Ecopsychology and the Emergence of a Life-Sustaining Civilization

A science-based approach to confront feelings of grief, despair, and hopelessness — and create strategies for a sustainable future.

Yeshi Kangrang via Unsplash

By Dave Segal

“Pain is the price of consciousness in a threatened and suffering world. It is not only natural, it is an absolutely necessary component of our collective healing.”

-Joanna Macy, Coming Back to Life: Practices to Reconnect Our Lives, Our World

Living and writing the post growth story involves deeply sitting with and experiencing the psychological and spiritual pain associated with one’s own contributions and compliance towards the injustices and ecocidal practices of the industrial growth society. This process of addressing one’s relationship with the more than human natural world and the grief and despair that may accompany it, is one of the important areas being explored by the field of Ecopsychology and being addressed by concerned planetary citizens.

Having stumbled across this exciting field through the work of deep ecologist, Buddhist and systems thinker Joanna Macy, I have come to recognize Ecopsychology’s important contributions towards what Macy terms the ‘Great Turning’, or the emergence of a life-sustaining civilization. I hope to share my gratitude for the insights emerging from Ecopsychology, and in doing so render its contributions and connections to the post-growth movement more transparent.


Informed by systems thinking, a bear for example is thought of as only 5% fur, teeth, and claws, and 95% salmon streams, old growth forests, and alpine meadows. Considering the rapid urbanization associated with the industrial growth society (where just this year over 50% of the earth’s population now live in densely populated urban centers), Ecopsychologists ask the question, ‘how are people responding to concrete, cars and sprawling suburbia?’ They conclude that feelings of overwhelm, guilt, fear, and anger just may be signs of our collective humanity and a social response to the disconnection and destruction of planetary systems that are occurring at this time.

Thomas Doherty, acting editor for the newly released peer-reviewed journal Ecopsychology, describes the origins of this field as initially a “counterweight to the human-centric, reductionist, and primarily intellectual modes of academic psychology and mainstream clinical practice”. He believes current iterations of Ecopsychology, which embraces scientific inquiry, can offer important contributions to both understanding the complexity of current human-nature relationships and strategies for bringing forth a more sustainable future.

Ecopsychology includes much more than tree hugging romantics and formal academic researchers and psychologists. It involves all those who are concerned for the well-being of life and who recognize the destructive role that current human-nature relationships are having on future prospects of a life serving world. Ecopsychology calls into question the problematic logic of an expansionist worldview, the naturalization of capitalist economies, and the rampant individualization and separation of humans from the non-human natural world. It demands alternatives and provides insights and practices regarding what they may look like.

Ecotherapy practices

A common thread running through all these practices is that nature is regarded as a crucial co-facilitator and cultivating human-nature relationships is a central component of the healing required to bring about a sustainable world. It is thought that once one’s Ecological Identity is cultivated, the natural world can no longer be seen from an I-IT perspective, but rather is changed to an I-Thou relationship. People will go to the ends of the earth to protect their home and family. If what is considered home and family extends to the ecologies in which they live, they will potentially stop at nothing to protect the salmon streams, trees, and watersheds in which they reside. As the scope of what is considered “self’ expands outwards, it comes to envelop an increasing amount of the world, until all of Gaia is potentially contained in each of us.

The work of Richard Louv, and particularly his book Last Child in the Woods has contributed enormously to raising the profile of what he calls ‘nature-deficit disorder’, or a severance with nature, and particularly how this is contributing to the deterioration of the health and well-being of children, youth, and adults in industrial societies. He speaks of positive early childhood experiences in nature as being key determinants of creating lasting ecological identities and a subsequent increase in proenvironmental behaviour later in life. Further, he explains how unstructured playtime, free-range children, and cultivating a sense of wonder and curiosity for the natural world is being threatened by increasing screen time, fear-based parenting, and a complete lack of access to green spaces. Thankfully, movements such as his own Child & Nature Network and Canada’s Child and Nature Alliance are working tirelessly to raise the profile of the importance of spending time in nature and the mental, physical, and spiritual benefits that go along with it.

A practical example — The Work that Reconnects

1) Opening to gratitude

2) Owning our pain for the world

3) Seeing with new eyes

4) Going forth

Following the sequence allows for the emergence of something much greater than the some of their parts. Macy explains how

“the spiral begins with gratitude, because that quiets the mind and brings us back to source. It reconnects us to be more fully present to our world. Grounded presence provides the psychic space for acknowledging the pain we carry for our world. In owning this pain, and daring to experience it, we learn that our capacity to ‘suffer with’ is the true meaning of compassion. We begin to know the immensity of our heart-mind, and how it helps us to move beyond fear. What has isolated us in private anguish now opens outward and delivers us into wider reaches of our world as love, world as self.”

Cultivating experiential knowledge of Ecopsychological principals are critical for promoting understanding and change. Macy offers a simple exercise, which can be done with a friend or stranger and involves completing the following sentences:

“Things I love about our world include…”

“Concerns I have about our world include…”

“A perspective I find inspiring or refreshing is…”

“Steps I can take to participate in the Great Turning include…”

Many other simple yet powerful practices can be easily found on her website at or by reading her books and those by others.

Moving forward to a post-growth world

The question is this: do we have the courage necessary to confront our fears and take the necessary steps towards a life sustaining world? Thankfully, the thinking and practices emerging from Ecopsychology provide some valuable guidance.

Originally published in December 2011. Find out more about the Post Growth Institute on our website.

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