Psychology in the Service of Life
Andy Fisher
Foreword by David Abram


This book is both an introduction to ecopsychology and an attempt to encourage the field to become more comprehensive and critical. Ecopsychologists argue that genuine sanity is grounded in the reality of the natural world; that the ecological crisis signifies a pathological break from this reality; and that the route out of our crisis must therefore involve, among other things, a psychological reconciliation with the living earth. This, to be sure, is a compelling starting point. What ecopsychology has yet to do, however, is organize itself as a coherent project, its efforts to date remaining largely unconnected to one another. It has, furthermore, yet to demonstrate an adequate grasp of the intellectually complex and politically charged territory that ecopsychologists have entered into. The main goals of this book are accordingly twofold. I aim, first of all, to map out the field of ecopsychology in a way that shows how its various elements hang together as a radical whole. By this exercise I hope both to make the field more intelligible and to provide a means for ecopsychologists to better locate and coordinate their activities. My second aim is to offer one version of what a comprehensive and radical ecopsychology might look like. I do this by methodically building my own nature-centered psychology and by indicating how it can be used as a strong foundation for both ecopsychological practice and critical social theorizing. Above all, I want this book to appeal to a wide range of people--to other ecopsychologists, to students, psychologists, ecologists, environmental educators, philosophers, critical theorists, activists, and general readers--who may find it of relevance in naming and advancing their own pressing concerns.

For all my desire to complexify the field of ecopsychology, I also want to present its basic message in simple, human terms. What motivates me as a necopsychologist is simply a concern for life. I became an ecological thinker because of my disquiet over the violation of nonhuman life, because of the tearing in my heart over the wasting of the earth. I later became a psychotherapist for a similar reason, as a response to the routine violation or wasting of human life. Daily existence within our economized and technologized reality has been described by some as a process of low-grade, chronic traumatization. The field of psychotherapy is itself undergoing something of a paradigm shift now that the role of abuse and trauma in the generation of "mental disorder" is increasingly being recognized. I have nonetheless wondered at the absurdity of lining up the wounded at the psychotherapist's office, and of researching the minutiae of the therapeutic process, while the everyday social forces that violate our nature, and guarantee a steady supply of crippled souls, go for the most part unquestioned—and while these same general forces continue to go about their business of tearing down the biosphere. In a critical sense, then, ecopsychology is for me an effort to understand the social links between these two areas of violence, between the violation we recognize as the ecological crisis and the violation we recognize in human suffering. The more popular or familiar sense of ecopsychology, by contrast, is what I call its therapeutic and recollective sense. Here ecopsychology is an effort at recovery, at recalling just how—in psychological terms—we humans are part of the big life process. Its vision is that of humans healing and flourishing in concert with the healing and flourishing of the larger natural world, in one great celebrationof life. I argue that ecopsychology needs both of these aspects. An ecopsychology with both critical and therapeutic-recollective moments, in other words, will truly be a psychology in the service of life.

To be radical means to go to the roots. I chose the title Radical Ecopsychology because ecopsychology is a radical undertaking in both of the two senses just mentioned. Critically, it takes us to the root cultural, social, and historical arrangements that authorize, legitimate, or give rise to the simultaneous injury of human and nonhuman nature. While therapeutically and recollectively, ecopsychology takes us to the roots of who we are as human beings in a more-than-human world. If ecopsychology is an inherently radical project, as I am claiming here, then my title is of course redundant. The title does, however, play the strategic role of emphasizing that as ecopsychologists we need to catch up with the full radicalness of our own field. A more self-consciously radical ecopsychology would also be in a better position to make a deliberate place for itself. It is a radical fact that we are limited in our ability to study the psychology of the human-nature relationship because this relationship is so attenuated within modern society. Indeed, the phrase "human-nature relationship" designates a kind of forgotten land, a zone of reality that is relatively hidden for most modern people. We also lack readyintellectual environments for articulating this reality. The human or social sciences(such as psychology) depict a world largely devoid of nature, while the natural sciences (such as ecology) depict a world largely devoid of humans. Where, then, does a field that unabashedly straddles the dreaded human/nature divide (such as ecopsychology) fit in? How might it find its conceptual legs? My own answer is that as ecopsychologists we need to discover a voice that is true to our territory; must invent or dream up our own terms so that we can then argue our positions on them. For it is only with new intellectual frameworks and new kinds of practice that we will get a handle on our own unique sphere of conceptual and political struggle. By "radical," then, I do not mean extremism and heavy-handed moralizing, but only a certain insistence that we get to the bottom of things, and that were make our world as we do so.

