In this issue

Ecopsychology and Environmentally-Focused Psychologies

APA 2011 Conference report on environmentally-focused psychology

By Thomas Joseph Doherty

At the recent American Psychological Association (APA) conference, I presented a provisional framework for what I call "Environmentally-focused Psychologies" or "Psychologies of the Natural Environment." Note the use of the term "psychology" in the plural. This recognized the diversity of psychology practices in SEPCP and within the APA at large. I argued that there are a number of discrete content areas within Environmentally-focused Psychology that are organized around a clear conceptual core and, in some cases, contain an established set of competencies. From a generalist perspective, what content area is primary or what set of tools deployed depends on the context. I suggested that these content areas can act as interest groups and gathering points in Div. 34, and can further be mapped onto the other APA Divisions to suggest areas of collaboration across the organization. Following on from this comprehensive view, I evoked the idea of a collective environmental psychology "tool kit" and the goal of "using the right tool for the job." It was in this broad context that I discussed the important contribution of an Ecopsychology perspective to a comprehensive vision of Environmental Psychology.

To get across the idea of an environmental psychology "tool kit," I used one potential tool from that kit, a narrative example. In other words, I told the psychologists who had gathered for a story:

One of the many things I enjoy about the summer season, along with outdoor outings with family and friends, is the chance to observe and sometimes attend weddings. Imagine you have been invited to a wedding, an outdoor affair perhaps, and the host asks you to say a few words: "I hear you're an environmental psychologist. You must know some important things about people, and nature, and how to make sense of the state of the world. Why don't you share some of your wisdom?" All eyes turn toward you. What would you say?

You may consider consulting the literature, presenting some research or screening some of your recent PowerPoint slides. But more likely, you would share a personal anecdote that is meaningful to you, recognize something about the local natural environment, or quote from literature, etc. You would probably speak from your heart, and that would be the right tool for the job. Now, say someone approaches you afterwards and says: "I like the way you speak. Can you address our town planning commission meeting? We are considering the best ways to develop or preserve a local wetland, and want to consider the long term benefit to the community and how this fits into our sustainability plan." In this second case, you would likely consult the literature, marshal compelling research findings and statistics, and might indeed create some impactful slides. And that would be the right tool for this job.

Now, a third scenario: Based on your input at the Town Planning Meeting, you are invited to a State or Provincial level summit on a contentious "wicked problem"-style environmental issue, for example, regarding ecosystem-based fisheries management of the Chesapeake Bay or developing the petroleum embedded in the tar sands of Alberta, Canada. At this meeting, you find yourself seated next to a native elder on one side and a wildlife biologist on the other, with a local business person, a leader of a citizen's advocacy group, and a government legislator nearby. In this situation you may draw from a number of tools, and your effectiveness could hinge on your fluency in the relevant science, your ability to communicate to different audiences, and your comfort with speaking from your heart—all of which contribute to you being seen as a genuine and trusted messenger.


It was within this context of having the right tools at our disposal, that I discussed Ecopsychology. From my perspective, ecopsychology can be seen as a worldview and diverse social movement that recognizes a synergy between human mental health and well-being and the health and ecological integrity of the natural environment. This is a perennial idea that has gained new currency and a sense of urgency in the modern environmental movement, particularly in its "deep ecology" wing (e.g., Naess, 2008). In plain language, the mission of ecopsychology, as proposed by Roszak (1992) was to validate that an emotional connection to nature is normal and healthy, and in doing so, to help the environmental movement to be more effective by appealing to these positive ecological bonds rather than promoting conservation based on messages of fear or shame. As Ecopsychology has evolved it continued from page 5has retained some of its popular movement aspects while also influencing a number of academic disciplines, health care practices and policy, and the arts.

Allowing for its varied manifestations, and for the purposes of our discussions in Div. 34, Ecopsychology can be differentiated from other psychologies of the natural environment by its focus on the holistic, embodied, and existential aspects of humans' connectedness and inter-being with the rest of nature and a characteristic therapeutic response to the emotional impacts of issues like species extinction or global climate change. Further, Ecopsychology can be differentiated between what could be called "Conventional Ecopsychology" (e.g., a focus on environmental perspectives in health care and on the therapeutic aspects of environmental issues (see Frumkin, in press; Faber Taylor & Kuo, 2009 & Randall; 2009) and "Radical Ecopsychology" (e.g., Fisher, 2002 & Kidner, 2001) that challenges the Cartesian Dualism underlying western science (including psychology); advocates the application of Critical Theory, Ecofeminism, and Deep Ecology; and envisions ecological lifeways founded on social and environmental justice. As a field of study, Ecopsychology obviously overlaps with other environmentally focused initiatives in psychological science particularly Environmental Psychology and the interdisciplinary areas of Conservation Psychology and Environmental Health. (It should be noted that, presently, terms like "Ecopsychology" and "Ecopsychologist" are not linked with any one field or credential and are open to all--as in the case with terms like "Environmental Psychology" or "Conservation Psychology.")

My primary training in professional psychology focused on the roles of clinician, diagnostician, counselor and group leader, outcomes researcher, supervisor, and consultant. For myself, I feel most grounded approaching environmentally-focused psychology from the perspective of a practitioner. Since I am knowledgeable and comfortable facilitating groups, helping individuals manage difficult emotions and navigate questions of identity and development, and assessing pathology and fostering well-being, an affinity with the Ecopsychology tradition is a natural fit.

