Ecopsychology: connecting with nature
In this blog we explore the subject of 'ecopsychology' for Mental Health Week and it's relevance since the covid-19 pandemic, highlighting key works in Senate House Library's collections.
After many months of lockdowns in the past year, it's timely that this year’s theme for the Mental Health Awareness Week is Nature and the benefits of connecting with nature for our mental health and wellbeing.
This idea of nature as a restorative environment is in fact central to a growing field of research in ‘ecopsychology’, or what the American Psychological Association terms broadly as ‘environmentally-focused psychologies’, such as the psychology of nature, conservation psychology, and environmental psychology.
The new paradigm at the intersection between ecology and psychology, coined by prominent historian Theodore Roszak in 1992 - ‘ecopsychology’ - has come to designate an interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary field, whose object of study is the reciprocal relationship between nature and human development and conduct. It regards the needs of humans and the planet we inhabit on a continuum, and focuses on the intricate affinities we form with each other.
Following Extinction Rebellion and Covid-19, there is now a stronger awareness of our physical and emotional interconnectedness with the natural world we live in, that goes beyond the ivory tower of academic research and scientific rigour.
Biophilia: love of the natural world
How much is our experience of Nature and Beauty a part of our full Identity as humans? Is our enchanted encounter with living systems a fragment of the search for meaning in our lives? What is the relationship between the strong emotions of joy, awe and excitement that we feel when connected with the natural world?
Erich Fromm was the first humanistic psychologist to use the term biophilia to describe the human instinctive propensity to be attracted to everything that is alive and vital. He developed his system of thought at the height of the environmental movement of the 1970s. Fromm maintained that the subconscious allure nature has for the individual must serve as the foundation on which the society as a whole builds a positive and life-affirming relationship with the environment. Biophilia - as a fully conscious part of a person’s character structure with cognitive, affective and behavioural components - can only flourish when the society enjoys high levels of freedom, security and justice.
The influential biologist Edward O. Wilson goes even further when he proposes that the deep affiliation humans have with nature is rooted not only in our psychology, but also in our genetic make-up, in our very biology. Notwithstanding controversies surrounding some of Wilson’s earlier work, his book on biophilia has spearheaded many ideas in modern conservation ethics.
More than four decades after these works, we are seeing a massive rise in ecological consciousness in the West but also across the globe. Our biophilia is now a fully conscious drive, determining how we engage with the natural world. Both as individuals and as societies, we are experiencing a ‘vital reenchantment’.
Technobiophilia: love of the natural world through technology
Since biophilia implies affection for plants and other living things, is it possible to experience the same level of interconnectedness in a technologically mediated encounter with nature? Can we achieve a sustainable lifestyle and remedy our alienation from the non-human living world on the screen? With lockdown and the resulting dependence on screens, many of us might be tempted to demur environments dominated by manmade and digital objects and highlight the negative impact on the human mind, emotion and behaviour.
Sue Thomas, however, gives an unexpected answer to these questions. She argues that where contact with actual nature is becoming scarce and life is increasingly virtual, as we have recently experienced during the pandemic, digital contact with nature can provide surrogate experiences. Immersing oneself in digital nature is just as beguiling and can elicit similar emotional responses as walking in a forest. Technobiophilia is how our love of nature and love of technology can come together, by harmoniously integrating the natural with the virtual worlds.
Reading nature: unlocking the therapeutic potential of electronic books
It seems, however, that virtual engagement with nature becomes more an act of remembrance rather than a daily, fully lived experience. In this way, it is similar to the act of reading nature writings or browsing beautiful nature illustrations. The specific appeal of nature books and digital nature is that they offer us, perhaps, a more detached but no less affectionate way of relating to the rest of life, without the burden of physically mastering it.
Senate House Library has vast holdings of literary and non-fiction works from early printed to the 21st century, featuring the natural world. Digitised books from the Library’s own special collections and archives can be found in several databases. We also have a large number of electronic books, which can be accessed by searching the catalogue - a few highlights are displayed below.