Kelvin Hall, from Stroud, Gloucestershire, offers psychotherapy that embraces the intervention of other-than-human life in both content and process; this includes equine-assisted work. He has twenty-six years in the business and is a student of ‘natural and classical’ horsemanship. He is immersed in the British countryside.
Emma Palmer, from Bristol, is an embodied-relational therapist, wild therapist, ecopsychologist, supervisor and facilitator. She offers ‘wild therapy’ talks and workshops as well as workshops interweaving embodiment and ecopsychology. She says that current influences upon her work lie at the interface between the experience of gardening her allotment and Zen practice.
Viola Sampson, from London, is a craniosacral therapist and ecopsychologist who offers craniosacral therapy for individuals, trees and horses. Her therapy combines with homeopathic remedies and essences.
Mathew Henson, from Kinsale, County Cork, is an existential psychotherapist and ecopsychologist, who says his psychotherapy practice is influenced by the principles of ecopsychology and his ecopsychology practice is influenced by the principles of existential-phenomenology.
Other than the obvious, what do the above have in common? Are they all closet Trotskyists? Are they all beneficiaries of secret funding provided by the Green Blob? Do they all play right-back for Manchester City?
No. What they have in common is that they think that it is the likes of you and I who are in desperate need of psychiatric treatment. Assuredly, it is the sceptics, turning a blind eye whilst Mother Earth weeps, who are mentally and emotionally sick – and they know just how to heal us. So, to advertise their services, their beaming, confident and welcoming smiles can be found adorning the practitioners list on the Ecopsychology UK website. But if you are thinking of visiting that website, take my advice – don’t! Instead, just drill three neat holes in your cranium. Take my word for it, it makes much more sense.
I am, of course, being cruel and sarcastic. I’m sure if you met Kelvin, Emma, Viola or Mathew, or indeed any of their colleagues, you would find them to be lovely and earnest people, passionate in what they think and do. After all, they are motivated by a desire to help others, even though they choose to do so from a self-proclaimed position of spiritual superiority. They may be knowingly fraudulent but I have no right to assume so. To demonize and mock them might seem justified based upon the pretentious and extreme nature of their beliefs but it is rare to find a doctrine that is entirely lacking sense. To give the ladies and gentlemen of Ecopsychology UK the benefit of the doubt one has to look beyond their apparently vacuous jargon and try to discern a legitimate ideological provenance. So what are the insights that Kelvin et al had embraced but then so expertly obscured? And at what point did those insights start to unravel?
A good place to start might be the work of Theodore Roszak, American academic and professor emeritus of history at California State University, who coined the term ‘Ecopsychology’ in his book ‘The Voice of the Earth’. In a 1996 letter to Psychology Today he wrote:
“Denying the relevance of nature to our deepest emotional needs is still the rule in mainstream therapy, as in the culture generally. It is apt to remain so until psychologists expand our paradigm of the self to include the natural habitat – as was always the case in indigenous cultures, whose methods of healing troubled souls included the trees and rivers, the sun and stars.”
In contrast to this concept of oneness with nature, says Roszak, we have the bleak proclamations of Sigmund Freud: “Nature is eternally remote. She destroys us – coldly, cruelly, relentlessly.”
Forlornly, Roszak observes:
“Whatever else has been revised and rejected in Freud’s theories, this tragic sense of estrangement from nature continues to haunt psychology, making the natural world seem remote and hostile.”
So here Roszak does two things. Firstly, he invokes the age-old paradigm of harmony and belonging as a spiritual basis for the welfare of the human race. But, moreover, he makes an explicit connection between psychology and ecology. Disharmony with nature has more than societal and cultural implications – it can actually lead to genuine mental illness within the individual. Estrangement does not just lead to separation anxiety in a metaphorical sense; it is separation anxiety in the literal, i.e. clinical sense.
At the root of this thinking appears to be a confusion between health and the much broader notion of welfare. On the one hand, Roszak exhorts psychologists to expand the ‘paradigm of the self’ for the purposes of clinical assessment, but then he talks of ‘healing troubled souls’, which seems to imply a decidedly non-clinical concept of self. It is this equivocation that enables ideas of simple well-being or discomfiture to take on a mental health dimension.
