration with the environmental movement’s failure to connect with the broader public—as one participant said, “We don’t have relationships with the people we’re talking at.”

What is Ecopsychology?

Read the Inspiring Action PDF

Read about the Ecological Unconscious in NY Times Magazine

Learn more about Psychologist for Social Responsibility

Original article in Inspiring Action, a report by the Psychologists for Social Responsibility and Friends of the Earth, September 2010.








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