I ultimately conceive of ecopsychology as a psychologically based ecological politics. I call my own psychological approach "naturalistic" because it takes seriously that we too are nature. It asserts that we belong to the natural order, and so that we are claimed by it, are limited by it, and feel its demands within our bodily experience. I also call my approach "experiential" because it uses felt experience as its touchstone, and focuses on the natural ordering of our experience. Indeed, I think of ecopsychology as a field in which the human and the natural are joined in experience. The advantage of such a naturalistic and experiential approach is that it can speak relatively directly to how each of us experiencesthe ecological crisis, how we carry the pervasive mistreatment of nature (both human and nonhuman) in our bodies. In this way it can then also help identify the life-denying aspects of our society (as we experience them) and awaken our genuine hungers for a more life-centered world. It thus gives us a more qualitative way to go at the social challenges of our times. Consider, in this regard, Tom Athanasiou's remark: "To win, greens, workers movements, and human-rights activists must go global, just as the corporations have done."1 This is a good point. Yet the thought of having to "go global" puts my body into spasms. I do not say that we should therefore neglect global issues, but only that it is important to pay attention to body spasms. My conviction, in other words, is that our attempts t come to grips with the ecological crisis will only benefit if we incorporate intot hem a good, embodied understanding of what kind of creature we are, what our own nature is like. For a different starting point I therefore turn to Audre Lorde's statement that "poetry is not a luxury"--I seek an approach in which critical analysis is allowed to coexist with talk of deer tracks, sunshine on tree trunks, and heartfelt hugs. I have chosen to approach the social question in my own naturalistic and experiential way.

I need to admit, finally, that this book is itself not radical enough. Given the usual constraints of time and energy, I was not able to follow the implications of my own ideas to the radical lengths they would ultimately have me go. Although Italk in these pages about what ecopsychology is and how it might go, I am thus aware of having done so from my own limited perspective and social location. Despite inevitable limitation, what I hope to have made clear is that the project of ecopsychology is the main thing. It is still early times for this project. Indeed, much of my own labor has so far gone into just getting my approach right. Let this book stand, then, as a kind of preface in itself.

Outline of the Book

The book is divided into two parts, with part one laying the ground for part two. In part one, "Groundwork," I introduce the reader to the terrain of ecopsychology; reflect on the overall ecopsychological project; and situate my own work within this larger project. The two chapters that comprise this part of the book are the most heavy-going and academic in tone. The reader who is put off by such weightiness, or who prefers to go straight to the main event, may therefore wish to either skip or skim them. I do, however, encourage such readers to consider circling around to pick these chapters up after having reached the end.

Chapter one, "Approaching the Field of Ecopsychology," begins with a brief discussion of currently used definitions of ecopsychology, as well as some of its historical antecedents. The bulk of the chapter consists of a discussion of the four main tasks that in my view comprise the essential work of ecopsychology. I call these the psychological task, the philosophical task, the practical task, and the critical task. The best way to define the project of ecopsychology, I suggest, is to trace the interrelationships among these four historical tasks. Given that all of these tasks rely on each other, I argue that they ought to be pursued more or less in unison, whether through a coordination of separate efforts or through an inclusion of all of them within individual undertakings. For the purposes of demonstrating the interdependencies among the four tasks, I have opted in this book for the latter strategy. I address the psychological task by proposing a "naturalistic" psychology--one that aims to link the claims and limits of human nature to the claims and limits of the larger natural world. I address the philosophical task by adopting an approach to theory-building that is grounded in the experiential or phenomenological traditions in both philosophy and psychology. I address the practical task by providing an experiential framework for undertaking a wide range of practices that go counter to the life-negating tendencies of our society. I address the critical task, finally, by locating my project within what I regard as the deeper and more critical currents within both psychology and ecology, and by demonstrating how a naturalistic and experiential psychology may be used as a basis for developing a critical theory of modern society.