Of course, it isn’t just Roszak who has been peddling the importance of harmony with nature. In so doing he was able to call upon a rich heritage of received wisdom. You can find it in practices such as shamanism, in world religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism, and in the belief systems of the Australian aborigines and the American Indian. It is also arguable that an emphasis on the divine character of the natural world, and a reverence for it, lies behind the growing popularity of neo-paganism. All of these worldviews have one thing in common: spiritual, physical, mental and emotional well-being depend critically upon upholding a reverential harmony with nature. In this respect, ecopsychologists follow a well-established tradition.
Closely allied to the concept of nature worship is that of the Noble Savage;1 the belief that civilization is a corrupting influence and only those who remain close to the primitive condition truly enjoy the ennobling power of Mother Nature. The Noble Savage therefore symbolizes innate human goodness. It is a beguiling idea that remains popular to this day; you won’t find the kind and gentle folk of the Amazonian rainforest waging nuclear war. And it isn’t they who had the idea of chopping the forest down to make way for beef farms that exist only to satisfy the fat gringos’ appetite for a Big Mac with fries.
For the ecopsychologists, mankind’s fall from grace results in a mental and emotional malaise. But to some the reality bites deeper than that. By losing the nobility of the savage, we not only become mad – we become mad, bad and dangerous to know. Except, the facts just don’t back up such a claim. Evidence of violence mano a mano can be found in caveman art, and the casualty rate resulting from violent conflict amongst tribes one might label as primitive, far exceeds that for conflicts between the industrialized nations. Industrial war may seem more bloody and dehumanizing but it has, thus far, proven much less capable of wiping out a tribe’s men-folk than has your average rumble in the jungle.2
We don’t have noble savages in modern Western society, but we still romanticize the figure who works the land, ideally (as far as the connoisseur of mild erotica is concerned) stripped to the waist in the fashion of D. H. Lawrence’s gamekeeper Mellors. These folk are unsophisticated but wise; happy in their work and thankfully oblivious to the fact that the suicide rate for farmers exceeds all other professions. Contrast the office worker struggling into work each morning on the Northern Line. To the ecopsychologist these are lost souls, hopelessly out of touch with nature and badly in need of some craniosacral therapy, equine-assisted embodiment or equally spurious treatment. Which is as may be, but the eagle-eyed amongst you may have noticed a distinct lack of scientific basis for any of the above. Where, for example, is the science that justifies belief in the therapeutic powers of conversing with nature? Well let me start by telling you where it isn’t.
Returning to the Ecopsychology UK web site, there is one figure you will not find listed as a practitioner but, nevertheless, has an overarching influence over those that are. His name is Dr Michael J. Cohen, and he is lauded as a ‘maverick genius’ amongst lesser men. Under the heading ‘Hard Science of the Senses’, Dr Cohen is quoted as declaring:
“Our leaders seldom teach us that, scientifically, Natural Attraction is the essence of the Unified Field of our Big Bang Universe as well as the essence of life, love and unity.”
Of course, the reason why ‘our leaders’ seldom teach this is because it is errant nonsense. Sadly, however, the website groans under the weight of such faux-scientific ramblings, many invoking Einstein, Higgs or any other icon of physics one might wish to name-drop in the company of the gullible. And if that doesn’t work, you might try:
“Nature has taught me that our abstract ‘5-leg’ thinking in conjunction with conscious sensory ‘4-leg’ contact with attractions in natural areas can be the ‘9-leg’ way we learn to put our natural senses into culturally reasonable words.”
Oh the irony! Do you want to break the news to Dr Cohen or shall I?
Having failed to find any reasonability, cultural or otherwise, in the many words encumbering the Ecopsychology UK website, it is tempting to conclude that there is simply no science available to back up its thesis. However, let us not be too hasty. Edward O. Wilson is thought by many to be the founding father of sociobiology, and he had a thing or two to say on the subject of genetic predisposition. In particular, he has referenced the findings of a number of scientific studies in which were measured the physiological reaction of subjects viewing images of nature. In them he discerned a distinct and seemingly ingrained attraction towards natural forms and habitats. He called this ‘biophilia’.
