It turns out that if ecopsychology and ACT met on a mountain path, they would have quite a bit to say to each other.
As a merging of ecology and psychology, ecopsychology seems to have various definitions and alternate names. The explanation I liked the best comes from Naropa University’s Dr. John Davis. His helpful website offers several aims and insights that ecopsychology provides. He lists ecopsychology’s aims as being to shift the tone and approach to environmental action from recrimination to a more positive one, to “foster ecological thinking and direct contact with the natural world in psychotherapy and personal growth,” and to “support ecologically and psychologically healthy and sustainable lifestyles.”
Let’s focus in first on what he says about ecopsychological psychotherapeutic technologies (though come to think of it, maybe the ‘technology’ languaging isn’t particularly apt for this topic). Under the category of “Nature-oriented Awareness Practices,” he mentions first “mindfulness and contemplative practices, e.g. meditation.” Correspondence to ACT technologies, check. “Sensory awareness” comes next–sounds akin to connection to the present moment, check. I’m picking and choosing now, but under the “Ecotherapy” category he lists “despair and empowerment work” and a corrolary, “working with environmental fear, grief, and rage.” This last approach seems like connecting with and processing emotional pain by experiencing it writ large as environmental devastation. The “despair and empowerment work” certainly sounds like it could have some correspondence with values work in ACT, so there might be a check there as well.
As a glancing survey, there appears to be some intriguing correspondence between ecopsychology interventions and ACT core processes. But not so fast: there may be a looming discontinuity between the two. ACT is, of course, based on functional contextualism, which posits that a concept is only “true” to the extent that it works to move a person in the direction of their desired outcome, values for ACT. Ecopsychology appears to be steeped in the core assumption that human life and nature are in fact one, and that reconnection with the eco-processes of the earth can therefore reduce human suffering through realizing the connection between humans and nature. This concept isn’t functionally true in ecopsychology, it’s true true. As a truth to be believed, this seems like an appealing and a friendly one. Still, as an ACT therapist, I like to keep the focus of the movement in therapy toward a client’s values, rather than toward a reified exterior concept. But is this a reified concept? Is the human-nature connection concept something exterior? Or is it–as I get the feeling an ecopsychologist would argue–already essentially aligned with a client’s values, and the therapist’s job is to guide the client towards rediscovering that?
Setting that issue aside and looking again at therapeutic approaches in ecopsychology, or “ecotherapy” as it has also been termed, it is probably important in looking at ecopsychology to include the idea that environmental work is a part of the therapeutic approach. This would be outside of the therapy room work such as going on wilderness retreats, forms of environmental activism, activities aimed at reconnecting one with nature such as gardening and environmental restoration, and activities aimed at increasing the degree of environmental sustainability of one’s lifestyle like de-commercialization and relocalization. Rather than being recommendations or secondary adjuncts to the therapy approach, I get the sense that these sorts of lifestyle-shifting activities would be an integral part. There is some resonance here with committed action in ACT. It’s committed action in the direction of the value of reconnecting with the earth, versus in the direction of client-generated values. Although an ecopsychologist might ask here about what “client-generated values” really means, arguing that reconnection with the earth through these methods is the most healing and life-enhancing committed action someone could take. Point well taken.
This has been a very brief foray into areas of possible overlap between ACT and ecopsychology. For those who’d like to pursue some of these questions and connections, a couple of notable books on ecopsychology are Ecopsychology by Roszak, Gomes, and Kanner, and Radical Ecopsychology by Andy Fisher.
“In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.” –John Muir