Potential Content and Interest Areas in SEPCP

I have written elsewhere about the utility and importance of understanding environmentally-focused psychologies in relation to each other (see Doherty, 2010). In the accompanying figures, I shared examples of simple, conceptual maps I use to graphically illustrate the ecology of environmentally focused psychologies and some similarities and differences between these different content areas. For example, areas like Environmental Psychology, Conservation Psychology and Ecopsychology can be compared on how they lie on a spectrum from objectivity / empiricism to subjectivity / holism. They can also be compared by their relative focus on and explicit promotion of political engagement, advocacy, and professional practice versus an apolitical stance focusing on research and pursuit of basic knowledge. Finally, these areas can be differentiated by whether they feature a predominately anthropocentric vs. ecocentric focus and value set. (See figures, PDF 129KB)

Returning to the idea of content and interest areas in SEPCP, a potential framework follows. I have no doubt that I missed something in this initial schema and offer it in the spirit of curiosity. Roughly in order of their relative age, these content areas could include:

Ecological & Perceptual Psychology

Primarily an area of theory and research area exploring questions and constructs (e.g., affordances) that date to the origin of psychology as a discipline;

Environmental Psychology

In its framing as a specialty, psychological research and practice focusing on human interactions with built and natural spaces;

Population Psychology

Study of phenomenon associated with human population and population density, including health and social factors;


Therapeutic, holistic, and critical initiatives in psychology that recognize a synergy between human mental health and well-being and the health and ecological integrity of the natural environment;

Conservation Psychology

An interdisciplinary focus area modeled after Conservation Biology that applies psychological principles, theories, and methods to understand and solve issues related to human aspects of resource and species conservation. (This area can in turn be differentiated between what one could call "Wildlife Conservation Psychology" applied in zoos and natural resource contexts and "General Conservation Psychology" exemplified by the application of social norms, persuasion, and Community-based Social Marketing to conservation problems);

Environmental Justice

or "Just Sustainability" (to use Agyeman and colleagues' term, see Agyeman, Bullard, & Evans, 2003) -- I also imagine this as an interdisciplinary focus area drawing researchers and practitioners interested in foregrounding diversity and social justice.

Looking ahead, there is potential for other definable content and interest areas within SEPCP including:

  • Women and the Natural Environment;
  • The Science of Human-Environment Interactions (e.g., members who see their work as advancing basic science);
  • Developmental Environmental Psychology;
  • Community Environmental Psychology;
  • The Psychology of Fostering Sustain- ability (this may or may not overlap with "General Conservation Psychology" in my scheme);
  • Teaching of Environmentally-focused Psychology;
  • Philosophical Environmental Psychology;
  • History and Systems of Environmen- tally-focused Psychology (e.g., a more comprehensive approach to the devel- opment of these approaches in their cultural and historical contexts).

A Caveat

I don't want to underestimate the challenge in such a comprehensive and pluralistic turn for Environmental Psychology. De- bates over names and labels are not just academic, in the sense of being theoretical or hypothetical. They link to job titles and hence to things like professional identity, tenure, and livelihood. Further, emotions associated with our Division's discussions and debates are also likely tied to members' own environmental identities and potentially, to their self worth, self actualization, and ultimately their meaning making in an existential and spiritual sense. I look forward to further dialog on these matters.


Diversification and Specialization in Div. 34.

It is important for Div. 34 and the larger community of environmentally-focused psychology to continue to clarify its content areas and competencies. This will make the role of generalist and the idea of a "tool box" possible. For example, if one is working in built and natural space contexts: draw from Environmental Psychology; in multicultural or social justice contexts: use Just Sustainability; in therapeutic contexts: use Ecopsychology; in wildlife or general conservation programs: use Conservation Psychology. The take-away? Use the right tool for the job, and if this is too much for one person, create a team.

Mentoring in Div. 34

From a mentoring standpoint, elders in Div. 34 can help members understand and articulate their contribution to environmentally-focused psychology and thus speak from a place of authority and competence. This may be as scientist, researcher, consultant, educator, healer, ecologist, activist, advocate, policy-maker or businessperson. Psychologists are likely to experience discomfort when asked to do things for which they lack training and confidence. Use of a broad-based toolbox needs to be modeled and trained.

Tolerance and Collaboration in Div. 34

Div. 34 members come from a range of backgrounds and gain their livelihood in a variety of ways. I have been troubled by hints of intolerance within Div. 34 in the past as well as recent listserv exchanges that seem to have had a chilling effect on dialogue. I strongly recommend that the division foster dialogue on diversity among its membership. Diversity and difference regarding one's primary approach to understanding human-environment interactions and inter-being can manifest on a number of levels. These can include Ecological vs. Human Exceptionalist Paradigms (Dunlap, 2002), engagement in broader Environmental Discourses (Dryzek, 2005), and use of Conservative vs. Liberal moral value sets (Haidt, 2007). Interdisciplinary collaboration is highly valued in environmentally-focused psychology rhetoric. However, it is unclear that SEPCP presents a safe environment for differences within the membership to be acknowledged and discussed. Take-away: Our Capacity for Interdisciplinary Practice Begins at Home in Div. 34.

Outreach to Other Divisions of APA

As noted, there are a number of discrete content areas to investigate in Environmentally-focused Psychology that can be organized around a clear conceptual core and, in some cases, an established set of competencies. These can further be mapped onto other APA Divisions and suggest areas of collaboration across the organization. Take-away: SEPCP can provide leadership and a gathering place for psychologists of all kinds to contribute to our understanding of human-nature interrelationships and the promotion of ecological well-being and differences within the membership to be acknowledged and discussed. Take-away: Our Capacity for Interdisciplinary Practice Begins at Home in Div. 34.

Summary of Take-Aways

In terms of Environmentally-focused Psychologies, use the right tool for the job, and if this is too much for one person, create a team. Growth and mentoring in SEPCP requires tolerance and understanding of our own diversity. Our capacity for interdisciplinary practice begins at home in Div. 34. Our content areas can be mapped onto other APA Divisions and suggest areas of collaboration across the organization. We can provide resources and leadership to the organization.


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