The idea that we are attracted to nature is well-supported by anecdotal evidence; the hypothesis that biophilia is rooted in human evolution is not. To fully appreciate the scientific basis for biophilia one has to be prepared to accept the central tenet of sociobiology – that we are social animals with customary instincts that are an artefact of our genetic make-up and our environmental niche. I find this quite an easy idea to accept, though for others it implies a determinism that offends their humanistic sensibilities. Rather than delve into this area of controversy, it is perhaps best that I leave it here. Besides which, there is still quite a jump to be made from scientifically explaining our instinctive love of nature and explaining how this can be used to deal with mental illness.
I’ve spent some time here challenging the ecopsychologists’ worldview, but the reality is that I have quite a begrudging respect for their hippy-trippy ideologies; even if they may be a tad too inspired by marijuana and magic mushrooms. At the heart of their beliefs there is precisely that – heart! They denigrate the climate change sceptics but only because they want to emphasize just how much they are in need of help. Contrast that with the mainstream psychologists, where respectable practitioners, and Lewandowsky, cynically and hypocritically prostitute their understanding of cognition, all in the cause of the political agenda that underpins the CAGW meme. In both cases there is motivated reasoning but, if you were to ask me to express a preference, I would favour the ecopsychologists’ motivation every time. And whilst neither the average ecopsychologist nor Daniel Kahneman knows squat about climatology, at least the former is prepared to make this obvious.
 Although this term is often associated with Rousseau, it was actually coined by poet John Dryden in his play, The Conquest of Granada (1672). In fact, Rousseau never used it.
 I am taking into account the genocides of World War 2. The numbers involved were huge but, as a percentage of population, the rates are eclipsed by the those typically resulting from tribal conflict amongst primitive societies.
I imagine that if ATTP reads this, he will instantly jump on the ecosychological bandwaggon, just as long as it frees him from discussing stuff with witless folk who want to see some evidence
Not exactly. From your description, subjects show “a distinct and seemingly ingrained attraction” towards images of natural forms and habitats – photos, I suspect, or possibly oil paintings. From this I deduce that we urban types would rather look at people’s holiday snaps than muck out the cowshed, even in the company of half naked Mellor types.
It’s interesting that E.O. Wilson was into opinion polls, which is presumably the “socio” part of sociobiology. I only knew him as the originator of the frequently quoted claim that we are losing a thousand species a year, found in any serious discussion of biodiversity. In fact he claimed “between a hundred and a thousand” and it was in a popular book, not a scientific paper – a figure he sort of made up on the spur of the moment. You’re allowed to do that when you’re the father of something as serious as sociobiology.
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I thought you were going to discuss the ecological benefits of miniature horses compared to their larger brethren.
It is my understanding that Dr. Carlos Castaneda(1) supported their use to help folks transcend the here and now to find spiritual truth/enlightenment- vs say political truth(2).
1) Carlos Castaneda was an American author with a Ph.D. in anthropology. Starting with The Teachings of Don Juan in 1968, Castaneda wrote a series of books that describe his training in shamanism, particularly with a group whose lineage descended from the Toltecs. The books, narrated in the first person, relate his experiences under the tutelage of a Yaqui “Man of Knowledge” named don Juan Matus. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carlos_Castaneda
2) ….”Of course, truth is rarely the undoing of Washington insiders, particularly those whose careers have been to transform or a least transcend truth. So it is likely that a short but decent interval will follow and then truth will return to its previously inconsequential position in Washington.”…. https://jonathanturley.org/2018/08/30/lanny-davis-and-the-year-of-lawyers-living-dangerously/
You didn’t mention Sally Weintrobe. She’s a real psychoanalyst, and in a recent (well, not-so-recent) conference chaired by Antarctic explorer Chris Rapley she defended her practice of making her depressive patients even more depressed about climate change. I gave her a walk-on (or rather sit-down-behind-the-couch) part in Apocalypse Close
and a mention in the following chapter:
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Is an ecopsychotherapist also known as a denier whisperer?
John – I’m so stressed out that i’ll walk over the field, jump on that horse, ride to the beach & do some free water swimming (it’s the in thing).never did such a dangerous act in my youth.
then a Pee somewhere.
@Geoff Chambers says: 31 Aug 18 at 8:23 pm
– thanks for that Gem, “Dung” wonder where he has gone to?
A few paragraphs in John I was thinking how much “care in the community” has to answer for.
Is our once and future king a practicing ecophychologist? He does commune with nature bigtime and plants listen to him. He was patron of the School of Environmental Science at UEA, need I add more?
