02/09/2015 06:03 pm ET Updated Apr 10, 2015

Why Is It Taking So Long For Psychology To Go Green?


I'm re-reading Ralph Metzner's 1999 ecopsychology classic Green Psychology and am amazed how little has changed in the field of psychology since it was written. The foreword is by legendary cultural historian Theodore Roszak (1933-2011) -- he coined the term "counterculture" -- who also wrote an essay for Craig Chalquist's and my anthology Ecotherapy: Healing with Nature in Mind (Sierra Club Books, 2009). It was clear to us in speaking with him at that time that he was deeply disappointed that the field of psychology hadn't opened up to the important message of ecopsychology more rapidly. In many ways, of course, that opening has still to happen, in spite of the urgency of our planetary situation.

As a cultural historian, Roszak had a deep understanding of how resistant cultures are to change:

Cultures keep secrets; they illuminate some things and suppress others... There is a sense in which every culture is a conspiracy, a coordinated effort to open a few doors of perception and to close others... The environmental disconnection of modern psychology is indeed a conspiracy: a centuries-long collaboration among the best and most authoritative minds of our society to keep human nature as distant, different, and disengaged from nature as possible.

Roszak also observed that:

Over the past decade [1989-1999] an increasing number of more adventurous psychologists have sought to create new, ecologically relevant forms of therapy... psychologists are finally, if belatedly, responding to the influence of the environmental movement.

If only! It's taken far longer for this statement to have any sort of truth to it than Roszak hoped. And in fact mainstream psychology is still focused rather exclusively on a limited view of human mental health, to the exclusion of the rest of the planet that is our context for existence.

Psychology also mostly ignores humanity's psychologically-dysfunctional relationship with nature that results in the ecodical behavior that is causing global catastrophe. In spite of abundant scientific information about the shocking effects of human actions on planetary ecosystems (our own life-support systems and the life-support systems of countless other life forms!), few psychologists concern themselves with the task of helping us understand or change that behavior.

But as Ralph Metzner reminded us in 1999, "It is in the hearts and minds of human beings that the causes and cures of the ecocatastrophe are to be found." Surely finding this cure is a task that psychologists and other mental health professionals are morally obliged to urgently undertake given our present circumstances?

Roszak posed a question that is as relevant today as in the late 20th century:

As a psychotherapist, I am a member of a profession that deals with psychic disturbance and pathology. Cannot what we have learned from working with troubled individuals and families help us deal with this collective psychopathology, this profound alienation of the human psyche from earth?