In chapter two, "The Problem with Normal," I reflect on what kind of discourse the terrain of ecopsychology is calling for, that is, on what sort of method is most adequate for approaching the subject matter of ecopsychology. The problem with normal, mainstream psychology--including "environmental psychology"--is that it is committed exactly to those philosophical dualities (inner/outer, human/nature, subjective/objective) that ecopsychology must overcome. For my own project I therefore adopt an interpretive or "hermeneutical" method--one that can work in the difficult space between the "human" and the "natural," and that can disclose aspects of the human-nature relationship that normal science simply cannot. Because I wish to set up ecopsychology as a project that raises radical doubts about the course of modern society, I also adopt a rhetorical method. As an art, rhetoric has historically employed language as a symbolic means to create specific experiential effects in the psyche or soul, so as to inform, please, and move the listener. As James Hillman has suggested, this makes a rhetorical approach particularly appropriate for psychological discourse. For a radical project such as ecopsychology, moreover, I suggest that an openly rhetorical approach is imperative. The hermeneutic and rhetorical traditions both recognize the primarily symbolic or metaphorical nature of reality and make room for discussion that can both touch us where we live and advance viewpoints that go counter to the social and cultural status quo. An interpretive and rhetorical discourse, in short, can speak to the felt reality of our alienated relationship with the life process and then say something critical that might help move our society forward from that estranged starting place.

In part two, "Nature and Experience," my goal is primarily to demonstrate the feasibility of the project--to show that the leap from a human- to a nature centered psychology may draw strength from much that is already agreed on or familiar within psychological and ecological thought, and that many practical and critical implications can immediately be drawn. I call this part of the book "Nature and Experience" because these are my two central terms. Nature refers to ecology, experience to psychology. We discover the claims of nature precisely by interpreting our bodily felt experience of them. I thus argue that if we are to better understand our own nature, as well as our place within the larger natural order, it is crucial that we work experientially. Learning to do so, moreover, has the character of a therapeutic and historical task, in that those of us living within the repressing structures of the modern world tend to lose touch with our own bodily experience. As a consequence, we become limited in our ability to take guidance from our own feeling process and vulnerable to ideological manipulation of all sorts. It is for this reason that I conceive of ecopsychology as a kind of naturalistic and experiential politics that struggles against the nature-dominating and reifying aspects of this society as it correspondingly works to relocate the human psyche within the wider natural world.

In the tradition of the existentialists, I suggest in chapter three, "Beginning With Experience," that we need to ground ecopsychological inquiry in lived experience. The aim of the chapter is thus to provide some introductory concepts, descriptions, and exercises that will get the reader on speaking terms about "experience." More specifically, I want the reader to appreciate that our experiencing is always an organismic or bodily phenomenon, and that it is also always an interacting with an environment. Once this basic appreciation is gained, it is a short step into ecopsychology. I additionally introduce the key notion of the "life process." Both epidemic human psychopathology and the ecological crisis can, I suggest, be fruitfully understood in terms of a general violation of the life process under capitalist social relations. This understanding makes for a helpful critical strategy for linking psyche and ecology. It also offers a way to conceptually unify our psychological and ecological crises under the umbrella of our nihilistic cultural condition, wherein the violation of life is tied to a frustrating absence of meaning or widespread impoverishment of our experience.