John I have taken your advice and not delved into the ecophychology website (although I’ve only got around to one cranial opening) so I know little about the discipline. Do they have a code of practice and independently assessed qualifications? Since one practitioner (Emma) mentions Zen and Gardening I wondered if she gave any advice on dealing with the trauma of dead-heading? Something that awaits me this weekend. Ashamed to say that I got overly excited at the thought of “wild walking” with Emma, but then realized she only talked about it. Viola sounds interesting but I can’t get my head around her offering craniosacral therapy for trees (are you sure you’ve got that bit right?). Mathew, on the other hand, sounds a bit of a downer with his talk of being guided by principles of existential-phenomenology –
perhaps that’s to compensate for only having one t in his name.
From the UK Ecopsychology website:
“More recent developments – ecopsychology in wider contexts
In the last few years environmental issues have been reported more frequently in the UK media and awareness of our environmental crisis has been considerably increased as a result. This has led to a growing realisation that our Western cultural mindset may be a significant factor influencing our attitudes and behaviour towards the planet, so that people in a number of different fields are becoming interested in the psychological dimensions of environmental problems. Some interesting conferences have emerged enabling ‘transdisciplinary conversations’ between therapists, counsellors, journalists, landscape architects, NGOs and the green movement.”
They link to the charitable status Cambridge Carbon Footprint which seeks to get more people to live ‘sustainable’, low carbon lifestyles, promoting eco-homes, electric cars and what-not. No mention of a carbon free ‘noble savage’ lifestyle though.
“Cambridge Carbon Footprint and Carbon Conversations: In 2005 Rosemary Randall and Andy Browne launched Cambridge Carbon Footprint. The impetus came from a paper Ro wrote “A New Climate for Psychotherapy” exploring the psychological dimensions of public attitudes to climate change which she gave at the ‘Trajectories’ Conference at the Centre for Alternative Technology in May 2005. They say: “It is easy to feel powerless and confused when faced with the scale of climate change and its consequences. At CCF we start from an understanding of the psychological as well as the practical barriers to action. They facilitate many events as well as training for trainers.”
Then there’s the Transition Towns Movement:
“Transition Towns Movement: An exciting recent initiative, perhaps made possible by some of this earlier work, has been an ecopsychological contribution to the flourishing Transition Towns movement. This began in 2006 in Totnes, Devon, and arose in response to the reality of Peak Oil and Climate Change. The Transition Movement is fast spreading around the world. A group looking at the consciousness and process aspects of transition to a sustainable and non oil-dependent culture was active within Transition Town Totnes (‘TTT’) from the beginning.”
More than ten years ago I became interested in the Transitions Town movement. At that time I was a believer in Peak Oil and saw the TT movement as one attempt to prepare for the consequences. At that time I also contributed to the teaching of a first year undergraduate field course at Slapton and Totnes has the nearest railway station. One year I got a group of students to do a one day project upon the TT credentials of the town. They wandered the streets looking for evidence that the town was transitioning and found none except a few printed signs. They asked locals. Most knew about TT but could offer little information as to what exactly was being done. They also encountered resistance when the students offered suggestions (like reducing individual car transport) to promote TT ideals. The very idealistic young students were rather disillusioned.
To be fair I believe some of the efforts went into making Totnes more self sufficient in local food and that would not have been visible in the town.
Alan @ 01 Sep 9:20 am
Surely the the Totnes TT movement was all about appearances, not about substance? After all, if oil started to run out, leading the cost of transport to rise, would not a more optimal solution be derived without market intervention? That is locally sourced food would become more competitive compared to more distantly produced sources. Now whilst I much prefer locally sourced food, especially from farmers markets, I cannot ever see it as being competitive with most Supermarkets even if the cost of oil soared to five times what it is today. But this is unlikely with proper competition in energy as much higher prices will make converting coal to liquids economic. A few years ago in China economic break-even was around $60 a barrel of crude oil. In the UK costs might be higher, as it would also mean extracting coal from under the North Sea (where there might be a number of times the current global economic reserves) and possibly desalination of vast amounts of water (although Scotland is not lacking in clean water). The big barrier to this happening is what is politically acceptable. But in the current political climate, political acceptability is rarely coincident with, and often in opposition to, the net-beneficial policy.