words by willow defebaugh
Welcome to The Overview, a weekly newsletter in which Editor-in-Chief Willow Defebaugh offers an expansive look at the latest events in climate and culture—and how it all fits together.
“Environmental problems have become the psychopathology of our everyday life. The anguish of what I will call the ‘ecological unconscious’ has emerged as a deeper imbalance. If psychosis is the attempt to live a lie, our psychosis is the lie of believing we have no ethical obligation to our planetary home.” —Theodore Roszak
Scholar Theodore Roszak is often remembered for coining the phrase counter-culture in the late Sixties. But two decades later, he introduced the world to a term with even more relevance for today: ecopsychology. In his 1992 book The Voice of the Earth, he explains that “The goal of ecopsychology is to bridge our culture’s long-standing, historical gulf between the psychological and the ecological, to see the needs of the planet and the person as a continuum.”
Now, it’s important to note that Roszak never claimed credit for this concept. In fact, he points out that all psychology was once ecopsychology. Many cultures, especially Indigenous cultures, have always understood that our wellbeing is irrevocably intertwined with the rest of nature. As he writes, “It is peculiarly the psychiatry of western society that has split the ‘inner’ life from the ‘outer’ world—as if what was inside of us is not also inside the universe, something real, consequential, and inseparable from our study of the natural world.”
Indeed, this is what author and teacher Sherri Mitchell refers to as the myth of separation. In her book Sacred Instructions, she writes, “The Indigenous worldview is based on wholeness. My traditional teachings tell me that I am part of one living system, and that the actions I take within this system impact the whole…Our natural systems are designed to function perfectly in relationship to one another. It is only when we break these natural systems down into fragmented pieces that the problems begin.”
In 2004, environmental philosopher and sustainability professor Glenn Albrecht introduced a word for one of these problems: solastalgia. A combination of the Latin word for solace and the Greek word for pain, he defined the term as “the pain experienced when there is recognition that the place where one resides and that one loves is under immediate assault…a form of homesickness one gets when one is still at home.”
A year after that, journalist Richard Louv coined yet another term, this one for the negative effects of isolation from nature: Nature Deficit Disorder. Fast forward to today, when it seems psychology and much of the rest of the world are finally catching up to these truths. “This subject was virtually ignored by the academic world,” Louv recently told Yale Environment 360. “I could find 60 studies that were good studies. Now it’s approaching and about to pass 1,000 studies, and they point in one direction: Nature is not only nice to have, but it’s a have-to-have for physical health and cognitive functioning.”
I could write more about the academia of ecopsychology, but I’m not sure that’s necessary. I’m sure that I am not alone in admitting that I am all too familiar with solastalgia, that my days are filled with it. To read about record-breaking temperatures and wildfires that have become the norm is to know it. Yesterday, I didn’t want to get out of bed because of it. We are living in a system that is not in right relationship with nature, and it’s destroying us. Inside and out.
If the emotional and psychological distress caused by the ecological crisis is our bane, it also represents our single greatest hope. A study published earlier this month found that personal stories about climate change hold the key to making people care about it. The more we see this as a human crisis and allow ourselves to feel and use the anguish that has been authored by colonization and industrialization, the more we reestablish our connection to that ecological unconscious—the more we become whole.