Chapter four, "From Humanistic to Naturalistic Psychology," is a bridge between chapter three, which still draws primarily on "humanistic" sources, and chapter five, which proposes a specifically "naturalistic" approach. The bridge itself is an inquiry into nature and human nature, wherein I describe what I mean by these hugely contested terms. Although this seems a foolish exercise, it is nonetheless a necessary one, for the plain reason that so much rides on our understanding of nature, including how (and if) we understand ourselves as spiritual beings. I discuss a number of conceptualizations of nature within three general categories: the natural world; the essential quality, way, order, or character of a being; and the life force (desire, spirit, etc.). While it is right to allow for a plurality of interpretations within these categories, I also believe that it is fair to argue for better interpretations--one's arrived at through a deepening and broadening of one's experience. It is only by undertaking hermeneutical inquiries into the meaning of nature (even if such inquiries have no final endpoint) that we may make persuasive arguments for just what is being violated and what needs to be recovered. Showing my realist colors, I assert that the place of humans in the natural order is not some insoluble puzzle, but is to be found in the given order of our own bodily, world-bound nature; and that the demands of nature, inside and out, can therefore simply not be intellectualized, marketplaced, or bulldozed away. Chapter five, "Naturalistic Psychology: A Sketch," is my outline of a kind of psychology that would serve the life process or hold out the human-nature relationship as an ultimate concern. Naturalistic psychology advocates fidelity to nature, being in the service of nature, and seeing humans as part of a larger natural order. I want to develop a psychology that reinterprets our current situation in ever-more primordial terms, even as it acknowledges the historical and culturally mediated nature of human reality. At the core of this psychology are three hermeneutical(or "sense-making") principles that I suggest will be helpful, at this early stage of inquiry, for getting our bearings. The first holds that we are ordered by nature to participate ever-more widely in the world; the second that our language is always a "singing" of this world; and the third that all phenomena intertwine or mirror one another as a common "flesh." I finish this chapter by illustrating these principles through an examination of the human life cycle in the context of a more-than-human world. I discuss the infantile need for loving, responsive human relations and for exploratory contact with wild nature; the childhood need for playful immersion in the natural world; and the adolescent need for rites of passage into a sacred adult cosmos, wherein the natural world is understood not as a fallen realm to be transcended but as the everyday ground o four limited and mysterious human existence. Attending to the human life cycle is a key concern of my approach.

In my sixth and concluding chapter, "Making Sense of Suffering in a Technological World," I emphasize the need to create a psychology that is not just for those who like the outdoors (or whatever), but which can be used as a basis for social criticism. This chapter is thus my most concentrated attempt to tie my psychological efforts into a critical framework. Given my own approach, I take the ideology of technological and economic progress as the theme of my criticism. My arguments turn on the conviction that humans will never find happiness through the "progressive" immiseration of the rest of the natural world. In truth, our economic and technological system has made a perverse necessity of suffering. A society that is organized primarily to serve the expansion of capital--rather than to serve life—must increasingly exploit both humans and the natural world, and so generate a state of psychospiritual ruin and ecological crisis. While I am not out to tell anyone precisely what to do, I am thus at least certain that the practice of ecopsychology needs to be a countering of this system. I suggest in this chapter that the most crucial element of such "counterpractice" is that it give authority to our (naturally organized) experience, all the more so as we learn to listen to and focus it. Experiential politics is not about violent revolution or abstract masterplans, but about taking life-forwarding steps that emerge from making honest contact with presently felt reality. Such politics may, then, help people to live ecologically radical lives in whatever ways make sense from within the context of their own life experience and interests. I see two main requirements for ecopsychological practice: that it offer support for resisting or opposing the life denying tendencies within modern society and for building an ecological society instead; and that it revive those essentially human forms of practice, largely forgotten, that involve meaningful and reciprocal engagement with the natural world. I finish the chapter with a reply to Freud, arguing that the "fateful question" for our time is not whether the instinct for life can win out over the instinct for death, but whether or not we will choose to find collective ways to bear our pain and suffering, to strengthen ourselves, so that we can then stop negating life and instead get back to it.

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